Can we feed the world? Will we?

by John Quiggin on February 12, 2011

I’m in Melbourne for the conference of the Australian Agricultural & Resource Economics Society (in fact, I’m currently President-elect of the Society[1]. There have been a couple of great papers on long-term food supply from Phil Pardey and Tom Hertel. So, this seems like a good idea to write down some thoughts about (what ought to be, at any rate) the central issue of agricultural economics – whether the global food system can produce enough food for the world and deliver it to those who need it.

Can we feed the world? Will we?

The world’s population is rapidly approaching 7 billion, of whom around 1 billion regularly go hungry. UN projections suggest that the world population is likely to peak at around 9 billion in 2050 (though this number could be in a range from 8 to 10 billion). So, if nothing else changes then to feed those currently hungry and supply the current average to the extra 2 billion or so, we would need to increase global food output by 50 per cent over the next 40 years. The good news is that, based on 20th century experience, that ought not to be hard. The required rate of growth of output is 1 per cent a year, while the rate of multifactor productivity growth in agriculture has been about 2 per cent a year. [2] So, if historical rates of productivity growth continue, and other demands were unchanged, the problem of feeding the world can be solved with our existing arable land and with a continued decline in the number of people working in agriculture.
That was the good news.

The bad news comes in two parts.

First, there are a lot of reasons to think that productivity growth may have slowed, and is likely to slow further. These include

  • Public R&D efforts have declined, and the private sector hasn’t been an adequate substitute. GM crops (largely the product of private companies) have some benefits, but haven’t yet been the panacea that is sometimes claim
  • Some agricultural systems (most fisheries, agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of irrigation) have been operated on an unsustainable basis
  • Energy is a significant input (though not as important as is sometimes supposed) and energy costs are bound to rise
  • Efforts to mitigate climate change may reduce output and/or productivity
  • Climate change will have a net adverse effect on productivity, particularly if warming exceeds 2 degrees

The second part of the bad news is that there will be more demand growth mainly from:

  • People in middle-income countries who want to eat more meat and fruit/vegetables and less rice and wheat
  • Biofuels either derived from food products or competing with agriculture for land

Taken together, these problems make the task of feeding the world much more difficult, but not impossible. To list some of the obvious responses

  • The decline in public R&D spending can and should be reversed, and there is plenty of room for more private efforts such as those of the Gates Foundation – the sums involved are tiny relative to total world income
  • Huge improvements are possible in Africa from better education, communications, transport, adoption of modern practices and technology, along with some focused R& D efforts. The problems of irrigated agriculture are fixable, as my work on the Murray-Darling Basin has shown. Unsustainable fishing can be replaced, to a substantial extent by aquaculture, as discussed in this Scientific American article.
  • Currently, around 30 per cent of food output is lost to various forms of waste. Some of this is inevitable but much, particularly in distribution chains, could be avoided
  • People in developed countries often eat more than is good for them, and the wrong kinds of foods. A simple shift from (grain-fed) beef to chicken would require less grain as feed, cut methane emissions and promote better health

For an economist, it’s natural to consider the role of prices in this. If demand grows faster than supply at current prices, then prices will rise. Some of the resulting adjustments, such as an increase in inputs to agriculture, and more expenditure on R&D will be broadly beneficial. Others, such as lower consumption in poor countries (demand for food in rich countries is not sensitive to prices) will not. Broadly speaking, people on low initial incomes will eat more (or less) food if their income grows faster (slower) than food prices. So, a more equitable distribution of global income would mean less people going hungry, even if the rate of growth of productivity slowed down.

I’ll try to write some more later, but my main message is simple. We can feed the world if we make the right choices. There is no greater moral obligation facing the world as a whole and particularly those of us who are well-fed and live in wealthy countries.

fn1. I’m assured that this position doesn’t call for administrative skills, which I conspicuously lack, as evidenced by the fact that I previously had two instances of footnote 1.

fn2. That shouldn’t be surprising, if you think about it. Food supply per person grew substantially over the 20th century, which implies that production growth outpaced population growth, and most of the production growth was due to productivity, not extra inputs. Population growth is slowing, so if productivity growth continues at the historical rate, the growth in food per person will accelerate.

{ 67 comments }

1

Craig 02.12.11 at 3:37 am

One shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, that ethical questions are entirely absent from your post. I mean the consumption of animals and animal products, of course. Presently, nearly 60 billion land animals are used for food purposes annually, most of those are chickens. Obviously, fish, shellfish, and the like, are left out of that number given that their yield tends to be measured in tonnes. Even if one does not adopt a perspective wherein the legitimacy of using animals in such a way is rejected, you are still left with the fact that the current means of production are deemed to be, at best, evil.

If feeding people is a real concern, doing so should not be done through animal based agriculture: the conversion rates of plant matter and water to meat protein and calories is exceptionally inefficient. There’s more than enough plant matter to go around right now to adequately feed the world–and into the future.

2

Anonymoose 02.12.11 at 4:20 am

@Craig

“Even if one does not adopt a perspective wherein the legitimacy of using animals in such a way is rejected, you are still left with the fact that the current means of production are deemed to be, at best, evil.”

What?

“the conversion rates of plant matter and water to meat protein and calories is exceptionally inefficient.”

Animals convert plant matter that humans can’t. You can’t take a cow’s diet and stick it in an African hungry kid. Even if you could, the kid probably couldn’t afford it. Which leads us to…

@John

I find the way you frame the problem highly problematic. I neither think “we” have an obligation to feed the world nor that “we” could simply decide to do it if we wanted to. You present the issue as a supply problem: we produce X, we’re going to need 1.5X, what can we do about it? The issue, however, is whether hungry people can afford to buy it. Because if they can, it will be produced. Which you touch on…

“For an economist, it’s natural to consider the role of prices in this. If demand grows faster than supply at current prices, then prices will rise. Some of the resulting adjustments, such as an increase in inputs to agriculture, and more expenditure on R&D will be broadly beneficial. Others, such as lower consumption in poor countries (demand for food in rich countries is not sensitive to prices) will not. Broadly speaking, people on low initial incomes will eat more (or less) food if their income grows faster (slower) than food prices. So, a more equitable distribution of global income would mean less people going hungry, even if the rate of growth of productivity slowed down.”

