Russ Roberts

Jesse Ausubel on Agriculture, Technology, and the Return of Nature

EconTalk Episode with Jesse Ausubel
Hosted by Russ Roberts
Haute Cuisine pour Vous?... Lynxes, and Soybeans, and Bear...

city whale.jpg Thousands of bears in New Jersey. Humpback whales near New York City. Acres devoted to farming stable or declining even as food production soars. Jesse Ausubel of the Rockefeller University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the return of nature. Ausubel shows how technology has reduced many of the dimensions of the human footprint even as population rises and why this trend is likely to continue into the future. The conversation concludes with Ausubel's cautious optimism about the impact of climate change.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: July 29, 2015.] Russ: Our topic for today is the interaction between technology and the environment and nature. And we're going to focus on a fascinating essay you published in The Breakthrough Journal. The title of that essay: "The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment." I want to start with agriculture, as you do there. What has been agriculture's influence on the environment in recent decades--especially when we think about corn, which is a major agricultural product of the United States? Guest: Russ, when we think of high tech, we tend to think of telecommunications and computers. But actually innovation in farming and agriculture continues to be very fast. And one of the ways we see that is that yields keep rising. In the same way that a semi-conductor company may get more chips out of the same silicon wafer than it used to, farmers are getting more corn out of an acre, a hectare of land. And a lot of that is for the same reason. If you visit a modern farmer, the cab of his or her tractor or combine or truck looks like the trading desk of someone on Wall Street. There are video feeds all over the place and all kinds of information coming in. And we're experiencing a revolution called 'precision agriculture' in the same way that draft animals at one time changed agriculture, and the tractors themselves. Now the confluence of information is leading to rising yields. People thought yields might plateau; but in fact they keep going up. And they are going up even though we've stabilized or even reduced a bit some of the inputs, like fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides and water. But weather forecasts have gotten better, and we have better seeds, and we know more about the plants. So, farmers are growing more per area. And the result of that is they don't need as much area to grow the crops, the protein and calories that feed humanity. And when they don't need as much area, in fact it usually means they don't need as much water as well. So, corn is just an incredible case. Last year a farmer in Georgia named Randy Dowdy grew over 500 bushels an acre. And that's enough to feed a couple hundred people in terms of raw protein or calories for a year. It's just an astonishing achievement. And it's 3 or 4 times what the average Iowa grower does and 6 to 8 times what the average world grower does. So the headroom for improvement is still enormous in agriculture. The basic bottom line is, we may have passed the peak use of arable land for farming; in the future we can have more protein and calories, more crops to feed a somewhat larger population but using less land and probably less water and less fertilizer and less herbicide as well. Russ: You point out there's been a decoupling of corn production and corn output. And it's rather extraordinary. It's not just: 'Oh, wow, we're getting more corn per acre.' Corn acreage is relatively flat, and production has gone through the roof. Guest: That's exactly right. For a long time, up until about 1940, for almost all crops--and corn is the most important crop in America and in some ways the most important crop in the world in terms of tonnages--the acreage advanced in tandem with the production. So, if we wanted more ears of corn, we plowed more land. We opened up more fields. But around 1940, the land used for corn stabilized or even started to shrink a bit. But the corn yields, the corn production kept going up and up and up. And it's gone up by a factor of 4 or almost 5 times since 1940, with the same land. So, this decoupling of acreage and production frees land for nature. And we're starting to see that in America and worldwide. Like many people, I'm a gardener and a small-scale farmer myself. I have a couple of acres. I have 40 fruit trees, and I love my cherry trees and my pears and peaches, which are just about to ripen. But the--of course, agriculture is the biggest transformer of the landscape, by far, much more so than cities. The area that agriculture takes is 5 or 6 times the area that we use for cities. So the fact now that we can accomplish what agriculture needs to accomplish but on the same or less land allows us--allows nature--the chance to rebound.
5:45Russ: And of course this is all going on in a time when we have mandated the use of corn for cars and fuel. As you point out, we feed corn to people; we feed corn to animals; and we feed corn to automobiles. I was shocked to see in your chart, one of your charts, that the amount we feed to automobiles is almost half of the total amount of corn that's grown. Most of it goes to animals, still. It's surprising how little we eat. Corn has risen slightly but it's basically flat: it's not a very important increase. But the amount that's gone to automobiles has gone up a lot. I think that was a mistake--I think that was an environmental mistake, an economic mistake. If we didn't have that, these effects would be even more dramatic in terms of how much land would be freed up for other uses. Guest: Russ, that's exactly right. Only about 1 out of 10 ears of corn that we grow in America is fed directly to an American as creamed corn or popcorn or corn on the cob. Almost half of it is now being turned into--liquor, I'll say, to power cars. And a lot of it is being fed to animals, mostly to cattle and some to pigs. So, when you see corn fields, you are really not--you may think food for humans, but in fact it's food for cars and food for animals. And if Americans moderated their consumption of meat just a bit, and, I would say, abandoned the foolishness of trying to stuff ears of corn into gas tanks, there would be yet more possibility for releasing land for nature, and allowing nature to rebound. And even beyond that, of course, about a third of the food produced in the world is wasted. It doesn't go onto our plates or into our stomachs. In the rich countries, of course a lot of food is purchased and then thrown away, whether in restaurants or in homes. In poor countries, a lot of food rots in the field, or there's poor storage. So, if we were to change our diet a little bit, you know, send, change the way we power cars, and improve the waste, reduce waste a bit in the food system, you know, maybe a third or half of all the agricultural land in the world today could be released again and become woodlands or become savannas or whatever might be appropriate. And so the potential for a rebound of nature, a return of nature, over the next century is huge. We may really be at the peak of the human disturbance of the landscape--the terrestrial landscape. Russ: Let's talk about the animal part that you just alluded to, as you do in the essay. It's a rather, another extraordinary change. What's fun about these--the facts that you've gathered here is these are not again, sort of like, a small change here, maybe if it continues, it will have a big impact. These are massive changes in human activity due to technology--sometimes due to changes in taste. Or sometimes due to government policy, as we just had an example in the other direction. But, so, you have a great line. You say that 'chicken gets better mileage than pork or beef.' I assume what you meant by that is the amount of corn we have to feed chickens to get a pound of protein--is that a good summary? Guest: That's exactly right. We can think of animals, including humans in a sense, but let's just think of chickens and pigs and cattle as machines to produce meat. And if you feed a steer some corn, you are getting, in automotive terms, say, 12 miles to the gallon. You're a pig, maybe 40 miles to the gallon. But a chicken is 60 miles to the gallon. So a chicken is like a Prius, or a super-efficient car. Whereas cattle is--from that point of view, very inefficient machines. And farmers have noticed this, of course, over the past 20, 30 years. And a lot of people talk about the shift in meat consumption and elsewhere to chicken for dietary or health reasons. But a lot of it has to do with the economics as well of the producers. And if you are a meat grower, you are getting pounds of meat cheaper and quicker if you are growing poultry. You know, a broiler can be ready in 40, 45 days to go to market. Whereas cattle take years. So it's not only the ratio. It's not only the efficiency of the conversion. But also you can realize a return quicker. You don't have to pay interest, so to say, for such a long time. So the whole meat system is itself becoming more efficient. And of course fish--if we go to aquaculture--catfish, tilapia, and so forth--they don't have to stand up like chicken. So they are even more efficient. Then say a fish gets 80 miles to the gallon. So, if in the future the diet continues to evolve in the direction of fish and poultry, then, again, we can free up a lot of land for nature.
