By Dr. Leif Rosenberger
Chief Economist at ACERTAS
The United Nations has repeatedly issued stark warnings of imminent famine in Yemen. Unless humanitarian workers gain "immediate and unhindered" access to millions of people who urgently need food, millions of Yemeni will starve to death. What's more, the World Food Program (WFP) says there is plenty of blame to go around.
This grim scenario keeps reoccurring in Yemen. A de facto air and naval blockade impedes both commercial and humanitarian food supplies. One ship carrying commercial supplies for southern parts of the country sits off the port of Aden awaiting permission to come in. On the humanitarian front, the various agencies have neither the access nor the funds to supply food. A ship carrying WFP aid in the port of Hodeida does not get the clearance to unload and transport food to areas where it is needed.
Even when food somehow gets into the country, fighting around ports makes food delivery difficult and dangerous. Thus, local markets do not have enough food to meet the needs of the population. Over the past year, food shortages have caused food prices to rise. So food prices are unaffordable even to those who in the past had the resources to buy from commercial markets.
To soften the financial blow, WFP is urges donors to fulfill pledges for an emergency aid operations. WFP estimates that there are 6 million Yemenis who are "severely food insecure" and half a million children who are severely malnourished. The worst affected are 1.3 million internally displaced people (or IDPs). Women and children are especially vulnerable.
Even if violence decreases, ensuring everyone in politically unstable places like Yemen has equal access to food security has long been an established goal of the international community. But progress even in better times has been has been slow in this embattled country.
Food insecurity appears intractable because it requires what scholars call "cross-sector collaboration." The term refers to close coordination across many economic and security agencies and the sharing of costs between governments, non-government organizations (NGOs), and the private sector as well as incentives to encourage good practice. The tendency is for economists (inside and outside the government) and security officials to talk past each other. Success is only possible if security officials understand economics and economists understand military affairs. Unfortunately, this rarely happens.
Horrific images of famine and widespread food insecurity in places like Yemen and South Sudan were vividly on the minds of experts from the international food community who attended the 3rd International Conference on Global Food Security took place in Cape Town, South Africa, 3-6 December 2017. Policymakers, bureaucrats, and environmentalists remain polarized between the pessimists (latter-day Malthusians) and the optimists, whether technologists or those dedicated to modifying the behavior of food producers and consumers. Each group believes itself to represent realism.
Many of the attendees are alarmed about clear signs that the world is running out of food. In February 2018 the UN warned that over 7 million people in South Sudan were facing severe food insecurity. They're quick to tell you that the famines in Yemen and South Sudan are merely representative of the ongoing food crises in Africa and the conflict ridden Middle East. They remind you that famines are a recurring theme which dates back to 1983-84, when a million Ethiopians died in another terrible famine.
Attendees from the other camp see things differently. Their world generally faces a food glut; they pay their farmers handsomely not to grow food, in order to avoid surplus. Their farmers also have been frustrated as prices of agricultural commodities can and do decline. They make the case that other lines of work are far more promising than agriculture. They also argue that the food insecurity in places like Yemen and South Sudan reflect a distribution problem, not an absolute shortage of food. Throughout the conference the two groups would remain worlds apart.
So, too, are the regions described in this article and the kinds of problems that affect these regions. Food problems in Africa, primarily sub-Saharan Africa, are most often characterized by insufficiencies due to war, civil strife, flawed government policies, and poverty. The latter is defined as the inability to purchase the minimum amount of foodstuffs to sustain life, even in periods of relative plenty. Hence world response to these conditions has taken the form of relief efforts to solve immediate problems, sometimes with little official regard for long-term effects of the interventions on domestic agricultural markets.
Food problems in the rest of the world are different from those in Africa and the Middle East in both form and scope. Whereas African and Middle Eastern food crises have been with us in increasing numbers for several years, with no imminent prospects for slowing the trend, food challenges in the rest of the world lie mostly in the future. Some say the enormous and growing global population has the potential to destabilize agricultural production throughout the world. The growing affluence of countries like China have begun to increase demand for meat products, sustainable only by increasing its production and imports of grains. And whereas the plight of individual African and Middle East states will have limited effect on the well-being of other regions, China's size and location make it inevitable that its claim to the wherewithal to feed its people in the years ahead could indeed affect contiguous states as well as distant regions capable of producing grain surpluses.
Clausewitz reminds us that "the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that a statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature." That admonition applies equally to the strategist seeking to understand what motivates or deters other states in a time of relative peace. For a while during the oil crisis of the 1970s, food was sometimes called the green weapon, apparently on the assumption that the embargo of one commodity could be countered by the embargo of another. At the time, no one took the concept very seriously. Now, however, with the world's population is far larger than what it was at that time. Food --who has it, who doesn't--and the arable land from which it is produced become legitimate strategic considerations.
This article explores aspects of world agriculture and suggests ways to examine and think about arable land and the world food supply, considerations that strategists are sometimes too quick to dismiss. Some support one or another of the two opposing views, because of folk wisdom or prejudice. Some believe that the "world is full of food"; others believe that little can be done to avert starvation in Africa. Still others argue that the world food supply is not vital to US national interests. Common to all views often is a lack of opportunities to examine the matter in depth.
To encourage the study of food and arable land as strategic assets, this article addresses the supply of food worldwide, and to a lesser degree, the demand for it. It looks at factors that determine the supply of food and at circumstances that can alter--for better or worse--the ability of producers to keep pace with demand. Most importantly, this article examines the implications of success or failure to maintain a supply of basic foodstuffs that stays just ahead of the demand. Strategists need a clear, even if rudimentary, understanding of the forces that determine whether tens of millions of people will live lives of feast or famine. Such an understanding will help them shape national policy on matters with potentially unprecedented peacetime consequences.
