Single varities, crop failure and famine


Thomas Malthus’ famous essay on population was published at a time when an energized scientific world was diligently looking for the underlying principles that govern the world.  He was writing a hundred years after Sir Issac Newton had shocked the world and reshaped the way the universe was viewed – both literaly and figurately.  For the next two centuries after Newton scientists were bent on discovering simple principles that would explain the world and lead to wealth, fame and knighthood for the discoverer.  There were also nation-sponsored contests to solve major problems – one contest promised rich rewards for the person who could solve the problem of starvation.  Malthus of course said famine was the logical outcome of the natural growth of population that no increase in food production could offset, but other thought every problem could be solved through science, logic and human control.

In 1771 (28 years before Malthus published his essay), Antoine-Augsutin Parmentier won the contest by finding a food “capable of reducing the calamities of famine.”  His solution?  The potato; the same food source the 70 years later caused the famous Irish potato famine.  But the famine wasn’t the potato’s fault; it was the farmers’ fault.  Imported from South America, the potato spread slowly around Europe, but where it did take hold it often became the staple – in eastern and northern Europe and in Ireland.  But the very nature of importing single varieties leads to extreme vulnerability.  The potato the Irish ate was susceptible to a blight that over the course of several years spread until it destroyed virtually the entire potato crop two years in a row – resulting in a famine.  That had never, and could never, happen its native South America because there are many varities, most of which are unaffected by that blight.

And that is the lesson – variety allows some species to survive while others fall prey to disease, predators or weather changes.   The Las Vegas Sun today published the results of survey by Brookings Institution and London School of Economics.  The report says that Las Vegas is the poster child community built on one industry, one source of food.  According to the Sun story: Before the recession, in measurements analyzing 1993 through 2007, Las Vegas ranked No. 14 in the world among 150 metropolitan areas studied by the Brookings Institution and London School of Economics.  Las Vegas fell to 128th in the rankings during the recession in 2008 and 2009, and since the recovery has begun, its ranking has fallen to 146th. That’s better than only Dublin, Ireland (150); Dubai (149); Barcelona, Spain (148); and Thessaloniki, Greece (147).

When it was expanding, Las Vegas lead the world in expansion, 200 people a said were moving to town, unemployment was the lowest in the nation, real estate prices were going up by 25-30 percent each quarter, investment and construction on the Strip reshaped the way people all over the world thought about casinos, gambling and certainly Las Vegas itself.  Las Vegas has Malthus would have predicted grew at geometric rates.  But like the Irish population in the 19th century, Vegas expanded too far, too fast and then the crop failed with the attendant famine.  Las Vegas will recover in time, just as Ireland recovered from that famine, today’s crisis is of another type, but this should be a wake-up call to Nevada and indeed to any place so heavily dependent on single sources of revenue.  There was more than one cause for the Irish famine and more than one cause to the present economy conditions in Las Vegas – but the vulnerability resulting from one source of substance is a major factor and one that should drive the thinking of all public officials.  Or as the old saying goes: “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.”  Sometimes the oldest lesson have to be relearned over and over again.



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November 2010
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