11:18Russ: And of course the transition to chicken--not transition, but the incredible increases in chicken growth in terms of population and consumption by Americans, part of that is being driven by the fact that as we've mandated feeding corn to cars, we've pushed up the world price, the U.S. price. And that has made the relative price of chicken more attractive to beef, and that's helped push, along with as you said the health issues--it's pushed a lot of Americans to consume more chicken than they did before. So, part of that increase isn't just people saying, 'I wish we could buy a more efficient--more meat[?].' It's simply that we've changed the relative price. And that's a--I wish we could come back on that a little bit, policy-wise, but we'll see. Guest: Yeah. That also has to do with the extraordinary success of soybean agriculture. Chickens are fed mainly soybeans. Whereas cattle are fed mainly corn. Russ: Oh, good. Then-- Guest: So, yeah, the, you know-- Russ: Same effect. More so. Guest: Yeah. They barely existed as a crop in, let's say 1940. They really burst on the scene in the middle of the century. But of course they were grown in Japan and some parts of the world, for centuries. But in the United States and Europe and South America, they are really new crops. And they've turned out to be--[?] food--they are biological machines and really smart ones. They use inputs really efficiently. And if one wants to grow meat then the soybean/poultry route is really efficient. So, again, one has to look at agriculture in a quite different way than I think most people do. Most people tend to think of it as somehow a backward sector--you know, brown collars; but if you spend a little time with growers today, you find that agriculture, there is really a lot--of course, there's always been a lot of craft in it. But there's a lot of technology and science as well. And it's an extremely dynamic sector. Russ: And of course the other part, we haven't talked about is, when you talk about the decreases or leveling off of inputs despite the increases in output--one of the inputs that's shrunk dramatically is human beings. Agriculture as a source of work is dramatically down in the last 100 years from roughly 40% to something under 3 or 2% as a proportion of the workforce. And that's been a wonderful thing--it's freed up human beings to do other creative and productive things. And of course we're talking mainly here about land. What about--you didn't mention vegetarianism. If there were--there's been a big trend away from beef, towards chicken. If there were a trend away from meat toward vegetarianism, how would that affect your story about land use? Obviously, we wouldn't be feeding corn or soybeans to animals; but we would be growing a lot more soybeans presumably and maybe something else to create human protein at that point. How would that affect the use of land? Guest: Well, that would also free up land. Though of course, tofu and soybeans are a very popular form of food directly; in that sense, in Asia and elsewhere. So, I would say a vegetarian diet is certainly less demanding on the land than a diet involving a lot of meat. At the same time, I would say it's really high yields that are the best friend of nature. And if we have high yields, I'd say, humanity can afford to produce meat, some meat, for those who want it. But we may want to move in the direction of what I'll call a Mediterranean diet, where the main--you are getting your calories mainly from spaghetti or potatoes or rice or bread; and you are flavoring it with some sauce. And it may be a tomato sauce, it may be a tomato sauce with a bit of meat in it, too. Or fish. So, you are using the wonderful flavors that many people enjoy from meats but you are not using, you are not using the meat as the main element of your diet. So, you know, one doesn't have to go--I mean, for those who wish to be vegetarians or even vegans, that's great. But the scenario[?] we've written about is not one in which people have to radically change their diet. We say it's a continuing evolution in the direction of poultry and also some of the successful aquaculture like oysters and clams and mussels. And using those, again, for their wonderful flavor in sauces and toppings and that way. But I think, a hundred years from now, people may look back on America of the 1950s and, you know, a plate entirely covered by a big Porterhouse steak or something like that, and they may say, 'Well that was a kind of a strange way to live.' Customs like this are always changing. My guess is, in the course of the 21st century we'll move more in this direction of a lighter diet in this sense. But it can be one with enormous variety. Russ: Yeah, well it's strange-- Guest: Yeah. There are other forms of flavoring that are very rich. Mushrooms of course give wonderful flavors to foods. So, one can have a very, very--I don't want to make it sound like--I'm old enough to remember the 1960s and some of the initial American attempts at vegetarian diets. I went to Woodstock and ate brown rice. I'm not proposing that that become the norm [?]. Of course, one can prepare brown rice very well. But the point is, one doesn't have to have--one can have a diet that's very rich in variety, and include meats and all kinds of interesting foods that, without placing heavy demands on natural resources. Russ: It's ironic though. Because at the same time that vegetarianism has an increasing pull on a lot of people, we also have the Paleo movement, which we've talked about here on the program in the past, which emphasizes protein in particular. Meats very popular among Paleo-diet folks. It will be interesting to see how our knowledge of nutrition evolves. I think there's a lot of romance about how much better that's going to get in the next 50 years. Maybe it will. But I find it interesting how little we know about what's good for us. Guest: Well, meat was important, is important; and meat was very important in the evolution of I'll say homo sapiens and hominids. If we were living on grass we'd have to have enormous long stomachs like cows--the ruminants--to digest everything. And in considerable part it was the shift to a carnivorous diet and certain kinds of cooking that over thousands of years enabled humanity to sort of change its shape and have the smaller, compact digestive system that we do and the bigger brain. And the bigger brain of course allows us in turn to do a lot of things. So I think the role of meat in human history is a very, very important one. We shouldn't forget it. It is natural in that sense. And certainly part of and very much part of our history. Russ: Yeah; some people still like those Porterhouse steaks.
