Food security: Dampened prospects
Bangladeshi women farmers in rainbow-bright saris survey their flooded rice paddies with dismay: the rains have drowned the tender seedlings and, with them, their livelihoods. Climate change, ill-judged policies, protectionism, urbanisation and plain greed have all conspired to reignite Malthusian prophesies of a growing world population unable to feed itself.
Come 2050, the UN predicts earth will be home to another 2bn people; in order to feed us all, production needs to increase by an estimated 70 per cent. That is a big task, not least since the land that humans have so long been tilling is itself facing a revolution. Agriculture, which provides a livelihood to an estimated 2.5bn people, is lagging behind population growth.
To reverse that course, many experts say another “green revolution” – the yield-boosting transformation of farming in the 1960s and 1970s by the use of better science – is required, entailing superior seeds, husbandry and technology. It could include genetically modified crops, a technique that – just like nuclear power for the world’s energy needs – to its champions forms an integral part of the solution, but to its critics represents a threat to human and environmental well-being.
The prospect of more starving people as staples become unaffordable has put the question of food security firmly on to the top table of global policymaking. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, made it a central plank of his country’s presidency last year of the Group of 20 leading industrialised and developing nations; Mexico, this year’s G20 chair, is taking up the baton. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, several sessions are devoted to the topic.
Yet these discussions will take place against a backdrop that is not just far removed from the regularly ravaged crops of Asia and elsewhere, but is also one of commodity prices that are in retreat from the peaks of recent years. Amid fears about the health of other parts of the global economy – such as banking and public finances – food security is in danger of being overshadowed.
This is anathema to those urging action. “The fact that prices have come down does not at all change the long-term picture: that in 2050 we will have 9bn-plus people to feed,” says Kostas Stamoulis of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“The issue is here today already,” adds Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, who will be discussing food security at Davos. “Every six seconds a child dies of hunger. More people are going to bed hungry now than two to three years ago, before the crisis.”
Governments, industry and civil society across the globe are scrabbling to come up with solutions. India, home to the largest number of starving people in the world, last month secured cabinet approval for a landmark bill guaranteeing heavily subsidised grain to poor families. The measure aims to underpin the health and life chances of more than 60 per cent of India’s 1.2bn population, although sceptics question whether providing grain but not other nutrients can eradicate malnutrition.
Across the developing world, industry is also pitching in. Companies such as Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo are helping farmers with the provision of seeds, fertilisers and even microfinance – thereby gaining what SABMiller, the emerging markets brewer, calls a “licence to trade” and helping to secure their own supply of raw materials.
Non-governmental organisations carry out similar activities. But whether private sector or charitable, all these efforts remain piecemeal. “We need to scale up faster and bigger by working together,” says Mr Polman, who chaired the Food Security Working Group set up under the business subgroup of the G20.
For one, he proposes an aid transfusion of $70bn-$80bn to compensate for years of declining investment in agriculture. As the World Bank and other lenders and donors retreated from the field, the buoyant growth in yields unleashed by the green revolution sputtered. Bill Gates, the software billionaire philanthropist, is one who says it is time to reboot that revolution.
“In the last decade we backed off,” he told BBC radio before travelling to Davos. “And now we realise that was a mistake, so we need to get back in there and fund that.”
However, to get more food from the same (or, given trends such as urbanisation, less) land requires more productive crops. But India illustrates why agricultural investment is only part of the solution. Production of food grains in the world’s second most populous country are at record highs and on track to reach 245m tonnes in the year to March, comfortably enough to meet demand of about 220m tonnes.
The same is true on a global scale. “Today, supply is not a problem,” argues Shenggen Fan, director-general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. Rather. Or as Gary Markham, director of agriculture at accountants Grant Thornton, says: “Food is in the wrong place.” While parts of Africa starve, warehouses in China are overflowing – as are western dining tables, one-third of whose food ends up in household or restaurant bins.
Mr Fan points to the distortions created by countries’ stockpiling – “We don’t know how much China has, it could easily be 50m-300m tonnes of grain” – as an issue for governments to resolve through improved transparency and information.
For India and much of Africa, the bigger issue is access and waste. New Delhi reckons that every year up to 40 per cent of Indian fruit and vegetables rots in the fields or on the way to market. Thousands of tonnes of grains such as wheat and rice are also rendered inedible because of a lack of rodent-free cool storage.
The cost of this wastage rings in at almost $20bn, according to government estimates. It is one reason why many welcomed recent – and still faltering – plans to open up the country’s retail sector in the hope that big supermarket groups would establish better supply chains.
Then there are the government policies and market forces that, some argue, exacerbate the supply situation. Chief of these are biofuels. While the US has withdrawn fiscal support for ethanol and biodiesel, other parts of the world continue to encourage such production – viewed by critics as taking food out of bellies to put fuel into motors.
The issue illustrates the bigger policymaking challenge of balancing the sometimes conflicting need for food and for jobs, while also reducing environmental damage. “A hungry world is a dangerous place – it causes rioting,” says Mella Frewen, director-general of FoodDrinkEurope, a trade grouping. But so is a world without adequate work.
“It’s a huge social dilemma,” says Mr Markham, pointing to EU proposals that would link support payments to employment – meaning more people on farms rather than efficient mechanised farming.
Equally, more bountiful crops do not necessarily translate into a more abundant mother nature.