The Demand for Food
A number of considerations shape the worldwide demand for food. Key among them are population growth, social upheavals that disrupt domestic food production and contribute to humanitarian disasters, and the amount of grain consumed indirectly by relatively affluent societies as they satisfy their newfound desire for meat.
The world's population in 2018 has now reached over 7 and a half billion people. The UN says the world population could reach over 11 billion by the year 2100 unless states take decisive actions to address the problem. Relentless population growth--whatever else happens to the demand for food--means that we will have many more mouths to feed each year than the year before. One policy option is to reduce the rate of growth of the world population.
The investment that promises the biggest short-term payoff in controlling population growth is making sure that safe and effective family-planning methods are universally available. Additionally, the inequalities between the sexes that exist in many developing countries also should be addressed. The Brookings Institution argue in 2017 that educated and emancipated women know how to space their pregnancies.
Poor countries also desperately need stronger economic development, which in turn reduces the social demand for large families. While none of this is easy to implement culturally or politically, the simple truth is that rapid population growth is one of the few solvable problems in an otherwise complicated world.
The UN states that Yemen faces imminent famine. Food shortages in other parts of Africa as well as in places like Yemen in the Middle East raise similar fears; many also fret about almost 800 million people which the UN says are chronically hungry and undernourished. The frequency and scale of humanitarian crises that require the international community to overcome food shortfalls with food aid have increased substantially in recent years.
The Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2017 states that ongoing and new crises left over 164 million people in 47 countries in need of international humanitarian assistance in 2016. And over a quarter of the people in need were in just three countries - Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
At first glance, events in Africa and the Middle East seem to confirm the theories advanced in 1798 by Thomas Robert Malthus, the English economist who gave his name to predictions of mass starvation. The Malthus thesis is that populations will always outstrip the food supply because food supplies grow arithmetically while populations grow geometrically. Pessimists claim that the food shortfall in Africa and the Middle East is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. They claim that food shortages in those regions are indicative of something far more ominous: the world food supply--the total amount of food available to all of the people in the world--is being squeezed. If they are right, humanity itself can ultimately be at risk.
As people improve their living standards, especially through increased income, they usually eat more food. Also they generally begin to eat more meat, which requires an enormous amount of grain to feed their livestock. Beef cattle are especially inefficient in this respect, producing only one pound of meat for every eight to ten pounds of grain they consume. Compared to a pound of beef, however, that same eight pounds of grain can supply about ten times as many calories and more than four times as much protein when consumed directly by humans.
In the past, almost all beef cattle grazed on grass and other forage up to the time they were slaughtered. But since the mid-1900s, many feed lots--they fatten cattle on grain--have operated in the United States and Canada. Most beef cattle are fattened there, consuming enormous quantities of grain in the process. In effect, livestock consume more calories and protein than they produce; even chicken requires roughly two kilos of grain to produce a kilo of edible products.
To help redress this inefficient conversion of grain to calories, the United States could take the lead in helping to reduce the demand for feed grain for livestock in two ways. First, the demand for grain could decline significantly if the cattle industry raised some of its animals chiefly on forage. Second, the demand for feed grain would decline if we simply decided to eat less meat. Most people in the United States, for example, could probably reduce their meat consumption as much as 30 percent without ill effects; Americans consume more than four times as much grain, partly through meat products, as do people in developing countries. The demand for grain is also increasing because affluent people in newly prosperous places like China can afford to eat more, especially more meat. So restraint in meat consumption could gradually increase the amount of calories and protein available for human consumption as grain products.
It is useful to make a distinction between economic demand for food and what can be called social demand for it. When economists use the word demand, they generally refer to market demand in the context of purchasing power and price. But since poor people who cannot afford food are not part of the marketplace for grain, talking about the economic demands for food in the world ignores a large segment of humanity. It also helps to explain why there can be food scarcity in Africa and the Middle East in the midst of a surplus of food in places like the United States and the European Union (EU) countries.
The social demand for food reflects population increase and the tendency for increasing affluence to be accompanied by increased consumption of food, particularly meat. In this sense, the concept offers a more complete description of aggregate demand for food than does market demand. Social demand identifies the quantity of food the world needs to feed all of its people, irrespective of commercial demand for grain in the marketplace. Quantifying the social demand can help us to reconcile the usually conflicting views of the pessimists and the optimists. And if we can think of the world food supply in such a holistic context, we discover that the social demand for food is increasing. Living standards plunge when population outstrips economic growth, creating conditions for social unrest and civil war. And when marginal or depleted natural resources--land and water--can no longer support growing populations, conflicts can arise as desperate people become refugees and seek their livelihood in neighboring countries.
The finding that social demand for food is growing has strategic consequences. Countries with an abundance of food cannot ignore the problem of global mismatches between populations and foodstuffs, whether the mismatches are intermittent or permanent. The condition demands responses; it creates the kind of imperative that RAND Corporation's Marten Van Heuven frequently referred to: "Either you visit the problem, or the problem will visit you." The debate will continue over whether the relationship between anticipated population growth and arable land is cause for concern or merely a phase. The prudent individual or state, however, should be looking for hedges in the event the emerging scenario is Malthusian. The concern is that many conflicts can be traced to competition for resources.
The Supply of Food
Whether the world can grow enough grain to meet increasing social demand for food depends on several factors; the amount of food a country produces is determined in large measure by its agricultural resources--arable land, water, energy, and fertilizer. Of these, land and water are obviously the most important. Crop land must be fertile and fairly level; water can be from rainfall, irrigation, and in some limited instances, desalinization processes. In addition, many farmers depend heavily on energy resources, particularly petroleum fuels, to operate tractors, irrigation pumps, harvesters, and other farm equipment. Most also use some form of natural or man-made fertilizer to enrich the soil.