19:32Russ: Let's turn to forestation--how much forest land there is in the United States and in the world. You talk about two very important and dramatic trends that many people may not be aware of. I wasn't--I was only aware of one of them. You point out there's been a move from north to south and from wild to managed from a wild forest to a managed tree plantation. Talk about the impact those two changes have in yields and in the amount of land that's forested. Guest: Well, naturally forests grow faster in moister, warmer places. So, in the United States for example, if you are trying to grow a cord of wood in Georgia or the southeastern United States, that will happen faster than in the Pacific Northwest or in a place like Minnesota or northern Michigan. And over the last 50, 70 years or so, the U.S. wood products industry has moved to the Southeast where it's more productive. And it's more productive, again, per acre, per hectare, per square mile or per square kilometer. And so you need less land to grow the same board-feet or whatever measure of wood products that you care about. So simply harvesting in the places where it's naturally faster-growing is important. But then, of course we've also had the gradual but significant growth of plantation forestry. Oh, in round numbers let's say 20% of forestry in the United States is now on lands that are really farmed for trees. And when you do that, you can introduce varieties that grow very quickly--certain[?] eucalyptus[?], poplars, some pines--and they may be on a rotation of let's say 15 or 20 years, whereas trees in unmanaged forests may take 50 or 60 or 100 years to mature. So, there are these managed ways also of increasing yields. And all of this means that we can get the same amount of wood products or more from a smaller area of land that's logged. So, now, the result of this is an increase in forested area and volume in the United States in the last few decades. So, if you look at maps of America and how green it is, so to say, with forests, you'll see both that there's more forest in America in 2015 than, let's say, in 1990 or 1950. And you'll also see that the areas that have forest are actually denser with forest than areas were at that time. Russ: And that's because of--those are not being used for timber and logging, correct? Guest: Well, there's [?], yes-- Russ: Or are they used more efficiently? Guest: An economist, one has to look both at supply and demand. Russ: Yep. We're going to get to supply. Guest: Talks about the supply side, which is again, the weather is better and the seedlings are better, and they may be irrigated when they are young so that they don't die off as often. So that's the supply side, what foresters and modern forestry is doing. But then there's the demand side. There are a lot of uses of wood products that have just vanished. Destruction of demand. You know, when we were building railroads a hundred years ago we were cutting down lots of trees for the ties that held the railroads together. And when we started a telephone system all over the United States we chopped down lots of trees for telephone poles. Now those niches don't exist. And of course most recently, with e-books and email, the demand for paper, for newsprint or for paper for first class letters and so forth, is collapsing. So the number of first class letters in the United States dropped by about a quarter in 5 years recently. And everybody knows this. If you look at your mailbox, there's just less stuff there, less--if not--of course, if you say 'mailbox' these days people think of email. So, I sometimes like to say, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Steve Jobs of Apple--you know, they are really heroes of the forests. We don't think of them that way. But the products they've introduced have lightened demand for traditional wood products. So, a lot of wood for construction, a lot of wood for pulp and paper--the demand just isn't there any more. So, even if you are growing wood very efficiently, it's not necessarily a great business to be in. The demand is soft. And in other parts of the world, because they are leapfrogging in a sense--parts of Africa, let's say, or parts of South Asia, they won't ever have as many newsstands or as many magazines as America did. Now, with smart phones and so forth, even as India and China grow, they may use somewhat more paper, but they are not going to use paper the way Americans did in 1980 or 1950. And they are not going to use wood the way people did in 1920 to build railroads. So, this change of the composition of the economy and the changes on the demand side--the global result is that in the last, since about 1990, worldwide, forests are actually getting larger again, not getting smaller. There's more area of forest and more wood in the forests that exist. Now, that's a global average. Some areas, like parts of Indonesia, parts of central Africa still have tragic situations with deforestation occurring for a variety of reasons. But, globally, the picture is that forests are increasing, as they are in America. Russ: So, I always tell my kids, when we are in a bathroom, public bathroom, and there's an air-dry device that says, 'Save Trees, Use This,' or 'We Save Trees' because we have these electric hand dryers instead of paper towels, and I always say, if you want to increase the number of trees you should be tearing off those paper towels like crazy, and making sure you use a bunch of them. Because that's going to increase the demand for paper, which in turn will encourage the growth of trees. Now, that's true in tree plantations. Obviously there's a tension, and we'll get to it more deeply when we talk about oceans and fisheries, because of the tragedy of the commons problem, the problem of common property that's unowned. Forests that are unowned are going to get harvested inefficiently because the incentives are [?] not to take care of them. Forests that are owned--plantations, that we've been talking about--in those cases you are going to want to grow more trees when your people use more paper. What I'm curious about, what I don't know about: You point out that only about 20% of U.S. logging is done on tree farms. If there were an expansion of demand for paper, or, better yet, a contraction--let's talk about a contraction because that seems to be the trend, because of the forces you were talking about. If everybody stopped using paper towels, everybody stopped using regular mail, no houses were built out of wood, furniture and decks were built out of plastic--and as a result, the use of, the demand for paper plummeted, but not to zero: Would that reduce logging in public lands that are essentially unowned and managed in complicated ways for politics, or worse, through harvesting at first-come, first-served? Or would that be a contraction in tree farming? Do you have any idea? It's a hard question. Guest: Well, yeah. That's not really my expertise. My expertise is more on the technical and ecological end. And you are asking questions that are really more economics and behavioral. So, I'd say as a citizen I could make a comment. But it's not really expert. What I would say is that I think there will be continuing soft demand for a lot of natural resource products. We've gone through a period in which the prices for a lot of natural resources were quite high in living[?] petroleum. Wood products and others. But if you look around the world and you look at this incredible apparatus of innovation in engineering and science, in all sectors of life, you begin to see that efficiency really is winning. In many cases it's gradual. But it's very powerful. And so this leads to a kind of dematerialization. We need less stuff to accomplish the services, to provide the services or features that we needed before. So, I don't think we'll stop using wood. But we may use wood only for its aesthetic qualities. So, its for veneers and so forth. But we may not use it in these sort of bulk ways.
