Feeding a world of 9 billion

Today the development agency Oxfam launches a global campaign against food insecurity, focusing on the challenge of feeding everyone on the planet in an era of increasing resource scarcity. After some progress over recent decades, food price spikes have been increasing the number of hungry people – to just under 1 billion today, a global scandal which has received too little attention from governments and campaign groups alike.

The new ‘GROW’ campaign comes with a headline-grabbing report warning of food price rises in key staples by between 120 and 180 percent by 2030, harming the poor and hampering attempts to decrease malnutrition overall. This may or may not be true – but the real point of the new campaign is to change the outcome rather than predict it. With this in mind, the Growing for a Better Future report (PDF 3.2MB) represents a welcome shift in the NGO rhetoric in a more realistic – and more environmentally-focused – direction.

Take this paragraph, buried at the very end on page 52:

The romanticization of ‘the peasant’ and rejection of new technologies and trade have the potential to lock farmers into poverty. International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods.

I can’t imagine finding this in a development agency report of yesteryear. The Oxfam report represents a welcome move away from the organic/small-scale-is-always-best rhetoric of the past which has polarised the food debate and set back the cause of tackling world hunger. Instead, the report recognises that more chemical inputs – especially fertilisers – are essential to raise the productivity of smallholder subsistence farming across Africa, which surely holds the key to reducing malnutrition amongst the world’s most vulnerable.

The report almost – but not quite – endorses GMOs, even. The closest we get is this, on page 54:

Farmers living in poverty do not grind out their existence using primitive technologies and outdated practices as a preferred option, rather because appropriate technologies for small producers have not been a priority for government or the private sector. For example, genetically engineered crop varieties developed overwhelmingly for large-scale industrial farms have failed to deliver for poor farmers, and have failed to make a significant contribution to tackling hunger, poverty or development.

It is true that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM soya and other herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant crops have little to offer farmers working in low-input conditions in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. But it does not a priori rule out the benefits of GM technology where these are specifically aimed at drought tolerance, nutritional enhancement or other traits which might be developed by public sector agencies (and therefore sold without patents) with the specific needs of subsistence farmers in mind. Might we dare to look forward to a campaign demanding a faster development of pro-poor GMOs? I certainly hope so.

Whilst there is little doubt that genetic improvements hold the highest potential for increasing yields overall in a world where the benefits of the ‘green revolution’ are beginning to tail off, there is much that can be done in the meantime. Some insane policies – like biofuels mandates in the EU and United States – should simply be scrapped, and any money saved recyled into agricultural development. Even if it is simplistic to blame recent food price increases solely or even mainly on biofuels, it is surely immoral to feed wheat and corn into car engines when so many people are going hungry.

There is a lot of politically-correct stuff in the report which I feel I have seen a thousand times before, and much of it feels like it has been written by committee (which it no doubt has). There are some rather strange high-blown rhetorical flourishes which do little to crystallise the central message, such as the following:

The broken food system is exacerbating the very drivers of fragility that make it vulnerable to shocks. It is locked in a dance of death with the age of crisis it helped to create.

Anyway. What I find most intriguing is the creeping in of ecological language into the standard development narrative. There is lots in there about climate change, but this is now de rigeur in reports of this type. Much more interesting is the mention of ‘planetary boundaries’, the subject of much recent scientific research and also of my upcoming book. The report states that “we must produce enough nourishing food for nine billion people by 2050 while remaining within planetary boundaries”, and mentions ecological and resource limits – namely climate, land, water, biodiversity and nitrogen – elsewhere too. These limits are not defined, but the fact that they are now considered central by Oxfam surely marks a major step forward.

How the new GROW campaign evolves remains to be seen. Let’s hope that it can stay away from platitudes about how bad big companies are and focus in on some key areas – like reducing subsidies in rich countries, increasing productivity in the poor world, and staying within those aforementioned ‘planetary boundaries’. Over 900 million people will go to bed hungry tonight – let us all focus on getting that appalling number down, and quickly.

© Mark Lynas
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