One of the first lessons every economist learns is that these agricultural resources, no matter how plentiful in some places, are scarce relative to what the global society would otherwise want. The permanent fact of scarcity (the condition of being in limited supply) requires choices and creates costs. In the context of the world food supply, this means that no country has an unlimited supply of land, water, energy, and fertilizer. The more we explore technical ways with the potential to boost food production, the more we run into these natural and manmade limits. The limits need not lead to crisis; if they are ignored in assessing strategic options, however, threats may well develop that would put American soldiers at risk.
The Good News
We all know that potential threats sometimes never materialize. In fact, Malthusian forecasts about population growth outstripping the food supply have been proven factually wrong, at least until recently. For one thing, Malthus ignored, or at least did not foresee, the tremendous increase in arable land in newly discovered and exploited areas of the world. In addition, Malthus did not anticipate the rising productivity per acre that resulted from the Industrial Revolution.
Similarly, if we move to the latter half of the 20th century, we also find that doomsday conditions did not occur on a global basis. In fact, global agriculture, in an aggregate sense, enjoyed substantial success from 1961 to 1994; during that period the world experienced a steady growth in the production of most food crops. In the 1967-1997 thirty year period, global food output rose faster than population. In an aggregate sense at least, the world food supply has been growing over the long term.
We all need to thank Norman Borlaug, whose research led to what is commonly called the Green Revolution, for the steady rise in production. His ingenuity and innovation combined modern, higher yielding seed varieties of rice, wheat, and maize with intensive and innovative use of inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides. Most of the recent growth in food production in developing countries is a result of the higher yields stimulated by Borlaug's research.
For many years, the Green Revolution allayed fears that the world could not increase food production at rates that matched population growth. The results speak for themselves.
Agricultural experts were amazed at the impressive growth rates in the global yields of wheat, rice, and maize. And countries such as China, which adopted Green Revolution methods of farming in their entirety, showed astounding yield increases. Even countries that adopted only parts of Borlaug's methods have shown substantial increases in yields.
The Green Revolution protected the environment by enabling farmers to grow much more food without a dramatic increase in the area of cropland. Dennis Avery, a former agricultural analyst at the US State Department calculated that ten million square miles, the equivalent to the whole of North and Central America, would have been cleared for farming had the new procedures and technologies not appeared some in the early 1960s.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, the success of global agriculture in the aggregate has not been shared equally by all countries. Africa and the Middle East continue to experience chronic malnutrition and periodic famines. This situation is particularly ironic because most African countries were self-sufficient in food at the time they became independent nations. Africa still has the potential to be a productive continent; its farmers are inventive and adaptive, and the continent has a third fewer people per acre than the developing world as a whole. Unfortunately, it is not living up to its potential. Africa and the Middle East continue to be seriously affected by food shortages. Many countries like Yemen, Iraq and Syria face food emergencies. Consequently, many of these countries are now heavily dependent on imported food for their survival.
Back in 1992 the immediate cause of the famine in Somalia was drought. But the deeper causes of Africa's declining ability to feed itself are more complex, an unfortunate interplay of natural and human conditions. Certainly lack of rainfall and persistent civil strife contribute to recurring food gaps. But most experts agree that the basic problem is that African governments neglect investment in agriculture. Instead of empowering the countryside, those governments tend to have an anti-rural bias and an obsession with rapid industrialization. They also spend too much money on armaments and not enough money on agriculture.
In addition, Africa's rapid population growth and counterproductive public policies also contribute to food gaps. Despite the fact that total food production has increased in Africa since 1961, the rise in food production has not been enough to keep up with population growth there, which tends to confirm part of Malthus's theory. But Africa's problems are largely the result of self-inflicted wounds rather than the world approaching some natural limit to food production, a distinction that Malthus did not make.
That is a difference without distinction, however, for the African who is hungry and malnourished. For whatever reason, many developing countries in Africa and the Middle East simply don't have enough food at hand to feed their people. Sometimes this is attributable to a lack of foreign exchange to import enough food at market prices to overcome the food shortfall. At other times, food is available to meet economic demand, but the social demand for food is not met because large numbers of the poor lack the money to purchase food on a commercial basis.
The considerations that follow--call them causes or effects--influence one's perceptions of the availability of food in the world. Some, such as specific water resources or humanitarian interventions, tend to affect the food supply of a single state or region. Others, such as the amount of arable land in cultivation, improvements in fertilizer, or the introduction of hybrid species, can affect the supply of food in a region or the entire world. The list is not exhaustive, but it contains sufficient information to provide a sense of the complexity of the food supply system. Taken together, these considerations can encourage measured responses to both optimistic and pessimistic strategic estimates of the influence of food supplies on national security issues.
Interventions into the food supply can be classified as humanitarian and governmental. The paradox is that both, while necessary, tend to destabilize the food supply system in a country.
Foreign aid packages that seek to prevent famine or offset chronic food shortages have become increasingly familiar in recent years. Global redistribution of food by various agencies and organizations is impressive. Millions of metric tons of food is delivered to the chronically needy every year. Unfortunately, this figure still falls far short of the total food aid needs.
That said, such interventions are often a mixed blessing for the recipients of the food. While these massive giveaways undeniably provide temporary relief, foreign food aid actually hurts the recipients in the long run. When the United States provides food at no cost to developing countries, the relative price of food versus other commodities is altered. Signals to potential investors in agriculture in these countries are discouraging rather than encouraging. This, in turn, undermines long-run self-sufficiency in food production. In short, food aid treats symptoms, not causes of food gaps.
