Justin Gillis in the The New York Times today provided this sobering overview of the global food situation in the Twenty-First Century. After closing the preceding century with such optimism, thanks to rapidly declining population growth rates and profound advances in agricultural yields of staple crops due to the Post-WWII “green revolution”, concerns about food security and escalating numbers of undernourished have returned. Demographic growth has slowed, rather than stopped, while economic growth in the population centers of Asia—most notably India and China—have driven the demand for food and other commodities to record levels. Meanwhile, gains in agricultural yields have stalled. The prospect of disruptions due to climate change compounds the uncertainty, driving food prices higher and making them more volatile as well.
These concerns are all too real. Nonetheless, it’s important to read today’s New York Times piece in a broader context. The article is based almost entirely on the perspective of agronomists, who operate within a very distinct food-issues paradigm. First, their perspective is supply-oriented, based on the assumption that demand is an uncontrollable consequence of demographic and economic growth. Second, their perspective sees modern crop science as the main (and perhaps only) path to achieving greater food output. Rather than simply assume that the world’s farmers will need to double their collective production in the coming decades in order to keep pace with ever larger and more affluent populations, we might also consider the opportunities for reducing demand—by using farm commodities more efficiently in both an economic and environmental sense, and by generally following Michael Pollan’s mantra from Food Rules, to “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.” Indeed, one could argue that the world’s chief problem still isn’t that food is too scarce and expensive, but that it’s actually too plentiful and cheap!
Of course, this demand-side perspective is itself primarily one for the more-developed end of the world, and the acute supply crises discussed in the Times are much closer to the norm in less-developed regions. This highlights one last point: while there is value in taking a global view of the world’s food situation, the question of who eats what, and how much, is ultimately a local issue, and it’s an issue of economics and distributions of income as much as it’s a matter of globally aggregated farm outputs.
Here are some additional resources about the world food situation that are well worth our attention: