A New Revolution

September 14th, 2010

Today the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reported that 925 million people are undernourished in 2010. This is actually a decline from the all-time high of 1.02 billion in 2009.  It’s easy to forget, when faced with our own brand of pain in the developed world, that a global recession is the difference between life and death for millions worldwide.  It is startling to realize that an economic downturn that originates in the skyscrapers of New York can hit hardest in the rural towns of Bangladesh and Ethiopia, where most haven’t heard of a “subprime mortgage.”

The question of how to feed ourselves has existed since humans were able to conceptualize it.  Thomas Malthus, a philosopher and the world’s most notable doomsayer, famously framed this debate in An Essay on the Principal of Population in 1798.  He wrote:

We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population… increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress.

But Malthus was wrong.  Since 1798, humanity has learned to produce significantly more food with significantly less land.  The Agricultural Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries prompted enormous population growth. More recently, the Green Revolution of 1950-1984 introduced high-yield crops and energy intensive agriculture, which led to massive increases in crop production and efficiency.

In 2001 the UN adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), of which the first goal is to eradicate hunger.  Specifically, the organization hoped—and still hopes—to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the number of people who suffer from hunger.

The UN uses a variety of tools to achieve this goal, including subsidies, investments in research, innovative financing schemes, food assistance, and women’s cooperatives to achieve these goals.  These programs are well thought-out and designed and will likely be met with success, at least on micro-levels, which is often the most effective way of going about development aid.  The world’s 20 most developed countries have also promised to invest $22 billion in aid to agriculture between 2009 and 2011 (don’t forget this annualized amount compares to about 1% of yearly estimated illicit outflows).

But achieving the goal cannot be met by throwing more money at the problem.

The hunger problem requires a new type of Revolution.  But this time the Revolution should combine gains in efficiency—as the last ones have—with gains in viability and sustainability.  So far our agricultural revolutions have been centralizing forces.  They have represented concentrations of more and more production in fewer countries, fewer farms, and fewer hectares of land.  Since the 1950s grain production has increased roughly linearly, but world area planted to grain is down 8% since 1981.

Producing more food in the places with the highest concentrations of productive agriculture is not necessarily going to feed more people.  We can blame agricultural subsidies or waste or over-consumption.  But the reality is that gains in efficiency are not solving the problem.  We must innovate for empowerment, instead.  This will mean that locals, instead of massive exporters an ocean way, will be able to turn previously-unfarmed land into productive fields.

This isn’t impossible. I point to the miracle of the cerrado as evidence.

In the last thirty years Brazil has turned itself from a net food importer to a breadbasket.  It has accomplished this goal not with a government subsidy, but by using innovative agricultural techniques to transform cerrado, or Brazil’s savannah, into farmland with cotton, soybeans and maize.  Techniques include using vast quantities of lime to reduce acidity, turning soybeans into a tropical crop, implementing no-till agriculture, and integrating forest, agriculture, and livestock.

There is also reason to believe that these techniques could be exported to Africa, where other efforts in the continent’s tropical, nutrient-poor lands have failed.

If such a Revolution were to occur, it would be about just as much empowerment of small-scale producers as gains for large-scale suppliers.  And such a Revolution could prove Malthus wrong once and for all.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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