29:43Russ: Well, I want to turn to dematerialization. But before I do, let me just ask one clarifying question about trees. You said tree plantations provide about 20% of the current output of wood. I assume that up over recent decades, that percentage? Guest: Yes. Sylviculture is growing gradually in the United States and in Brazil and in Chile and New Zealand and various other countries. So, the answer to that is Yes. Now, you've raised complex questions about ownership. And of course what would be the, let's say, the optimal wood products industry? Maybe it would be an industry in which half of the wood came from, I'll say, plantations--from heavily managed forests--and maybe half from much-less managed forests. There are reasons to thin and cull the less managed forests to reduce risks of forest fires, to allow new growth, to maintain habitat for certain kinds of birds or other animals. So, let me say, the optimal wood products industry might not be completely concentrated in sylviculture. It might well be a mix of the two. But I think most people would expect the sylviculture of the plantation forests in the United States and the rest of the world to continue to grow. And again, they can produce 2, 3, 4 times the yield per hectare that the wild forests do. Russ: So, we can think about-- Guest: So, we need to disturb less land. I'm moving in the direction of a bigger argument, which is in nature rebounce[?], the Report that you mentioned, which is that, actually, the continents are actually getting greener, not browner. If you ask somebody what's happened to Earth since the astronauts since looked at it from space, at least looked at the continents, most people would say, 'Oh, well, Earth used to be the planet--the continents used to be really green, and now, you know, there's desertification and deforestation' and, you know, we're [?] Russ: Destroying [?] Guest: So it's getting browner, not greener. But much to our surprise, over the last 20, 25 years, a growing group of us are convinced and publishing papers about a phenomenon we're calling global greening--that on land, in fact, because of this, in part because of this changing demand, for wood products, for example, because of rising yields, but also because of changing global ecology, the continents are getting greener. And when I say a change in global ecology, there's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And that's--carbon dioxide is food for plants. So, you know, it may change the climate. But it's also--the plants like to suck it in. It helps them grow. So the rising CO2 in these somewhat longer growing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere associated with warming--there's more nitrogen around. So these top down reasons, some areas are actually getting more rainfall, including sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahel, an area which had been very, very dry for a long period of time. So the combination of these sort of top down changes of the CO2 increasing, the longer growing seasons, and the bottom up changes, like people switching to email and farmers getting smarter at growing corn, have actually led over the last 25 years to increases in what's called the annual gross productivity. And the biosphere actually seems to be getting bigger by about a billion tons a year. Maybe even 2 billion tons a year, globally. Now again, that's a global average, and there are some areas, some parts of the world--the Southern Amazon, parts of Indonesia--where, you know, heartbreaking changes are still occurring to the landscape. But if you look globally, then this global greening seems to be happening. And it's really a surprise. None of the--if you look back at reports from 1980 and 1990, none of them predicted this would happen. Everybody was living life on the tangent, so to say, and just expecting the trends that we were feeling in those years of deforestation and the, you know, just every heavier use of resources would continue.
34:50Russ: We're going to close--at the end I want to talk about rewilding. It's a fascinating thing. But what we're really talking about here is the rewilding of land, not with wildlife but with trees. So, as you said, when less land is used for agriculture, a whole bunch of things replace it. Could be a savanna. It could be a natural growing--the expansion of forests that weren't allowed to encroach on that farmland. But what's amazing is that because of the demand changes you are talking about, and for wood, and because of the supply changes and the plantation side, those expanding forest areas are going to be available for recreation, human enjoyment, or just natural beauty in ways that couldn't be imagined; and as you said, the trends all looked very depressing. But I think most people think that there are fewer trees in the United States than there were a hundred years ago. One of the things they forget, of course, is that we don't chop them down for fuel any more. That's an enormous change in demand that has taken place. All these trends working together are very powerful. Guest: So, that's exactly right. And it's a kind of confluence of these trends. And again, I think very few people really anticipated it. And, I'll say the trees come first. Or, you know, maybe some bushes and then some trees. But animals follow. Wildlife. And of course we're used to the idea that there are lots of deer around again, and wild turkeys. And now there are starting to be bobcats and mountain lions. And New Jersey has a huge bear population. New Jersey has something like 2500 bears; and the last dozen years or so, each autumn, New Jersey now has a bear hunt, in which in a few weeks 400 or 500 bears are culled by hunters. So, if you think--most people think of New Jersey-- Russ: Asphalt. Guest: They don't think of bears. Russ: It's all asphalt. It's all just--it's all paved over, New Jersey. I've been there. Guest: So, things are, things really are changing in ways that we have not fully anticipated. We never fully anticipate everything, of course. But there are some surprises. Now, how far all of this will go, of course is a big question. And how will we adapt ourselves to some of these changes? Do we really want to live again with lots of deer or Lyme disease that may come with them? Russ: The way they eat our gardens. Guest: Or bears. Yeah. So we need to learn to live with wildlife again. Russ: I live in suburban Maryland. I see a dead deer a week in the road. Maybe more. In certain parts of suburban Maryland outside of Washington, D.C., people can't have gardens because the deer eat them all. I remember visiting friends in Silver Spring and seeing deer on someone's lawn, and I said, 'That's very beautiful.' And they said, 'We don't think so.' They see them as vermin, because they eat everything. So that's--yeah, the co-existence part is going to be a fascinating evolution.
38:10Russ: On the negative side, you point to what's happening in the world's oceans. There the trends are not so good. And I recently interviewed Roger Berkowitz, the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of Legal Sea Foods, and we talked about some sustainability issues. Talk about what's happening in the oceans. Guest: The oceans are a hundred years behind the land. And we need to do more to protect and conserve ocean life, to protect ocean habitat. Partly, of course, it has to do with economic and legal and social issues. Even nations that have on paper good governance of their waters usually don't have sufficient coast guard and navy and so forth to enforce compliance with what may be good on paper. But there's still a lot of renegade behavior or piracy or whatever you want to call it. Even in the exclusive economic zones of countries. And of course on the High Seas the situation is even more chaotic. And of course the productivity of the oceans, the natural productivity of the oceans, one might say is that of plateau. While seafood tastes too good for its own safety. I like to say the democratization of sushi is the greatest problem of the oceans. When only the Emperor of Japan ate sushi, it wasn't a bit problem. But now a billion people want to eat sushi. And with good refrigeration and high speed transport, it's possible to have, you know--seafood is fantastic when it's fresh, when it's been properly chilled, and so forth. There just isn't enough of the, I'll say natural--the wild sea life to go around for so many chopsticks. And so we need to succeed in the oceans with aquaculture, the way we've succeeded on land, if we want meat from the seas. The way to do that, of course, is with herbivores[?]