Will Producing More Food Only Add to the Population Problem?

The 10 most effective ideas for improving the world.
May 8 2012 3:39 PM

Will Producing More Food Only Add to the Population Problem?

Slate readers debate solutions for solving the world’s biggest problems.

The idea behind Copenhagen Consensus 2012 is to prioritize some of the world’s most important spending, with the latest economic analysis providing us with an input. In a series of articles, I am drawing on new research papers that present the costs and benefits of the smartest ways to respond to global challenges. Each article has a poll, and Slate readers can vote on the investments that they believe should be the highest priorities—along with those that should not. You can read more about the rationale behind the project here.

Over the course of the series, we will see how readers rank responses to a range of challenges, and at the end we will identify the investments that Slate readers think should be the highest priority. We will be able to contrast these with the findings of a panel of Nobel laureate economists.

Biodiversity, which I talked about yesterday, was obviously less controversial than some of the topics looked at in the series. (Your comments keep coming on the overpopulation article!) And, in fact, one reader brought us back to the topic of there being “too many people” by arguing that benefits from increasing agricultural productivity would be offset by the increase in population. In fact, the paper presented net figures, taking population into account.

Now is perhaps a good moment to point out that in addition to the papers that I have looked at in this series, Copenhagen Consensus 2012 commissioned other research papers to provide a range of opinions. For each of the topics that we have looked at, there are two “Perspective Papers,” also written by experts in the field, who question the assumptions, methodology, and conclusions of the research that you’ve been reading about. So the Nobel-laureate expert panel members (who, after a year of looking at drafts of these research papers, are now in a closed-door meeting to come up with their own views about which investments should be prioritized), are hearing a range of expert opinions.

The “Perspective Papers” will be released on the Copenhagen Consensus Center’s website shortly, and if you’re particularly interested in one of these topics, I recommend them to you.

Let’s take a look at what Slate readers currently think policymakers and philanthropists should be prioritizing:

1 Family Planning Population Growth
2 Bundled Micro-Nutrient Interventions Hunger and Malnutrition
3 Tobacco Taxation Chronic Diseases
4 Effective Early Warning Systems Natural Disasters
5 Expanded Childhood Immunization Coverage Infectious Disease
6 Agricultural Productivity R&D Biodiversity
7 The Reinvented Toilet Water and Sanitation
8 Subsidy for Malaria Combination Treatment Infectious Disease
9 Hepatitis B Immunization Chronic Diseases
10 R&D to Increase Yield Enhancements Hunger and Malnutrition
11 Deworming of Children Infectious Disease
12 Community Led Total Sanitation Water and Sanitation
13 Expanding Tuberculosis Treatment Infectious Disease
14 Extension of Protected areas Biodiversity
15 Acute Heart Attack Low-Cost Drugs Chronic Diseases
16 Retrofitting Schools to Withstand Earthquake Damage Natural Disasters
17 Generic Pill for Heart Attack Risk Reduction Chronic Diseases
18 Protecting All Forests Biodiversity
19 Investing in Accelerated HIV Vaccine Development Infectious Disease
20 Sanitation as a Business Water and Sanitation
21 Strengthening Structures Against Hurricanes and Storms Natural Disasters
22 Community Walls Against Floods Natural Disasters
23 Increase Competition in the Fertilizer Market Hunger and Malnutrition
24 Crop Advisory Text Messages Hunger and Malnutrition
25 Salt Reduction Campaign Chronic Diseases

Remember: You can still go back and vote in all of the various polls today, and you can vote today on options to respond to climate change; we’ll be finalizing the Slate readers’ list at the end of the series.

It’s very interesting to see what you made of the biodiversity intervention options. As we’ve seen with almost every topic, readers liked some options better than others. Investment in agricultural productivity research and development fared very well, extending protected areas got a middle ranking, while the option of protecting forests was not as popular. The R&D option has a strong benefit-cost ratio, and featured not just in this research but also in the hunger and malnutrition paper, too. I'm very interested to see how you will rank the climate interventions alongside these.


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