The Food Bomb
On the face of it, the protests currently sweeping across the Arab world have been driven by overwhelmingly leaderless, frustrated, impoverished, unemployed youths battling geriatric dictatorial regimes that are supported by pampered militaries — and the United States. Fueling all these protests, from Egypt to Yemen to Jordan to Tunisia to Algeria, is another common factor, one that also fueled the French Revolution: rocketing food prices.
A perfect storm of natural disasters around the globe, rising oil prices and rapacious speculators have produced the current dramatic rise in food prices, but even had these events not occurred, food prices would be spiraling upward, and roiling the planet, no matter who was governing.
What is outrageous is that our leaders know this — they’ve known it for years — but, like deer transfixed by the lights of an onrushing truck — they’ve done precious little to avert catastrophe. Indeed, rather than deal with impending disaster, they’ve made the situation even worse.
The statistics are stark: Almost 7 billion people currently inhabit this planet, 1 billion of whom are on the brink of starvation. By 2050, the population will be 9.2 billion, including many with higher incomes and thus much larger and demanding appetites.
The bottom line is the world will need 70 percent more food in 2050 than it produced in 2000. But at the same time, the resources available are plummeting. The amount of agricultural land per person on the planet will have dropped from 10.6 acres in 1961 to 3.7 acres in 2050.
As for water, just to maintain current levels of nutrition — never mind improving things — farmers will need 17 percent more fresh water by 2050. Problem is, 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is already used for irrigation.
But instead of investing in agriculture, the world’s leaders and development organizations have been obsessed with industrialization. The statistics are shocking: Development assistance to agriculture, from all sources, went from 20 percent of all aid 25 years ago to only 4 percent today.
Developing countries themselves reduced investment in agriculture from 11 percent 25 years ago to 7 percent in 2007.
These figures are from Shivaji Pandey, a soft-spoken Indian official I spoke with at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) offices in Rome.
First off, he says, food production has to be transformed from a dull, bureaucratic backwater to Page 1 of the international agenda. Seventy-five percent of the world’s hungry and poor still live in rural areas and derive their livelihood from the land.
OK. Then I ask: Surely it makes sense to industrialize, get those people good factory jobs and off the overcrowded land, right?
Wrong, he says. “Agriculture has been shown to be twice as effective in eliminating hunger and poverty as any other kind of development. There is scientific evidence that every 1 percent increase in crop productivity will reduce the number of poor and hungry by 0.4 percent.”
What about the wonders of the “Green Revolution”? “That’s over,” says Pandey. “Sixty years ago, rice, wheat and maize yields in countries like India were dramatically rising at 3 percent a year. No longer. The rate of growth instead is declining, heading for about 1 percent a year by 2050.”
It was the soaring food prices of 2007 and 2008 and the radical political unrest they sparked that finally got the world’s leaders to start paying attention. One result was that Pandey was named to head a steering committee under the auspices of the FAO tasked with figuring out how to dramatically increase food production without at the same time destroying the environment.
One of the first things he did was to tell his experts to stop their research. “Of course, there are still things to learn,” he says, “but we already know a lot of the answers. We’ve known for decades.”
The problem is that the politicians who call the shots have refused to listen.
Arguments against protectionism, for example, have gone unheeded. According to Mark Malloch Brown, the former head of the United Nations Development Programme, the developed world lavishes a billion dollars a day on subsidies and support prices to protect its farmers, many of them huge agribusinesses. That protection costs developing countries $50 billion in potential lost agricultural exports. The sum is the equivalent of all development assistance to the Third World.
Another well-known problem: Since bioenergy became the flavor of the month, almost 5 percent of the world’s cereals are now used not to feed people but to produce 0.3 percent of the world’s energy.
One major obstacle, says Pandey, is that many of the new technologies have been developed for rich, large farmers. Governments have generally ignored the 400 million to 500 million farmers across the world who cultivate less than five acres. “They have no strong political voice, but those small farmers produce more than half of the world’s food.”
It was small farmers tilling an average 2.7 acres in India’s Punjab who were responsible for the Green Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, a development that took India from the brink of famine to actually exporting food by 1985. Similarly, the agriculture revolution that has taken place in China in the past 25 years occurred on the backs of farmers with less than half an acre.The “white revolution” that made India the world’s No. 1 milk producer was achieved by farmers with only one or two cows.
Says Pandey, “In a country like Madagascar, where 70 percent of the population live on less than one dollar a day, where agriculture is the most important contributor to the GDP, if it is not agriculture that will get them out of their misery, what do the so-called experts propose? So many other countries are in that same situation in Africa.
“Certainly some consolidation of small landholdings would be better, but today we can make this world a better place only by making it easier for those who’ve been ignored for so long.”
Among the biggest victims of the lack of investment in agriculture are teaching and research. Says Pandey, “Around the globe, many of the so-called ‘agriculture experts’ are less qualified than they were 50 years ago. Many don’t even understand what they’re supposed to be teaching. They don’t even know that they don’t know.”
There has also been no investment in infrastructure to aid the farmer — roads, storage, electricity and access to credit.
Of course, all that costs money. But some solutions are remarkably — if deceptively — simple. For instance, huge numbers of small landholders across the globe don’t have title to their farms. Says Pandey, “If I don’t own it, I’m not going to invest in it or protect it. So they don’t invest.” In Vietnam in 1989, in the face of a dramatic food crisis, the communist government — which was importing food — gave titles to the peasants. Within just three years, Vietnam became the world’s third-largest rice exporter. “It wasn’t the only factor, but giving those titles had a major impact. Even Cuba now is talking about giving 7,000 square meters of land to [individual] farmers.”
Some ways of raising production would actually save money. Thirty years ago, for example, the experts advised farmers to thoroughly plow their land, get rid of all weeds, roughage and waste. Bad advice, says Pandey. Such practices actually destroy the soil.
“Now we tell them to till the earth only when and where necessary.” Sounds simple, but there are dramatic side effects. In addition to saving the land, less plowing also means the farmer spends less for tractors and fuel. It also means less greenhouse gas emissions — in two ways: less fuel burned, but also, if the soil isn’t thoroughly plowed, more carbon remains trapped in the earth, as much as 74 kilograms per acre per year.
“This reform actually means spending less, and it requires no new technology. It’s just teaching the farmer not to do something,” says Pandey.
It all seems obvious, but less than 10 percent of global farmland — largely in North and South America –is under this kind of system.
Other reforms — like rotating crops and cutting back on rampant use of pesticides and fertilizers — are nothing new, but they can have a revolutionary impact, often in ways you would never think of, such as teaching farmers not to burn their waste, but to use it as a mulch on their fields. That improves soil quality, but it also means less evaporation, which means farmers will need 30 percent less water. Researchers in Australia found that such mulching also reduces the temperature of the plants by one degree — which could greatly reduce the impact of climate change on crop production.
Pandey’s task force will present these and other strategies to agricultural ministers from around the world in Rome in June. “We’re going to boil the thing down to 100 to 120 pages, something that national leaders can digest in a couple of hours while they’re flying from one spot to another.”
There’s reason for optimism, says Pandey: “The lessons we have learned in the past 40 to 50 years have taught us now we can produce more on the same amount of land, and can do it in a way that does not destroy the ecosystem.”
Problem is, implementation is not in the hands of FAO experts. They have to persuade policymakers to make the reforms, many of which have been proposed for decades.
Perhaps the current dramatic wave of unrest will convince at least some leaders they no longer have a choice.
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with “60 Minutes.” He has produced numerous articles, a documentary and a book, “Web of Deceit,” about Iraq. Lando is just finishing a novel, “The Watchman’s File.”