Genius! If people in developing countries can just become richer, they will afford to buy food! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? Now the ONLY thing we need to do is promote growth in underdeveloped nations. Oh, wait….

So the whole post essentially boils down to yet another pointless call to help underdeveloped countries, with no specific suggestions on how to achieve it, which will be misinterpreted by some as a call for yet more completely useless foreign aid. And as you all sit in front of your computers, in your cozy homes, and type your posts and comments on how it is the greatest moral obligation to help these people, (perhaps denouncing me as evil), I’m just going to direct you to Unger’s magnificent “Living High and Letting Die”. If only we could feed hungry people with cognitive dissonance!

3

John Quiggin 02.12.11 at 4:36 am

In writing the post, I anticipated pointlessly worldweary snark like #2, but not how much it would piss me off. Please don’t comment here again.

4

desipis 02.12.11 at 5:02 am

First, there are a lot of reasons to think that productivity growth may have slowed, and is likely to slow further.

There are two additional concerns that I have resulting from casual observation. The first is the notion of “peak phosphorus” and any other dependency on non-renewable resources. The second is the risks associated with the continual decline of agricultural diversity, something that is aggravated by GM production to a certain extent.

Energy is a significant input (though not as important as is sometimes supposed) and energy costs are bound to rise.

I also think it’s important to consider not just the energy cost but also the cost of requisite infrastructure change to accommodate alternative forms of energy. Those least able to handle the increases in energy costs are going to be those least able to change to alternative energy forms.

5

piglet 02.12.11 at 5:49 am

“most of the production growth was due to productivity, not extra inputs”

What do you mean by that? It could have been done without fertilizer and irrigation?

— Currently, by FAO statistics the world produces enough calories to feed 8 billion people. If a billion people go hungry even though there is no food supply shortage, then it is mysterious to me why increasing supply is always the first response cited in discussions about world hunger, and especially that 50% figure (which I keep seeing) appears unjustifiable and highly misleading. The challenge is not so much to produce more than to better distribute it. As you note, waste reduction is also a big issue.

It is said that agricultural productivity has grown 2% per year for the past 50 years. But actually when you look at the FAO data, production growth in cereals, maize and soybeans has been *linear*. Cereal yields per ha have increased 150%, and total production 168%, between 1961 and 2007 but the trend line is clearly linear, not exponential. That means that even if the growth trend continues, it will be slower in fractional terms. Of course, there never was any reason to expect agricultural yields to grow exponentially. It’s a common convention to express growth in fractional terms but it can be highly misleading when growth is not actually exponential.

6

Tim Worstall 02.12.11 at 8:36 am

Re energy: two very different energy inputs into the food system. Oil for the tractors etc, and natural gas for the fertilizer (the Haber Process uses gas).

I can see the oil getting more expensive, but I think the way to bet on gas is for prices to decline in real terms as a result of shale gas. Predictions, especially about the future, are difficult of course, but that’s the way I would call that one.

7

Linca 02.12.11 at 11:22 am

Also, yields per ha is not what is currently being optimized by most of “The West” agriculture, but yields per man hour – wouldn’t more labor intensive agriculture be vastly more productive ? In the same way, land reform would probably help – best productivity (per ha) is mostly achieved in family sized farms, not in the larger latifundia…

This is not just a nitpick : Vietnam instantly went from food importer to mass exporter whenit decollectivised in the eighties, despite some of the highest rural densities in the world (denser than your average US suburb…)

8

Akshay 02.12.11 at 12:18 pm

Prof. Quiggin: Could you recommend any good overview reports/articles on this important topic? I know of this review in Science, which focuses mostly on the technological aspect. (and concludes it is immensely complicated)

One piece of bad news not mentioned in the post is the unsustainability, in some unknown long run, of our fertiliser-based agricultural system, due to the nitrogen cascade.

More local unsustainability issues are also truly nasty, especially when linked with water/irrigation. IIRC in India, agricultural land area is declining while population is increasing. In some areas farmers use more water than falls down annually. This can’t end well, indeed is already ending in despair and death for many of the poorest.

9

Barry 02.12.11 at 1:05 pm

Craig
” One shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, that ethical questions are entirely absent from your post.”

John Quiggin, in the original post (bolding added by me):

“We can feed the world if we make the right choices. There is no greater moral obligation facing the world as a whole and particularly those of us who are well-fed and live in wealthy countries.”

10

piglet 02.12.11 at 3:13 pm

Good points Linca:

Also, yields per ha is not what is currently being optimized by most of “The West” agriculture, but yields per man hour – wouldn’t more labor intensive agriculture be vastly more productive ? In the same way, land reform would probably help – best productivity (per ha) is mostly achieved in family sized farms, not in the larger latifundia…

Good article by George Monbiot: http://www.monbiot.com/2008/06/10/small-is-bountiful/

11

piglet 02.12.11 at 3:23 pm

A few more links to share:

Royal Society theme issue Theme issue ‘Food security: feeding the world in 2050′
http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1554.toc

Science theme issue ‘Feeding the future’
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/327/5967/797

Rice yiedls falling under global warming
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-10918591
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/07/26/1001222107.abstract

The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact
http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007940

12

piglet 02.12.11 at 3:23 pm

Link moderation?

13

Omega Centauri 02.12.11 at 3:36 pm

Perhaps one problem that isn’t being addressed (I’m not an expert so I might be wrong), is the effect of annual variability. Climate Chaos last year has caused shortfalls this year which are likely to cause a damaging price spike this year are an example. It may well be that world agriculture can respond to longterm price signals and increase production accordingly, but if the reaction time of the system is too long to cover a couple of bad harvests, we could end up with a severe humanitarian crisis.

Longer term phosphorus is an issue. Current agriculutural and sanitation practices mean we are mining finite deposits of phosphorus, and letting it flow as waste into the oceans as dissolved matter. I think we have roughly a hundred years supply. We need to think about how we can get to a longterm sustainable phosphorus economy.

