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

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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.