The green revolution has slowed since the early 1990s, and it has become harder to bolster crop yields, as I have discussed in my book, “An Economist Gets Lunch.” And recent research by Dani Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at Harvard, indicates that agricultural productivity improvements are among the hardest to transmit from one nation to another.World Hunger: The Problem Left Behind (New York Times)
For all its importance to human well-being, agriculture seems to be one of the lagging economic sectors of the last two decades. That means the problem of hunger is flaring up again, as the World Bank and several United Nations agencies have recently warned.
Consider Africa, which is often considered to have turned a corner and to be headed toward steady growth. The expansion of the African middle class and the decline in child mortality rates are both quite real, but the advances have not been balanced — and agriculture lags behind.
In a recent address, Michael Lipton, an economist and research professor at Sussex University in Britain, offered a sobering look at Africa’s agricultural productivity. He suggests that Rwanda and Ghana are gaining, but that most of the continent is not. Production and calorie intake per capita don’t seem to be higher today than they were in the early 1960s. It remains an issue how Africa’s growing population will be fed.
One huge problem is that the price of fertilizer in Africa is often two to four times the world price. Yet African soil and rainfall make much of the continent subpar for growing food. In other words, the region that probably needs fertilizer the most also has to pay the most for it, and much of Africa doesn’t have the prosperity to make this an easy stretch. The high prices result in large part from infrastructure and trade networks that aren’t developed enough to create a low-cost and competitive market. And the problem could worsen if economic troubles in China distract it from its beneficial investments in African roads and harbors.
His solution? End ethanol subsidies and put food higher on the global agenda. Good as far as it goes, but the always useful Colin Tudge has more:
Objective data, of the kind that the scientists and economists who advise the powers-that-be claim to base their ideas upon, suggests that the new ways aren't working – not, at least, if we feel that the job of agriculture is to produce good food. Worldwide, 1 billion people of the present 7 billion are chronically undernourished, while another billion are chronically overnourished – such that according to an article in Nature in May the world population of diabetics now exceeds the combined population of the US and Canada, and almost all because of diet. Damage to the world at large is huge. Mainly because of industrial farming, half of all species on Earth could be extinct by the end of the century. Agriculture occupies 40% of the planet's land, but its pollution endangers creatures everywhere, including the seas, where farming run-off is destroying the coral reefs.Why the world needs a renaissance of small farming (The Guardian)
But the corporate-government complex that runs our lives is committed to the all-out financial competition of the neoliberal global market. So British farmers in British conditions in a British social context are head to head with peasant Africans and US mega-corporates and Ukrainian grain barons (or would be were it not for the EU subsidies) – while farming as a whole must compete for investment with cars, weapons, casinos and hair-dressing.
If we don't acknowledge the moral obligation to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest, then what does morality mean? There is no excuse for the present failure – for sound biological thinking shows that good food for everyone should be eminently possible. But report after report – the kind governments and big organisations choose to override – tells us that the best way to ensure that everyone is well fed, sustainably and securely, is through farms that are mixed, complex and low-input (quasi-organic). These must be labour-intensive (or there can be no complexity), so there is no advantage in them being large scale. Such farms are traditional in structure, but they need not be traditional in technology. They would benefit from good technologies and science.
But the small-to-medium mixed farms that could feed us well and provide good jobs are absolutely at odds with the modern perceived imperative to maximise wealth. To survive in the fight for profit, skilled labour must be replaced with big machines and agrochemistry; the husbandry must be simplified – monoculture rules – and all must be done on the largest possible scale. Although industrial farming doesn't feed everybody, has led to mass unemployment and the poverty and despair that go with it, and is wrecking the fabric of the world, it must prevail because it produces piles of short-term cash for the people who are calling the shots.
And recently on Energy Bulletin, from Lester Brown:
As food supplies tighten, the geopolitics of food is fast overshadowing the geopolitics of oil. The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when world grain production fell behind demand. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, doubling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to curb rising domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Viet Nam, the world’s number two rice exporter, banned exports entirely in the early months of 2008. Several other smaller grain suppliers also restricted exports.
With key suppliers restricting or banning exports, importing countries panicked. No longer able to rely on the market for grain, several countries tried to negotiate long-term grain supply agreements with exporting countries. The Philippines, a chronically rice-deficit country, attempted to negotiate a three-year agreement with Viet Nam for 1.5 million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in mind for wheat, but they had no luck. In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.
Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea, then took the unusual step of buying or leasing land long term in other countries on which to grow food for themselves. These land acquisitions have since grown rapidly in number. Most of them are in Africa. Among the principal destinations for land hunters are Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan, each of them countries where millions of people are being sustained with food donations from the U.N. World Food Programme.Full planet, empty plates: The new geopolitics of food scarcity (Energy Bulletin)
As of mid-2012, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2011 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved—an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect downstream countries as well. Any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate newly planted crops in Ethiopia, Sudan, or South Sudan, for instance, will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries that Egypt must compete with for water.
The potential for conflict is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and much of the time the land involved was already being farmed by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little support for bringing their cases to court.
The bottom line is that it is becoming much more difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up with the world’s rapidly growing demand for grain. World grain stocks were drawn down a decade ago and we have not been able to rebuild them. If we cannot do so, we can expect that with the next poor harvest, food prices will soar, hunger will intensify, and food unrest will spread. We are entering a time of chronic food scarcity, one that is leading to intense competition for control of land and water resources—in short, a new geopolitics of food.