Recently, I interviewed John Briscoe, a Harvard professor and development expert who has spent decades thinking about how poor countries get richer, with a particular focus on water. He has come to believe that large-scale dams and genetically-engineered foods can be good for poor countries.
These are controversial views. See, for example, the website of a nonprofit group called International Rivers, which says:
Africa’s dams have done considerable social, environmental and economic damage, often with complete disregard for the human rights of dam-affected communities, and have left a trail of “development-induced poverty” in their wake.
Friends of the Earth, meanwhile, says that it “opposes the introduction of GMOs as it will constitute a threat to African biodiversity and the continent’s food sovereignty, and will make nothing to help Africa tackling poverty and hunger.”
For his part, John, who was trained as a civil and environmental engineer, has worked as an engineer in the water agencies of South Africa and Mozambique; as an epidemiologist at the Cholera Research Laboratory in Bangladesh; as a professor of water resources at the University of North Carolina; and, for the past 20 years in a variety of policy and operational positions in the World Bank. Most recently he has served as the Bank’s Senior Water Advisor and the Country Director for Brazil. John now a professor of environmental engineering at Harvard.
Here’s an edited version of our interview:
Marc Gunther: John, let’s begin by talking about water. You’ve called water scarcity “a massive and growing problem in the developing world.” What do you mean by that? Are you talking about drinking water and sanitation? Or water more generally? And if it’s the latter, why is it that we are experiencing scarcity since there is, essentially, a finite amount of water in the world? We don’t deplete our supply of water like we do, say, our supply of oil.
John Briscoe: I think it’s useful to think about water as you suggest: There’s the resource itself and then the services that are derived from that resource. So, when it comes to drinking water and sanitation as a service, in my view, there is a large but not a growing problem. In fact, the number of people who do not have adequate water and sanitation services is shrinking. Lots of people who never had services are getting services, because of economic growth in the developing world in general and China and India in particular. Of course, one person without these services is one person too many, but the situation is improving. You see this improvement reflected in the rapid decline of infant mortality rates in many countries. There are important financing and institutional issues for delivering these services, but for societies at large, I do not consider that a huge, massive, existential challenge.
The greater challenge in countries like India, Pakistan and China is that the resource itself, as you said, is finite, and the demands on it are ever-increasing. We need more agriculture to grow our food. We need more energy. We need more industry. We need more water and sanitation. It’s essentially a Malthusian problem of a limited resource and the ever-growing demands on it. And that is a massive problem.
MG: For the west, or just for the developing world?
JB: Water is always a local issue. So you can’t call it a problem throughout the developing world. But it’s a massive problem in many places, particularly in the large parts of the developing world which the God-given endowment (of water) was relatively small; so a great swath across the Middle East, North Africa, into India and in China, where you have limited resources and a very large number of claimants.
Details matter a lot, but typically agriculture is the biggest user of water, and so in China, India, Jordan and Morocco, among other places, agriculture and its use of water is absolutely at the heart of this problem.
MG: Before we get to food and agriculture, let’s talk about an obvious response to water shortages that you’ve written about, namely, storage in dams and reservoirs.
JB: Sure. The numbers first: If we look at the amount of storage per person in the United States or Australia, there is more than 5,000 cubic meters of storage capacity and reservoirs in each of those countries per person. That’s a pretty astonishing number. If you think of “little old you,” Marc living in Maryland, somewhere, somebody’s got 5,000 cubic meters of water storage.
Why do we do that? This is all very natural. That is, over the years sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, it’s good to have water accumulated from the rains. We capture in the wet season and use in the dry season. And we capture it in wet areas and move it to dry areas.
MG: This has been going on for millennia.
JB: Indeed. The other reason why that’s important is that we have dry years and wet years, so we store not only over seasons but over year. Of course, it’s a geographic issue as well. I’m from South Africa, where most of the rain falls in a small coastal belt. Most of the industry and minerals and agriculture are in the interior where there’s not much rain. So we store where it’s plentiful and move to where it’s dry. In the U.S. we store water from the Colorado River and put a big pipe to Los Angeles.
MG: Poor countries don’t do that?
JB: If you look at two extreme cases, Kenya and Ethiopia, they have, not 5,000 cubic meters per person, but about 50, so two orders of magnitude less. According to a study done by my former colleagues at the World Bank, if you look over the last 25 years at the economic growth of Ethiopia, you see that it is almost perfectly correlated with rainfall. In other words, when it comes to this whole protective role of infrastructure in getting us through the very dry and very wet periods to try to even things out–they have no such protection, and therefore they are essentially at the mercy of nature.
What’s also very important is the use of hydropower potential. The United States, Western Europe, Japan, all countries in developed parts of the world that have significant hydro potential, have used more than 80 percent of that potential. In Africa, they’ve used 3 percent.
So you have countries like Norway and Switzerland and others that have developed 90 percent of their hydro potential, then sitting on the boards of their aid agencies and the World Bank and they say to Ethiopia, “We don’t like dams. We don’t like hydropower. You can’t have it. We won’t support it.” This is done in the name of environmental concern and it’s deeply, deeply resented by these countries.
