Feeding the World: The Macro and the Micro

Stephen DeAngelis

January 12, 2010

Among the challenges faced during the past decade, one that will surely continue to plague the world is how to feed the global population. Despite all of the world’s advancements — including amazing increases in agricultural production — pockets of the world’s population continue to go hungry. The challenge can be met, but according to The Economist, “business as usual will not do it” [“How to feed the world,” 21 November 2009 print issue. Back in October of last year, I ran a series of posts that detailed the agricultural challenges that must be faced in the coming decades (see Agriculture Old and New, Agriculture: The Bumpy Road Ahead, Agriculture Production and Prices, Feeding the World While Watching the Environment, The Gherkin and the Olive Tree, and Eating and the Environment). The reason that The Economist asserts that business as usual won’t solve the issue of hunger is because business as usual hasn’t worked to date. It reports:

“In 1974 Henry Kissinger, then America’s secretary of state, told the first world food conference in Rome that no child would go to bed hungry within ten years. Just over 35 years later, in the week of another United Nations food summit in Rome, 1 billion people will go to bed hungry. This failure, already dreadful, may soon get worse. None of the underlying agricultural problems which produced a spike in food prices in 2007-08 and increased the number of hungry people has gone away. Between now and 2050 the world’s population will rise by a third, but demand for agricultural goods will rise by 70% and demand for meat will double. These increases are in a sense good news in that they are a result of rising wealth in poor and middle-income countries. But they will have to happen without farmers clearing large amounts of new land (there is some scope for expansion, but not much) or using up lots more water (in parts of the world, water supplies are stretched to their limit or beyond). Moreover, they will take place while farmers also wrestle with the consequences of climate change, which, on balance, will do more harm than good to farmland round the world.”

The magazine wouldn’t have painted that bleak macro picture if it didn’t also have a vision of how the future ought to look and a palette of ideas that could help create that future. The article insists that “countries have a brief window of opportunity in which to set long-term policy goals without being distracted by panic measures. They need to do two things: invest in the productive capacity of agriculture and improve the operation of food markets.” I agree with the article that both the production and market sides of the agricultural equation must be addressed for real progress to be made. The article continues:

“Governments have done one but not the other. Over the past year investment has risen faster than anyone expected. But distrust of markets and a reaction against farm trade are growing. Unless governments restrain those impulses, they will undermine the gains from rising investment. For most of the past 25 years, investment in agriculture has declined relentlessly. In 2005 most developing countries were investing only around 5% of public revenues in farming. The share of Western aid going to agriculture fell by around three-quarters between 1980 and 2006. This disinvestment laid waste to productivity. During the Green Revolution of the 1960s, staple-crop yields were rising by 3-6% a year. Now they are rising by only 1-2% a year; in poor countries, yields are flat. Fortunately, the food-price spike of 2007-08 shocked governments out of their quarter-century of neglect. The World Bank and many rich countries have doubled the money they put into poor countries’ farming. In the poor countries themselves, agriculture has gone from being a sideshow for the government—something the minister of agriculture does—into its main event, which everyone needs to worry about. This is as it should be: farming is far and away the single most important economic activity in most poor places.”

I would go further than the article, which states that “farming is far and away the single most important economic activity in poor places,” and emphasize the obvious fact that everyone needs to eat. That makes agriculture one of the most important activities in which humans participate (even if it isn’t a major economic engine in some richer countries). The reason that The Economist stresses the importance of agriculture in poorer countries is because it generally does make up a significant (if not principal) source of income for many of the world’s poorest people. The food crisis of 2007-2008 woke up a lot of people to the importance of food security. Unfortunately, most of the reaction to the food crisis has been about securing national food security rather than global food security. Emphasis on the former can actually hurt the latter. The article continues:

“Some of the new splurge of public money is going on safety-net programmes for poor farmers, which are justified on anti-poverty grounds: three-quarters of the world’s poorest live in rural areas. But the money will pay dividends in the long run only if it improves farmers’ access to market. Lack of reliable markets is the biggest barrier to rural development, since without them farmers have little incentive to grow more. So the increase in rural road-building is welcome, as are measures to improve the operations of local markets by (for instance) spreading price information and building grain stores. There is also a case for temporarily subsidising better seeds and fertilisers in places where local markets are failing to provide them: this is an example of correcting market failure.”

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you understand how important I believe building infrastructure is for achieving sustainable development. The rub, of course, is that the countries least capable of investing in infrastructure are the ones that need it most. That is why I believe that public/private partnerships are needed to build infrastructure in those areas. The article next turns to the challenge of increasing production without harming the environment.

“Boosting world food production without gobbling up land and water will also require technology to play a larger role in the next 40 years than it has in the past 40, when people have been more or less living off the gains of the Green Revolution. Technology means a lot of things: drip irrigation, no-till farming, more efficient ways to use fertilisers and kill pests. But one way of raising yields stands out: developing genetically modified (GM) crops that, for example, use less water. Here, too, public bodies can overcome resistance. GM crops may be more acceptable if they come from government institutes than big companies or if the seeds are given away, rather than sold.”