14

Cranky Observer 02.12.11 at 4:07 pm

> Energy is a significant input (though not as important as is sometimes
> supposed) and energy costs are bound to rise

I would be interested if you have a more detailed development on this point, and also the point of soil depletion. I have relatives who perform large-scale farming in the North American Midwest corn belt, and my observations are that they use very large quantities of petrochemicals in multiple forms at all stages of production. Are there equally productive farming methods under development or in use that don’t require such large amounts of petroleum?

The vehicle fuels could possibly be replaced with soy-based synthetic diesel, but doing so would lead us to my second concern: again based on my personal observation of many US Midwest graveyards (those being the plots of land that are the most undisturbed since the European settlers arrived and started farming), over the last 160 years the the US corn belt has lost about 30 cm of its topsoil; generally about half of the total. In the last 20 years some soil-conserving practices have been introduced, but again my observation (which is consistent with my industrial work in semi-rural areas of the same region) is that when it comes to a choice of conserving more soil or getting more yield out this year, more yield always wins out. If it doesn’t cost anything to use the conservation methods, sure, why not, but when it does cost something (and it does most years) then it doesn’t get done.

Cranky

15

Sev 02.12.11 at 4:12 pm

#9 piglet Although these are 2003 figures, China’s wheat production 30% higher per hectare than US, tending to reinforce the point:
http://www.nue.okstate.edu/Crop_Information/World_Wheat_Production.htm

Challenges to future food production also include this:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=phosphorus-a-looming-crisis

16

Oliver 02.12.11 at 4:26 pm

demand for food in rich countries is not sensitive to prices
a more equitable distribution of global income would mean less people going hungry
Taken together you are proposing a major increase in the global elasticity of food prices, leading to wild swings in food prices.

17

piglet 02.12.11 at 5:53 pm

“It may well be that world agriculture can respond to longterm price signals and increase production accordingly, but if the reaction time of the system is too long to cover a couple of bad harvests, we could end up with a severe humanitarian crisis.”

Price volatility is a huge issue and it is going to become more of an issue due to the climate going crazy. When prices drop below production cost one year and weather-induced price spikes cause famines the next, only speculators win. Food producers, especially small producers in poor countries, need a reliable and sufficient income or they will go out of business. That is a big part of food security. Apparently the market cannot provide that kind of security. Non-market mechanisms are needed.

There is a lot of important information in the report by Jean Ziegler as UN special rapporteur for food security (http://www.righttofood.org/). He showed for example how IMF-induced deregulation in poor countries did away with many sensible and successful policies that were supporting small producers. Unfortunately there is also a lot of misguided government intervention that doesn’t help. The typical focus of a lot of government policies is on making food cheap, which is counterproductive (especially in rich countries). Cheap food has led us to forget the importance of farmers. Economists are among the worst culprits, some even arguing that we don’t really need agriculture given its small contribution to GDP…

At 13: Phosphorus, the looming Crisis: http://www.comste.gov.ph/images/files/Phosphorus-Looming%20Crisis.pdf

18

Colin Reid 02.12.11 at 8:36 pm

There’s also the projection that most of the population increase will end up concentrated in the slums and shanty towns of large cities in the world’s least developed countries. We could soon reach a peak in the world’s population of farmers if we haven’t already. What effect will this have on food production and distribution?

19

floopmeister 02.12.11 at 10:11 pm

Colin,

I’ve submitted a piece to ‘City’ journal and three local councils here in Melbourne on exactly this issue. Large cities produce one thing in abundance and unendingly – human shit. This is wonderful fertiliser and can be used to produce food on even really unsuitable soil.

Don’t want to get into the detail here but I’m using the insights of military/counter-insurgency theory (the fragile nature of our dependence on oil for agriculture) to produce agricultural produce on marginal land within the urban environment – in fact ONLY within the urban environment as this is where the concentrated volume of human waste gives the economy of scale that it needs. It’s been done at Gennevilliers on the outskirts of Paris since the 1860’s, BTW.

One other point: in terms of energy for agriculture the pre-industrial farm in rural England was 20 times more efficient in terms of energy inputs and outputs than a modern industrial farm (‘Cities’ by John Reader). The work of Joseph Tainter on energy inputs and social complexity is well worth reading (‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’).

20

Dennis 02.13.11 at 12:40 am

Is there a good paper or source on the amount of energy inputs into agriculture?

21

Omega Centauri 02.13.11 at 1:49 am

Apparently the market cannot provide that kind of security. Non-market mechanisms are needed.
Thats what makes me so pessimistic (aside from contemplating Malthus). At least on this side of the pond “the market is the ONLY way”, has been so successfully implanted into the brains of the people, that any other suggestions are almost unthinkable. I don’t think this mental restriction is nearly as advanced elsewhere, but I fear that successful propaganda tactics can be copied elsewhere. And the two things a pure market solution won’t do are (1) solve distribution inequities. And (2) buildup a large buffer of grain in case of a couple of bad years. It’s also horrendously bad at long term planning.

22

Charles St. Pierre 02.13.11 at 4:55 am

Oliver @16: I think you mean increase in inelasticity in food prices, leading to wild swings in food prices. Inelastic is the steep demand curve, large change in price with small change in quantity. This could, (and should be countered, anyway,) by building up substantial reserves, like the US strategic oil reserve. This woud also smooth things out for the farmers, who face a difficult time anticipating the market as it is presently constituted. Like Omega Centauri, I don’t think this is something the market would do, but must be done by governments. Or a supra-governmental agency?

It’s interesting, and somewhat perverse, that the poor, because of their greater elasticity of demand, presently constitute a moderating influence on the price swings of food, and also long range increases in food prices, and that the richer nations take advantage of this. The poor probably increase the elasticity of and smooth many markets.

Long range, I must be more pessimistic. Where the most advanced nations are often still hostage to the outdated admonition to “be fruitful and multiply,” it is difficult to imagine more… restrained behavior from people in less developed countries.

23

piglet 02.13.11 at 6:58 am

Dennis 20: a starting point might be http://www.sciencemag.org/content/327/5967/809.full.

24

Chris Bertram 02.13.11 at 7:52 am

_If feeding people is a real concern, doing so should not be done through animal based agriculture: the conversion rates of plant matter and water to meat protein and calories is exceptionally inefficient._

Well sort of. Except that some animals (sheep, goats) will live where you can’t grow plants efficiently.

