Economist Jeffrey Sachs on Poverty, Politics, Pipelines, and Protests (Podcast)

TreeHugger: You spoke at the UN just this morning, didn’t you?

Sachs: Yes, that was a lot of fun for me. It was the UN Association, which is a great organization to help Americans understand how important the United Nations is for the United States and for the world. But it’s always a thrill to be at the podium of the general assembly because that’s a place where wonderful, and sometimes not so wonderful, words have been said. I took the liberty to quote John F. Kennedy in one of his marvelous speeches from that podium and had a lot of fun doing it.

TH: Was there a quote you invoked?

Sachs: I talked at the end about how Kennedy really gave the sense of co-responsibility to the world leaders in the chamber. His speech in September 1963 just after signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is a marvelous one. He quoted Archimedes, who said, “Give me a place where I can stand, and I shall move the world.” And Kennedy looked out to his fellow world leaders and said, “My fellow inhabitants of the world, let us take our stand here in this assembly of nations and let us see if we in our time can move the world to a just and lasting peace.”

And I always felt with Kennedy’s speeches that incredible immediacy and sense of place and time and purpose that he was able to evoke, really giving his listeners the sense that they had themselves the direct personal bearing of responsibility for world peace. Anyway, it was fun to say that from the podium today.

TH: So much of your work has been about how to attack poverty around the world through large-scale economic interventions. You’ve written a book about it, were director of the UN’s Millennium Project, which set out to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. How do you bring millions of people out of poverty in a way that doesn’t add massive burden to the carbon footprint of humankind?

Sachs: Let me give you an example. We have a project, which I really love, called the Millennium Villages Project, in which the Earth Institute at Columbia University partners with thousands and thousands of Africans across the African content on helping local, rural, impoverished communities to take up improved technologies for food production. So higher-yield seeds, for example. Better farm methods, malaria control, using rapid diagnostic tests and long-lasting bed nets and community health workers carrying mobile phones. The theme of the whole program is integrated rural development that mobilizes cutting edge technology in a smart way.

Now our experience is that when you go from an impoverished community that doesn’t have any access to these techniques and is basically just spoiling its local environment (cutting trees for fuel wood, for example, unable to keep water supplies protected, and expanding into more and more marginal land because farm yields are so low), and then you intervene with these improved technologies, you actually get the double win of, for example, better farm production, but investment in sustainability alongside that.

So in Sauri, Kenya, which was the first of the Millennium Villages, our ecologists have recently done a very careful land use census. Tree cover has expanded tremendously. Biodiversity is up, so the farm yields are increasing. But you’re also getting a lot more protection of the environment alongside it. And so it seems too good to be true in a way, this win/win proposition.

And there are not always win/win propositions, so I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. But often, extreme poverty is itself a source or cause of environmental degradation, especially through expanding into marginal areas and loss of tree cover and deforestation for local household use.

We’ve seen in the Millennium Villages where helping impoverished communities out of extreme poverty also helps create conservation agriculture to improve landscape management, harvest water, replenish ground aquifers, and spur biodiversity.

And so you can get a lot of mutual benefits. Now there are other areas, of course, of environment and economy where it seems that the conflict is more direct. Large energy systems, for example. And there, we’re just going to have to find different and better ways to do things.

TH: How do you feed the world? Do we need more big, corporate-style agriculture and genetically engineered crops, or do we need more small-scale organic, biodiverse approaches?

Sachs: So this remains an unsolved problem ever since Thomas Malthus pointed it out in 1798 in his most famous book about limits to growth called Principles of Population. We now have seven billion people. One billion of the seven billion are chronically hungry. They don’t receive enough caloric and protein intake on a day-by-day basis to be healthy, or even, in too many cases, to stay alive. Not from starvation necessarily, but through immunosuppression because of inadequate nutrient intake.

And of the six billion people, we have a lot of malnourishment. We have have obesity on the other side, and a lot of micronutrient deficiencies and so on. So the food system of the world ain’t in great shape, and the problems are going to get worse on the current trajectories because populations continuing to grow will add another billion people net in the next roughly dozen years.

We will face increasing climate instability, and therefore, food production instability in a lot of the world. The dry lands region is getting hammered already by man-made climate change. So the food security challenge is huge and unsolved.

And there is going to have to be better ways to do things and higher yields. And I should have added, obviously, another major problem with our current food system is that we put on about 100 million metric tons of fertilizer right now. And much of it volatilizes or leeches, ending up in the groundwater, rivers, and then accumulating, of course, in more than 100 estuaries around the world where it eutrifies and creates anoxic zones, mass dead zones.

So we’ve got huge problems with the food system. And let me add one more, by the way. Agriculture over all is the largest single source of green house gas emissions. If you add up carbon from all land use and direct energy input with nitrous oxides and methane, agriculture is a massive, unsolved problem.

I would very much caution, though, against oversimplified approaches to this. There are people, understandably, who love organic, and it’s nice if you can do it. But as I think the finest scientists and ecologists like Vaclav Smil (who I would recommend everybody) have shown, the reason we put so much chemical nitrogen on our food is that if we didn’t, we could not feed seven billion people. Not close.

So we have that huge challenge. And the challenge is going to get worse. If we rule out a whole dimension of agricultural technology like GMOs, we’d make a huge mistake. I don’t want to rule out drought-resistant crop varieties. I’ve seen with my own eyes. For example, if you take genes from submergence-resistant weeds and plant them into rice, then that rice variety is resistant to submergence.

And if you’re in Bangladesh, having an IR64 rice variety that has a sub 1 gene can be the difference of life and death for you.

Tags: Agriculture | Developing Nations | Economics | Genetically Modified Food | Nuclear Power | Occupy Wall Street | Poverty

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