Sun 17 Mar 2013
There is no global crisis of food production. There is no neo-Malthusian reality that we are just now crashing into. Every year, the Earth produces roughly twice the calories needed to feed every single human being. This is why food insecurity and famine are such horrible tragedies, and indeed stains on humanity. There is no unavoidable global shortage that creates famine and hunger.
Nor, in fact, are we likely to be looking at a global food shortage any time soon. There is no doubt that climate change will present challenges to our food system. The combination of changing temperatures and precipitation regimes will challenge existing crops in many parts of the world, and benefit the crops in other parts of the world. Further, the global markets for food have created substantially tighter interconnections between places than ever before, and there is less excess marketable supply than ever before. Note that there is less excess marketable supply – this is the amount of food we produce that actually reaches market, not the total amount of food grown and raised each year. As I will discuss later (point 4: The Future is Already Being Fed), these trends are not as terrifying as some might paint them. The simple point here is that these trends are manageable if we can get over the idea of food security as a question of production.
The idea of scarcity is perhaps the biggest challenge we face in addressing the world’s food needs. As long as food security policy and programs remain focused on solving scarcity, food security will remain focused on technical fixes for hunger: greater technology, greater inputs, greater efficiency. This narrative of scarcity has trumped any reasonable effort to measure actual levels of production in the world today, the return on greater technological inputs versus solving the causes of waste in existing systems, and even served as a useful foil through which to obscure the deepening unsustainability of the very agricultural systems that are often treated as a model, those here in the United States and Europe.
Simply put, it is cheaper and easier to enhance agricultural extension to improve local food storage techniques, build and maintain good roads, and improve electrical grids and other parts of the cold chain that preserves produce from farm to market than it is to completely reengineer an agricultural ecology. It makes far more sense to make basic infrastructural investments than it does to tether ever more farmers to inputs that require finite fossil fuel and mineral resources. It makes more sense to better train farmers in storing what they already produce in a manner that preserves more of the harvest than it does to invest billions in the modification of crops, especially when the bulk of genetic modification in agriculture these days is defensive – that is, guarding against future yield loss, not enhancing yields in the present.
This is not to say that there is no place for agricultural research or technology in achieving food security. There are places in the world where the state cannot provide services, or maintain the basic order necessary for functional markets, that would enable the movement of food are reasonable prices, and where the local environmental conditions are such that new and innovative technologies will be required to make them productive. Here, new agricultural technologies might have a place. But these places are few and far between, and so we should put the push for ever-more agricultural technology into its place as but one of many possible solutions for food insecurity. When a problem has many causes, it requires many solutions. But this requires understanding that the problem has many causes.
This points to several key points/principals:
1) When confronted with an instance of food insecurity, program/project/policy folks must suspend all assumptions about food supply until they can be validated by empirical evidence.
2) Any initial arguments that define the causes of a given situation as scarcity should be assessed in terms of understanding why this has come to be the explanation. Since scarcity is rarely the actual cause of food insecurity, explanations that hinge on scarcity alone are deeply suspect and should be critically evaluated before they are used to shape responses. For example, are there local misperceptions of markets at play, or are there those with vested interests in particular solutions trying to drive the response?
3) Any assessment of the food security of a population should account not only for the amount of food they can access and are entitled to, but also the total food produced both by that population and within that population’s market-shed. This allows for a greater understanding of the causes of food insecurity, such as waste caused by insufficient infrastructural quality or inappropriate on-farm practices, or the failure of the state to provide the necessary structures for functional markets. There is little point to bringing new genetically-modified crops to populations whose real problem is not production, but an inability to get their existing harvest to market.