25

Tim Worstall 02.13.11 at 10:26 am

Re phosphorous recovery from human sewage.

Already being done:

http://www.ostara.com/

No, I’ve no connection with them but an observation from someone in the weird metals game. To a certain extent the metals industry is moving towards what Blueprint for Survival was insisting we should do all those decades ago. Move from a flow economy to a stock economy.

It’s easy enough for me to overstate this but there is definitely a movement towards not ripping up another mine to get at something and instead look at how something already above ground might be reprocessed. And when not that, of looking at what there is in small amounts in what we’re already digging up and working out how to extract that rather than going looking for it elsewhere.

I’ve already mentiond on another thread here people looking for germanium in fly ash from coal burning. The same stuff is also used as a substitute for cement (you can add 40% fly ash to cement thus saving 40% of your new cement production). One of the old Cornish tin mines has just announced that it will be reopening. But instead of just going for the tin, they’ll extract the silver, gold, indium and zinc as well. Processing technology has advanced sufficiently to make this worthwhile.

And the biggie is probably the iron/steel industry. The biggest change in recent decades has been the closing/bankruptcy of the big integrated blast furnace producers in the advanced world and their replacement by scrap processors. US Steel, Behtlehm, etc, have been crushed by companies like Nucor,. There’s very little production of iron from iron ore in the industrialised countries now (compared to the new/scrap ratio of 50 years ago): certainly, it’s a generally accepted wisdom that no new blast furnaces will ever be built in them.

26

floopmeister 02.13.11 at 11:25 am

Tim,

That’s interesting and great to see it happening – but still being done at a centralised location. That fertiliser still has to be distributed to where it will be used. I’m hoping to do something a little more radical – use the sewerage system to distribute raw untreated fertiliser to localised gardens around urban areas to promote food security at a local level.

If you’re looking for an example I’d probably use China – around 90% of human sewerage receives no treatment before being diverted onto the fields to grow crops (Reader, ‘Cities’).

Why use a large middleman factory to retrieve phosphates so that they then need to be redistributed to where the food is to be grown? Why not use the sewers to distribute the fertiliser to where the food will be both grown and then consumed?

27

Adrian 02.13.11 at 3:01 pm

When reading this article I thought that it missed part of the point. Although it touched on it in couple times but I don’t believe it was properly articulated.

As a younger person concerned about the food that I eat and food security it seems to me that a large part of the problem would be reforming land use in the developed world. And this has been brought up here, e.g. meat consumption per capita is enormously energy intensive, management intensive systems are more productive than energy intensive systems, using human waste as a direct input for urban agriculture (why not the vast amounts of table scraps too).

There seems to be problems with our agricultural practice at every turn, and yet I can’t help but feel like this article supports the over arching structure of it. Maybe my opinion is somewhat naive, seeing as how I didn’t grow up through the green revolution, but I can’t help but feel like trying to apply western practices else where in the world could produce anything but failure. We can’t even set up democracies there!

The amount of pollution it produces is unmitigated. Have you seen pictures of algae blooms? Fish kills in the united states due to raw animal sewage being dumped rivers. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100305-baltic-sea-algae-dead-zones-water/

“Unsustainable fishing can be replaced, to a substantial extent by aquaculture, as discussed in this Scientific American article.”
Sea lice linked to aquaculture are decimating wild fish stocks. This is not sustainable. http://www.goodfoodworld.com/2010/12/farmed-salmon-and-sea-lice-whats-killing-wild-pink-salmon/

The colorado river already doesn’t reach the sea. http://www.counterpunch.org/colorado.html

Why would we ever want to reproduce this elsewhere? I guess the answer is to stop millions of people to starving to death. However I agree with some of the other readers we must use increased labour to increase yields. Maybe western governments should implement 2 years of mandatory woofing. Woofing = volunteering as agricultural labour on organic farms (cheap way to travel!). My personal response to this quandary is to dumpster dive.

28

Omega Centauri 02.13.11 at 3:31 pm

floopmeister:
Modern sewage infrastructure was introduced as a public health measure. Using raw sewage has epidemiological consequences. So we need to develop a new paradigm, that adresses both public health, and recycling of nutrients.

We used recycle phosphorus from the sea to the land via fishing, and burial of fish remains. But, given that fish stocks have been unsustainably mined to near oblivian, I don’t think thi avenue will be available.

29

MJ 02.13.11 at 4:30 pm

A colleague referred me to this post. Thanks so much for your reflections and analysis.

I’m working on my doctoral dissertation at GW on (broadly) some political dimensions of global hunger and thought I might add in a couple other political concerns underlying the problem of global hunger.

1. How we define hunger and how we measure it is significant in this debate. For an excellent analysis of this see Anna Herforth’s chapter in Per Pinstrup-Andersen’s (2010) new edited volume on African food security. In short, the FAO determines the hunger rates that scholars and practitioners use by looking at available calories in the given country. This gives incentives to domestic policymakers to encourage ag production in starchy foods to inflate the statistic and “check off” the need to seriously address food security among their population. How we come up with what we think “counts” as hunger and how we measure it is inherently political and will affect whether or not we actually improve the food condition (in terms of nutrition) or just pretend to (looking at empty calories).

2. I keep thinking back to Amartya Sen’s comment on “food entitlements.” It’s always interesting to me to see the UN FAO, WFP, and policymakers from developed and developing countries alike push for more ag production as a solution to the problem. In reality, of course, we already have a ridiculous surplus of food stuffs that will never reach the world’s hungry. This is because (though I leave it to the economists for greater analysis) most of the world’s hungry can’t “demand” food. They can’t afford it. And prices will never drop low enough on their own, as policymakers will always have an incentive to keep prices above a certain level (and/or subsidize the farmers directly). I think it’s a myth that without serious income programs we can address food shortages with increased production. On this point it’d be worth comparing most of Europe’s response to domestic hunger (as met through income supplements) where virtually no food banks exist on the streets to the US response (lots of food banks, a national food stamp program, but weak on income assistance). Haven’t done this myself, but would be interesting.

