The Toronto Star -- Ontario
NEWS Sunday, September 23, 2001 A14
How hard frosts help us prosper
It is remarkable how diverse the responses to the World Trade Center attacks have become. One idea that is getting prominent play is that Western nations should review and rethink foreign policy and aid- and a new study identifies a surprising climatic influence that should be taken into account.
The idea that geography and wealth are connected is not a new one. Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations pointed out that countries with access to the sea usually fare better economically than countries without. He was right: landlocked countries in South America and Africa are generally poorer than those with ports. But in recent years it's become clear that access to water is just one geographic factor of many.
Climate is crucial too. A Harvard study showed that tropical countries are generally poorer, at least in part because of their location. Of the 28 countries deemed "rich" by the World Bank, only the special Chinese region of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are in the tropics. Of those, Hong Kong and Singapore have flourished largely because of trade, not because of their latitude.
The irony is that, from an environmental point of view, the tropics are a cornucopia of biological wealth and diversity. A square kilometre of tropical forest contains many more species than an equivalent area of Canadian boreal forest. But there is a downside to this richness. For one thing, prominent in this explosion of biodiversity are those that cause human disease. Malaria is a prime example; no one is really sure how many people are killed every year by malaria but it is certainly more than 1 million and may even be more than 2 million.
More disease means more child mortality, which in turn necessitates a higher birth rate to compensate for those who die. Women are then devoting most of their lives to child-rearing and are unable to invest the time and/or money in the education of those children.
Now, two American researchers have added an unexpected factor to this equation: frost. In a report published this month, they argue that annual hard frosts reduce the impact of disease and at the same time- and this is the twist- enhance agriculture.
The disease connection is obvious: we'd have malaria, too, if our winters didn't step in and help kill most of the mosquitoes. But agriculture? The authors, William Masters of Purdue University and Margaret McMillan of Tufts University, argue that frost counteracts one of the main problems of tropical agriculture, the rapid breakdown of topsoil. As Masters says, "In the tropics that matter is broken down by insects and microbes very quickly. In a temperate zone, that nitrogen and carbon builds up and remains in the soil in the form of organic matter."
Another factor they cite is that spring planting is enhanced by the ready supply of water from the spring thaw. Canadian farmers don't have to rely on seasonal rains to the degree their counterparts in the tropics do. And while it may be true that agriculture today plays a diminished role in the rich countries, Masters and McMillan argue that the plenty of the past has echoed down to the present.
Research like this has interesting future implications. The most straightforward is that the rich nations, if they actually care about the welfare of the less fortunate,
should tune their aid efforts to take into account these natural deficits. Those efforts could include the development of appropriate crops and improved vaccines. Obviously, the question of how such research and development would be funded is a critical one.
In the realm of the speculative future, a globally warmed world is surely going to disadvantage further some of the already impoverished. A report from a global
change conference in Amsterdam this summer predicted that a warmer world would affect principally the productivity of the world's 40 poorest nations, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa.
While there is still uncertainty surrounding the degree of warming we can expect this century, it surely would make good sense to try to anticipate its effects and
shape some policies accordingly.
Jay Ingram hosts the program @discovery.ca on the Discovery Channel.
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