--you want plants like, animals like the clams and oysters and so forth, that are filter feeders, that feed on the meadows of the oceans so to say, and fish like catfish or tilapia that eat tofu. Problem is that some of those popular ocean meats like tuna and salmon, those animals are carnivores. And so we catch anchovies or herring or menhaden and grind them up and feed those to the salmon-- Russ: In the fish farms-- Guest: and that doesn't create--yeah, in the fish farms. And that doesn't create a net benefit. So we need to teach the salmon to eat tofu. Which can be done. There are some examples already of success, I mentioned in my report, where some of the popular forms of ocean meat, where the animals are carnivores, where they've been trained, educated, to be also to be vegetarians. Russ: You just have to put the tofu in the shed[?] for herring. I mean, it works as a fishing lure. Guest: Well, you need to make it taste good. It's a bit like if you have a dog or a cat. Of course the dog may love to tear into a piece of meat. But if you put a little juice from a steak on top of, let's all say some tofu, the dog will scarf it right up. Russ: It's very cruel. Guest: So, [?] the beginning [?] about the Mediterranean bias. Well, they're happy. It's really the flavor they way. And we're the same. So, they're getting nutrition from the--so the oceans still are losing life in many areas. Net losses. And as more and more people have higher incomes and the ability to access, you know, this incredibly delicious sea life, I think it's one of the really, really big challenges, let's say right from now, but over the next generation, is to change, treat life in the oceans with more respect and make sure that life from the oceans that humans eat is, I'll say, farmed or raised, in ways that allows the wild populations to continue. And again, it may be that we continue to eat small amounts of the wild populations in a kind of artisanal way, you know, supplying great flavor. But, you know, we can't just go around sieving the ocean for all its wildlife. Russ: Yeah; one way to do that, we talked about with Roger Berkowitz is, there are organizations that try to discourage people from eating certain types of seafood that they worry are not sustainable or endanger their stocks, artificially low. Of course, at the same time, as you mention, it's a governance issue when there's fishing seasons and harvest quotas to try to maintain the size of a fishery--that may not be set correctly, may not be enforced correctly. But obviously agriculture as a way to drive the price down, aquaculture, mariculture, those as a way to drive the price down can dominate both the cultural influence or the governance change. What I find interesting--and I first noticed this maybe 10, 15 years ago, there was an article I read that they were farming tuna. Most people, when they think about a fish farm they think about trout. Or they might think about salmon. But tuna were being--in a very large enclosure, in the ocean, were being farmed. That is, they were allowed to run around. It's not free-range tuna, but it's closer to free range tuna than what we think of as a cement pond somewhere, wherever you'd do it for tuna--maybe you can't even do it. But the question I have is that a lot of environmentalists oppose--even though they have the same goal as you might have of encouraging the health of the fisheries. They oppose fish farming as unhealthy for the environment. What are your thoughts on that? Guest: It has to be done well. You know, almost any industry you can think of, whether it's tanneries or chip fabrication or salmon farming, if you visit 10 companies or 10 plants, they won't all be equally good, in terms of occupational safety and health, in terms of emissions of air and water, in terms of the productivity. And I visited a fair number of salmon farms. And I visited some in which the farmers are extremely careful about management of waste; extremely careful about defending against possible escapes; extremely careful about use and frugal about use of antibiotics. And I've seen others that make me feel ashamed. And so, you know, I think one has to try to promulgate the best practices. But I think the--in the long run, as you are suggesting, for sea life, we need to address both the supply and the demand. So we need to help educate people about what are more responsible things to eat. But we also have to provide economical substitutes that may replace some of what's currently desirable. So I think simply reprimanding is unlikely to, you know, it doesn't matter. Can be the drug problem: 'Just say No' is not enough, so to say. You have to, you always have to address both supply and demand. So I think in the oceans, we need to think about how--and aquaculture globally is succeeding. It's an ancient form of farming. The Chinese have grown carp for a long time. And pike. And there's a lot of freshwater aquaculture. We think of things like gefilte fish, which is a popular delicacy in eastern and central Europe and places like New York. It's basically ground up carp or pike made into dumplings. And a lot of that has been done for a long time through aquaculture. So, one can make wonderful, delicious products and the--I'll say the ranchers can operate very well. But obviously one needs regulation. One needs people who go around and check and make sure. There's also a lot of fraud, of course, with product packaging, particularly of sea life but other things as well, where, what consumers think what they are buying is not actually what they are buying. So, you know, I think there's a lot of room for improvement. And a lot of this is high tech. One can use DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) for identification of products to make sure that what you think you are buying is really what you are buying. One can use chain of custody to make sure that the products are coming, you know, at each stage--it's like what Federal Express or United Parcel Service does. You can know where a package was at every stage. So I think there are ways going forward involving better operations, better analytics, better research, that would allow consumers to be confident that they are buying products that are responsibly produced. Russ: I just want to say that I think this is--it's certainly the first time on EconTalk; it may be the first time ever that I have heard gefilte fish referred to as a delicacy. I appreciate that tip of the hat. And I can't help but have the image of my great-grandmother's carp in her bathtub, which was a very primitive form of fish farming for urban dwellers who would have to-- Guest: Well, she was a Green. You have to, you have an antecedent, a very honorable antecedent. Russ: Yeah.
48:46Russ: We've talked a lot--I'm going to shift gears here. We're going to shift gears for a minute and then we'll come back to wildlife as our close. But we've talked a lot on this program for the potential for driverless cars. And drones, and driverless taxis--Uber without any human drivers, which I think is inevitable without regulation that stops it. And I think that would mainly be a very good thing for the world, although it will be challenging for truck drivers and cab drivers who may have trouble finding new things to do for a while. So, I understand it's a complicated situation overall. But certainly the kind of effects you are talking about here, and you allude to them, you talk about them explicitly--you don't allude to them: you talk about them explicitly in your essay. Talk about what's happening in transportation and why it, too, is having a greening effect. Guest: Well, drones are absolutely key. There's a new essay that came out in June by a terrific professor at Purdue, in the magazine Foreign Affairs about farming without farmers. We can have sailing without sailors. We can have aircraft without pilots, now. And people operating remotely with a joystick, so to say. And of course the area in which the most dramatic change could occur is driving. There are school bus drivers and there are taxi drivers. The average car, though--the average motor vehicle in America and around the world--is only used about an hour a day. The taxi may be used let's say 12 hours a day; cars, some of the cars that are in the car-sharing companies are used let's say 8 hours a day. Well, if these became autonomous vehicles with good GPS (Global Positioning System) systems, in [?] drove [?] taxis that you could call with an app like an Uber or Lyft. Suppose they were just used 2 or 3 or 4 hours a day, not 8 hours a day but more than the 1 hour a day that vehicles are now being used. We would need many, many fewer motor vehicles. Russ: Garages, roads, everything could be better. Guest: Congestion would be less of a problem. Yeah, road use would be lower, so the wear and tear on roads would be lower. And that people would be lost less, so you'd actually save miles that way. And the vehicles themselves, of course, we're seeing this shift after a hundred years--basically we're driving the same car that Henry Ford talked about until very recently; but now we're seeing this great, great ferment in the automotive world with fuel cells, hydrogen, electric cars--fuel cells are in a sense electric cars--battery powered electric cars; compressed natural gas to power cars. And even the old internal combustion engine, let's say Henry Ford's engine, is fighting back and there are new versions of it that are getting 60, 70, 75 miles a gallon. So, all of these can increase the efficiency of the transport system, again, by big numbers. It won't happen, it won't double overnight, but over a period of decades it can be 2 or 3 times as