New economic values

Mainichi Shimbun, 6 January 2000

Many of the activities that characterize our modern industrial civilization—mass production, mass consumption, and mass disposal—are dependent on the exploitation of our natural and energy resources. And these activities have been legitimated by an ideology that looks upon economic growth as inherently good.

Environmental and resource restraints have limited the pace of economic growth for years, of course, but many people still have not been able to liberate themselves from the spell of the economic growth ideology. If we continue to embrace this ideology, however, we will be condemned to the pursuit of economic growth for eternity. If our economy grows at an annual rate of 3 percent for the next 100 years, it will be 19.22 times larger than it is today.

As we stand on the threshold between the 20th and 21st centuries, we have to acknowledge that the ideology of economic growth is responsible not only for the fruits of our civilization but also for the destruction of the global environment. Rapid economic development and population growth on an unprecedented scale have forced us to confront that fact that the Earth's resources are finite. To illustrate this point, let us focus on the problems confronting agriculture.

The world presently produces 1.9 billion tons of grain annually. If grain consumption and production trends continue at the current pace, the world's population will consume 2.9 billion tons of grain by 2025, or 400 million tons more than the anticipated output.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, total acreage devoted to grain production rose only slightly between 1960 and 1995, a period that saw a 1.8-fold increase in the world's population. A global food crisis was averted because output per unit of arable land grew two-fold during this time. Up to 90 percent of the output increases can be attributed to the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, improved seeds, and irrigation. But output has leveled off as heavy use of fertilizers and irrigation harmed soil quality and lowered the water table.

In the past, the use of one ton of fertilizer would increase grain output by nine tons. Over the past 15 years, one ton of fertilizer has usually produced a gain of less than two tons of grain.

Agribusinesses are now hoping that biotechnology will yield huge returns. But even if biotechnology increases output, it could have a harmful effects.

A fundamental solution to our food problem will require that we part ways with an economic ideology that is premised on unlimited growth. The advanced industrialized nations might begin by changing dietary patterns. Today, 840 million people in the world cannot meet their nutritional needs, yet nearly one-third of the total world grain output is used to feed livestock.

The average annual per-capita meat consumption is 76 kilograms among the advanced industrialized nations, but only 24 kilograms among the developing countries. Lower meat consumption in the wealthier nations would leave more grain to feed starving people.

We need to place more emphasis on the multifunctionality and positive externalities of agriculture. In addition to producing crops, agriculture is also a means of preserving our environment and culture. In the 21st century, we will have to be guided by new values so that we can attain affluence without economic growth.