A similar market distortion occurs when governments in developing countries set food prices at low levels. The policy is politically attractive, since it provides cheap food for growing urban populations. But farmers in the developing countries soon discover that the commodity prices paid by the government are often so low that they do not cover production costs. A low-price policy diminishes the incentives to actual and potential farmers to increase the food supply. The farmers, in turn, react by reducing the amount of food they produce. The resulting downward spiral often ends as a food shortage, triggering a vicious cycle that produces a need for more external food aid.
Poor countries need to permit returns on agriculture sufficient to raise rural incomes, even for the landless; they also should seek ways to spur economic development throughout their economies. In this sense, the food shortage is at least partially about poverty. And the poverty of farmers should be addressed by policy changes to restrict government interference in the agricultural marketplace altogether. None of these prescriptions will be applied without strife, however. When countries try to free their commodity markets, city dwellers often riot. Governments should be challenged to shift their focus to the poor rural producer, rather than continue to pander to the urban dweller.
This does not mean governments should stay on the sidelines. They can, and should, look for measures that tend to create an attractive infrastructure, one that enables private agriculture to expand to meet market pressure for increased consumables. One way to reach this objective is to spend less money on guns and more money on butter--investing in rural infrastructure, including bus and truck transportation and improved water and irrigation systems.
But what can international food agencies do about people who have no money whatsoever? Those agencies are relatively well equipped to deal with extraordinary, nonrecurring events, such as the drought that triggered the famine in Somalia. But they lack the resources to meet completely the chronic needs of the malnourished millions in Africa and South Asia. Comprehensive macroeconomic strategies in the affected countries, rather than short-term, stop-gap policies, are required to deal with chronic underproduction of food. Governments in poor countries must work with the IMF and the World Bank to create market-friendly economic development strategies that will systematically reduce poverty.
Change--cultural, social, political, and economic--sufficient to create permanent improvements in the lot of the chronically poor will not occur quickly or easily. The long-term goal of these countries should be to provide steady purchasing power to previously poor people to allow them to buy food commercially. Seen from this perspective, chronic hunger and malnutrition have more to do with poverty than with reaching full capacity in food output.
The Grain Slowdown
But are the poverty and hunger we see in Africa and the Middle East really self-contained? Is this grim situation occurring in a world full of food? Not exactly. Even in the aggregate, things are not altogether rosy for global agriculture, at least in terms of output. For although world food production continued for several decades to grow faster than population, population growth is beginning to catch up, because the rate of growth in world food production declined.
Given these declining growth rates, can the capacity of the world agricultural system continue to feed a world population that the UN says will reach 9.6 billion people by 2050? The UN says no unless the world somehow can produce 70% more food by 2050. In this regard, consider the state of ocean-produced food. Maritime experts agree that almost everywhere fish stocks have been plundered to the point of exhaustion. Some would ask, having reached a natural limit on food from the sea, whether a natural limit on grain can be far behind.
To a certain extent, Green Revolution methods can continue to make farmland more productive. That's because there is still considerable untapped potential for its methods and technologies around the world. In fact, much of the world has still not fully utilized the technologies of the Green Revolution.
Moreover, innovative and intensive use of irrigation has helped to produce stunning results. Many food experts are still cautiously optimistic that yield increases will continue. This is because of the existing wide disparities in yields among the best performing countries (using intensive Green Revolution irrigation methods) and those countries using less innovative irrigation practices. For example, rice yields on irrigated land can vary from one to ten metric tons per hectare. In other words, there is a big difference between an average yield of 3.7 metric tons per hectare is underperforming countries and 6.7 metric tons per hectare achieved by some of the better performing countries. And average yields of wheat and maize on some irrigated land are only about half the yields achieved, again, by the best performing countries. Thus, FAO argues that there is considerable room for improvement by farmers currently achieving less-than-peak yields.
Average crop yields in underperforming countries can be 40 percent of the yields achieved by scientists using the best technology now available in better performing countries. Back in the 1990s in Andhra Pradesh, India, for example, scientists boosted yields almost six-fold by planting a double crop of sorghum and chickpea instead of the single cropping method used by local farmers. Thus, if farmers in the tropics have enough water, fertilizer, and other essential resources, they can grow two or three crops a year on the same land, instead of one crop, with much higher yields to show for their informed and intensive use of the same amount of acreage.
Expanding Arable Land
Back in the 1961-1990 period the expansion of cropland area was significant in two regions: sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In fact, sub-Saharan Africa stands as the only region in the world where expansion of arable land contributed nearly as much as yield increases to the growth of cereal production during the 1961-1990 period. In Latin America during the same period, expansion of arable land accounted for nearly one third of recorded production gains.
At first glance, there would appear to be potential for developing new cropland. Despite a strong trend toward urbanization in developing countries, some have said over the years that there remains relatively large areas of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America that are potentially suitable for farming. If so, the expansion of arable land would contribute at least somewhat to the increase in crop production.
On closer examination, however, things look less promising, because most of the good arable land is either fallow or already in use. The land remaining in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa is not prime land; much of it has tropical soil and a climate not conducive to farming. So yields from such land would tend to be low. This fact is well known, and it is difficult to get farmers to settle and develop these areas voluntarily. Financial incentives alone are not sufficient to induce settlement, because these lands are mostly in remote areas, far from markets and transportation. Expensive infrastructure would be needed before the lands could support commercial farming. In short, it would be difficult, costly, and time-consuming to develop new land for farming in the very areas where others have identified opportunities to do so.
