I was on a panel at the Organic Trade Association‘s research series at the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore last Friday, discussing the issue of organic farming and the need to feed the world.  As I heard over and over from proponents of organic agriculture, the argument “you can’t feed the world on organic” is something thrown at them all the time.  As I argued, though, this is a production-based argument: that is, organic farming often has somewhat lower levels of productivity than industrial farming (though there are several cases where this does not seem to hold, and a number of confounding factors that make it entirely possible that the productivity difference is actually quite small).  Well, that would be a relevant argument if we were already using our food resources carefully.  Except we aren’t.  Consider:

  • We still produce more than enough food globally to feed everyone a very healthy number of calories, and probably enough that those calories could be accompanied by adequate nutrients.  The current problems of food insecurity are primarily about distribution, not production.
  • Anywhere between 20% and 40% of all food grown globally spoils before it reaches market.  The figures are lower for grains (which tend to travel well) and much higher for vegetables.
  • In the US, we throw away roughly 30% of all food we purchase.
  • Consider those two numbers together: In the US, we probably lose a lot less of the crop between farm and purchase at market, but then throw 30% of it away.  In other places, the food that reaches the table is nearly completely eaten, but we could lose up to 40% of that food before it reaches market.  In other words, no matter where you go on Earth, there is a hell of a lot of waste in the food system.
  • Finally, consider that 33% of all farmland is used for animal feed, one of the less efficient ways of getting calories out of the environment.  It is unclear to me if this 33% includes biofuel crops, but in any case biofuels would only add a few percentage points to this at most.

In short, we have distribution problems and an astonishing amount of waste in our food systems, but it seems that a lot of the food security debate in policy circles is driven by production arguments.  Enhancing production is not a low hanging fruit.  Enhancing production is often used as an excuse for ignoring local knowledge and capacity in favor of reworking entire agroecological systems (which usually ends badly).  Those of us working in development would be well-served to consider all the ways we might address hunger, including waste and distribution, rather than focus myopically on one cause for what might be a phantom problem.  Welcome to another central theme of Delivering Development: misunderstanding/misidentifying the development challenge, and then trying to solve the wrong thing.

One caveat: there are places in the world in absolute production crises – that is, they lack market access to facilitate the movement of needed food, and their agricultural systems are no longer resilient in the face of current challenges.  In these places, waste may be less of an issue, and distribution solutions may be years in the future (good infrastructure and markets require good governance, which is no easy fix), and therefore the application of new agricultural technologies might become the low hanging fruit solution for the time being, until the other challenges can be met. It’s about finding the right tool for the job (and knowing exactly what the job is, too).