Dirt and development

Economists don’t talk nearly enough about soil, so here is a good post from Robin Grier:

Among other things, the atlas finds that:

1. “While Africa has some of the most fertile land on the planet, the soils over much of the continent are fragile, often lacking in essential nutrients and organic matter.”

2. “Aridity and desertification affects around half the continent while more than half of the remaining land is characterised by old, highly weathered, acidic soils with high levels of iron and aluminium oxides (hence the characteristics colour of many tropical soils) that require careful management if used for agriculture.”

3. “Soils under tropical rainforests are not naturally fertile but depend instead on the high and constant supply of organic matter from natural vegetation and its rapid decomposition in a hot and humid climate. Breaking this cycle (i.e. through deforestation) quickly reduces the productivity of the soil and leaves the land vulnerable to degradation”

4. “In many parts of Africa, soils are losing nutrients at a very high rate, much greater than the levels of fertiliser inputs. As a result of rural poverty, farmers are unable to apply sufficient nutrients due to the high costs of inorganic fertilisers or from a lack of farm machinery (Africa has the lowest use of industrial fertilisers in the world). Traditional practices, such as long fallow periods that improve nutrient budgets and restore soil fertility, are difficult to implement due to the increased pressures on land and changes in land tenure that restrict traditional nomadic lifestyles.”

Those are some of the biggest problems in the entire world.


Actually, Norman Borlaug solved the same problem decades ago in India, Mexico and elsewhere. The problem isn't about the soil, it is about what you plant on it and the way you do it. Borlaug's solution was simple: fertilizers, pesticides, and introducing cross-bred plants according to the soil and climate conditions (aka. "genetically-modified food"). His efforts saved 270+ millions people in the third world from starvation and hunger. See:

And yet he was prevented from introducing Green revolution to Africa by the environmentalists in the West:

"In the early 1980s, environmental groups that were opposed to Borlaug's methods campaigned against his planned expansion of efforts into Africa. They prompted the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the World Bank to stop funding most of his African agriculture projects. Western European governments were persuaded to stop supplying fertilizer to Africa. According to David Seckler, former Director General of the International Water Management Institute, "the environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa.""

Read more here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug#Production_in_Africa http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution

Africa, Latin America and southern Asia are screwed regardless. With global warming all those areas are going to see crop production fall; the future people in those countries only hope is that the North and very Southern countries stop being bigoted and allow them to migrate toward areas that can grow crops

I'm not sure why that post was a response to yours. sorry

The high priest spoke and the faithful took the message forth.

All we need is a sandwich board and a long beard.

GM science started by an individual, now mastered and dominated by one mega-corporation doing god knows what with the food supply and decried by entire countries as unsafe or at the very least producing unstudied longer term outcomes = sound science.

The theory that climate change is anthropogenically induced, agreed on by 90+% of the scientific community = heresy.

You crackpots certainly are amusing.

No. The 97% number for support of AGW comes from a voluntary online survey of which a tiny fraction of people responded. That number was massaged and whittled down to about a hundred people, and the two questions those few people answered in the affirmative to were: is climate change happening and are humans ONE of the reasons.

And thus you have an Internet meme repeated ad infinitum.

A meme long ago overtaken by flat temperatures, decelerating sea level, reduced CO2 climate sensitivity and other information that I wouldn't expect you to glean from your exposure to MSNBC.

Oh yes, I'm sure it's just 100 scientists who believe in anthropogenic climate change.

Oakchair the atmosphere is already pretty much opaque close equator and so the warming will be much less than in places further from the equator.

That's still speculative, right? A really go-getter famine would want a world full of people elbows to earholes.

And my go-to question, this thing you say isn't a problem because of the fix for the problem, in this case one guy, what if there wasn't the fix?

Back to soil. Maybe plants can live on just water and NPK, but maybe animals will have trouble living off those plants. What if the NPK helps plants strip-mine the soil faster? Things like the dustbowl happened, in part from past solutions to prior problems.

By your own example, simply stopping Borlaug from doing his work in Africa is why Africa is problemed. What if a T-1000 goes back in time and kills Norman Borlaug's mother?

Is there supposed to be some distinction between Andrew` and Andrew' ? Is it like Tyler & Tyrone? Does this explain why they are conversing with themselves? This is all so very meta.

Norman Borlaug solved the problem by a method of delivering free fertilizer and water to poor farmers without the kind of heavily government subsidized infrastructure that the US built in the 19th century in its railroads crisscrossing the nation, along with the US mass redistribution of wealth from non-whites to white people?

As if the US solved its problems....

What is solution to the depletion of aquifers in the US? Or the salination of the soil in the Imperial Valley and other dryland areas with heavy fertilization and irrigation? Or....?

That was my first question too. Surely, these problems plagued growers throughout south and Southeast Asia too, but agriculture flourishes in places like India and Vietnam.

