A Balanced Approach to Feeding the World

“No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” When he said this, Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen was trying to say that governance, more than technology or engineering, matters when it comes to producing enough food. This is because a government that is responsive to its citizens will do everything in its power to ensure that its people are fed; after all, a famine-ridden population is not likely to be politically forgiving.

However, Sen’s statement assumes that the world produces enough food to feed a population. After all, governance matters little if there is simply not enough food to go around. Luckily, we currently live in a world in which we produce enough food for every man, woman, and child on Earth to eat 2,800 calories of food per day — more than enough to provide an adequate diet for all.

This fact underscore Sen’s crucial insight: world hunger is not solely a result of a lack of food, or a population outgrowing its food supply, but rather is largely a result of political and policy failures around the world. It isn’t that the world doesn’t produce enough food for everyone; it’s that the world food system does a terrible job of distributing the food grown in an efficient and equitable manner.

When you think about it, the fact that we could feed the entire world if we better managed our food system is a fairly remarkable achievement, one that’s largely the result of the “Green Revolution” that played out in laboratories, industrial parks, and farmland over the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Over this period new high-yield varieties of crops were developed; irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides were deployed at scale; and upwards of a billion people were saved from starvation. By producing huge amounts of food in a cost-effective manner, we helped make famine a distant memory in many parts of the world.

However, the less savory consequences of the Green Revolution are increasingly apparent. The rise of monoculture farms has negatively impacted biodiversity around the world. The expanded use of pesticide and fertilizer use has resulted in harmful runoff and polluted waterways. The increase in irrigation has drained water tables, and extractive farming practices have left depleted and unproductive soils. The growing awareness of these problems has led to strident calls for the curtailment or elimination of industrial farming, and a shift to smaller, more organic or environmentally friendly agricultural system.

But is this the right direction? If we move away from industrialized farming, will we actually create a more sustainable agricultural system? Just as importantly, will we still be able to produce enough food for 2,800 calories per person per day? While this transition is still in the early phase, the evidence is mixed. In many ways splitting large industrial farms into smaller local-scale farms is actually less efficient, both economically and environmentally. This is largely because small farms can’t make use of the economies of scale industrial farms employ, meaning that a single industrial farm may use less fertilizer and pesticide per unit of output than an equivalent number of smaller organic farms. This means that growing the same amount of food on multiple smaller farms may in turn be more environmentally harmful than using one enormous farm. However, this may be offset by the lower transportation requirements that smaller farms enjoy due to their proximity to end markets.

This last point is crucial, and is actually a point of hope for proponents of small-scale local agriculture. Local agriculture, while less economically efficient than industrial-scale agriculture, enjoys lower transportation costs than large-scale farming, and has a much stronger positive effect on local economies. The UN World Food Programme and the Food Agriculture Organization are attempting to take advantage of these factors in their food assistance and development aid, buying food from local vendors to deliver to disaster or hunger-stricken regions in order to both alleviate food-related suffering and assist in local economic development. This approach has great promise in the developing world, where the agricultural sector has not yet industrialized and other economic opportunities are limited.

However, it would be a mistake to promote this approach as the universal solution to the problems created by industrial agriculture. Small-scale local agriculture makes sense in high-income locations (such as New York), where consumers can afford the relatively more expensive food, and in undeveloped nations, where there is no industrial agriculture and other economic opportunities are limited. However, in most of the developed world, agriculture is already industrialized and other economic opportunities abound. More importantly, it is this industrialization that has enabled us to produce those 2,800 calories for every man, woman, and child on earth. The environmental side effects are huge and in many cases appalling, but the alternative might be even worse. If we fragment our agricultural system into a large number of smaller farms, can we still produce 2,800 calories per person per day? Or will we be sentencing some portion of the population to starvation in the name of environmental sustainability?

A balanced approach is needed. Small-scale local agriculture has its place, and its better aspects should be emulated wherever possible in the industrial system. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that industrial agriculture has given us much more than polluted waterways and monoculture fields as far as the eye can see. Moving completely away from it might salve our environmental conscience, but it would come at a high price. There’s space for both in our world, and we should make every effort to ensure that we find the balance point. Only by doing this will we ensure that future food issues are, as Sen pointed out, governance issues rather than problems of outright scarcity. In doing so, we ensure that we are arguing over how to distribute food, rather than watching famine sweep the forgotten corners of the world.

 Image Credit: Gerry D (own work) [CC-BY-2.0]

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