A number of conditions set clear limits on how many of the four primary agricultural resources can be harnessed to produce higher yields around the world. Since rainfall is distributed unevenly over the earth's surface, some farmers are dependent on irrigation water, if it is available, because local rainfall is too light or uncertain to raise crops to maturity. But the supply of irrigation water is limited; farmers in some countries use nearly all the available supply, creating tension with the rest of society and frequently with neighboring countries as well.
Environmental factors also set limits on higher yields, causing international agriculture strategists to be concerned about features of the agricultural system that Malthus never dreamed of. Global warming, for example, purportedly threatens to desolate at least some productive arable land. Optimists counter with the idea that a measure of global warming could serve to transform some of the barren tundra into new arable land, thus offsetting losses elsewhere.
An environmental backlash appears to be developing against some of the Green Revolution policies encouraged during the 1960s and 1970s: notable among them are technological solutions to the food supply problem, such as irrigation, and the use of farm chemicals and new high-yielding seed varieties. Consequently, the rate at which cropland is brought under irrigation is declining.
This decline is mainly due to the increasing cost of irrigation, both development and maintenance, and the growing competition for water uses cited above. Irrigation's environmental and health effects also inhibit further expansion. For instance, over the years millions of hectares of irrigated land, especially in Asia, have become waterlogged or have been rendered infertile because the water has left deposits of salt. Salinization problems from improper irrigation techniques reduce crop yields and constrain future production.
The fertilizer situation is not very promising either. Nitrogen fertilizers used for agriculture are currently made from natural gas. But the supplies of petroleum and natural gas are strictly limited. And while increased use of fertilizer can help farmers produce more food, it can also cause environmental problems. Nitrogen fertilizers sometimes create a buildup of nitrogen compounds in the soil. Chemical fertilizers that run into rivers and lakes cause ugly, slimy blooms of algae. Europeans have learned over the years that if you pour fertilizer into the Thames, the Seine, or the Rhine, you are likely to affect fisheries in the North Sea.
Increasingly, environmentalists want all water users to pay the full "economic cost" of water in a drive to eliminate serious water pollution and waste. That could severely affect farmers, who pay very little for their water in much of the world. The full economic cost of water would include a charge for environmental costs as well as operational and management costs, capital costs, and reserves for future investments. The proposal would almost certainly spark a fierce counterattack from farmers affected by the changes.
Although energy and fertilizer can make farmland more productive, increasing energy and fertilizer costs also would drive producer costs higher. Food prices would rise in due course, eventually pricing food out of the reach of millions of people throughout the world who cannot afford to buy all the food they need even at lower prices. Therefore, ways and means should be sought to expand food production at a cost that most farmers and consumers in developing countries can afford.
And even if a farmer can afford to use more expensive fertilizer and irrigation methods, he soon discovers trade-offs between the costs of these inputs and higher yields he can expect from them. In other words, greater use of these resources makes land more productive, but only up to a point. For instance, most farmers in the United States often use seven to ten times as much fertilizer on each unit of land as do farmers in underperforming developing countries. But US grain yields are only about twice as large as those in developing countries. US agribusinesses might be able to afford this kind of expense, but marginal farmers in many developing countries simply cannot afford the additional resources that the Green Revolution requires.
Expansion of arable land can have other harmful consequences. In many cases, conversion to arable land would destroy the forests and cause the loss of biodiversity, which in turn could hinder medical research. The increasing need for food already has caused the deforestation of significant amounts of marginal land. In the short run, the new land sometimes increases yields of specific crops. Over time, however, some of this new cropland is not sustainable, and the total amount of arable land can actually shrink. In many regions, trees that have created a barrier to the encroachment of the desert have been burned for fuel, thus causing the fragile topsoil essential to farming to be blown away by desert winds.
Subsequently, the scarcity of wood which accompanies deforestation can require farmers to use animal dung for fuel, diverting some of it from its traditional use as fertilizer. Fallow periods frequently have been shortened, resulting in overplanting and overgrazing; soil abused in this manner eventually wears out. Finally, deforestation and land overuse have reduced the capacity of the land to absorb moisture, thus diminishing its productivity and its ability to resist drought. Experience in mitigating ecological degradation has not been encouraging.
Because so much of the Green Revolution success story has been due to increases in yield, a key question for the future, given the obstacles cited above, is whether such increases in food production will continue, and if they do, at what rates. Unfortunately, there are already strong indications that the Green Revolution is beginning to run out of steam.
Although total yields increased for a while, yields of the three cereals in developing countries--rice, wheat, and maize-started to rise at a slower rate in the 1980s and 1990s than in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, the technologies of the Green Revolution appeared to allow the food supply to continue to grow only for so long. Thus, traditional technological improvements, while essential to any comprehensive food production strategy, can go only part of the way to feeding the world.
Given that cropland expansion and other supply options can probably only do a small part to boost grain production, and that squeezing more yield out of existing cropland cannot do all of the rest by itself, we need to explore other ways to boost grain production to feed over 11 billion people by the year 2100. One way we can increase grain output is by applying better farming techniques. For instance, optimizing the timing and density of planting and seeding has raised corn yields by as much as 2.5 metric tons per hectare and soybean yields by one additional metric ton per hectare. Some other ways to improve at the margin include:
- Governments in Africa could encourage low-technology, small-scale agriculture. Idriss Jazairy, a former high-level UN agriculture specialist, has argued that the key to Africa's food future is the very small farmer so long ignored by African governments and outside donors:
The failure of past development strategies is that they have been based on a trickle down, social-safety net approach that emphasizes the consumption needs of the poor and identifies the poor as a burden on the growth process. Instead, we need to focus on their producing possibilities. We need to see that development is something that happens because of the poor, not in spite of the poor.