3. Finally, it’s interesting to note that beyond the vague “we need to produce more food,” I don’t think there is a consensus on how to “solve” global hunger. Whether or not we ever will feed the world depends on the outcome of some very, very, political conversations and tugging and pulling between business interests and “principled” NGOs. There is a lot at stake here for businesses. Do we solve hunger by easing fishing restrictions (the fisheries would think so!)? IOs purchasing and distributing more fertilizer (fertilizer companies gave a lovely $1 million donation to the FAO in 1960 after the FAO produced a report saying that increased fertilizer use would be a good measure to solving world hunger)? Easing intellectual property restrictions on hybrid seeds or GMOs? Returning to small-scale env.-friendly farming (the environmental NGOs are often at odds with many other voices in this hunger debate)? These debates take time and resources away from acting on the problem and yet will be unavoidable.

Am running out the door but thought I’d just post these few thoughts. Thanks for letting me join in!

30

gmoke 02.13.11 at 7:41 pm

2/9/11
Lester Brown at Harvard
World on the Edge
Natural scientists know that business as usual has no future but economists and businesses see only growth, an extension of the past
How much water will it take to double the world economy? How much food?
Food is the weak link now and it could tip into failure any time now
Russian heat wave last summer reduced the wheat crop by 40% from 100 million tons to 60 million. If that heat had centered on Chicago, US wheat would have gone from 400 million tons to 240 million tons
Previously, these were singular events with the climate going back to normal which is not the case now
Water is being over pumped in four of the major grain producing nations and Saudi Arabia has been over pumping to increase yields and now cannot maintain that irrigation
Arab Middle East grain production declining because of lack of water
In agriculturally advanced countries yields have plateaued. No growth in Japanese rice production in 14 years, European wheat has also
2 billion ton world grain harvest annually now with 100 million ton growth to maintain the growing population each year
Indicators: grain prices, number of hungry and malnourished, number of failing states
We will soon be forced to redefine security from pure military terms to climate change pop growth water food prices failed states
We need: Carbon down by 80% by 2020; World pop at 8 billion; End poverty; Restore ecological systems
Carbon paid for by lowering income taxes while raising carbon tax, replacement probably through wind
Doable if we wish to
$200 billion a year to do it (world or US?) a third of US military budget
FAO food price index at historic high levels and don’t look to come down
Rising food prices may be the one thing that gets our focus and a wake up call
The kinds of things we need to sustain civilization
Mobilize politically

Q and A
Models of social change: Berlin wall – build up to unrecognized tipping point, pearl harbor – significant event that changes things overnight, sandwich – grassroots interest at the bottom and support for change at the same time (Obama?)
Raise water productivity in order to deal with food problem. Real water prices, irrigation (70% of all water use), less water intensive crops, water recycling for cities is entirely doable now
Nuclear energy is out on purely economic basis. Even France is not projecting replacement plants
Climate refugees – UN doesn’t recognize the designation and this will be an extremely difficult problem
Arable land constraints – we are up against the limits in terms of available land and increasing crop yields
Education – we need specialists but we also need across discipline thinkers

31

floopmeister 02.13.11 at 10:57 pm

Omega – Abolutely true that there are health concerns, but the fact is that such a program has been running in Paris since the 1860’s/70’s – it was only wound down to a much lower level due to increases in land value due to the growth of Paris.

Here’s the section from “Cities’ – it gives a good general overview of the system:

“A system of pipes and pumps had been set up to irrigate 6 ha of plots with liquified manure, and forty volunteer farmers were invited to raise crops on it for free. The results astonished farmers, engineers and visitors alike. In July 1870, another 165 farmers petitioned Paris for an extension of the scheme. Word spread, scepticism vanished. Napoleon III made an ‘incognito’ inspection, and left with an abundance of fine vegetables for his table.
And while consumers marvelled at the fine vegetables that could be grown on poor land irrigated with liquefied sewage, sanitary engineers had discovered that the fine sandy soil was capable of filtering and purifying the sewage water too. Each day for a month they had poured 10 litres of liquified sewage into a 2 metre deep cistern filled with sand and soil from Gennevilliers, and drawn a stream of clear water from the bottom. Not only clear, but found in comparative tests to be even purer than water which had been chemically treated.
With the discovery that filtration was the simplest and best method of purification, plans went ahead for the extension of sewage farming at Gennevillers – though from the sanitary engineers point of view agriculture was a secondary consideration; they saw the irrigated land as a series of filtration beds and devised a system which would feed the liquefied sewage into the soil at plant root level and draw off the filtered water some metres below ground.
From the Clichy collector the sewage was pumped to Gennevilliers via pipes fixed underneath bridges over the Seine. It arrived at an elevation of 3.5 m, at a rate of 800 litres per second. Gravity distributed the sewage through an extensive network of pipes and ducts, soaking the soil but never coming into contact with stems and leaves. Drainpipes, laid 4 m underground, collected this filtered water and directed it back to the Seine.
By the late 1890’s Paris was irrigating some 5,000 ha at Gennevilliers. Each hectare received about 40,000 m3 of sewage per day and was capable of producing up to 40,000 cabbages, 60,000 artichokes or 100 t. of sugar beet. Spinach, beans, peas, celery, onions, asparagus, lettuce, strawberries – virtually everything flourished. The best hotels in Paris clamoured for vegetables from Gennevilliers…
But the system was ultimately overwhelmed by the growth of the cities it served. As land values soared and pumping sewage to more distant sites proved technically demanding, sewage irrigation as a means of filtration and disposal became increasingly uneconomic… Nonetheless, 2,000 hectares of sewage farms were still producing vegetables for Paris in the 1980’s – though they used only about 5% of the sewage from just one of the several plants handling the sewage from Paris and its suburbs.”

The trick is to shrink the scale to a local (suburb) level to remove the need for a petrol-based distribution system, which is one setback with the whole centralised industrial model mentioned by Tim above. The model of Havana is insturctive – they produce a large apercentage of the food they conasume within their urban boundaries, removing the need for a districution system.

32

Craig 02.14.11 at 2:12 am

24: “Well sort of. Except that some animals (sheep, goats) will live where you can’t grow plants efficiently.”

The relevance of proximity is not entirely clear, unless you are buying into the discredited notion of “food miles.” Rice and lentils, for instance, are exceptional durable goods, especially when dried.

