The Best Way to Feed the Billions

In the developing world, the answer has to include small-scale agriculture, not factory farms, says Tufts researcher
rural farmers in Kenya with oxen pulling plow
“Some 70 percent of the hungry in the world are in rural areas in developing countries, and they need to be able to grow more food,” says Timothy A. Wise. Photo: Depositphotos
March 19, 2015

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We share planet Earth with nearly 7.3 billion people. By 2050, there will be 9.6 billion of us, according to the United Nations. That’s a gain of one person every 15 seconds—or about 74 million more people each year—and each another mouth to feed.

Some claim we need to increase world food production by 70 percent to avoid future shortages, especially in developing countries, where the greatest population increases are expected over the next 35 years. Are they right? It’s a question that many, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Population Institute, are raising.

To deal with the problem most effectively, we need to start implementing new agricultural strategies now, says Timothy A. Wise, G05, director of the Research and Policy Program at Tufts’ Global Development and Environment Institute, where he leads its Globalization and Sustainable Development Program.

Wise has traveled the world on an Open Society Fellowship, most recently to Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, researching agricultural models that can feed a growing population in the developing world. Relying solely on industrial-scale agriculture, as many suggest, will not work, he says. It will simply exacerbate the negative consequences of climate change while failing to feed the majority of the hungry, who are small-scale farmers. Instead, the best formula for the future may be more investment in local small-scale farming, reduced production of biofuels like corn-based ethanol and the elimination of food waste.

Wise spoke with Tufts Now about how we can best feed the world in the years to come.

Tufts Now: Do we need to increase food production by 70 percent to meet rising demand from a growing population?

“The expansion of biofuel production is sapping a very significant share of food resources and food-producing land,” says Timothy A. Wise.Timothy A. Wise: Not according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. I reviewed these predictions, and their estimates show that we need to increase agricultural production—not food production—by 60 percent by 2050 and that we are generally on track to meet that need. The neo-Malthusian alarms about a global food crisis are misleading. After food prices spiked in 2007-8 some claimed we would need to double food production. Monsanto’s CEO still makes that claim. But the FAO studied this in detail and came up with 60 percent, and that is for all agriculture, not just food. Remember that agriculture also produces things like cotton and rubber, and in recent years biofuels.

Can we avert a food-shortage crisis in the developing world in 2050?

If we want to make more food available, there are two very clear areas where we can focus public policy—reducing biofuel production, which would make more land and food available for human consumption, and reducing food waste. The expansion of biofuel production is sapping a very significant share of food resources and food-producing land.

And then there is food waste. About a third of the food that is grown is never eaten by anybody—often because it never gets to market in developing countries due to a lack of proper storage facilities or refrigeration. In developed countries, food is wasted at the household level—people throw out what they don’t consume—and at the retail level, with perfectly good fruit and vegetables rejected for purely cosmetic reasons.

Do we need new national or international policies to achieve these goals?

We need both, but it depends on each case. In biofuels production, it is the developed countries that are driving this demand, the U.S. and the European Union in particular. [See Wise’s most recent paper on the topic.] In the U.S., there is the federal Renewable Fuel Standard mandate, which calls for a specific volume of corn-based ethanol to be incorporated into our gasoline. Biofuels such as ethanol reduce fossil fuel use and can produce fewer greenhouse emissions.  

But that mandate means that up to 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop goes to ethanol production, taking corn directly away from human and animal consumption. We could change that. One possible alternative is cellulosic ethanol made from nonfood products such as corn stalks, wood chips and switchgrass.

Why isn’t large-scale agriculture the answer?

The prevailing narrative among alarmists who fear we will not be able to feed the world in 2050 is that we have to produce a lot more food, and that means everybody going to industrial scale, everybody pushing up yields, everybody adopting these high-input agricultural methods.

Our industrialized agricultural systems seem efficient because the commodities they produce are relatively cheap. But they are cheap because they fail to account for all their costs—from high emissions of greenhouse gases to water pollution from fertilizer runoff. The long-term environmental impacts are negative, and are borne by communities, farm workers and the general public, whose health is often harmed by the kind of diet such agricultural production fosters.

Most important, it does not feed the hungry. The majority of the world’s hungry are in rural areas. They aren’t fed by more commodity crops like Iowa corn. They are fed by increasing their own productivity and access to land, water and technical support. This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, because that is where the fastest population growth is expected; it’s where the agricultural productivity has grown the least over the years due to a lack of investment, droughts, economic downturns and military conflicts, so this is the area of greatest concern for the future.

What are the downsides of foreign investment in agriculture in the developing world?

Governments are bending over backwards to attract foreign investment, but I’ve found problems. Take Zambia. It has uncultivated land available and a lot of small-scale farmers who don’t have enough land. But the Zambian government makes the best lands available to foreigners to grow whatever they want, and what they often want to grow is for export and not for the local communities. It contributes nothing to food security for Zambians.

Globally, only 11 percent of those large-scale land acquisitions end up producing food. Others are producing sugar, which can be used for biofuel or as sweeteners. Some use the land for forestry, and others are producing non-food crops like rubber plants. So the question is, why isn’t good land being made available to local farmers to grow more food? The farmers have the capacity to do that; they just don’t have the land or the resources.

Is there a nation where small-scale farming is succeeding?

In Malawi there’s some very interesting work going on in what’s called “agro-ecological” farming. It’s basically working with farmers to change their production practices so they are rebuilding the quality of their soil by planting mixed crops, using animal manure and other age-old practices. That also allows them to grow a wider variety of foods, so their diets diversify, which improves their health. By cultivating different kinds of crops, small farmers can improve the soil over four to five years without as great a need for fertilizers or hybrid seeds, things that they can only afford with loans or government subsidies.

This is a much more sustainable system, and over years, these agro-ecological methods have shown pretty dramatic productivity improvements and an increase in the variety of food crops and diets. That’s because in Malawi, the government’s priority is food production. This is just one of many examples around the world that are showing tremendous success.

Is small-scale farming the answer?

I don’t want to come down on the side of saying there is no place for industrial-scale agriculture, because what we have in the world today is a mix of systems. Even in the developing world that mix will continue, and that’s not a bad thing. 

The question is, how do we feed the hungry? They need two things. Some 70 percent of the hungry in the world are in rural areas in developing countries, and they need to be able to grow more food. And then there are people in urban areas in developing countries who don’t have adequate jobs or wages to afford food. Small-scale farming is labor intensive, so it could create more jobs in those countries as well as more food. This is where public investment is most needed.

Read more about Timothy A. Wise’s recent work on this topic.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.

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