- Women in Africa may also be a key to Africa's food future. In the past, too many regional governments have treated women as second-class citizens. Despite the fact rural women produce most of Africa's food, few of them own land or resources because of laws that discriminate against them. If African governments did more to empower women farmers with such things as land tenure, it is likely that they would make the long-term investments (e.g., planting more hedges and trees that are needed to arrest soil erosion).
- Yields can also be improved substantially by reducing post-harvest losses. The developing world generally lacks required facilities for crop storage; thus, even when crops are good, it is difficult to accumulate a surplus for the lean years. A large percentage of domestic farm output in some parts of Africa are lost to rats, insects, and spoilage Too much of the harvested grains are damaged by molds, fungi, insects, rodents, and other pests. Significant gains can therefore be obtained through better processing and improved storage and distribution facilities.
- Research scientists are now working to develop varieties of grain that not only produce higher yields but also have other improved characteristics. Such a grain might supply a more complete combination of amino acids, make more efficient use of water and fertilizer, and provide better resistance to insects and disease. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to develop a plant variety that has so many different characteristics. The necessary research therefore takes much time and money.
- Significant increases in supply may also be possible through new developments using conventional plant breeding techniques. Dramatic leaps forward have already occurred in rise production. Awhile back researchers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines bred a new strain which invested about 50 percent of its energy in growing its ear, which contains the edible bits, compared with 30 percent in older varieties. It lifts yields 20-25 percent above the highest yielding varieties now available in Asia.
- These opportunities pale in comparison to the seeming potential in biotechnical research. As the following discussion shows, however, progress in this area is not without its problems. Biotechnology has been helpful in developing increased pest resistance in some crops and drought resistance in others. In some cases, it is speeding up the process of plant breeding and lowering the cost of achieving such research goals as greater insect and disease resistance. These successes have led some agricultural experts to argue that biotechnology has the potential to create another Green Revolution. But it would be wrong to suggest that a cornucopia awaits; so far at least, biotechnology has not led to a single dramatic gain in yield of any grains. The most likely reason is that research and development in the best known form of biotechnology, genetic engineering, is concentrated in medicine, not farming. Even where agricultural biotechnical research is taking place, most of it is being done by private firms in the West, who tinker with the qualities of fruits and vegetables for rich markets, rather than trying to boost the quantity of basic grains for the poor.
Unfortunately, the prospects for farm research in biotechnology no longer appear promising. After steady growth in the 1960s, aid fatigue has set in and over the years there have been steep budget cuts in agricultural research. If governments from rich countries continue to slash their own budgets for farm research, grain prices will have to rise to improve incentives for bioengineers to switch from medical work to agricultural research. In addition, many environmentalists have joined forces with budget cutters and are now campaigning furiously against agricultural biotechnology. For years consumer groups and retailers in several EU countries have protested against the introduction of a genetically modified soybean developed in the United States. Soya is used in 60 per cent of processed foods, and there is concern that consumers will have no choice about whether to eat the modified version. The soybean has been approved by the EU as safe; the protests derive from the fact that the US product is neither labeled nor segregated from other stocks.
In this regard, back in November of 1996 at the World Food Summit in Rome, three naked women enlivened the atmosphere by brandishing signs at the US Secretary of Agriculture demanding that the summit "Ban the Gene Bean," a reference to the controversial practice of genetically modifying soybeans. While it might be easy enough to classify the protesters and their organizations as extremists with fanciful dreams of influencing policy, they were actually closer to the mainstream than their attire would suggest.
China's Disappearing Act
As the largest potential source of new demand for grains, China will always attract considerable attention in discussions of food production. Prospects for developing more farmland in China are discouraging, a significant change from the height of the Green Revolution, when China's rising production of grain was nothing short of phenomenal.
Back in 1995, Lester Brown, the world's leading modern Malthusian and President of the Worldwatch Institute, warned that China's roads, factories, and golf courses spread across the countryside would result in China losing much of its grain land by 2030. He shocked grain dealers with a forecast that China would import 216 million tons by 2030. While USDA experts at the time agreed that China would be a major grain importer in the future, few were as pessimistic as Brown; most thought the loss of land and the size of Chinese grain imports would be significantly less than what Brown predicted.
But in 2015, Fred Gale, James Hansen and Michael Jewison - mainstream food experts from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) -- did a study warning about China's growing demand for agricultural products. Then in May of 2017 Bloomberg ran an alarming story that China is now in an epic race to avoid a food crisis and is frantically farming the world to avoid it and prepare the way for rising imports. Bloomberg said much of this growth reflects China's rising appetite for grain-intensive meat in the diet of prosperous Chinese and reduction in arable land in China.
Assuming that the Bloomberg study on China reflects a reasonable scenario based on defensible assumptions, the amount of disappearing cropland in China and a more meat-intensive diet means that a global expansion of farmland can play only a small part in boosting world food supplies. That being the case, the Bloomberg study says that a much greater part of China's food needs will have to come from technology -- squeezing more from existing land inside and around the world. In essence, that's what the Green Revolution did.
Pessimists claim that the gradual slowdown in productivity gains has led to a genuine crisis in the world food supply. They claim that recent data finally provide conclusive indicators that the world is running out of food, and at first glance they appear to be right.
But this current fear of the world running out of food is not new. So let's put all of this in historical perspective.
Case Study # 1: 1994-1997
The food supply was squeezed during 1994 and 1995; for instance, there's no denying that food prices rose and food stocks fell during this period. Between June 1993 and May 1996, food prices rose by 47 percent after many years of decline. In particular, corn-futures prices rose 57 percent from the start of 1996 to a record-setting $5.48 a bushel by July. Wheat-futures prices also jumped to an all-time high of about $7 a bushel over the same period, effectively double the price that had been stable since early 1995. The higher prices did severe damage to many African nations, which are net importers of food.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), higher prices in 1995 alone increased the cost to developing countries of cereal imports by about $4 billion.