33

Tim Worstall 02.14.11 at 10:04 am

“Modern sewage infrastructure was introduced as a public health measure. Using raw sewage has epidemiological consequences. So we need to develop a new paradigm, that adresses both public health, and recycling of nutrients.”

That specific phosphorous recycling system I mentioned actually started out as an attempt to stop the sewage works gumming up. “Struvite” (no, me neither) builds up as a scale on the inside of the pipes and this was originally designed as a method of reducing that build up. But it turns out that it concentrates the phosphorous and thus can be used to make fertilisers.

34

floopmeister 02.14.11 at 10:52 am

Well I thought I was enjoying this conversation but a whole post of mine has been removed.

Any reason why?

35

dsquared 02.14.11 at 11:17 am

#30: I think Chris was making the point that there are places like Snowdonia where no sort of arable farming at all is possible (and where water is not exactly in short supply), but where sheep can graze, so why not eat them?

36

Chris 02.14.11 at 1:20 pm

I agree with Omega Centauri: we’re already feeding the people with money rather well, but market solutions are always going to be inadequate at meeting the needs of people without money because that’s just how markets operate. Need isn’t demand; need *plus the ability to pay* is demand.

So yes, we can feed the world, but we won’t, because some of the world can’t afford to pay for the food. What do you think we are, some kind of global communists?

37

piglet 02.14.11 at 5:10 pm

“Well sort of. Except that some animals (sheep, goats) will live where you can’t grow plants efficiently.”

Of course, and sheep and goats can be quite destructive to the environment. The argument about the inefficiency of raising meat is correct in general and the destructive consequences of livestock industry are amply documented (cf. the FAO report Livestock’s long shadow, http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM). Of course it depends on how it’s done. Current practices, especially CAFO-type mass production, are clearly unsustainable and a sustainable level of meat production would probably be lower than it is today but there are also important synergies between cropping and livestock husbandry. Michael Pollan has given some good examples (e. g. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95896389) how Mixed Crop-Livestock agriculture can be both efficient and environmentally sound. I think he makes the argument that livestock is actually indispensable for a sustainable (closed loop) food system.

Some other refs:
Livestock: Thornton, P. K. 2010 Livestock production: recent trends, future prospects. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 2853–2867. (doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0134)

Herrero et al. 2010: Smart Investments in Sustainable Food Production: Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems, Science 327: 822-825 (Special section Food Security, February 12, 2010, http://www.sciencemag.org/special/foodsecurity/)

38

Stuart 02.14.11 at 5:38 pm

Thats what makes me so pessimistic (aside from contemplating Malthus). At least on this side of the pond “the market is the ONLY way”, has been so successfully implanted into the brains of the people, that any other suggestions are almost unthinkable.

Well even if in theory it is unthinkable, in practise there tends to be huge amounts of subsidies into most types of agriculture to ensure food is oversupplied in most developed economies. A couple of examples are that in 2006 the CAP’s budget was €50b (almost half of the EU budget at the time), although that is supposedly coming down a bit. I seem to remember at one point the government subsidies on most fish you could buy in the supermarket were more than the price (thus the subsidies were over 50% of the total costs at retail, and presumably a much larger proportion before the processors and supermarkets take their cut).

39

ajay 02.14.11 at 5:39 pm

We used recycle phosphorus from the sea to the land via fishing, and burial of fish remains.

ISTR research showing that a truly unbelievable amount of P circulation in British Columbia depends on salmon growing in the sea, swimming upstream and being eaten by bears. Seriously, I think it was about 80% or something.

40

Craig 02.14.11 at 6:34 pm

33: Which brings us back to the morality of doing so (neglected entirely in subsequent discussion): on the whole, a rather dubious enterprise.

But the proximity argument remains beside the point: I live near Ottawa. As with most North Americans, the vast majority of soybeans and corn produced locally go into cattle feed, usually shipped some great distance after harvest. Put in other terms, it is easy to feed entire cities without nearby agricultural production.

41

Omega Centauri 02.14.11 at 8:31 pm

I think some comenters are misunderstanding the point about using grazers on land that is unsuitable for crops. The goal is not to make these lands inhabitable, by creating a local foodsource. The idea of having grazing on nonarrable land is to incrementally increase the global food supply. As long as we don’t feed cattle (or chickens or whatever) with foodstuffs diverted from the direct human foodchain, such grazers represent a net increase in the human food supply. (I know that this is not the current rich world paradigm), but it does represent a reasonable (and ethical) enterprise.

As an example. If we refuse to eat seaweed, then sustainable fishing represents an increase in food supply as compared to no fishing.

42

John Quiggin 02.14.11 at 8:38 pm

@floopmeister: Your post went into automoderation. I’ve retrieved it.

43

roac 02.14.11 at 9:57 pm

a truly unbelievable amount of P circulation in British Columbia depends on salmon growing in the sea, swimming upstream and being eaten by bears

What a setup for a straight line: “And what do the bears do then?”

44

Salient 02.14.11 at 10:48 pm

As long as we don’t feed cattle (or chickens or whatever) with foodstuffs diverted from the direct human foodchain, such grazers represent a net increase in the human food supply. (I know that this is not the current rich world paradigm), but it does represent a reasonable (and ethical) enterprise.

Not necessarily; what if the negative consequences of that enterprise exceed the positive contributions? I don’t want to try and make an argument about either, but at least a priori there’s plenty of reason why marginally productive and nontrivially destructive economic activity could be unreasonable or unethical.

45

roy belmont 02.15.11 at 12:33 am

Constant assertion from big-Ag hustle: “We’re feeding the world!” With GM frankenfoods monocrops artificial soil chemistries etc etc ad nauseum cetera.
But hey, it’s food. Sort of.
Constant, metastasizing image of big-Ag in practice:
Sterile landscapes of endless rows of robot-like crops, land completely void of humans and human things, except the high-tech equipment and minimum-wage labor necessary to produce the bottom line.
Once again the empire does precisely the opposite of what it says it’s doing, while doing exactly what it says. Feeding the world and simultaneously removing human beings from the landscape.
Feeding whoever’s left, maybe.
Back to the milpa, kids.

