A couple hours after reading Chapter 4 of Matt Ridley's thought provoking book, I attended a lecture at Rutgers Cook College campus given by Kenneth Cassman from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, addressing the same topic. It has been a little while since I have been to Cook for an event, but upon entering the lecture hall, I was quickly reminded of how some things never change, ie., the dress code de rigueur comprised of oxford, tweed sportcoat, corduroy, and hiking boots. It was nice to be back in my element.
In brief, Professor Cassman's talk focused on how to feed a growing population sustainably, and without any 'new energy panacea', which is a realistic view of the world's energy supply of 2050. His Venn diagram placed food security at the center, although through the course of his talk, it became apparent that is should have been water security instead. Nonetheless, the talk resonated with the primary theme which permeates Ridley's book. That is the world as a whole, needs to become wealthier in order to address growing problems associated with keeping nine billion fed, clothed, and supplied with an adequate energy supply. Along with this increase in wealth, other environmental benefits will follow, including biodiversity preservation, cleaner water for larger numbers (particularly in megacities), and lower overall atmospheric, water and soil pollution.
It was interesting to note that many of the topics Professor Cassman discussed in his hour-long talk covered some of the same themes that private sector agricultural commodity researchers and analysts are grappling with every day (albeit, only those with a longer range view). With daily volatility and acute weather/currency related supply shocks dominating the radars of commodity researchers and traders, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, namely the potential changes to the dynamics of the supply side of the equation 1, 5 or 10 years out. Making long range assessments even more difficult are challenges associated with imperfect demographic and socioeconomic forecasts, limits to long range physical resource modeling, accelerating technology curves, and unforeseen technological breakthroughs. These are all topics that make their way into the discussions at commodity desks, and if nothing else, Professor Cassman's talk underscored the need for fostering partnerships between the resource industries, forward thinking lending institutions, and land grant universities (of which Rutgers and UNL are both a part).