John_Maxwell_IV comments on Saving expected lives at $10 apiece? - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 15 December 2016 10:41:20PM *  3 points [-]

Interesting paper, I'm glad you're looking in to this!

I took a look, here is some feedback.

Thus, conventional approaches to a 10% global agricultural shortfall would not be adequate to stop an escalation in current hunger-related disease and death (UNICEF 2006).

I had a hard time finding this citation, is there any chance you could quote the relevant section?

To evaluate this claim, we need to know the short-run price elasticity of supply for calories. In other words, how much can the supply of food respond over the interval of time it would take for stockpiled food to run out. My guess is that it would take at least another whole paper to answer this question.

I was doing background research on this, and it looks like just recently a paper was published on the topic of whether Africa can feed itself. Press coverage. Looks like Africa could dramatically increase its crop yields by investing in existing agricultural technology. If these efficiency improvements aren't implemented, Africa will likely see widespread deforestation (due to cropland expansion) as its population grows 2.5x in the next 34 years.

I don't get the impression that population growth is going to slow down after 2050, either. Here are some relevant links:

(I highly recommend these articles. The more I read about this topic, the more confident I get that family planning and African women's empowerment should be a top EA cause area.)

Anyway, this article has a quote from an agriculture expert:

After international food prices soared in 2008, both donors and African governments invested more in agriculture, but investments fell once the prices leveled off, he said.

In your paper, you write that a 10% global agricultural shortfall would "roughly triple the price of grain". Looks to me like this is roughly what happened in 2008.

You mention the possibility of price speculation. I think this sort of speculation is generally a good thing, because it creates incentives to increase food production in advance of a crunch. I know in the US we have anti-price-gouging laws that work against this incentive; I'm not sure if these laws exist in other countries. If so, it might be wise to work on repealing them.

Food price increases are easier to solve than food shortages, because philanthropists can, at least theoretically, step in and cover the price differences for the world's poorest. (Which apparently already happened in 2008?)

Many of these alternate food solutions, if ramped up quickly to cover a 100 % agricultural shortfall individually, could be much more expensive than the new high grain price. However, in a 10 % agricultural shortfall, each food source would only have to provide a relatively small amount of food.

I would expect economies of scale to apply. Probably we'd be best off concentrating all our energy on a single alternative food source and trying to make it as cheap as possible.

If alternative food sources could be produced as cheaply per calorie as grain, I'm surprised entrepreneurs haven't already started companies to commercialize them. Maybe this is something you could do? In general, I think if you have the choice between starting a for-profit and a non-profit, the for-profit is a better option because it lets you make money and donate to other causes.

Speculation: the key issue for an alternative food source is the short-run price elasticity of supply--how responsive is supply to price changes? For a crop that has a long growing cycle, the supply can't respond very quickly. So the question is: can we invent a new food source that's cheap and can be ramped up quicker than any existing source?

But I'm not sure any of this even matters if current crop growing cycles are shorter than the length of time it would take for stored food to run out.

Anyway, it might be worthwhile to get economists and agriculture experts to give you more feedback. Doing so will hopefully increase the chance that your ideas are taken seriously by the "West Coast smart-philanthropy set".

Comment author: Denkenberger 16 December 2016 03:45:48PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks for the feedback!

We are using the UNICEF quote for the current number of people who die from undernutrition related causes. There was indeed a significant price run-up in 2008, and that caused greater malnutrition. But the actual shortfall was only around 1% of global agricultural production. So our point is that if we had a 10% global agricultural shortfall, the situation would be much worse. When we say triple, this would mean based on current higher prices, so the overall price would be much higher. We do not have a direct quote saying that conventional measures would not be able to handle a 10% shortfall. However, talking with places like the World Food Program, they are struggling with current crises and really cannot imagine a 10% shortfall.

Price speculation is a double-edged sword. I agree that higher prices are good in developed countries because it spurs production and discourages waste. It can also be good for poor farmers, but generally not the poorest who are subsistence (and not selling their food). However, if this prices the global urban poor out of food, that is not good. I agree that if philanthropists step in to subsidize the food price for the poor, then that would be the best scenario.

I generally do not expect that alternate foods would be lower cost than grain is now. The one possible exception is turning agricultural residues into sugar with enzymes, because in order to be competitive as a fuel, the price needs to be similar to grain (because we currently turn a lot of grain into fuel). But I think for the 10% shortfall, it is more about alternate feed. So this could mean feeding agricultural residues to cellulose digesting animals such as cows, sheep, and goats. This could also mean municipal collection of food waste to feed two pigs. I don't expect these things to be economical on a large scale now, but if grain prices triple, we would have a shot. There may very well be some avenues that are cost-effective now, but I'm guessing existing companies would be better positioned to take advantage of them.

Yes, economies of scale would apply and so would learning based on cumulative production. But I don't know if these factors are more important than the factor of high cost associated with rushing to produce a lot of food quickly. For instance, if we are retrofitting existing industrial processes, we would choose first of those processes with the least opportunity cost.

You are correct that tree-based crops would be slower to respond to this price changes. It is plausible that conventional ramp-up of crops could be done fairly quickly, but food price remained fairly high from 2007 to 2014, until we finally caught up with demand. So basically if we have more options to ramp up food supply, this would reduce the price. How much is important future work.