The Khmer empire in Cambodia developed a highly sophisticated system of irrigation and agriculture over 1000 years ago.

And even without extensive agriculture and long growing seasons, how did societies develop in places like Scandinavia and Mongolia?

Isn't the real problem cultural?

I think the main point is that even with all else equal Africa due to its land and geographically was always going to be behind.
But culture/institutions are a big part of it. Basically for hundreds of years the Europeans pillaged/neglected/robbed Africa; the the Europeans after ww2 left Africa and given that the people in Africa had not ruled themselves for hundreds of years it is no surprise the whole country went into a half century of war

Repeat after me: Africa is not a country.

I am surprised at the amount of patronizing/thinly disguised, well, racism I am seeing in blog-posts about Africa. I would have thought Tyler Cowen's regular readers more... evolved?

I mean, I know very little about agriculture, NPK and Borlaug but say "well, those Africans, they'll never amount to much" is preposterous.

Uh, OK: Africa is not a country.

the soils over much of the continent are fragile

And it's always good to see someone use the 21st century version of Godwin's law! Your use has absolutely convinced everyone here! (We're just not as evolved as you higher beings.)

He was completely right to post his post.

Africa is not a country. Everyone who argues like there was just one Africa shows himself to be very very uneducated or uninterested (that's where racism comes into play).

Also everyone who talks about "the west" robbing Africa shows himself to very uneducated. The history of African nations' relationsships with European and Arabien nations is highly complex.

In fact there was a time when major African nations were plundering the coasts of southern Europe.

But I guess it's that's too much complexity for modern day westerners.

The fact that Tyler was posting about about soil and not about politics should give you a hint, why it is okay in his case to talk about Africa as if it was a more or less united entity.


Is African soil / climate any more homogeneous than African politics?

Chip asks "Isn’t the real problem cultural?"

You mean like after the white men came in and did everything they could to destroy the native cultures, the problem is the white culture is not adaptable to Africa and Asia et al.


The assumption that Africa and Asia and the Americas didn't have complex ag systems is the fatal flaw in the blame the culture argument.

Anyone want to argue that Monsanto scientists can create corn (sweet, pop, dent, et al) starting from grasses like the Americans did in less than a thousand years without "culture" or science? Americans not only bioengineered corn, they also engineered a crop system to provide the nutrients corn needed, plus the the industrial processing of corn that combined with the engineered crop system provided the nutrients needed.

I would use examples from Africa if I understood the history of Africa before 1500 better, that being the point when white people started moving into Africa as if it were just like Europe but without winter. Its pretty clear that the signs of civilization were purposely destroyed by Europeans as both the conquest by destroying the African economy and to justify the myth that Africa was uncivilized.

Interestingly, when reading a book on the role of Portugal in European and Global History, when looking at some of those first encounters in the 1500s, they referred to the African leaders as "kings", much different from the tribal leaders the English met/documented (or at least referred to) a couple hundred years later.

Also worth mention that Julian Simon was heavily inspired by Norman Borlaug's success in green revolution that he later wrote the book Ultimate Resource. The idea that India can feed one billion population was just unthinkable back in the 1950s. Next time when you hear anyone mention population bomb or Malthusian trap of any kind, just show them a link to the story of Norman Borlaug.

"The Man Who Defused the 'Population Bomb' "


I'm not sure that you understand what the Malthusian trap is. The size of a population is physically limited to the amount of resources in the habitat. Meaning in all cases in is impossible for the population to increase to a certain amount without lowering living standards.

The sad thing about Malthus, as Heinlein noted, is that he gets the last laugh.

Try this headline - 'The Man Who Ensured the ‘Population Bomb’ Would be Huge'

You quoted Heinlein terribly and you knew it:

"This planet isn't crowded; it is just mismanaged ... and the unkindest thing you can do for a hungry man is to give him food. Read Malthus. It is never safe to laugh at Dr. Malthus; he always has the last laugh."

On the other hand, it is really beyond me why would anyone "laugh" at the prospect of mankind's failure to meet the challenges of nature and seeing billions of people starve to death. Maybe a manifestation of their elitist/supremacist/genocidal impulses? Not sure. Regardless, countries like India continue to defy their condescending remarks by adopting Norman Borlaug's ideas and encourage their people to grow more food. Not only will they feed themselves properly, more and more of them will also be richer, more successful, and live a happier life than some self-appointed intellectuals and environmentalists in the West who probably live off of government welfare checks and food stamps.

Plus, the killing and ethnic cleansing of all the white farmers that once made the place a bread basket ...But we don't need to mention blacks killing whites.

Northern Africa and some other areas of Africa aren't inhabited by black people; their skin tone is more like light-Dark Asians.
Other then that The order went like this. Whites enslaved/killed/oppressed Africans then Africans did the same to other Africans.

