Bringing Food Back to the Table

in Program

By Vidal Seegobin – With the United Nations Millennium Declaration, world leaders pledged to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. However, changing demands and a lack of investment in global grain production have contributed to a global shortfall in food supplies that threatens not only the ability to reach this goal, but food security for generations to come.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (or FAO, the UN’s food research arm) reports that the world will need to increase global food production by 70% over 41 years to feed an additional 2.3 billion people in 2050. Achieving a production increase of that magnitude would pose a serious challenge under any circumstances, and seems unfathomable during a global recession.

Naturally, there are political undercurrents to these declarations. Donor countries have finite resources and an increasing number of competing projects to fund. Yet, an examination of the current trends in grain production and consumption only supports the FAO call for increased funding for food security. Long term global investments could make a big difference in the amount of food reaching the tables of the world’s poorest people.

Agriculture out of vogue

The 1960s ushered in a global proliferation of irrigation, fertilizer use and enhanced seeds – the building blocks of the “Green Revolution.” In less than a decade, world grain production skyrocketed, dropping prices and improving food access for millions of people in the developing world. Over time, the greatest strides towards food security would be made in East Asia as a cohort of rapidly industrializing countries boosted per capita income, pulling millions out of poverty. Development theory drifted away from promoting self-sufficiency towards increasing developing countries’ exposure to the global economy. Under a series of self-selected and imposed policies, developing countries disassembled marketing boards, encouraged the production of cash crops for export and generally bowed out from planning their own future food needs. Thus, based on the economics of grain production, the world was divided in three: (1) developing countries with few policy options, dependent on primary exports and possessing limited output (2) emerging economies aggressively pursuing industrialization and shifting focus away from agriculture towards manufacturing and (3) developed countries with diminishing production and increasing costs. Together, these created a shrinking global production base with diminishing grain reserves, contributing to food price spikes in 2007-2008 and posing a long-term threat to global food security.

Expanding and Competing Demands

The same growing incomes in emerging economies that shifted focus away from agriculture have also shifted consumption habits. Even with the global economic slowdown, emerging economies are expected to grow at an annual rate of 6%. This expanding global middle class is not only demanding more grains but more meat. In fact, the 3% annual growth in demand for poultry, pork and beef is double the annual rate of population growth. Consumption of animal protein is a particular concern because growing livestock populations compete for agricultural inputs and generally run an energy deficit in terms of energy input to caloric output per pound. In other words, the world is piling more grains into livestock to produce less food. This trend is not sustainable in the long run.

Biofuel production is also competing for land, water and fertilizer and is pushing grain prices higher than the impoverished can afford. This dangerous dynamic is built into our modern way of life, which is dependant on fossil fuels. To diversify energy sources, many developed nations and emerging economies are investing in the production of fuel from grains. The International Energy Agency expects the share of arable land devoted to liquid biofuels to triple in the next 20 years. Biofuel production is widely believed to have contributed to food price spikes in 2007-2008 and is expected to have significant long term impacts on resource availability.

Commodity price speculation, like biofuel production, is another contemporary activity affecting food prices. Sellers and buyers agree to a certain amount of product to be delivered in the future at a set price. Traditionally, commodity futures markets provide a hedge against price volatility and help commercial traders benchmark prices in the cash market. However, as sophistication in financial instruments led to growing profits, a growing pool of speculative funds began to shift commodity prices far beyond the value determined by traditional demand and supply factors. While it has no direct impact on the amount of grain produced, many experts believe that the market volatility introduced by price speculation ultimately makes it harder for the world’s poorest people to afford food. Speculative “betting” has the greatest impact when production can barely meet demand-a growing problem over the last 10 years.

Together these contemporary forces, largely the function of globalization, are straining the global grain production base and crowding out the world’s poorest from getting the food they need to live. These trends promise to persist and accelerate once the global economy picks up because they are a direct result of a modern way of life.

More than one billion people currently go hungry. Under-nutrition underlies millions of child deaths each year, and traps more in generation-spanning poverty through impaired physical and intellectual development. Nevertheless, in view of the food riots in 32 countries in 2008 and the fact that the number of hungry people in the 21st century may increase – a true tragedy by any measure -the world needs to make good on poverty eradication promises and aggressively invest in global food production.

The Millennium Development Goals demonstrate global support for a broad range of poverty eradication targets. The Obama administration’s recently announced Global Food Security initiative makes significant steps towards global coordination and country specific plans on hunger alleviation. But for the reasons examined above, any global initiative will have to extend farther than a three-year commitment from the US. The interconnections between food, other natural resources and markets require a definitive shift from short term, emergency food assistance towards longer term, multi-sectoral cash investments in food productivity in the developing world. The world has the building blocks to achieve food security. We only require the resolve to follow through.

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Vidal Seegobin is a Research Associate with the Global Health Security project at the Stimson Center.

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