Washington Insider -- Monday

Malthus and the Modern Doom Merchants

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

McConnell Repeats that Congress Will Avoid Government Shutdown, Default

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., last week told reporters he is preparing for negotiations with the White House this fall to avoid any replay of the 2013 government shutdown or the threat of a default on the federal debt. He said talks with the Obama administration are likely to get underway shortly after Congress returns from its summer recess in September. Both discretionary spending for the government and the need to raise the federal debt limit would be on the table, he said.

"We're not doing government shutdowns and we're not threatening to default on the national debt," McConnell said.

McConnell's comments indicate that he and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, plan to negotiate directly with the White House on spending issues. Two years ago, those issues were worked out between the two Budget Committee chairs at the time, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. During those discussions, Ryan and Murray agreed to a two-year deal that provided relief from the Budget Control Act's discretionary spending caps.

But with their Bipartisan Budget Act now set to expire, the same issues — cuts forced by sequestration — are back on the table and ready for Congress and the administration to begin discussions in September.

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Senators Question EPA's Procedures Leading to Clean Water Rule

Oklahoma Republican Sens. James Inhofe and James Lankford are questioning the Environmental Protection Agency's use of social media and the assistance the agency received from environmental groups to build support for a rule that clarifies the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction.

"By using social media to solicit mass approval from a targeted base, the EPA appears to have manipulated the notice and comment process," said the senators in a letter sent last week to agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

At issue is whether EPA gave the general public adequate opportunity to participate in the Clean Water rulemaking process through submission of written data, views or arguments as is required by the Administrative Procedure Act. The final rule appears to give EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over a far larger number of U.S. waters than many in Congress feel is warranted.

Inhofe is the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a frequent EPA critic. The issue of whether the agency "colluded" with environmental groups to cherry-pick comments designed to produce a pre-ordained Clean Water Act result can be expected to be the subject of future hearings before Inhofe's committee.

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Washington Inside: Malthus and Modern Doom Merchants

Morris Dorosh is the down-to-earth publisher of Agriweek, a no-holds-barred commentary on “topics of current importance to the agricultural and agribusiness community,” especially, but not exclusively, focused on Canada. He often takes a fairly long view of things, especially policies that failed to work well in the past. And, he is bitingly critical of “merchants of doom.”

He recently criticized a book, The End of Plenty, by Joel Bourne, who, Dorosh says has mastered the art and science of “creating this kind of stuff for the gullible.” Bourne is identified as "an award-winning environmental journalist" who is also a graduate agronomist. However, Dorosh sees no sign of any “special qualifications.” Nothing taught in agronomy school has found its way into this book, he says.

Dorosh says Bourne sees three impending disasters: relentless world population growth; modern agriculture headed in the wrong direction and climate change that will turn half of the world’s arable land into a desert by 2100. These, he says, trace back to Robert Malthus, the “18th-century alarm-monger” who saw population doubling and redoubling, until the “flat-line supply of food becomes completely insufficient.”

Bourne attempts to show that Malthus was right, just early, that only sheer luck held back his predictions, that sheer luck is now running out. “The Green Revolution has failed,” Bourne writes. “National and global agriculture policy is misguided, chemical damage is everywhere, biofuel consumption of crops is making food unaffordable, and climate change is already upon us. The benefits brought by the Green Revolution were not worth the ‘ecological devastation’ that ensued, he argues.

To survive at all, we must learn to “consume less, have fewer children, quit eating meat and go back to pre-Green Revolution farming methods. Only then would we have any chance to save ourselves, Bourne thinks.

What does Dorosh make of all this? He says Bourne has written a “ridiculous” book with “zoony” reasoning that sees starvation in the midst of the biggest grain surplus in human history in both absolute terms and relative to use. The economic and social issue in front of world agriculture is not an inability to meet the demand but the stubborn propensity to overproduce, Dorosh says.

He goes on to counter that world population is stabilizing, rather than overwhelming the food supply. Steady improvements in productivity have created surpluses which depress prices which threaten to divert resources, including research and technology, away from basic food production. Biofuels, Dorosh says, “are a safety valve that helps maintain agriculture’s productive plant.”

There’s more. Dorosh thinks that the soils and waters of countries in which advanced agricultural practices have been adopted have never been healthier or production more sustainable. Writers who want to make a constructive contribution to the food debate should turn their attention to the social and political obstacles that are being placed in front of agricultural technology, he says.

In sum, Dorosh notes that Malthus is also known for resisting the industrial revolution, and his modern-times counterparts are those who spread superstition and falsehood about the products of the research and innovation that is the real guarantee that future food adequacy.

Well, there is more than a little evidence that Dorosh is largely right and that continued moderate investment in productivity growth is on track, or nearly so, to meet the huge global food needs through mid-century, at least. At the same time, analysts are somewhat less sanguine about the prospects of dealing readily with global warming. And, Dorosh is not very clear about the evidence he sees that lets him simply disregard those threats.

Nevertheless, Dorosh’s view is based heavily on productivity growth and technology’s capacity to deal with threats from almost any direction, responses Malthus never even considered. So, it seems that Malthus is not early, he is wrong, and has been buried under mountains of evidence.

However, it is likely that even the unsupported assertions of writers will succeed in papering over that reality, no matter how many books on the issue are sold, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)