None of those recommendations is free from controversy. Nevertheless, the article is correct that there is no single answer to the challenge of feeding the world. A number of approaches will have to woven together into an agricultural system that improves yields and efficiently gets products to market. I stress the word “system” because, as the article notes, there is “a danger inherent in all this government activity: the temptation of self-reliance. The food-price rise of 2007-08 made all countries worry about ‘food security’—quite rightly. But over the past year ‘food security’ (ensuring everyone has enough to eat) has shaded into ‘food self-sufficiency’ (growing it all yourself). Self-sufficiency has become a common policy goal in many countries.” Some countries will never achieve food self-sufficiency due to climate and geography. If the international community doesn’t help them achieve food security, they will become permanent wards of the international community because they will continually be in crisis. Although local food production should be encouraged, a global agricultural system is essential to achieve true food security. The article concludes:

“In itself, self-sufficiency is not bad. If poor countries have a comparative advantage in producing their own food, they should do so (and that will often be the case). The problem is that the new rhetoric of self-sufficiency coincides with a growing distrust of markets and trade. Grain importers no longer trust world markets to supply their needs. ‘Land grabbers’ are snapping up land abroad to use for food production. Everywhere, governments are more involved in farming through input subsidies. In these conditions self-sufficiency could easily sprout protective walls. That would be in nobody’s interest. As Europeans have demonstrated over decades, pursuing self-sufficiency above all else is extremely wasteful. Self-sufficiency would also lock in patterns of agricultural production just when climate change is affecting different parts of the world differently, making trade between them all the more important. The food-price trauma of 2007-08 is persuading some countries to say that they need to divert part of their wealth to subsidise food so they can be self-sufficient and avoid future crises. But the demands of feeding 9 billion people in 2050 tell a different story: farming needs to be as efficient as possible. That requires markets and trade. Investing in agriculture is a boon; rejecting agricultural markets would be a disaster.”

I couldn’t agree more. Not only does global food security require markets and trade, so does the growing tastes of global consumers. Middle class consumers expect to be able to purchase fruits and vegetables year round, not just when they are in season locally. The availability of a variety of foods also makes it easier to eat healthier. As the global population ages, eating healthier will become a larger issue.

Moving from the macro picture of food security to the micro picture, New York Times‘ op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof reminds us that food supplements can play an important role in food security and a healthier lifestyle [“World’s Healthiest Food,” 3 January 2010]. He writes:

“So what’s the most scrumptious, wholesome, exquisite, healthful, gratifying food in the world? It’s not ambrosia, and it’s not even pepperoni pizza. Hint: It’s far cheaper. A year’s supply costs less than the cheapest hamburger. Give up? Here’s another hint: It’s lifesaving for children and for women who may become pregnant. … Micronutrients are the miracle substance I’m talking about, and there’s scarcely a form of foreign aid more cost-effective than getting them into the food supply.”

Why are micronutrients important? Kristof writes about babies born with birth defects that could have been easily prevented had their mothers received micronutrients like folic acid (also known as vitamin B9). He continues:

“Equally important is another micronutrient, iodine. The worst consequence of iodine deficiency isn’t goiters, but malformation of fetuses’ brains, so they have 10 to 15 points permanently shaved off their I.Q.’s. Then there’s zinc, which reduces child deaths from diarrhea and infections. There’s iron, lack of which causes widespread anemia. And there’s vitamin A: some 670,000 children die each year because they don’t get enough vitamin A, and lack of the vitamin remains the world’s leading cause of childhood blindness.”

In his column, Kristof reports that there are non-governmental organizations that are trying to fight micronutrient deficiencies; groups like Project Healthy Children, founded by David Dodson. He notes, however, that “the most cost-effective way to distribute micronutrients isn’t to hand them out.” The reason, of course, is that not everyone is able to be reached. Some live long distances from clinics where vitamins and minerals are dispersed. The best way to distribute micronutrients is to add them to “common foods [such] as salt, sugar, flour or cooking oil.”

“Adding iodine, iron, vitamin A, zinc and various B-complex vitamins including folic acid to a range of foods costs about 30 cents per person reached per year. Groups focusing on micronutrients also include Helen Keller International and Vitamin Angels. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has required that flour be fortified with folic acid since 1998. Even in America, with better diets, medical care and widespread fortification, not all women get enough micronutrients, but the problem is far worse in poor countries.”

Adding micronutrients to common foods can have significant impact. For an example, read my post written three years ago entitled Iodine and Intelligence. At a time when the United States is debating about the cost of healthcare, we should remember that “it is much cheaper to prevent birth defects than to treat them.” That’s true both in the U.S. and in the developing world.

“‘It’s not a sexy world health issue, but it’s about the nuts and bolts of putting together a healthy population,’ Mr. Dodson said. ‘Putting small amounts of iron, iodine and folic acid in the food supply hasn’t drawn attention the way it does when you treat someone who is sick or in a refugee camp. Until recently, this has been off everybody’s radar screen.'”

Kristof concludes, “As the United States reorganizes its chaotic aid program, it might try promoting what just may be the world’s most luscious food: micronutrients.” Both effective macro-policies and important micronutrients are needed to address the challenge of feeding the world. Both the quantity and the quality of food are important to ensure that populations remain healthy.