Whites rarely enslaved blacks, they overwhelmingly bought blacks who had already been enslaved. Even when discussing thoroughly nasty phenomena it's better to be accurate.

Sorta like how westerners don't force Bangladeshis to work in collapsing factories at gunpoint, they just source their production to people who do.

Well, in the state I was born, the slave owners generally didn't worry much about enslaving - the children of slaves being automatically slaves themselves.

As a matter of fact, the very city I was born in seceded (so to speak - the technical term being retroceded), before the Civil War, just to ensure it could keep slavery a viable business -

'Alexandria was also an important port and market in the slave trade, and there were increasing talk of the abolition of slavery in the national capital. Alexandria's economy would suffer greatly if slavery were outlawed. At the same time, there was an active abolition movement in Virginia, and the state's General Assembly was closely divided on the question of slavery (resulting in the formation of West Virginia some years later by the most anti-slavery counties). Alexandria and Alexandria County would provide two new pro-slavery representatives.

After a referendum, voters petitioned Congress and Virginia to return the area to Virginia. The area was retroceded to Virginia on July 9, 1846.' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandria,_Virginia#Return_to_Virginia

And by 1846, the Royal Navy had been working for three decades to stop Alexandria's business model - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Africa_Squadron

One hopes that a citizen of the UK is as proud of their nation's role in trying to end the slave trade as a citizen of a former British colony is as chastened coming from a place that fought a war to preserve slavery. Though who knows? Maybe I am prouder of the Royal Navy and its honorable service in stopping slave trading, while you feel prouder of the attempt of American slaveholders to found a nation explicitly dedicated to the preservation of slavery.

None of the ships carrying slaves to Alexandria were African, it should be noted, and no Africans served in government of the Confederacy. And I doubt of the 1,600 slaver ships captured between 1808 and 1860 by the West Africa Squadron, the number of African owners was even in the single digits.

Yeah, I'm very proud of what people unrelated to me did hundreds of years ago. That makes sense.

Yeah, I'm very proud of what people unrelated to me did hundreds of years ago. That makes sense!

I've never killed a chicken for food.

I merely buy chickens that are already dead.

Oh my goodness, oh dearie me: we are all Africans.


Go back far enough and we're also all hydrocarbons.

Whenever I hear this I think about air-dropping the interlocutor down somewhere in central Africa:

"We're all Africans!"
[is beheaded for CLIF bar]

You really think essentially all of Africa was a 'breadbasket' when European imperialists were running much of it?

'Conquered peoples were relocated for forced labour on cotton, rubber, and palm oil plantations, and in gold and copper mines. Others were forced to labour on large colonial projects such as the Congo-Brazzaville railway. 120,000 labourers were forced to build the 450 km long railway through dense jungle, and around half were killed by the harsh working conditions, epidemics and accidents.[24]

Under colonial rule, the plantation system of farming was widely introduced in order to grow large quantities of cash crops, and employing cheap (often slave) African labor for export to European countries. Mining for gems and precious metals such as gold was developed in a similar way by wealthy European entrepreneurs such as Cecil Rhodes. The implementation and effects of these colonial policies were, arguably, genocidal in a number of cases. One extreme example of exploitation of Africans during this period is the Congo Free State, administered under a form of "company rule". The Belgians, under Leopold II of Belgium, allowed businesses to use forced labour as they saw fit. The brutal conditions ended in the deaths of an estimated 10 million Congolese between 1885 and 1908.[25] Belgian government commissions in the 1920s found that the population of Belgian Congo had fallen by as much as 50% under Belgian rule as a result of forced labor (largely for the purposes of rubber cultivation), massacre by colonial troops, famine and disease.


In agriculture, the plantation systems that they introduced were highly unsustainable and caused severe environmental degradation. For example, cotton severely lowers soil fertility wherever it is grown, and areas of West Africa that are dominated by cotton plantations are now unable to switch to more profitable crops or even to produce food because or the depleted soil. Recently, more countries have initiated programs to revert to traditional, sustainable forms of agriculture such as shifting cultivation and bush fallow in order to grow enough food to support the population while maintaining soil fertility which allows agriculture to continue in future generations.'


"The Belgians, under Leopold II of Belgium,...": wrong. WKPD: "Leopold was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken on his own behalf. ... This became one of the most infamous international scandals of the early 20th century, and Leopold was ultimately forced to relinquish control of it to the Belgian government." So blaming the horrors on "the Belgians" is just libel. As I remarked above, even when discussing horrible things accuracy is preferable to inaccuracy.

Wait, because this is a bit confusing - you mean that when a King of Belguim does something in his name, it doesn't involve Belgium? I would think that Leopold II, as monarch, would have probably disagreed. Though since as monarch, he was the only one in position in his realm to decide, I'm sure we can both agree that whatever decision he favored, it would be the one that favored him.

