Agriculture: The Bumpy Road Ahead

Stephen DeAngelis

October 29, 2009

This is the second in a series of posts about agriculture and food security. In posts written earlier this month about East Africa, I discussed the devastating drought and resulting famine that has gripped that part of the world. The global recession has also added its toll on the world’s poor increasing by millions the number of hungry people in the world [“UN food agency says 200 million more people hungry,” by Rod McGuirk, Washington Post, 26 October 2009]. McGuirk begins his report by discussing how the recession has affected the developing world.

“Most of the developing world is paying more for food despite drops in commodity market prices during the global economic slowdown, with 200 million people joining the ranks of the hungry in the past two years, the U.N. World Food Program said. … The agency’s executive director Josette Sheeran blamed climate change, escalating fuel costs and falling incomes. She said the number of ‘urgently hungry’ had now reached its highest ever – 1.02 billion. ‘One out of six people in humanity will wake up not sure that they can even fill a cup of food,’ Sheeran told reporters. ‘We have to make no mistake that hunger is on the march.’ She said while prices had tumbled on global commodities markets due to the financial crisis, the prices of most food staples in the developing world have soared.”

For more on why food prices have been rising, even during a recession, read my post entitled Food Crisis and Recession. McGuirk continues:

“‘The food crisis is not over. We have an anomaly happening where on global, big markets, the prices are down, but for 80 percent of commodities in the developing world, prices are higher today than they were a year ago, and the prices a year ago were double what they were the year before that,’ [Sheeran] said. ‘What it means is for about 80 percent of the developing world, people can afford one third as much food today as they could two or three years ago,’ she said.”

People in the developed world would scream loudly if their food prices had risen as steeply as those in developed countries. But the screams of the poor are often silent like the one pictured in the famous painting by Edvard Munch. The causes of the current crisis are myriad. I’ve already discussed the drought in East Africa. In yesterday’s post, I talked about a disease that affected tomato crops in the northeast United States. Crops have also been lost due to typhoons in Southeast Asia and drought and floods in India. Natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis also have an impact on agriculture. Not only are agriculture lands disrupted, but the people who work them also suffer terrible tragedies. Sheeran asserts that “natural disasters [have become] more frequent and ferocious in recent decades” and that “there [has] been a fourfold increase in the number of natural disasters in the past 20 years.” The truth of the matter is that the world’s most vulnerable people are taking the brunt of the consequences. That is one of the reasons that my company, Enterra Solutions, has started working with Department of Defense’s Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. The Center is trying to find a framework that can be used to help make vulnerable communities more resilient. Food security is just one element of that resilience. Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, provided his take on the issues of food security in an op-ed piece [“Feed the World,” Financial Times, 17 October 2009]. His views seem very Malthusian. He writes:

“The competing claims of small, labour-intensive farms and large, fossil-fuel intensive agri-business is just one of the battles now raging over how the world will feed itself in the future. The situation looks grave. There are 6.7bn people on earth; by 2050 there will be a further 2.5bn mouths to feed, on current growth trends. Nearly 1bn people are already malnourished. Aquifers and rivers have been sucked dry to irrigate parts of the world parched by global warming, and the rich show no sign of relinquishing gastronomic luxuries to alleviate the hunger of others. Rather, as the world’s affluent grow in number, particularly in China, desire for more meat and dairy products has diverted cereals to feed animals, further straining food supply. Volatile oil prices afflict farmers’ bottom lines; and now, with the advent of subsidised biofuels, when oil prices rise, food becomes more attractive as an alternative fuel, leaving less to nourish the poor.”