Rampant fertility can also harm the soil and the livelihoods of those who till it. Vandana Shiva, an environmentalist currently advising the king of Bhutan to make the Himalayan nation wholly reliant on organic farming, claims the green revolution has ravaged the world’s ecosystem. “It has eroded farming soil, waterlogged deserts, pest-infected crops and indebted farmers,” she says.
John Beddington, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, prefers to see the two problems dovetailing into one solution: “Agriculture has the potential to mitigate climate change,” he says. That means looking at ways to increase productivity while reducing greenhouse gases, instead adopting practices that sequester carbon dioxide – such as ploughing legumes into the soil that put back essential nitrogen.
Away from the fields, blame is also meted out to self-interested governments and banks – and they too must be brought to heel, critics argue. That means ending protectionism and export bans, such as that imposed by Russia in 2010 after a drought devastated crops and wildfires spread across the country. It also means stamping out the speculation that, critics contend, sometimes goes hand-in-hand with government edicts to cause spikes in commodity prices.
Glencore, the world’s biggest commodity trader, last April admitted to a speculative bet on rising wheat and corn prices in the early stages of the previous summer’s drought – while simultaneously, senior traders publicly urged Russia to impose a grain export ban. When Moscow did just that a few days later, grain prices rallied.
Mr Sarkozy has been blunt on the subject of speculators, saying an unregulated market is “a lottery in which fortune smiles on the most cynical”. He also wants a central crop database and limits on export bans.
But while he has supporters among some governments, much of industry and most NGOs, many concede that getting powerful operators – be it Goldman Sachs’ commodities trading desk or officials in a ministry in Beijing – to be more transparent would be a tough ask.
The tensions in securing cross-disciplinary global agreement are one reason why the food and drink industry and NGOs have taken matters into their own hands, at least at a micro level, by supporting farmers from whom they buy produce. Banks and commodity traders are also slowly getting in on the act. Rabobank of the Netherlands, for example, has launched a barter programme in Brazil. Under this, fertiliser suppliers are paid with crops, which they in turn sell to traders.
But the job is bigger than they can hope to fill. “Individual governments have responsibility at the end of the day to have their people properly fed,” says the FAO’s Mr Stamoulis. “But we think experience shows a coalition of government, private sector, local communities, farmers and civil society in general [is required].”
There are moves on the demand side too. Government health campaigns are “nudging” Britons to throw out less food. Elsewhere, campaigns advise citizens to, say, go vegetarian for a week or stick to sustainable produce.
More radically, Ifpri’s Mr Fan calls for a tax on meat to reflect the “social costs” of climate change, water and healthcare. “Take it all into consideration and beef will probably be 10 times more expensive,” he says.
That may prove tough to implement. Governments have already been attacked for introducing far milder taxes on sugar and fats.
More palatable are some of the small agricultural steps aimed at boosting supply and ensuring fewer people go to bed hungry. Take rice: thanks to funds and scientific help from overseas, some of the Bangladeshi rice farmers have been able to disprove Malthus’ gloomy prognosis. So-called “scuba rice” can survive up to two weeks of being submerged and still send its green shoots upwards when the waters clear.
Biplob Sarker, one smallholder, says he “gave up hope” after 17 days of flooding. “But, to my surprise, the seedlings grew green again after the flood. Still I can’t believe I have got 18 mauds [672kg] of paddy from there.” The challenge for the world is to multiply that surprise.
Genetic modification: resistance even among the poor
It is the technology that dare not speak its name. Genetic modification roughly translates – in Europe and many of the poorer countries that receive its aid – as Frankenstein tomatoes: an unnatural means of playing God that may have us all sprouting extra limbs. So politicians see few votes in advocating GM, even though it can be used to engineer crops that are more disease- or drought-resistant or grow more abundantly, write Louise Lucas, James Fontanella-Khan and Alan Rappeport.
Even as Monsanto of the US on Wednesday abandoned plans to sell an insect-resistant maize in France, European scientists and government officials are starting to test the waters. UK research trials on wheat modified to repel aphids began this year, although officials insist their crop is not for human consumption.
The US, where farmers have been planting genetically engineered crops since 1996, is less squeamish. Still, big US food companies that use the produce have come under attack. Critics complain the food is unsafe and criticise Monsanto, the GM seed provider, for its aggressive treatment of farmers. But such criticism did not stop BASF of Germany from recently transferring its biotechnology unit, which researches GM crops, to Raleigh, North Carolina.
Food and drink makers, who stand to benefit from GM, are generally in favour. “Can it be right that people in the Horn of Africa have been starving because food can only be transported through Kenya, whose politicians are being put under pressure by the EU not to handle anything GM?” asks Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, who chaired the food security working group set up by the World Economic Forum and the Group of 20 leading nations.
But even in countries where famines occur, public resistance is firm. India, which briefly flirted with GM aubergines, backtracked in 2010 when Jairam Ramesh, then environment minister and now in charge of rural development, put a moratorium on GM crops. “There is no hurry to introduce Bt brinjal [GM aubergines] on the pretext of food security,” Mr Ramesh said at the time.
Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist, goes further, claiming the use of GM cotton has had a devastating impact on farmers who have become dependent on seeds produced by large foreign-owned corporations. That has killed diversity, she argues, and – since Monsanto bought out most Indian competitors – has forced farmers to buy its seeds rather than buy from the government at subsidised prices.