Between June 1993 and May 1996 the world's grain stocks fell to 13 percent of annual consumption, the lowest level ever recorded. Even in the United States, "the breadbasket of the world," US granaries in early 1996 held a precariously low amount of grain--just 426 million bushels of corn at one point in September, the lowest level since the 1970s.
Should one conclude that the whole world, as opposed to China, Africa and the Middle East, are in fact running out of food? Perhaps there's another explanation. At the 3rd International Conference on Global Food Security in December of 2017 elder statesmen were curiously relaxed in contrast to the alarm shown by many upstart conference attendees. The elders seemed satisfied that complacency about food security had been shaken, but perhaps they were thinking that they had seen the picture before. These sober and dispassionate elder statesmen may have remembered a similar conference in Rome in 1974. Then, as now, the mood was equally alarmist. Then, as now, the world was running out of food, or so it seemed. The pessimists at the 1974 conference predicted dire consequences, even mass famine, which proved wildly wrong.
Admittedly, the market signals in 1994 and 1995 showed some kind of shortage, but not all shortages are the same. A close examination of data from this period revealed no structural shortage that one would anticipate if the world food supply had in fact reached full production capacity. Instead, unusual circumstances of a short-term and reversible nature account for the rising prices and de-stocking of grains. Three factors--the weather, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of land from production--were particularly atypical of a systemic crisis in food production.
The high prices reflected a record low crop production due to unfavorable weather. Conditions for wheat stayed dry through May 1996, while weather for corn and soybeans remained dry in key producing regions into June 1996. Second, food production in the former Soviet Union fell dramatically because subsidies had been withdrawn from inefficient state farms. Compared with a peak production year in 1989, production in 1994 was down fully 40 percent. That trend reversed itself as economic reforms took hold in Russia and the Ukraine. And third, the fall in grain stocks reflected policy changes in the United States and Western Europe to rein in the huge overproduction of grain that had occurred in the 1980s. After their grain surpluses had reached embarrassingly high levels, the governments in Washington and Brussels (the EU) began paying grain farmers handsomely to let some of their land lie fallow. In the preceding 10 year period, US farmers took about 37 million acres of cropland out of cultivation.
But not long after concerns about grain supply pushed grain prices to record-breaking levels, grain prices dropped. Corn-futures prices fell about 50 percent per bushel between July and December 1996, from $5.48 to the year's low of $2.60. Similarly, wheat-futures prices fell abruptly during the same period, from $7 a bushel in July to below $4 a bushel by December.
Why the nose-dive in grain prices? The two main reasons were the better-than-expected weather and a significant surge in worldwide grain supply. Timely summer rains and warm temperatures late in the 1996 growing season boosted the 1996 US corn and soybean crops to near-record levels. Second, farmers responded to higher prices by bringing land back into production; US farmers added eight million acres of corn in 1996, and large crops came from Europe, Australia, and South America. In short, markets are adjusting to the weather and to various policy decisions, just as Adam Smith, the English free-market economist, would have expected.
Grain prices in 1997 rose well below the unusually high prices of the first half of 1996; wheat averaged about $4 a bushel and corn about $2.60. Several factors added to the further growth in grain supplies. Moist growing conditions in South America led record crops there, and freedom-to-farm legislation--passed in the United States in 1996, and gaining momentum worldwide--allowed farmers to build up grain supplies when market conditions warranted. Finally, new technology helped to increase yields.
Case Study # 2 -- Dec 2014 - April 2015.
Now let's look at the food prices in the spring of 2014. For instance, on 10 April 2014, the S and P GSCI agricultural and livestock index jumped almost 17% after the start of 2014. Was this 17% rise just a minor blip or was it a sign that a 4th structural rise in food prices since 2007 was happening once more? The answer was clear by September 2014. After almost a decade of grain shortfalls and periods of rising food prices, global grain production made an astounding rebound. Global grain supplies were soaring, with grain stocks the highest since 2003. And food prices were the lowest in 6 years. The FAO global food price index fell to its lowest level since September 2009.
FAO said its new January 2015 food price index was the third consecutive yearly fall in food prices. At a minimum, alarmist fears of a trend in rising food prices back in 2012 were allayed. Time will tell whether or not three years of falling food prices is a structural trend. This new abundance is all the more remarkable because the 4 long term negative trends - such as population growth, more meat eaters, diversion of grain to biofuel, and climate change - were still putting downward pressure on global grain supplies and upward pressure on food prices.
Case Study # 3: August 2016.
Our last case study addresses the debate over ethanol. This food versus fuel debate was especially heated in Washington, DC a few years back. The debate centered on the US government's corn ethanol mandate. The ethanol debate raged when corn prices spiked in 2008 and again in 2012, seemingly in concert with rising biofuels volumes. Was this a long term trend or an aberration?
Alarmists argued that this mandate would squeeze scarce grain supplies and push up food prices. One thing is for sure. Biofuels refineries have been producing record volumes of over 1m barrels a day of corn ethanol. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts the American ethanol industry would use 5.275bn bushels of corn in 2016, the most ever and 35 per cent of the domestic harvest. If ever alarmists would be proven right, this would arguably prove their case.
