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New Approach to Food Security Applauded

August 28, 2009


In post entitled Food Crisis and Recession, I discussed the fact that at the last G8 summit leaders of developed countries announced a new approach to global food security by pledging to spend $20 billion over the next three years on seeds, fertilizers, tools and other aid for small farmers so poor nations could feed themselves. “The money would also likely go to building infrastructure such as roads between fields and markets, giving farmers better access to clean water by drilling wells and building pipelines and allowing them to store their products so they don’t have to be sold immediately, experts said [“World leaders take fresh approach on global hunger,” by Alessandra Rizzo, Kansas City Star, 10 July 2009]. Anyone who has followed my discussions about the Enterra SolutionDevelopment-in-a-Box™ approach understands why I applaud efforts that take a holistic approach to development. Only by examining an economic sector from end-to-end (as well as understanding that sector’s relationship with other economic sectors) can the issues involved and the challenged faced be understood and addressed. That is basically the tack being taken by this new approach to food security.


I’m not alone in my praise for this new approach. Norman E. Borlaug, a professor at Texas A&M University who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the world food supply, also believes the new approach is long overdue [“Farmers Can Feed the World,” Wall Street Journal, 30 July 2009]. The professor writes:

“For those of us who have spent our lives working in agriculture, focusing on growing food versus giving it away is a giant step forward. Given the right tools, farmers have shown an uncanny ability to feed themselves and others, and to ignite the economic engine that will reverse the cycle of chronic poverty. And the escape from poverty offers a chance for greater political stability in their countries as well.”

We often think of societies “progressing” from being hunter gatherers to agrarian communities to industrial powerhouses to top-of-the-heap information age economies. Yet even modern post-industrial countries like the United States have important agricultural sectors. In effect, no society ever really leaves the agrarian age. Borlaug argues that too many people cling to the romantic notion that scientific advances in agriculture are bad and that we need to return to simpler times and more natural approaches. He continues:

“The political landscape heaved in other parts of the world [is also changing], casting unfounded doubts on agricultural tools for farmers made through modern science, such as biotech corn in parts of Europe. Even here at home, some elements of popular culture romanticize older, inefficient production methods and shun fertilizers and pesticides, arguing that the U.S. should revert to producing only local organic food. People should be able to purchase organic food if they have the will and financial means to do so, but not at the expense of the world’s hungry—25,000 of whom die each day from malnutrition. Unfortunately, these distractions keep us from the main goal. Consider that current agricultural productivity took 10,000 years to attain the production of roughly six billion gross tons of food per year. Today, nearly seven billion people consume that stockpile almost in its entirety every year. Factor in growing prosperity and nearly three billion new mouths by 2050, and you quickly see how the crudest calculations suggest that within the next four decades the world’s farmers will have to double production.”

Borlaug isn’t blind to the damage that humans have to the environment or the fact that the resulting climate change is likely to have a significant impact on our ability to feed ourselves in the future. As he puts it:

“[Farmers] most likely will need to accomplish this feat on a shrinking land base and in the face of environmental demands caused by climate change. Indeed, this month Oxfam released a study concluding that the multiple effects of climate change might ‘reverse 50 years of work to end poverty’ resulting in ‘the defining human tragedy of this century.'”

Proponents of organic farming argue that the use of pesticides and fertilizers are bad for both the environment and the body, but Borlaug believes that used correctly they are the tools that will help prevent the potential catastrophe predicted by Oxfam.

“At this time of critical need, the epicenter of our collective work should focus on driving continued investments from both the public and private sectors in efficient agriculture production technologies. Investments like those announced by the G-8 leaders will most likely help to place current tools—like fertilizer and hybrid seeds that have been used for decades in the developed world—into the hands of small-holder farmers in remote places like Africa with the potential for noted and measured impact.”

“Current tools,” Borlaug argues, as good as they are, won’t be enough to stave off global hunger. Continued research and development are needed to create new tools to make the agricultural sector even more productive.

“[Continued funding for R&D is required] to motivate new and novel discoveries, like drought-tolerant, insect-resistant or higher-yielding seed varieties that advance even faster. To accomplish this, governments must make their decisions about access to new technologies, such as the development of genetically modified organisms—on the basis of science, and not to further political agendas. Open markets will stimulate continued investment, innovation and new developments from public research institutions, private companies and novel public/private partnerships.”

In other words, Borlaug believes that logic needs to trump fear. In a post entitled Biotechnology’s Third Wave, I wrote that “the agricultural wave of biotech concerned (and still concerns) some people because they aren’t sure what kind of unintended consequences the release of genetically-altered crops might have on the environment. The third wave of biotech begins with the assumption that it will make the environment better not worse.” Borlaug clearly believes that science will make things better not worse. He continues:

“We already can see the ongoing value of these investments simply by acknowledging the double-digit productivity gains made in corn and soybeans in much of the developed world. In the U.S., corn productivity has grown more than 40% and soybeans by nearly 30% from 1987 to 2007, while wheat has lagged behind, increasing by only 19% during the same period. Lack of significant investment in rice and wheat, two of the most important staple crops needed to feed our growing world, is unfortunate and short-sighted. It has kept productivity in these two staple crops at relatively the same levels seen at the end of the 1960s and the close of the Green Revolution, which helped turn Mexico and India from starving net grain importers to exporters.”

Borlaug concludes his op-ed piece by stating the obvious — we can’t live without food.

“Of history, one thing is certain: Civilization as we know it could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply. Likewise, the civilization that our children, grandchildren and future generations come to know will not evolve without accelerating the pace of investment and innovation in agriculture production.”

Although Borlaug doesn’t mention it as an exacerbating issue, not only is the global population growing but as it becomes more affluent it eats more [“Green shoots,” The Economist, 21 March 2009 print issue]. China is a good example of this phenomenon.

“In the past decade, says Carlo Caiani of Caiani & Company, an investment-advisory firm based in Melbourne, the consumption of milk has grown seven-fold, and that of olive oil six-fold. China is consuming twice as much vegetable oil (instead of less healthy pork fat), 60% more poultry, 30% more beef and 25% more wheat, and these are merely the obvious foods. Scores of niches have expanded dramatically: people are drinking four times as much wine, for example. And yet even with all this growth, people in China still, on average, consume only one-third as much milk and meat as people in wealthy countries such as Australia, America and Britain. The gap is even larger with India, which is also growing fast. Overall, protein intake in Europe and America is unlikely to expand much, but a combination of rising incomes and population in developing countries could increase demand by more than 5% annually for years to come. ‘Once people are accustomed to eating more protein, they won’t take it out of their diet,’ says Mr Caiani.”

Clearly there are issues in the global agricultural sector that need to be addressed. I believe that there will continue to be a robust global agricultural trade, but I also believe that more food needs to be grown locally and regionally. The further food has to be transported the more the cost of that food increases. Borlaug is correct that we need to continue to research and develop tools that will help us to increase world food production. For some this will be a quality of life issue. For others it will not be about quality, but about life itself. I’ll write about those subjects next week.

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