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Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050

The theme for this year's World Food Prize was: “The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Can We Sustainably Feed the 9 Billion People on our Planet by the Year 2050?” A report by ActionAid USA states that feeding the world is possible only if we change course, moving away from the current destructive model of industrial agriculture which has been fueled by the gross misconception that hunger is due to inadequate food production rather than the real cause: inequitable access to food and food-producing resources.

The real threats to food security are identified as expansions in biofuel production, inadequate investment in climate-resilient small-scale agriculture, poor support for smallholder and women food producers, and spoilage and waste of one third of the food produced. Pro-biofuelpolicies in particular are projected to divert as much as 13% from cereal production by 2030.

The recommendations to change course call for scaling back on industrial agriculture and biofuel production; establishing policies to reduce food wastage, and unfair distribution and access; and investing in sustainable small-scale food production in developing countries where most of the hungry live and rely primarily on agriculture for their livelihoods.

An article on the report, and the report’s Executive Summary are reproduced below as Items 1 and 2, respectively.

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Item 1

To Feed the World in 2050 We Have to Change Course

by Timothy A. Wise and Kristin Sundell

17 OCTOBER 2014

The 2008 global food price spikes were a wake-up call to global policymakers, shaking them from the lethargic slumber of the overfed. The rhetorical responses were swift, but policies and practices have changed little. That is in part because they relied on the tried-and-failed solution of increasing commodity food production.

Agribusiness led the charge, with dire warnings about unsustainable population growth and looming resource constraints. How can we produce enough food to feed this growing population?

“Between now and 2050, we need to double the food supply,” said Dr. Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto, during an interview with National Public Radio’s Takeaway host John Hockenberry. “That's probably the greatest challenge facing mankind.”

Indeed, that is the theme of this year’s World Food Prize event, taking place October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa. This event promises more of the same solutions.

The panic is not warranted, the claims about the need to double food production are unfounded. According to ActionAid’s report, “Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050,” the solutions lie not in the rush to increase industrial food production but in supporting sustainable and productive farming practices among small-scale farmers – particularly women – in developing countries while halting the diversion of food to biofuels and reducing the obscene levels of waste and spoilage that keep one-third of the world’s food from nourishing anyone.

Sowing the seeds of panic

As the ActionAid report shows, reliable international projections from the United Nations suggest the need to increase global agricultural production – not food production – by 60 percent, not 100 percent, to feed a population of 9.3 billion by 2050. What’s more, they estimate that, with important caveats, we are on track to do just that. Yield improvements, land use changes, and new investment should get us there, based on current trends.

For companies like Monsanto that sell agricultural inputs, producing more is indeed the solution to just about everything; after all, that lets them sell more seeds and chemicals. It is not surprising that Monsanto and other agribusiness firms might overstate the situation.

But if we can put aside the panic, maybe we can talk about our real problems, and they have everything to do with policymakers’ fixation on throwing more high-yield industrial agriculture at the hunger problem. Why?

The hungry are not hungry because the world lacks food. We grow enough food right now to feed about 10 billion people, yet according to the U.N. nearly one billion of today’s seven billion people are chronically undernourished and well over one billion suffer from significant malnutrition, in a world of plenty.

They are hungry because they are poor, and they are poor because they are (by and large) either small-scale farmers without enough land, credit, extension services, or investment, or they are underemployed workers with incomes too low to support their families. Increasing the global supply of agricultural commodities might bring food prices down for a while, but it won’t feed the hungry.

What will? Public investment in sustainable small-scale food production in developing countries. Seventy percent of the hungry live in rural areas and rely primarily on agriculture for their livelihoods. A U.N. report confirmed the consensus that the best area to invest in agriculture is small-scale farming, where the “yield gaps” are the largest and where hunger in the most prevalent.

Yet policymakers and multinational firms continue to promote large-scale industrial agricultural projects – some denounced as “land grabs” – such as those encouraged by the G8 countries’ New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. The U.N. Committee on World Food Security (CFS) meets in Rome this week to approve guidelines for responsible agricultural investment that can limit the most damaging impacts. Many displace small-scale farmers without their consent to grow export crops that offer few jobs and contribute nothing to local food security.

Such codes of conduct might stop the worst abuses, but they won’t bring the change in direction that we need, toward public investment in small-scale farmers using low-input, agroecological practices. This is consistent with the findings of an unprecedented 2009 multi-agency report that called for an end to “business as usual” policies.

Changing course

There is no question that we need to continue to invest in appropriate technologies to enhance productivity, reduce environmental damage (including greenhouse gas emissions), and adapt to climate change. Public investment is crucial, and it has grown in the wake of the 2008 price spikes. So is private investment, which has responded to those high prices with a surge in investment that has driven prices below pre-crisis levels.

But if we’re going to achieve the goal of zero hunger, we have to change course. In addition to investing in climate-resilient small-scale agriculture, particularly with women farmers, we must:

-  Stop diverting so much of our food and feed to biofuel production, which the National Academy of Sciences estimated was responsible for 20-40 percent of the 2008 price spikes. FAO’s food projections do a poor job of incorporating biofuels into their estimates, and biofuels are one of the leading non-food uses of agricultural land. According to the International Energy Agency, crop-based biofuels demand will grow 150 percent by 2035 if we don’t change our policies. Government consumption mandates, such as the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, must be scaled back, an action that can do far more to keep food prices in check than investing in expanded agricultural commodity production.