But guess again. The last week of September 2016, corn dropped to $3.01 a bushel, a level last consistently seen before lawmakers enacted the mandate in 2007. Supermarkets planned to raise food prices less than 1 per cent in 2016, well below the historical average, according to the USDA. The UN's international food price index was also lower than in 2007. Why were corn prices so low? The US just had a huge corn harvest. Simple economics: the supply of corn completely outstripped the demand for corn. The USDA predicted a corn crop totaling 15.2bn bushels in the fall of 2016, the most in history. Why did the supply of corn completely outstrip the demand for corn? The grain market managed to absorb strong ethanol industry demand because a) farmers cultivated more corn acreage, b) corn yields have continued to march higher and c) growing regions have been blessed by years of beneficial weather. As a result, the "food versus fuel" debate became passé.
The Real Drivers
But on a broader front, what lessons have we learned about why there's such a remarkable rebound in the food supply and a fall in global food prices? First, FAO reports that high food prices enticed farmers worldwide to plant aggressively in the main grain regions. Even Ukraine, engulfed in conflict, planted more. Second, widespread planting was followed by unusually good weather across much of the northern hemisphere's growing season. Third, low oil prices happily caused fertilizer prices to fall and made fertilizer more affordable to producers, thus enabling 3rd world farmers to grow more food at lower prices. Fourth, the pace of population growth has slowed. Women are now having fewer babies worldwide. The fertility rate is at the replacement rate everywhere except Africa. And even in Africa, women are having fewer babies.
For years, environmentalists told us the world was running out of oil. Today, the world is flooded with oil. Cheap oil contributes to cheap fertilizer. Cheaper fertilizer enabled farmers to buy more fertilizer and generate more grain. Moreover, Adam Smith is still relevant: trust the free market. The farmers are in business to make money or at least minimize their losses. Farmers are not helpless bystanders watching a movie that says the world is running out of food. Farmers drive the market and have the free will to make sensible decisions. When the price of food is low they plant fewer crops. When the price of food is high they plant more crops. Farmer sovereignty calls the shots, not asphalt farmers with their neo-Malthusian theories.
Conclusions and Recommendations
To sum up, we need a balanced food strategy which puts an equal emphasis on reducing the demand for food as much as increasing the supply of food.
- On the demand side, we need to reduce waste and partner with the US navy to protect the food supply chain to places like Yemen. We also need to strengthen economic development, reduce population growth, shift diets for people and animals and wean US transportation off biofuel.
- On the supply side we need to increase yields in the 3rd World, use resources more efficiently, grow diverse crops and grow them differently, apply better farming techniques, invest in research and development, capitalize on urban farming, increase aquaculture's productivity, develop new technologies and strengthen free trade.
- In addition, we need to develop a more sustainable agricultural strategy which improves the environment by stopping farmland expansion in places like the rainforest. We also need to shift to more organic farming and improve land and water management. Finally, we need to eliminate global hunger by embracing more inclusive social and economic strategies to reduce poverty.
Even if a world food crisis is not imminent, we should ask ourselves whether trends have indeed invalidated Malthus's thesis, or whether they have merely transformed or deferred it. One thing is certain. Given that the world population could rise to over 11 billion people by the year 2100, there will have to be a lot more grain available to meet the demand.
Most of the ways to grow more grain result from greater farm output, which can be increased either by developing new farmland or by making existing farmland more productive. The world food supply also benefits from reducing the demand for feed grain (e.g., reducing population growth) and by developing new sources of food. At the same time, there are many seemingly marginal changes in how the world manages farming that could substantially affect chronic regional shortages.
Efforts to make better use of existing cropland, to reverse deforestation, to vest women with rights they now lack in some agricultural communities, to modify traditional farming practices, to reduce losses of each harvest to pests and decay--each and all could increase the amount of grain that is available each season for consumption by humans and animals.
Profound systemic change, such as was prompted by the principles of the Green Revolution, is more problematic. Biotechnology, once the hope of many agricultural specialists, may never rival the Green Revolution's legacy, but it is also probably too soon to write it off. Unanticipated breakthroughs, new theories, proof that genetically altered foodstuffs do no harm to humans when consumed directly or through animal protein--all have the potential to stimulate quantum shifts in the global supply of food. Yet we've seen enough constraints to question anyone's forecast of a food cornucopia.
In the near term, strategists need to avoid the twin pitfalls of complacency about a world full of food and doomsday alarms about a global food crisis. What is needed from world leaders is an unprecedented level of cooperation in the formulation of a long-term international food strategy. One consequence of failure could be resource-driven conflicts that might have been avoided had policymakers understood the nature and extent of the world food supply problem and taken appropriate steps to deal with it.
What is needed to avert that outcome is a comprehensive strategy that synthesizes diverse approaches to improving the growth, harvesting, storing, and distribution of the annual crop of grains, while prioritizing resources for the most promising areas of improvement. Thus, biotechnology, the sensible expansion of cropland, the responsible extension of the Green Revolution technology in neglected arable land, continued basic research into plant genetics, and smarter public policies all are important in this holistic approach. Curbing population growth and other demand reduction programs are also essential parts of any plan to stabilize the world food supply for the long term. None of these objectives will be easy to define or carry out; they all have the potential to affect profoundly the values, cultures, societies, and beliefs of the affected peoples.
When Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his research leading to the Green Revolution, he warned that the new methods would provide only a limited respite, 30 years at most, in which governments could develop and carry out supply and demand policies for dealing with the world food supply challenge. As we approach the end of Borlaug's window of opportunity, the world is still groping for that strategy. Until we develop one, there will continue to be those who yearn for simple solutions to the complex problems of world food supply and demand.
The real danger is to relegate the world food supply to the backwater of strategic studies. Strategists need to understand that the world food supply is a global challenge that bears most heavily on the peace and prosperity of the international system. World leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to move this global issue to the top of their agendas. If they fail, their successors may have to deal with the problem "when it comes to visit" as a major and enduring crisis in the early decades of the next century.
Photo Courtesy of rick