His arguments have certainly captured the reasons why, even in a time of recession, food prices have increased in the developing world; but I’m not sure his gloomy predictions for the future are going to be any more accurate than were Thomas Malthus’. Stuart continues with a quick overview of recent books written on the subject of food security. Below are his summaries of those books:

The Food Wars, by Walden Bello

“Now, five new publications wade into the fray, each with theories about the problem’s sources and potential solutions. The tremors of fragile food supply have been particularly acute in recent years. In 2007, a squeeze on global supplies contributed to an average food price rise of 23 per cent; last year prices jumped a further 54 per cent. According to Walden Bello, professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines, to understand the impact this phenomenon has on the global poor, we must consider three decades of interference by international financial institutions, principally the World Bank. In a controversial polemic The Food Wars, Bello argues that these financial institutions dismantled developing nations’ state support for local agriculture, and forced them also to open up to liberalised international food trade. The result was that heavily subsidised cereals from the US and the European Union were dumped on the market for less than the price of growing them. Developing world farmers could not compete, so indigenous food production lagged behind demand – leaving countries addicted to overseas imports. Last year, as a result of US policies – including subsidies for biofuel production – an estimated 90m tonnes of maize was used to manufacture ethanol. This shrunk global supplies and increased prices; in the last three years there have been food riots in countries across the world, including Haiti, Egypt, Mexico and the Philippines. The solution, says Bello, is to quell the power of international food giants in poorer nations and instead foster small-scale subsistence farming. Peasant farming, as he proudly calls it, is conducted ‘in benign interaction with the biosphere’. Small farmers can use new technologies, but only where appropriate. A world populated by healthy, independent farmers growing food for themselves and surplus for the world’s urban populations is an idyllic prospect. Bello vehemently denies that this is mostly a romantic dream. However, the credibility of his vision hangs largely on the veracity of his claim that that small, mixed farms produce ‘three to 14 times more food per acre than their larger competitors’. Yet Bello cites only two studies to support his case. Evidence is a problem in this field.”

The Constant Economy, by Zac Goldsmith

“The Constant Economy by Zac Goldsmith, nephew of The Ecologist magazine’s founder, has no notes or references. And it also selects research claiming to show that going organic can double yields, though even Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, the most active UK group campaigning for organic farming, argues that cereal production would halve if Britain went organic. What Goldsmith lacks in referenced statistics, he makes up for with a clear, realistic plan of action: tax products and activities that harm the planet; use that money to support less harmful alternatives. If Goldsmith is elected as a Tory MP, he will have to persuade parliamentary colleagues.”

The End of Food, by Paul Roberts

“Journalist Paul Roberts is more equivocal in his fact-packed and penetrating exploration of the food industry, The End of Food. Like the other writers, Roberts valorises small- and medium-sized farms. He also cites a study, however, suggesting that yields would reduce by a quarter if all US agriculture became organic. Roberts predicts that reducing productivity would be unacceptable, although this conclusion is based partly on mistaken belief that existing US food supply is just ’44 percent more than we need nutritionally’. A correct understanding of US statistics shows that America’s supply exceeds nutritional requirements by more than twice that amount. Nevertheless, Roberts is aware – and wants us to be scared – of failings in industrial agriculture: its intercontinental ability to spread deadly pathogens such as E.coli, salmonella and flu; and its reliance on the finite resource of oil. Modern agriculture depends on fossil fuels to produce nitrogen fertiliser, to drive machinery and to transport food across the world. When oil becomes too scarce or too expensive, how will such farms continue, let alone expand? Moreover, how will such an agricultural system reduce carbon emissions?”

The Feeding of the Nine Billion, by Alex Evans

“Agriculture emits between a quarter and a third of global greenhouse gases produced from human activities. This is the subject of The Feeding of the Nine Billion, a report by Alex Evans, a scholar of food supply and climate change at New York University. Evans outlines an agenda to increase global food security while reducing negative effects on the environment. The question, as Evans recognises, is not how much one acre can produce in one year. The vital issue is how much one acre can produce for a millennium. Fostered well, soil can give forth food indefinitely. Over-grazed, relentlessly ploughed, drenched in chemicals and repeatedly forced to grow the same crops annually, soil inexorably turns to dust. Meanwhile, although genetic engineering hasn’t yet produced crops with substantially increased yields, it’s too early to dismiss this technology. Aside from Evans’s anomalous and extraordinary call to spend $8.4trn helping the oil industry extract ecologically devastating oil-shales and tar-sands, his policy recommendations present a plausible compromise between organic purists and the short-termism of monoculturalists.”

