The Conversation

Readers respond to our March 2018 issue.

How Will We Feed the New Global Middle Class?

The world population will be 10 billion by 2050. In March, Charles C. Mann asked whether it will be possible for everyone to eat without destroying the Earth.

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Charles C. Mann simplifies the agriculture, environment, and population discussion into two camps: Borlaug versus Vogt. In doing so, he does a considerable disservice to Borlaug. A careful reading of his December 11, 1970, Nobel lecture, “The Green Revolution, Peace, and Humanity,” clearly reveals Borlaug’s acute awareness of the nexus of human need, environmental limits, and social justice. There was an overriding moral imperative behind Borlaug’s lifelong work: “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”

Similarly, he was well aware of the environmental consequences of unchecked population growth, stating that it was necessary to bring that growth and the carrying capacity of the planet into balance. He was keenly aware of the billions of people present in 1970 and the billions more to come, recognizing that his work had won a “temporary success” and provided a “breathing space” during which humanity might wisely use its talents and rationality to provide yet more food and curb population growth.
In a January 1997 Atlantic article titled “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity,” Borlaug’s career and accomplishments were admiringly summarized. Indeed, the author concluded, “Norman Borlaug has already saved more lives than any other person who ever lived.” Are there true benefits to the Green Revolution fathered and fostered by Borlaug? Unquestionably, millions of lives have been saved, economies transformed, and the course of nations changed. Moreover, untold millions of hectares of undeveloped land, invaluable for the biodiversity and ecosystem services they provide, have been saved from conversion to agricultural production. Borlaug’s high-yielding crops produce much more than conventional crops from the same acreage, thus saving pristine areas from destruction. Are there detriments? The high yields come at a price, including too much fertilizer and pesticide use, along with the social and economic transformations attendant with rapid economic change.
The future will require all the cleverness and wisdom humanity can muster if we are to successfully navigate an ever more crowded planet. The Green Revolution was, as Borlaug recognized, merely a transition to an onrushing future where billions more will want the same things we in the United States and the rest of the developed world already have. It will require both Borlaugian science—melded with a keener understanding of the soil ecosystem and cleverer use of limited water resources—and a Vogtian ethos if we are to realize Borlaug’s vision: “a decisive and lasting victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.”
Gary A. Gomby
Department of Geological Sciences, Central Connecticut State University
New Britain, Conn.

Ulises Fariñas
Charles C. Mann’s article was quite informative, but I take issue with his claim that “today’s globe-spanning environmental movement” was “the only enduring ideology to emerge from the past century.”
The second globe-spanning movement to arise in the 20th century was that of human rights. As with the environmental movement, there were earlier pioneers. Nevertheless, universal human rights as an ideology and a movement is a 20th-century creation. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 that human rights belong to “everyone … without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” a truly new ideology was announced to the world. It has since led to a series of international human-rights covenants, international courts to prosecute massive human-rights abuses, and a cascade of international organizations devoted to advancing human rights.
In the current century, the environmental movement is not universally recognized or respected. Neither are human rights. Nevertheless, the human-rights movement remains vigorous and, contrary to Mann’s assertion, needs to be recognized and championed as the second major ideology willed to the 21st century by the 20th.
Sam McFarland, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, Ky.

Charles C. Mann is correct that the technologies pioneered by Norman Borlaug have sharply decreased global hunger even as the global population has significantly grown and become more prosperous. But the math is about to stop working; we simply won’t be able to feed close to 10 billion people by 2050 if we keep devoting so much land to feed crops. Even chickens, the most efficient animals at turning feed into meat, require several calories of grain to produce one calorie of meat. And although various individuals and organizations have long encouraged us to eat less meat, per capita consumption is at an all-time high in the U.S. and is rising rapidly in China, India, and other developing countries.
The only sustainable way to meet this growing demand is to produce it in a new way. Plant-based meats are getting closer and closer to mimicking animal-based meat, and “clean meat”—real meat grown directly from animal cells outside of an animal—is not far from commercialization. These two technologies may prove to be humanity’s salvation.
Bruce Friedrich
Executive Director, The Good Food Institute
Washington, D.C.

I very much enjoyed Charles C. Mann’s article. As a 45-year-old lifelong vegetarian (and a “whole-food, plant-based” eater for the past decade or so), I’ll admit that to me his question seems to be not How do we feed 10 billion people? but How do we feed 10 billion people meat, eggs, and dairy? I reject scarcity myths as conservative fearmongering—in the future we don’t really need to grow much more food than we already do considering that we throw out nearly half of what we currently produce. Improving our food-delivery systems is surely as important as increasing food production.
The article also leaves out that eating animal products can make us sick, costing us productivity and quality of life, and requiring massive medical expenditures. Until we include in the discussion the true health and environmental costs of animal agriculture, we will never make headway, and I fear we will see mass starvation, water wars, and further degradation of our health and environment.
Nathan Cowing
Dresden, Maine

Ulises Fariñas

Charles C. Mann responds:

Many thanks to the writers for taking the time to respond. I would disagree with Sam McFarland, not about the importance of the human-rights ideology, but about its origin. Human-rights ideology goes back much further than the 20th century. The ideas of both Nathan Cowing and Bruce Friedrich seem fine to me, although I suspect that reducing food waste will be harder than it may seem. In poor countries, food waste is concentrated in the field, storage, and transport. Unfortunately, reducing these losses would require the kind of costly improvements to agricultural infrastructure that are difficult in those places. In wealthy nations, most food waste comes from consumers not eating food they have bought. Reducing waste in this case involves changing the behavior of huge numbers of busy people.
Gary A. Gomby takes me to task for failing to mention Borlaug’s worries about population, quoting his Nobel lecture. But in other speeches and letters, Borlaug admitted that he had never tried to push for population control or even brought it up in the nations where he worked. He was anything but a crusader like Vogt. As Gomby says, Borlaug knew about the potential environmental costs of the Green Revolution. However, he also consistently derided environmentalists who criticized him. In his lecture “The Green Revolution: Past Successes and Future Challenges” (1996), he thundered against “extremists in the environmentalist movement” who denounce the overuse of artificial fertilizer. Unfortunately, many of the “extremist” criticisms have proved correct. Similarly, he was—wrongly, in my view—dismissive of criticisms of the inequities fueled by the Green Revolution in some places. Norman Borlaug was a remarkable man with an utterly admirable dedication to the cause of eradicating hunger. But I don’t think it is completely accurate to claim that he had an “acute awareness of the nexus of human need, environmental limits, and social justice.”

America Is Not a Democracy

In March, Yascha Mounk explained how the United States lost the faith of its citizens—and what it can do to win them back.

Yascha Mounk’s essay falls short in one crucial respect: It ignores the obligations of a democratic citizenry. One such obligation is to be informed. Admittedly, given all that is happening all the time, this is difficult, and some citizens are more able to do this than others. But before we return power to the people, we must ensure that they can handle it. Trump and “Brexit” suggest that we aren’t there yet.
Grant Sims
Nashville, Tenn.

Yascha Mounk suggests that Donald Trump’s victory stemmed in part from his ability to tap into a sense of powerlessness among voters. Yet in an article about the demise of American democracy, he overlooks the cruel irony that Trump won the presidency only because of the Electoral College, a profoundly antidemocratic institution. Twice in the past five presidential elections, the voting majority has been unable to choose the country’s next president.
Matthew Kohut
Hopewell, N.J.

Yascha Mounk offers a number of examples to illustrate his point that the voices of average Americans have gone unheeded by those who purportedly represent their will. An example that Mounk does not include is the fact that the Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war. The drafters of the Constitution considered the country’s decision to go to war to be of the greatest importance; it needed the support of the people, and the people expressed their will through Congress.
The last time Congress met this obligation was during World War II. Since then we have been involved in more military operations without formal declarations of war than the number of wars Congress ever officially declared. With respect to these undeclared wars, we have also seen the influence of the powerful lobbies that profit from them, while fewer and fewer of the American people are directly affected.
John A. Viteritti
Laurel, N.Y.

#Tweet of the Month

Yascha Mounk worries that Americans may be losing faith in government, yet his recent article cites the same misleading research that helped spread undue cynicism about American democracy in 2016.
Mounk repeats the findings of a viral study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. Its central argument was that “ordinary citizens get what they want from government only when they happen to agree with elites or interest groups that are really calling the shots.” Yet those authors did not report that, in their own data, median-income Americans got what they wanted 47 percent of the time that wealthy elites opposed them.
Crucially, the authors’ model of American politics could explain only about 7 percent of total variation in policy outcomes: Knowing what elites and interest groups wanted didn’t tell us very much about which policies were enacted. Median-income Americans’ favored outcome occurred 30 percent of the time that they faced combined opposition from interest groups and the wealthy; the wealthy got their way 32 percent of the time they were opposed by the other two groups.
Ominous findings about the “near-zero” influence of average Americans came from an improvised statistical approach, but that didn’t stop the authors from making sweeping judgments about democracy.
Mounk suggests that campaign-finance rules and gun laws would be different if average Americans and mass-based interest groups had their way. In the Gilens and Page data set, though, when median-income and rich citizens disagreed on campaign finance, it was the median-income citizens who opposed progressive reform—successfully. In addition, Gilens and Page included the National Rifle Association not in the business-interest-group category but rather in the mass-based-interest-group category, which their statistics then found to be weak overall.
Americans should know that pressing moral concerns such as inequality can be addressed through political participation, especially when the modern GOP does not control every branch of government. Policy outcomes are more unpredictable than we’ve been led to believe. Unrigging the economy is up to us, and there’s reason to hope.
Omar S. Bashir
Rockville, Md.

Yascha Mounk responds:

With few exceptions, there are two kinds of social-science studies: ones that are beyond reproach yet demonstrate something uninteresting we already knew, and ones that find something noteworthy but are open to methodological criticism. As I note in my article, the study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page falls into the second category. That’s why it has provoked a lively debate about the degree to which our political institutions are responsive to popular views. The answer is not yet settled—and, as Omar S. Bashir rightly notes, it depends in part on what we do. For all the ways in which the political system is slanted in favor of the rich, ordinary Americans retain real political agency. In my own work, I have gone to considerable lengths to show how they can use it.


“ ‘We Can’t Make Our Elections About Being Against Trump’ ” (April) misspelled the name of Arthur Lesemann, a lawyer and activist in Bergen County, N.J. We regret the error.

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