efficient. And that means we don't need as much input--we don't need as much petroleum, in the case of the dominant fuel now. And if you look around the world, you actually see that petroleum demand in the United States and Japan and Korea and many, many countries has been flat for quite a long time now. Partly it may be economic recession. But partly I think it is also these changes starting to nibble away. The more efficient vehicles, changes in driving habits, these changes that also are lightening demand on the natural resources. So, again, I think, contrary to the expectations that I grew up with and which attracted me to a career in environmental science and technology, again I come back to the sort of idea of global greening and nature rebounding. The transport system, which along with agriculture is so much the transformer of earth in the last hundred years, that system may also finally be moving in this lighter, less material direction, where, again--the system--if India doesn't reproduce the American system of the 1950s but leapfrogs to a kind of autonomous, Uber-like system in which you have lots of taxis zinging around, it won't need the glass or the rubber or the oil that the American system of motorization needed. Russ: Or the asphalt. Guest: So it's not only that America can get more efficient, but for China and India, their decisions are so fateful. We may really be starting to glimpse a change. The 20th century may be looked back upon--again, it's like the porterhouse steak--it may really be looked back upon as this period in which humanity did sort of gulp. But the 21st century, you look at your smartphone and that replaces a boom box and an alarm clock and a camera and half a dozen other devices of plastic and metal that you used to have. So we may actually be entering into a period in which information, and I'll say capital, are extremely important. Those are the really important resources. And the natural resources--water, energy, land, materials, and as you said, labor--are spared. So, what people will do of course is a wide open question which you should ask your next guest. Not me. Russ: Yeah. We've talked about that. Guest: But I think from the environmental point of view the good news is we are starting to see the return of forests, we are starting to see slackening demand for a lot of the natural resources. Water use in America actually now is lower--is as low as it was in the 1960s. Again, you think with the California drought and everything, American water withdrawals have gone up. But actually they've been falling, because farmers are using water more efficiently, power plants are using water more efficiently. So, again, we've tended to be preoccupied and impressed by the incredible technology advances, I'll say of the smart phone and the Internet. But really, meanwhile, the farmers and the water engineers and the people in transport--everybody else is doing neat stuff, too. And if you start to put it together, you get a rather different picture, which is, things may be tilting in the direction which many people hoped they would.
56:09Russ: Well--we've only got a few minutes, and I want to make sure we get to the caveat that you may want to add, or you may not. And I want to say in advance that I often make fun of romance. But deep down, I think all human beings are romantic about nature in some sense. There is some deep, primal part of us that connects to it. Some of it may connect to it more aesthetically more than others. But you--I want to read a quote, slightly edited: I'm going to change some of the words--but that you close with, and then I want to raise the caveat you say:
So why do we want nature to rebound? .... Because the incipient rewilding of Europe and the United States is thrilling. Salmon have returned to the Seine and Rhine, lynx to several countries, and wolves to Italy. Reindeer herds have rebounded in Scandinavia. In Eastern Europe, bison have multiplied in Poland.... The image of a humpback whale... with the Empire State Building in the background was the most significant environmental image of 2014.... Whether into the woods or sea, the way is clear, the light is good, and the time is now. A large, prosperous, innovative humanity, producing and consuming wisely, might share the planet with many more companions, as nature rebounds.
And of course that's the end of the quote, but of course, there are people returning mastodons and other life forms that we've pushed out through our humanity. And so it's an incredible time. Your essay captures that with incredible richness. I encourage everyone to look at it; we'll put a link up to it. But it leaves out the question that I think many listeners will have, which is: Does anything worry you? It's awfully cheerful. You've said nothing about global warming except as a positive impact on vegetation. A lot of people think it's a potential catastrophe. Why are you silent on that? Are you not worried about it, or do you think it's overblown? Guest: Well, I don't know; I've worked a lot on that issue and written a lot about it. So I didn't want to spend a lot of time in this essay on it. First, I think that the emissions that might affect the climate are moderating. And in fact, U.S. emissions have probably peaked; European emissions have probably peaked. And I think that the Chinese and Indian emissions will also peak in another 10, 20 years. So I think things will go up. But if you--a lot of the very frightening scenarios involve concentrations in the atmosphere going up to, say, double pre-industrial levels, 600 parts per million or even 900 parts per million, triple. And my own estimates--I've played in this game, as many people have--I think will go from the present 400 parts per million to, let's say, 450, 500; I think will probably plateau there, if my scenario in general is right about efficiency winning in a lot of domains of life, and so forth. So, it's something to keep an eye on. And obviously water management will be extremely important. At the same time, if we are more efficient, for example, with water management, then as water shifts a bit around the world, the consequences of some shifts will be less catastrophic. So I think it's something--you know, it's something to monitor very carefully. But I think basically the path of increasingly efficient use of water, energy, land, and materials is the right way to go, and that lessens worries about climate change. Now, that leaves wide open whether climate change is a dial or a switch. If it's a dial, so that New York ends up with the climate of Philadelphia and Philadelphia ends up with the climate of Baltimore, no one's really in the end going to care a lot. On the other hand, if it's not a dial like that, but if New York ends up with the climate of Galveston, then obviously that's a lot more to worry about. I don't think we know. I don't think--I just don't think we know. So, there are some things that are unknown and there are some that are unknowable. And I think that has to be the latter. Russ: And similarly-- Guest: There are some things that worry me. One is this question of employment, what will people do? Because I think the sparing of natural resources, the drones, all of this goes hand in hand with sparing of labor. And farming without farmers can be wonderful in many ways. But it also--taxis without taxi drivers may have many benefits and a lot of people say they'll be safer, actually. But the question of what people will do--will there be enough jobs in information handling to keep people's social status as well as their income--that's a very, very big question. Another thing that I wonder a lot about is human performance enhancement. There are a whole set of technologies that--I don't think you can only get better at semiconductors and not get better at a bunch of other things. And we saw Lance Armstrong, and they work. And there are more and more forms of these things. Those will become stronger and stronger. And so I worry about what people will be like in another 25 or 50 years. And a question I like to ask: Who is the real me? I think that's changing. So, I think there's plenty to worry about. But I wasn't asked to write about that or to speak about that in the essay that you are referring to. I was asked to talk about what I think is happening to nature. And I think--again, I think the 21st century is starting off with some very promising indications that nature may rebound.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Cowboy Prof writes:

August must be foodie month on EconTalk, and it is certainly satisfying my appetite for knowledge. The last four (thematic) episodes were great.

Two things:

1. At about the 50 minute mark, Russ and Jesse made a claim that Russ has made before, and which bugs me a bit. (I would like Russ' thoughts on this). The claim is that a car sitting in a garage represents a deadweight loss; if we only had self-driving cars that picked people up or more Uber-like services, we could eliminate those deadweight losses (less vehicles, less traffic (?), garage space for other stuff, etc.). Granted, I have used this as an example of deadweight loss in class as it is easy to visualize.

However, an undriven car in a garage is not necessarily a deadweight loss. The car being there buys me freedom to travel if and when I want and a form of transport in an emergency. A "call-a-car" service might be able to come and get me for a drive in the country, or to head out to DQ if I have a hankering for a Blizzard, but there would be some wait time. Likewise, if I need to pick up my kid who is sick at school, there is also some worry that I might have to wait too long for an Uber car to arrive (especially for us folks in non-urban areas).

The (unused) car buys me a sense of freedom and security that I don't think Uber can deliver as effectively. (And as for self-driving cars, some of us really like to drive for driving's sake.)

If we take the "deadweight loss of an unused car" example to its logical conclusion (and if the "nudge" or "shove" crowd gets a hold of this), we might as well get rid of ovens, backyard playsets, personal collections of books (think of all the books you are NOT reading right now that somebody else could), etc. This seems reductio ad absurdum, but there is a point being made that one person's deadweight loss is another's freedom and security. In response to my use of the "car in garage" example to illustrate deadweight loss in class, I did have a student argue how much better life would be if we expropriated everybody's car then and had it controlled by some central planner. Eeeeeep!!

2. I was listening to this episode while walking my trusty canine companion. During the stroll, he cornered a rabbit in a bush (and I had to work hard to pull him away). He did not corner and try to capture a soybean plant. It was a flesh and fur bunny. His natural instinct is to capture rabbit and make a delicious rabbit stew (if he only had opposable digits). The claim that dogs can get by on some tofu with steak juice or flavoring (circa 43 minute mark) is utter nonsense and I hope folks do not force a vegetarian lifestyle on their pooches. Dogs gotta eat the meat!

Chase Steffensen writes:

Good episode! Though I haven't finished it yet =)

Rather than offer a clarification, here's an insight that makes food calculations like the protein "mph" a bit dubious. I'm not a farmer or expert, so I'm open to any correction.

The relative "mph" of cows vs plants in producing protein has a tricky variable that is often overlooked. In Australia, unlike the US, cows primarily graze on pasture for their food. Pasture is land too poor for farming, yet cows can graze on wild grasses. This means pasture land is a source of nutrition available only through meat production. To the extent cows feed on pasture, their "mph" isn't a simple apples to apples comparison to plants. Also, grazing seem gentler on local ecologies than industrial farming.

In the US it looks like cows primarily are fed grains like corn instead of grazing on grass. I suspect this is primarily due to food subsidies and how land is taxed, though I've read that corn fed beef is fatter and tastes better.

This is the article that made me look into this issue initially

Greg G writes:

I enjoyed the podcast but was quite surprised you didn't discuss the fact that many evolutionary biologists think we are in the midst of a major extinction event.