-  Reduce food waste and spoilage, which squanders one-third of all food grown in the world today. In the U.S., most of that waste is at the retail and consumer levels. In developing countries, it comes from poor storage, transportation, and infrastructure, the very things that should be the focus of public investment. The CFS in Rome this week will be making recommendations based on a detailed U.N. report on the issue. Following them would do more to increase food availability, particularly for the hungry, than expanding commodity crop production.

It is time to stop the Malthusian fear-mongering. We can feed the world in 2050 if we change course and if we stop focusing only on producing more agricultural commodities. That has never solved the hunger problem. Instead, let’s increase the availability of land and food by reducing biofuel production, get more of the food we grow to the dinner table by reducing food waste, and invest in the most important food producers in the world: small-scale and family farmers.

Timothy A. Wise is at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University. Kristin Sundell is the Director of Policy and Campaigns at ActionAid USA. The ActionAid report and GDAE paper on which it is based are available online, as is Wise’s recent article, “Feeding the World: The Ultimate First World Conceit.”

Item 2

Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050

Action Aid USA

October 2013

Since the 2007-8 food price crisis, alarms have sounded regarding our ability to feed a growing population in 2050. Some warn that we need to double food production; others estimate that food production must increase by 60-70%. All feed the alarmist notion that global hunger is the result of flagging food production amid looming resource constraints. The misguided policy prescriptions that follow typically call for the expansion of industrial-scale agricultural development, ignoring the true threats to our global food supply: biofuels expansion, inadequate investment in climate-resilient agriculture, lagging support for small-scale and women food producers, and the massive loss of food to spoilage and waste.

Most of the recent warnings derive from a group of economic modeling studies that were recently reviewed by researchers at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute. In their assessment, the Tufts researchers found that many of the public pronouncements calling for a doubling of global food production by 2050 are based on outdated or flawed economic forecasting and misleading characterizations of this research. More reliable estimates of current supply, productivity, and demand trends — assuming business-as-usual policies — suggest both the need and the capacity to increase agricultural production by 60% over 2005-7 levels by 2050. This is a far cry from doubling food production. In fact, the failure to distinguish food production from agricultural production obscures the largest single contributor to recent food price spikes:  the massive expansion of agricultural biofuel production.

Rather than fueling alarmist agricultural productivism, the utility of food security forecasts should be to help decision-makers identify policies that are contributing to high and volatile prices, food insecurity, and looming resource constraints on agricultural production as well as changes that could alleviate these impacts. Most economic forecasting fails to adequately incorporate several key variables:

-  Biofuels – Biofuels expansion is a relatively recent phenomenon that has been poorly captured by most economic modeling to date. Few models adequately account for current trends, with some underestimating business-as-usual expansion by 100%. With national mandates and targets significantly driving biofuels expansion, updated forecasts are urgently needed to help policymakers assess the food security implications of current policies. Those policies are incontrovertibly resulting in rising and more volatile food prices, with up to 40% of recent price increases in agricultural commodities attributable to biofuels expansion. Those policies are projected to divert as much 13% of cereal production from needed food production by 2030.

-  Inadequate and poorly targeted agricultural investment – Agricultural investment is key to increasing food production. Whereas many projections stress the importance of agricultural productivity growth, few models assess different priorities for agricultural research and investment. A growing consensus supports increased investment in climate-resilient food production, focusing on small-scale producers in food-insecure parts of the world. Yet most research, private and public, focuses on large-scale, input-intensive agricultural development. So too does most investment, driven by private sector-led projects, such as the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition” initiated by the G8.

-  Food waste and spoilage – One-third of global food production fails to nourish anyone. In industrialized countries, wasteful consumption patterns result in tremendous losses, while in developing countries poor infrastructure means high rates of spoilage before food makes it to market. Most current forecasts ignore the possibility that measures could be taken to address this problem, assuming continued waste of food at current rates. This assumption alone puts alarmist calls for increased food production into question.

-  Climate change – We are only just beginning to understand the implications of climate change for agriculture and food security. These impacts, plagued by multiple layers of uncertainty, are poorly incorporated into most economic forecasts. With the outcome of international climate negotiations uncertain, urgent attention is needed to mitigate industrial agriculture’s tremendous contribution to global warming and help developing country food producers to adapt to a changing climate.

In all of these areas, policymakers need forecasts to help them interrogate established policies and practices that need to change, such as consumption patterns, energy policies, unfair distribution and access, land use, and investment priorities.

Meanwhile, a growing body of experience at the local and regional levels, demonstrates the lasting value of investments in smallholder farming and sustainable agricultural methods. Strategic policy changes and investments in this area can scale-up successful approaches and expand them to regions where they are most appropriate and most needed, especially in regions where food security is tenuous despite high agricultural potential.

This report reviews the economic forecasting on which most of the alarmist 2050 pronouncements are based, presents alternative modeling that can add useful insights, and identifies areas in which further research can guide policymakers to change failing business-as-usual policies. This much is clear: hunger, now and in the future, is less a matter of inadequate production than inequitable access to food and food-producing resources; and a singular focus on increasing production is misguided as we simultaneously waste one-third of the food that is produced and pursue a course to devote another 13% of cereals to feeding our cars instead of our people.