March 20, 2016

SCHULMAN | Saving Lives — No Chemistry Required

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Do you feel like you have a disproportionate number of friends aspiring to be doctors? I do and hanging out with them is a struggle because I am really jealous. Doctors are paid well and get to save lives. Obviously not all doctors — but generally, being a doctor is about healing people and doctors are generally in demand. Not to say I wish I were a doctor. My knowledge of chemistry extends as far as Breaking Bad. I’m also incredibly squeamish. I’m just jealous because medicine is one of the few professions where you are paid well to save lives. You get to have your cake and eat it too.

Luckily, as one of my medically focused friends pointed out, there are other professions that save lives. Some of them are just as lucrative as being a doctor — or certainly pay off sooner. The profession my friend had in mind was farming: specifically, working as as scientist to engineer more robust crops. There are 800 million starving people in the world right now. Helping feed them would be an incredibly fulfilling job. It’s also a pretty safe profession because companies like Monsanto pay top dollar to profit from the modified strains.

Unfortunately, I’m not qualified for that either — my knowledge of chemistry, or lack thereof, disqualifies me. You need an advanced degree in biological sciences to engineer better crops. I study economics. Economics may be lucrative but biology is the subject for healing the sick and feeding the hungry. Right?

Not necessarily — especially in the case of feeding the hungry. An economist could do just as much, if not more. After a decade of improvement, famine reared its ugly head a few years ago. The issue wasn’t plague or anything obviously connected with the natural world; it was price.

Wheat prices nearly doubled in 2007. Because of the price increases, famine struck many of the world’s poorest people. Nations in North Africa and the Middle East were hit hardest. These countries import most of their grains and are incredibly poor. There were riots from Mexico to Morocco over the unavailability of basic staples. If you shop at Wegman’s you probably didn’t notice (just like you probably don’t notice when produce goes out of season), but food banks in the U.S. were hit hard as well.

The food shortages in 2007 are an economists’ puzzle. Years of World Bank policy encouraging developing nations import cheap grain from abroad, instead of producing it expensively at home, intensified shortages. The tangled mess of incentives created by biofuel subsidies also contributed — in 2007, nearly a quarter of U.S. corn was being grown for fuel. Additionally, demand for meat — which is more resource-intensive than grain —  and high oil prices made fertilizer and agricultural equipment more expensive (which in turn made food more expensive). Macroeconomics theory and econometrics are key to understanding what happened.

Not to say chemistry and biology didn’t prevent food shortages in 2007. Erratic weather patterns, disease and drought — areas outside of economics — certainly contributed to the food crisis in 2007. In 2006, drought in Australia, the world’s second largest wheat exporter, decimated crop yields. Obviously, biology and chemistry are important. Bigger wheat yields theoretically translate into lower prices.

However, there is so much ground to be gained in solving hunger in the realm of economics. We still don’t definitevely know what caused food prices to rise in 2007. We never figured how to lower prices. The U.S. housing market crash and ensuing financial slowdown caused wheat prices to fall. Many blamed Wall Street speculation on wheat futures contracts for the price increases. However, the statistical evidence backing such claims is weak.

Obviously, world hunger is a complicated issue. It probably will not be solved for a while. However, economics is gaining so much ground. Over the past 20 years, roughly 200 million fewer people are starving because of economic development in Asia. As rural countries industrialize, they consolidate subsistence farms and can afford to import more food. There are four pounds of food per day for every person on the planet — that’s a lot food. If only we could distribute it more efficiently. Economics can save lives — no chemistry required. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it. Tune in Alternating Mondays for more.

Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at eschulman@cornellsun.com. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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