This is a big topic to overlook when discussing the "return of nature" especially when the first two sentences of the podcast summary mention the rebound of bear and whale populations. Large mammals in general are doing very poorly in terms of a "return of nature."

anonman writes:

I'm confused. First off, one of your guests on climate change stated that the Arctic is much more sensitive to CO2 than other parts of the globe. So even if CO2 is good for certain parts of the globe, it's not good for the Arctic, and that's a pretty big deal, considering the methane trapped beneath, the way the Arctic affects the weather patterns, and how the ice reflects sunlight, whereas the loss of ice will decrease albedo, heating the planet further. Ergo, CO2 should not be heralded as a good thing in isolation from considerations of how it affects the Arctic. I like the optimism, I just think it is misplaced.

Secondly, I thought your guest would have brought up the idea that we may be able to seed the oceans with iron to increase the quantity of fish. This idea perhaps is questionable, considering how it could affect other marine wildlife and phytoplankton, but it's certainly an interesting idea, correlated to the idea of re-planting trees. Maybe he has some thoughts on it?

Lastly, I quite simply have a difficult time being optimistic about the 'return to nature'.
I was just as skeptical as Greg when reading this story. I hear of mass extinction and wildlife habitat destruction all the time. It's like the corporate media, (and I'm not saying that the guest is a corporate advertising shill), a couple of pictures can be plastered on a website or a couple of clips shown on a commercial and make it look like everything is peachy cream, (American media hologram), but the overall trend is not positive. I suppose he did mention that the oceans are behind the forests by 100 years, but that's where the most devastating effects of climate change seem to be happening. In fact, I read an article on Rolling Stone that clearly linked the grouping of whales in strange places to climate change and declared it a portent of doom and gloom. Sure, the casual observer would think it's a sign of a return to nature's splendid glories, but to the trained natural scientist, it can be interpreted as a sign of the apocalypse.

MF writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Amanda Oursler writes:

I really enjoyed this episode. I did find the car sharing example challenging, however.

If I share a vehicle with my neighbor, the vehicle's use time could double and the wear and tear on the road- though each of us uses it only 1hour/ day, will remain the same.

Certainly, there will be less traffic. And maybe the point is that finding a ride will be such a pain that I'll just give up and stay planted in my location, making more demand on my sushi server.

Keep up the great work, Russ!

Doug Coate writes:

secular nonstagnation. The result of free and not so free people striving to improve their lot as the market price system records their results and aggregates their knowledge for others to use, one day at a time. Over a century or two or three or 10, and over billions of people in the past and present, it adds up. But I question returning most of this bounty to nature, unless it brings human satisfaction beyond alternative uses of the freed resources. And we have to give a shout out to fossil fuels.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

Just contemplating going without steak sent me to the store to buy several pounds of beef. My wife is Greek and I quite enjoy the "Mediterranean diet". However, on occasion, I like large quantities of red meat or generous helpings of grilled pork much as others might like to go to a show, a concert, or a ball game. Not everyday, but whenever the urge strikes.

I fully understand that the guest isn't suggesting using political coercion to "transition" the human diet. But how long will it be before others, particularly others with an impulse for coercive "economic planning" will begin pushing politically for coercive "meal planning" for the "unwashed" masses? I suspect that day isn't too far off...

Gregory McIsaac writes:

I found much to agree with in this discussion and the “Return of Nature” article. I appreciated the recognition that reduced meat and vegetarian diets would put less stress on the environmental. And I appreciated the recognition that the rebounding of nature was not only about gains in efficiency but also about appropriate regulation. I also found a few things to quibble about:

1)While there have been considerable improvements in water use efficiency in the US, it is the absolute use that produces negative consequences, and the absolute decline in water use has been fairly small and may be less than the estimation error. The USGS report on water use report presents a long list of water uses that were not measured or estimated. To the extent that there has been a real decline in water use, some or all of it may be due to reduced availability of water, such as in areas where there has been a significant depletions of groundwater ( So while it is probably true water use per capita in the US has been declining, it is not clear that we have managed to release any significant amounts of water for nature in aggregate.

2) In my opinion, improvements in water quality since 1970 have been more profound than the small reduction in water use. Municipal and industrial waste discharges have been drastically reduced due to regulations under Clean Water Act and similar state laws. But agriculture has been largely exempted from these regulations and there has been little progress made in reducing nitrate or phosphorus pollution from agricultural fields. Several municipalities in the Corn Belt have had to invest in nitrate removal facilities for their water supplies. Nitrate and phosphorus contribute eutrophication and hypoxia (aka dead zones) that stress coastal marine and freshwater ecosystems (e.g., the northern Gulf of Mexico and the western basin of Lake Erie).

3)One reason that corn yields have increased without a concomitant increase in fertilizer after about 1980 is that the higher yielding varieties have lower protein content, and therefore need less fertilizer per bushel produced. Also, during much of the 1980s and 90s, a significant percentage of farmers applied considerably more fertilizer than agronomists recommended. I’m not sure why so many were willing to throw their money away, and I am glad that fewer of them are doing so in recent years. I suspect that increased agronomic educational level of the current generation of crop growers has been more of a factor than precision agriculture in achieving greater fertilizer use efficiency.

4) I’m not a fan of mandated ethanol production from corn, but an aspect that rarely gets mentioned is that ethanol is made from the starchy portion of the corn, which is about 80% of the weight. The other 20%, including the protein, is recovered and used as animal feed. The percentage of the US corn crop that has been processed for ethanol has been hovering around 40%. When you subtract off the 20% that is recovered as animal feed, it would be more accurate to say that about a third (not half) of the corn crop is “fed” to cars.

5) In the “Return of Nature” article, Figures 8, 9 and 10 showed US consumption of many different commodities that appeared to have “peaked” in a time series that ended in 2010. Some of these “peaks” were undoubtedly influenced by the recession 2008-9 recession. In the more recent data, petroleum, cement and nitrogen (the only three I looked at) consumption all increased after 2010, although none have yet exceeded their previous high. They may eventually get there if trends don’t change.

6)I am particularly skeptical about the plastics data presented in Figure 8 because I could not find any such data in the USGS reference given. Furthermore, the use of plastic composite materials has been a growth industry in recent years. I was unable to find any comprehensive data source on plastics consumption. The USEPA publishes data on the composition of municipal solid waste and the tonnage of plastics in 2013 (the most recent data available) was higher than all previous years.

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