46

floopmeister 02.15.11 at 12:51 am

Thanks John.

47

novakant 02.15.11 at 12:05 pm

Of course it depends on how it’s done.

Indeed. Humans have been raising livestock for some 10.000 years, the techniques and consumption habits that threaten sustainability are less than 100 years old. We simply need consume less meat and abandon or modify those techniques.

48

Auntiegrav 02.15.11 at 1:00 pm

Regardless of the number of people, the question should always be, “What are people FOR?”
Humans need to learn to give back more to nature than they take from it (as other species do automatically in a balanced ecosystem).
If they do, then the numbers won’t matter so much. If they don’t, the numbers won’t matter either. One way or another, nature will solve this dilemma, whether we like the solution or not. It is purely up to humanity to act in ways that they deserve the food they eat. Morals, beliefs, money don’t matter: actions do.
Do be do be do.

49

Auntiegrav 02.15.11 at 1:57 pm

We have spent the last 100 years or so replacing the “drudgery” of human labor on the land with machines and chemicals (thereby removing the value of human beings and assigning it to an unsustainable commodity: petroleum).
As petroleum becomes inaccessible (either scarcity or price), these devalued humans can do one of two things: find their own value to their own futures, or be discarded. When they wait for answers from “on high”, they sign their own death warrant.
Tunisia and Egypt show us the discord between the values of people and the values of The System of systems. Every time we make life a little bit “easier” for a human being, the human being loses a little more of their usefulness. Domestication does the same things to people that it does to other animals. Humans claim to be so intelligent, yet work so hard not to show it. They have used petroleum to overproduce humans, and now wonder why they feel like so much surplus confetti. Any farmer knows that you can’t keep more calves than you can feed. If you do, the ones you keep slowly starve to death. Humans don’t even utilize their manure properly! How dumb is THAT?
Maybe if we managed the real human/animal resources at least as well as we manage cattle resources, we could understand a little more about how to ‘fit’ our environment.

50

reason 02.15.11 at 2:25 pm

Tim Worsall @6
“I can see the oil getting more expensive, but I think the way to bet on gas is for prices to decline in real terms as a result of shale gas. Predictions, especially about the future, are difficult of course, but that’s the way I would call that one.”

This I find coming from Tim Worsall incredibly naive. Gas and oil are close substitutes (even in the medium term) and Gas has the advantage of producing less CO2 (when governments eventually get around to taxing it). Even if we ignore the known risk that shale gas will be a short lived expediant – won’t close substitutes always converge in price.

51

reason 02.15.11 at 2:29 pm

By the way regarding animals – Monbiot puts the arguments very clearly here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/06/meat-production-veganism-deforestation

52

chris 02.15.11 at 2:30 pm

Humans have been raising livestock for some 10.000 years, the techniques and consumption habits that threaten sustainability are less than 100 years old.

Uh… any number of ancient societies collapsed their local ecosystems. I don’t quite know what you mean by “sustainability” that would make this sentence even arguably true.

53

piglet 02.15.11 at 6:50 pm

Thanks for the link reason.

54

Matt 02.15.11 at 10:49 pm

In rich countries food production, and a great many other activities, is based on unsustainable use of fossil fuels. This is both unsustainable in the sense that there are destructive consequences to use that compromise the future and in the sense that availability of fuels is limited, even if many people would like to continue business as usual until the oceans fizz with CO2 like seltzer.

It does not follow, though, that future agriculture in presently rich nations will eventually return to pre-industrial labor intensity and fertilization practices. Solar + wind + hydro may provide an order of magnitude less energy than fossil fuels, but that’s still orders of magnitude more than you can get out of plants plus draft animals and humans working in the fields. A single wind turbine could fix a couple metric tons of atmospheric nitrogen per day if its energy were used to split hydrogen from water. If its electrical output were transferred to motors, even with battery charging and conversion losses along the way, the mechanical work available is equivalent to tens of thousands of laborers or thousands of horses eating tons of food. There is tremendous energy available through renewables, and it only looks paltry to people who are already accustomed to even greater riches (which are now casually wasted).

This is merely a tangent to the larger question, of course. It is technically easy to adequately feed everyone now living, but many still go hungry. Incremental technological change will not solve this problem.

55

Tim Worstall 02.16.11 at 8:57 am

“won’t close substitutes always converge in price.”

The current activity is that these close subsitutes are diverging in price. Gas has traditionally been priced against oil. That’s just how the long term contracts have worked: oil price goes up, contractual price for gas goes up.

Shale is changing this (and isn’t Gazprom pissed about it). We’re now increasingly seeing gas being priced on the supply and demand for gas, delinking from the oil price.

56

reason 02.16.11 at 10:22 am

It won’t go on for any time. If it did, people will start replacing oil heating with gas heaters and converting to or buying new LPG cars. They are too close as substitutes for divergence to go on for any time. The only way it can happen if is people don’t believe either the price of gas or the price of oil will stay as they are.

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reason 02.16.11 at 10:23 am

And Tim you must KNOW that! I may not always agree with you, but I regard you as intelligent.

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reason 02.16.11 at 10:25 am

P.S. I like that idea – a price can only diverge if people think it won’t. A paradox like that must have a name! Anybody know it?

59

Natilo Paennim 02.16.11 at 11:56 am

I haven’t had time to read all of the (no doubt excellent) linked articles, so this is perhaps a bit ex recto for such an erudite discussion, but it seems to me that there are two separate but related issues at play here. Namely, current food insecurity and predicted worsening food insecurity in the future. It doesn’t necessarily hold that solving the former will automatically solve the latter.

However, it seems clear to me, based on reading diverse sources over the years, that one of the ideas touched on above is pretty key to resolving both problems. Namely, growing more of the global food supply nearer to the locations at which it is consumed. This solution has the advantage of being applicable even without large-scale capital investment, and it can partake of both past practices that have fallen into disuse as well as future innovations. Barring some astounding technological miracle, it’s just not possible to transport and distribute much of the current food surplus/wastage from the locations where it is being wasted to the places where it is needed. If I let an apple rot in my pantry, that’s perhaps sinful, but it is hardly going to hurt the inhabitant of the Ruzizi Valley who went to bed hungry last night. There are local food security solutions possible though, like encouraging more and different tree crops in the DRC, which could certainly begin to close the food gap.

