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Fixing the Food Chain

COPENHAGEN The global food system is in disarray. Four years ago, a 30-year trend of decreasing food prices rapidly reversed course. Grain prices have more than doubled since 2004, and prices for most other foods have increased significantly. Add unsustainable management of natural resources, emerging negative effects of climate change, and sharply rising prices for fertilizers and energy, and we are faced with the most severe global food crisis since the early 1970’s.

Dramatic price hikes reflect several factors: adverse weather in key food production areas, rapid increase in demand for meats and dairy products, higher oil prices, draw-downs of food stocks, greater use of food commodities for bio-fuel, and failure to invest in rural infrastructure, research and technology, and other public goods needed to facilitate agricultural growth in developing countries. The skyrocketing cost of food has resulted in more starvation among the poor, reduced purchasing power among the non-poor, and food riots in more than 30 countries. 

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The key lesson to learn is that insufficient investment in science and inappropriate government policies lead to food crises. To avoid these shortcomings in the future, the world’s farmers and food processors must be helped to produce more food to meet increasing demand fueled by growth in world population and incomes. Moreover, they must produce more with less land and water, at reasonable prices, and without damaging natural resources or worsening climate change.

But are governments getting the message? I believe so. Hunger is not a new phenomenon, but as long as the rural poor endure it in silence, as they have for a long time, governments can comfortably ignore it. Food riots by urban populations, on the other hand, threaten what governments care about the most: their legitimacy.

Developing countries invest only slightly more that 0.5% of the value of their agricultural production in agricultural research. That is grossly inadequate. An increase to 2% is warranted. This would still be less than what high-income countries invest in agricultural research. 

Modern science should focus on sustainable increases in land and water productivity, management of production risks caused by droughts, floods, pests, and on mitigation and adaption to climate change. Drought-tolerant and pest-resistant crop varieties, disease-resistant livestock, and high-yield agricultural production systems that use less water and capture nitrogen from the air are but a few examples of the kind of technologies needed.

More research is also needed to improve the nutritional quality of staple foods by fortifying them with iron, vitamin A, and zinc to help solve widespread micronutrient deficiencies. We must also strengthen food safety from production to consumption, including improvements in our understanding of the interaction between the food system and human health, particularly zoonotic diseases and the effects of pesticides. Research to identify alternative energy sources to stop the conversion of maize, soybeans, oil palm, and other foods to bio-fuel should become another high priority.

Most of the people at risk of hunger and malnutrition live in rural areas. They need access to roads, markets, appropriate institutions and technology, primary health care, and education if they are to escape poverty and hunger and produce more food for an increasing world population. Both public and private investments are needed to provide such access.

Government action is needed to make markets work in developing countries and to give farmers and market agents access to appropriate technology and knowledge.  Unfortunately, rapidly falling food prices during the 30-year period since the food crisis of the early 1970’s gave governments a convenient excuse for doing little or nothing.

Public policy is needed in many other areas, including legislation to incorporate environmental costs into food prices, thereby encouraging sustainable production, as well as incentives and regulations to promote more efficient water use. National and international bio-safety regimes should be implemented to guide the development, application, and trade of modern technology and genetically modified food. Government subsidies that increase the use of food commodities such as maize, soybeans, and palm oil for bio-fuel should be discontinued. 

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International institutions are needed to regulate globalization and ensure trade competition. Trade-distorting agricultural policies, including those in the United States, the European Union, and Japan, should be eliminated. While poverty reduction is the best way to reduce fertility rates, access to reproductive health care is critically important for helping families limit the number of children they have to the number they desire.  

The world’s natural resources are sufficient to produce the food needed in the foreseeable future without damaging the environment, but only if governments follow enlightened policies and science is put to work for the food system.