The good news, in my view, is the Chinese, with their trillion dollars of reserves, are now investing a lot in these sorts of investments in places like Africa and they are very well received for so doing. China’s building more than 200 dams outside of China, compared to a handful by the World Bank.
MG: And the opposition to dams is based on environmental concerns?
JB: That’s one concern, but in poor countries the larger concern is usually social. There is a very important issue in that people live in river valleys and you build reservoirs and they displace people, sometimes on a very large scale. There, the absolutely essential issue is to make sure that those people are the first beneficiaries of these projects, not the collateral damage,
MG: Let’s now turn to food and agriculture. You’ve said that “Water and food challenges are two sides of the same coin.”
JB: Yes. I think the energy, water, and food—this is a bad metaphor–but they are three sides of the same coin. You can hardly deal with one without the others. They all are interrelated.
Here there’s an extremely worrying situation. Look back to the 1960s and the success of the Green Revolution. People were saying that poor countries like Bangladesh could never feed their people. We now have India, Bangladesh, all these places, essentially, self sufficient in food production. We had in the 1960s and 1970s a yield growth of 3 to 4 percent a year. This was just incredible and had huge positive impacts. Even today, food prices are less than half than what they were in 1960 in real terms. So, this has been, in my view, one of the greatest achievements of science, contributing to the well-being of billions of people.
MG: But those gains are petering out, correct?
JB: Essentially, yes. Because the scientific ingredients of the Green Revolution have largely run their course, we now have yield improvements of half a percent and one percent, with large growing populations. and markets are becoming very, very thin. When there is some disturbance, the market tips and we food crises as in 2008.
Let me give an example: I lived in Brazil for the last three years. Brazil has had an amazingly positive experience. The value of agricultural output in Brazil today is three times what is was 35 years ago and Brazil is an agricultural superpower, one of the biggest producers of bio-fuels, of soy beans, meat, fruits, etc.
It turns out that of that 300 percent increase in production, 90 percent is attributable to productivity increases. Only 10 percent of that increase is accounted for by increases in input of land, labor, and capital. Most it comes from being much smarter. This is because Brazil over this period – even through hyper-inflation, through economic crises — never stopped investing massively in agricultural research. So they have today, without anybody being a close second, a research establishment on tropical agriculture that is by far the best in the world. They’ve seen enormous returns on investment in agricultural research.
Strikingly, look at that same period and see what the development agencies, including the World Bank, did in agriculture. In 1975, about 20 percent of development assistance went to agriculture because it was, in my view, correctly perceived that agriculture was one of the bedrocks on which countries developed. By 2008, agriculture had slipped from 20 percent to around 3 percent of official development assistance.
Why? Like all things, it’s complex. One contributor was that there was a lot of opposition to modern agriculture from green groups, environmental groups and others who don’t like irrigation and large scale agriculture, just as there was opposition to large-scale infrastructure. There was also a sense that the private sector would take care of this. The private sector, of course, does do quite a bit with agricultural research, but there is an enormous role for the public sector as well.
So, we get to 2008 and I was actually in Brazil when the food crisis struck. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development — a twenty million dollar project done by the World Bank and 17 other partners – then came out telling us why the Brazilian approach (heavily scientific, large scale, and technologically sophisticated) was the wrong way to go and that the right way was small, beautiful and organic. And the Minister of Agriculture of Brazil quite rightly tore me to pieces and said, “This is bizarre….”
In my view, there’s a deep problem with the aid business. You read the UN Millenium Development Goals and in my view they put the social cart before the economic horse. They are all about social outcomes, but nothing on the economy that’s produced those outcomes, so infrastructure doesn’t figure, agriculture doesn’t figure. These global solutions are driven by rich countries and rock stars and just sort of run from fashion to fashion.
Fortunately, I think what is very good in the international scene is the rise of the middle income countries, like China, India and Brazil. They are much closer to the issues of poverty, much more pragmatic, much less ideological and bring much more common sense to the discussion.
MG: Interestingly, those countries are growing more biotech foods as well, which brings me to my last topic. When you talk about technologically sophisticated agriculture, do you believe the GMOs have a role to play?
JB: Absolutely. And it’s not only GMOs. There’s no question that the need to find the next generation of technology for food production is absolutely staring us in the face. As we run into environmental constraints around the use of pesticides, fertilizers, etc., we need to find crops that produce the same output with much less input of water, fertilizers and pesticides.
So if you look at the report released from the National Academy of Sciences you find that farmers in the United States are very happy with these crops and they have brought about very substantial reductions in the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Of course, we have to deal with issues of monitoring and regulation. The legal and regulatory environment must be one that safeguards consumers.
MG: But there’s still controversy holding back GMOs.
JB: Europe doesn’t want to consume any of these, although their beef is still fed from soy beans from Brazil that’s all GMOs. Telling Africans they can’t grow GMOs, because they won’t be able to sell it in Europe–to me is absolutely, morally indefensible.
But China, India and Brazil are all moving ahead expeditiously, with their eyes open, but moving ahead very fast. That bodes well for the world and for its need for more food.
Disclosure: I’ve been paid to do a series of interviews like this one for Monsanto’s Produce More Conserve More website. Monsanto, of course, strongly favors genetically-modified food.