The Environmental Food Crisis, by United Nations Environment Program

“While all of these publications address the horror of potential food shortages, only the United Nations Environment Programme’s 100-page report The Environmental Food Crisis focuses adequately on food waste across the world. UNEP optimistically estimates that if we used agricultural residues and other food waste as livestock feed, rather than fattening animals on cereals, we could rescue enough food to sustain an extra 3bn people. This is a swipe at the EU, which bans feeding most food waste to livestock. But the EU ban is only one source of waste in the modern food system.”

Having reviewed these publications, Stuart gets to the heart of what he really wants to focus on — the Malthusian notion that we must curb both consumption and population growth to save the world. He writes:

“It is difficult to see the current food crisis as a problem of insufficient production: it is a problem of management and distribution. A fundamental question remains. Is a global population of 9.2bn people by 2050 inevitable – and is it desirable? The world may be able to produce enough food for this many people. But at what cost? For most of history, the main way to boost food supplies has been to increase the amount of land under cultivation: when global population multiplied five-fold from 1700 to 1961, global cropland also grew by five times. Thanks to industrial production of nitrogen fertiliser and high-yield crop hybrids, however, in the next three decades population rose by 80 per cent but cropland increased by only 8 percent. Now that technologically induced yield increases have almost levelled off, we’re relying again on traditional methods of boosting production, clearing millions more hectares of tropical rainforest. The greatest impact humans have had on nature is the invasion of agriculture into natural habitats. Today more than 80 per cent of endangered species of birds and mammals are threatened by unsustainable land use and agricultural expansion. Protecting forests is clearly one essential measure. Equally important, however, is to curb consumption and population. Distinguished environmentalists, including David Attenborough, Jonathon Porritt and Jared Diamond, have called for the global agenda to emphasise population restraint in both poor countries and richer ones. Yet for most commentators it remains a source of embarrassment and confusion. Evans is complacent about existing measures to curb population, and instead of calling for more urgent action, he attacks the unpopular arguments of a 1960s Malthusian who advocated authoritarian population controls. Meanwhile Goldsmith ducks responsibility. He gets the growth rate wrong by a factor of three and claims ‘there are no obvious or ethically acceptable solutions to population growth’. According to the World Health Organisation, unwanted pregnancies exacerbate land scarcity and water shortages in countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, where only 10 per cent of adults have access to contraception or reproductive healthcare. A recent study commissioned by the Optimum Population Trust found that satisfying just the existing unmet demand for family planning services might curb population by hundreds of millions – and prevent the emission of at least 34 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2050. I can think of no more obvious or ethically acceptable way to deal with such problems than providing facilities for healthcare and sexual hygiene that developed countries take for granted.”

One thing that Stuart never really mentions is where the prediction that the population will reach 9 billion people comes from. The source I’ve most often seen is a 2001 prediction by the United Nations Population Fund. The prediction actually provides a low, medium, and high prediction, with the 9 billion figure representing the middle number. Earlier this year, the United Nations updated those predictions [“U.N. Raises ‘Low’ Population Projection for 2050,” by Ben Black, Worldwatch Institute, 16 March 2009]. According to black, the new low number is nearly 8 billion people, the medium prediction is 9.2 billion people, and the high foresees some 10.5 billion people. The year 2050 is generally used because most models predict that the earth will begin de-populating around that time. So 2050 represents the predicted acme of the human population. Stuart concludes his summary of the books and his gloomy observations:

“All these publications could have given more space to discussing whether increasing food production encourages population growth – or whether population growth encourages greater food production. The two clearly work in combination. The former assures people that there is enough food for more children; the latter convinces people they need to grow more to survive. There are innumerable other variables, as well as counter-trends, but without awareness of the dynamic interaction between these, there seems little hope that geopolitical analysis can identify the root causes or potential solutions. People will keep having babies, and keep expanding their fields, until there is no room left for anything else. This will assuredly bring the current anthropogenic mass extinction event to its logical conclusion.”

As you will see in the remainder of the posts in this series, there are others who share Stuart’s gloomy outlook but not everyone does. More and more analysts do believe that a combination of local production, supplemented by international trade, is essential to improving the world’s food security. Some globalization proponents had earlier suggested market forces would reduce food prices and information age connectivity would permit food to be exported from nations best-suited for agriculture to the rest of the world. That notion has not proven to be correct; especially not for the poor. Tomorrow I will write more about the global volatility of food prices.