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One billion hungry: Can we feed the world?

One billion hungry

By Gordon Conway with Katy Wilson
Published Cornell University Press
Website: www.cornellpress.cornell.edu
2012, 427pp, ISBN 978 0 80147 802 4 (Pb), £15.50/US$24.95

The question of the title is of concern to everyone. Indeed, attempting to devise a positive answer to this question is one of the several challenges confronting global society, and having such an eminent author as Professor Conway proffer an informed answer demands attention from a very wide readership. He does not disappoint with his comprehensive review of the current state of food production worldwide, the plateauing of yields in major exporters and the failure of Africa to boost production. He reviews the events that have led us to our present status quo, and the constraints that must be overcome if a major shortfall in world food demand is to be avoided.

Many statistics will be familiar to informed readers - the transformation of cereal yields by The Green Revolution, and the subsequent fall in investment in agricultural research and development as governments and donors failed to sustain their inputs to agriculture; he highlights the continuing growth in population and livestock product consumption that together will increase demand for cereals and pulses 50 per cent by 2050.The ultimate challenge is to meet this demand on no more arable land and with less water and chemical inputs than are used today.

Professor Conway calls again for a 'doubly green revolution' (the title of his book published in 1997); a revolution that needs to be at least as productive as the first, and yet more conserving of natural resources. He stresses the need for greater breeding focus on previously neglected cereals, pulses and tubers, for increased emphasis on home gardens for nutritionally rich vegetables, more widespread intercropping, relay cropping, using leguminous trees and shrubs for shade and for mulching in the tropics and for more irrigation in Africa with better utilisation of water everywhere. Another priority, he believes, is genetic modification research to boost performance of, and resilience to, stress of plants and livestock.

There are also chapters on creating better marketing, reducing waste and farmers as innovators, as well as adapting to climate change and reducing greenhouse gases. Readers who have read The Doubly Green Revolution may get a sense of déjà vu, and that is not altogether surprising as the fundamental challenges in agriculture have not changed. However, the details have changed over 15 years, indeed, they have got worse. We are now at the point where food reserves are very low, climate variability is greater, global population is more numerous and many more have greater dietary aspirations.

Despite the sombre state of affairs, Professor Conway's answer to 'One billion hungry: Can we feed the world?' is a qualified 'Yes'. In his concluding remarks he writes, "We will be able to feed the 1 billion hungry and get to a food secure world in 2050, but only if we focus our efforts, provide sufficient aid and public and private investment, harness new technologies, remove trade restrictions, create appropriate enabling environments and governance, including efficient, non-corrupt and fair markets, and vigorously tackle climate change." Almost all these requirements are dependent on policymakers. Professor Conway says that he is by nature an optimist, but admits, "This is a tall order, especially because in many directions our efforts have been lukewarm despite the promises… According to a report commissioned by the ONE campaign group, donors have disbursed only 22 per cent of their pledges to date, and most have not reported how they plan to reach the full pledged amount." So, a tall order indeed.

All must hope that Professor Conway's optimism is fulfilled, but his quote of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton threatens to haunt us all: "The question is not whether we can end hunger, it's whether we will." Even as major donors struggle with domestic financial problems and drought in the US (the world's major food basket) triggers sharp rises in the price of wheat, maize and soya, we are in a situation where a single event could trigger a food shortfall with global consequences. In this context, it is disappointing that while there is so much detail and emphasis on the potential and techniques for improving many areas of tropical food production, there is little critical examination of the impact of utilising some 30 per cent of US corn production for government subsidised biofuel rather than meeting the needs of the 1 billion hungry. Optimism is a commendable sentiment but policymakers need more rigorous encouragement to act on the priorities outlined by Professor Conway.

Date published: November 2012


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