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Robin Bourgeois, GFAR

Robin Bourgeois reflects critically on the strategies for feeding the global population (© GFAR)
Robin Bourgeois reflects critically on the strategies for feeding the global population

Feeding the world: paradigm shift or incremental improvements?

A critical review of The Economists' Conference "Feeding the World 2013, Accelerating Global Collaboration on Food Security", Amsterdam, January 30, 2013.

In the quest to feed 9 billion people by 2050, "our salvation can only come from farmers," said Sharon Dijksma, Dutch Minister of Agriculture, quoting Gandhi. Her opening remarks to The Economist's 'Feeding the world 2013' conference, held in Amsterdam in January, continued with three key messages: we need to double productivity while using half the inputs, reduce wastes in developing and developed countries, and develop a climate smart agriculture to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Such a view just does not go far enough. There's a widely quoted 'fact' that production must increase by 70 per cent in order to feed 9 billion people, but it is a myth. It is based on a FAO trend projection, meaning that it would be true if nothing changes. Yet we know that change is the only constant feature of our world. If we really want to understand the nature and scale of the problem facing us, and have a chance of securing access to nutritious food for all - the real challenge - one important thing we can do is look at consumer behaviour.

"The West sets the tone; how we consume is how we push the rest of the world to consume," said Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of FoodTank and the 30 Project. Understanding why we consume the way we do, what future consumers' behaviour may be, particularly the youth, and using this knowledge to find a more appropriate way of consuming is critical. Our natural resources simply cannot support the Western consumption model when multiplied to 2050 population levels, whatever the number.

Increasing productivity is not enough

So what role for the small farmer in feeding the world? Paradoxically, though small farmers were frequently referred to, they and their viewpoints were absent from the conference. For them, food insecurity is rooted in poverty, and tackling poverty is not just about increasing productivity. What good would it do making twice more calories available worldwide if we don't know how to make sure they go to those who cannot access them? A panel on 'future food scenarios' proposed that cooperatives and medium sized farms that give farmers the benefits of scale and technology are the solution, but this raises more questions than answers. What will happen to those who cannot get bigger farms? Where will the millions of youth find a job, if not in the rural areas? Is depopulation of the rural areas the solution? Can cooperatives really give significant bargaining power to farmers?

The need for paradigm shifts, such as new consumption patterns or farming models, was a widely repeated theme of the conference. "A paradigm shift in agriculture is needed, but what we see is an incremental improvement," warned Erez Vigodman of the Makhteshim Agan Group. One area where a shift is certainly needed is in the funding of agricultural research and development. Currently, the bulk of agriculture's small share of R&D funding is devoted to crop protection chemicals, seeds and machinery, including the one-size-fits-all crop varieties engineered by Monsanto, also present at the conference. Other technologies presented in Amsterdam were, however, much more suited to the conditions facing small farmers. 'Intelligent fertilisers' that are helping farmers in Bangladesh to achieve 15 per cent greater yields from 35 per cent less input; and biochar manufactured from organic waste to enrich soils and retain water, a technology suited to vegetable production in urban areas as well as rural farms. It is research activities such as these that deserve support from public sector R&D budgets and public-private partnerships.

Distributing food more fairly

In summarising lessons learned from the event, John Parker, Globalisation Editor at The Economist, stressed that food security was not just about producing more but how to feed people better, urged all to be serious about waste reduction, and insisted that partnerships really do work. He concluded by wondering if we really do need a paradigm shift rather than incremental improvement of the business as usual scenario. But the conference left me with mixed feelings.

Putting farmers at the centre of the discussion on food security was a new and welcome dimension for an Economist conference. Stating that business as usual is not an option has been said before, but deserved its repetition here. But these two points hardly translated into concrete solutions. Again, the recurring reference to feeding 9 billion people in 2050 and increasing food production by 70 per cent was used as the background against which we need to act. This narrow view of the future of food security has been severely challenged, not least in discourses during the conference. What is worrying is that while food insecurity, poverty, unsustainable diets and depletion of resources were repeatedly referred to as key issues, the question of how to produce more with less stubbornly remained.

Is it the right question? Why don't we ask ourselves how to better use our resources to produce enough and distribute it more fairly? Why do we believe that productivity increases will simply translate into more affordable, nutritious food for those who, in reality, cannot access it? Why don't we ask ourselves how sustainability and resilience could take us on a road that will eliminate food insecurity by 2050? Ellen Gustafson called for more knowledge on consumer behaviour. Nothing is more needed today: we need to understand what drives the future food consumption patterns, but also what drives the future demography, and most urgently what drives the future business as usual scenario. My bet is that this knowledge will show us that incremental improvement will not be a future option.

Date published: March 2013


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