60

reason 02.16.11 at 4:51 pm

Natilo Paennim @59
No I think you are wrong, for a very simple reason, most of the world lives in cities that import most of their food. We already know what you say is incorrect. If we grow enough food, and distribute it well, then that is enough.

61

BHan 02.16.11 at 7:49 pm

I worked on development in the field. After 5 years I left a Central Asian nation having generated the startup of 3 copycat high-tech companies. Mostly what I did was teach people how to work within the Western system of economics. The biggest three changes were made by:
A. Teaching people to come to work on time (and negotiating with them about what hours would be.) Also showing them that they would really get paid if they did.
B. Teaching them to set an agenda, and come to conclusions in a set time rather than arguing without outcome.
C. Teaching quality control concepts, methods and procedures. I taught basic ideas, I taught Deming, I taught Poka-Yoke, and I taught methods of quality assurance. (QA is different from QC.)

My staff were raided as a result and now are at the core of those three companies, all three of which are still operating, entirely owned and staffed by natives of the country.

That said, I observed a great deal. I became versed enough in corruption and the operations of warlords that I was requested to write on it for West Point. A foundation matter that most economists neglect is the impact of social capital. Without a culture that supports a strong economy, the economies fail. Corruption, mainly of the gatekeeper variety rules. And warlordism coalesces around religious and secular ideologies, sometimes fomented by outside powers. These are key matters. There is a certain amount of Darwinian evolution, but cultural mores that create actual trust that can be relied upon are required for economies to grow. Without them, contractual relationships cannot exist and things degenerate.

Most locations that have long histories of failure have problems rooted in culture incompatible with development and those problems manifest in political breakdown and degrees of warfare. There are degrees of this. There is no hard boundary, it is shades of gray. The transparency index is an attempt in some ways, but also misses the mark.

That said, I have come to the position that almost all of the developed world’s attempts at help are counterproductive in the long run. My reasons for saying so are:

1. The long practice of providing loans to nations that are run as fiefdoms ruled by allocating opportunities for theft and graft results in large deposits into Liechtenstein and other banking centers. The thieves are never punished and the oppressed people of the country are left holding the bag. Loan forgiveness perpetuates it, allowing such nations to buy more weapons even when the loans or aid are not given for that purpose. There is no way to enforce it use of loans for their given purpose and little incentive to care due to the institutional nature of the IMF and World Bank.

2. Much the same goes for most aid. The nation gets sucked into a rather deadly form of aid economics which systematically penalizes those who are honest and favors those who are not, and that damages the social capital in a downward spiral. “Collision an Collusion” is a book that examines some of this in the context of Western aid to Eastern Europe. There, the long term economic health over 10 years was inversely proportional to the amount of aid received. Imagine if, in Australia, China started giving away amounts of money that were several multiples of the national budget each year on the basis of being able to repeat Chinese buzzwords and whether the individuals had an history of dissent against government policies? And then imagine what would happen if politicians in Australia could sign for trillion dollar loans that the politicians would in turn administer but would have to be paid back from the public purse? How long would Australian politicians stay responsive to the needs of the people? It would be hard enough to control those effects in a well run nation. But well run nations are not the target of such efforts.

3. Also related to aid is the problem of it being easier and more lucrative to operate dependently from aid sources than to do things on a real economy basis. I must include in that the academic grant system that allocates largess for certain projects. Even the Soros Foundation’s grants to students I have seen fall into this category. Such student fellowships were allocated by locals who required a 30% kickback to themselves for the grant, and the remaining monthly stipend was over 10 times what professors were paid who taught them. Not surprisingly, such students always did well in their classes, though not necessarily due to what they learned. Of such things are good statistics made.

As a result of my experience, I think we are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to feeding the world. Rather than focusing on the undeveloped world, we should instead focus on strengthening the developed world. This may sound callous, but if the developed world creates an economic suction by its strength, that will pull up the underdeveloped world more effectively. This is really just another version of a central thesis of Adam Smith, that by harnessing greed we can make it accomplish good ends.

So, robotics for farming, more energy production, big projects with strong positive ROI that benefit developed nation economies the way that Apollo, the international highway system, etc. did are going to help the underdeveloped nations more. Let them get pulled in by economic suction. They can learn how we do things, that I know with clarity. Once they do, then they can compete quite well.

62

Omega Centauri 02.16.11 at 11:48 pm

“won’t close substitutes always converge in price.”

“Shale is changing this”
I’m not all that convinced of either. Compressed natural gas has perhaps half the energy density of liquid fuels. Gas to liquid (synfuels) can be done, but is expensive. There may be longterm maintenence issues with conversions.

Then, shale gas is expensive to produce, and can’t make money at current prices. Which pretty much means the current hype is part investment scam. I wouldn’t want to count on gas being abundant and cheap for more than a few years. It may require a much higher price than the current level for it to profitable to drill shale gas. And even then, the amount of steady state production per drilling rig, may put a cap on the supply.

In any case, as has been pointed out. Nitrogen fertilizers are not a long term issue as there are many ways to do fix it. Phosphorus is.

63

reason 02.17.11 at 3:54 pm

Omega Centauri
You are correct about cars, but electricity and house heating are more than enough to push towards medium term convergence.

64

gman 02.18.11 at 3:39 am

Global oil markets are not even “converging” let alone oil and nat gas. (see the current Brent North Sea v. West Texas Intermediate) Nat gas and crude have disconnected for quite some time.

65

reason 02.18.11 at 9:29 am

See my comment above about paradox, it cannot possibly last in the intermediate term, unless people think that the divergence will not last. Short term the markets are distinct, but as people invest in new equipment, so long as they think the price divergence is persistant, they must converge.

66

reason 02.18.11 at 9:32 am

And I might add, if people think that divergence will NOT last, then speculators should drive the prices to converge.

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reason 02.18.11 at 9:45 am

P.S. Maybe – noticing the arguments that Paul Krugman uses, speculators will not drive the prices to converge, because it is gas that is the cheaper of the two at present, and gas is hard to store.

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