Is this a bit like how Rhodes was a British subject, but the British South Africa Company was never technically a part of the British government? And thus, technically, never a tool of the British Empire?

But the sourced article is from wikipedia - if you find it inaccurate, changing it for increased accuracy is simple.

Being American, I believe it is a silly fiction to think of a monarch running a nation to be a private citizen, but if it soothes you, wikipedia is seemingly more correct here - 'Leopold was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken on his own behalf.' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_II_of_Belgium

Any guesses who ruled the Free State? Why, yes, Leopold II, private citizen, and full time ruler of all his domains. Amusing that some people confuse a monach with their nation - legal fictions are a necessary part of statecraft. Like this one -

'The conference turned the International Congo Association into the Congo Free State and specified that it should have no connection with Belgium or any other country, but would be under the personal control of King Leopold. It drew specific boundaries and specified that all nations should have access to do business in the Congo with no tariffs.' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_Free_State#King_Leopold.27s_campaign

But wait, let us see how Leopold II, King of Belgium and private owner of the Free State, handled his new possession -

'Leopold no longer needed the façade of the Association, and replaced it with an appointed cabinet of Belgians who would do his bidding.' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_Free_State#Leopold.27s_rule

Hmmm - Belgians, subjects of Leopold II, were the appointed cabinet of the Free State, private possession of Leopold II, King of Belgium.

Well, it says right on the paper that created the Free State that Belgium had no connection, so it must be true. And that cabinet of faithful subjects of Leopold II? Right, just because they were Belgian subjects of Leopold II doesn't mean anything at all - there being an international treaty explicitly stating that fact, in all its glorious accuracy.

Most of us already know that Belgians are sick freaks who should not be given power.

LOL! Not being a fool, I find the idea "a monarch running a nation" rather fictional itself. That holds for both Belgium and Congo Free State.

Yeah, I'm very proud of what people unrelated to me did hundreds of years ago. That makes sense!

Inasmuch as the large majority of whites in sub-Saharan Africa lived, and continue to live, in the Republic of South Africa, I'm not sure of your point. What facts are it based on?

Would you want to be a white farmwr in South Africa? Hope you like to hear them singing kill the Boer!

Economists can't talk about soil, methinks, because as a depletion resource it is shielded from most tools of economists. That is, usually, the worse soil is, the better economists will think it is.

Crop rotation is your friend.

The faster the Africans breed, the sooner a black Norman Borlaug will appear. Problem solved.

Norman Borlaug was a product of K-selection culture, not r-selection culture.

Africans did fine before the Imperial powers showed up, back when there were way, way fewer Africans.

Westerners, including all the foreign aid and IMF/WB busybodies, just need to leave and sit on their hands while the tribes sort out their borders. We can also stop cherrypicking African talent from the countries where they are most needed.

The way they "did fine before" would not stand a chance in a UN tribunal.

Thank you for writing this article, tired of white supremacists bashing Africa for not being able to feed themselves. They make crazy claims that africa has the best farmland on the planet etc...

What Africa has is the best range-land on the planet, so we should let African humans be low population-dense hunter-gatherers, instead of cramming them into urban centers and making them dependent on IMF/WB loans and agricultural imports and trying to force Western farming methods on such unsuitable geography. But that's not what a lot of people want to hear either.

There's also a thing called cattle, apparently appropriate for rangeland.

There is a solution, used by the pre-Columbian Amazonians to manage their soil resources.


Why is Biochar better / more efficient than purely chemical adjustments? (Fertilizers / pH adjustment etc. )

Because indigenous Africans can do it, and they can do it without industry rent-seeking, government externalities, and clueless NGO busybodies paving the road to hell for whatever poor country they are unleashed upon.

Biochar stays in the ground long term and reduces the amount of water and fertilizer needed in poor soils. It increases the availability of nutrients to plants which means a farmer can get more benefit out of each unit of fertilizer applied. Biochar (or just char or activated charcoal if one prefers) can be produced with very low technology methods and has the advantage of removing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it up in the soil long term. There are rich soils that don't benefit from the addition of biochar, but in many regions these soils are quite rare.

Biochar is interesting. But in the long-term, you still need nutrient inputs, if higher production for markets is to be maintained. So you need N (can be fixed with legumes in crop rotations), and a source of P, K, micronutrients etc.. That all depends on price/availability. But for small-scale, I think manure/human waste + biochar is an excellent solution.

I think the comments make Tyler's point: economists should think more about soil quality. Not all of the surface of the world is Illinois.

On Topic: Africa is 20.4% of the entire land surface of the Earth:
See here:

I wonder is this due to the fact that methods and plant shave been developed in an for the temperate regions. This would mean that more work on improving ag in the tropics could make it more productive than in temperate regions.

Oh BTW Biochar might help.

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