Can global agriculture and food systems provide for the predicted 9 billion people living in the world in 2050? Predictions of global famine are not new, but recent setbacks in the fight to eradicate hunger have brought agriculture back to centre stage in international discussions.
In September 2000, world leaders adopted the UN’s Millennium Goals. Goal 1’s targets include halving the share of the global population suffering from hunger in 2015 compared with 1990. Progress was steady until around 2007, with the proportion of children under five who are undernourished (the UN’s broad indicator of hunger in the total population) declining from 33% in 1990 to 26% in 2006. Even so, it was obvious that the goal was not going to be easy to reach, and that was before the rise in food prices in 2008, and before the recession wiped out many of the gains. According to the FAO, the proportion of hungry people in developing countries rose to 19% in 2009, compared with 16% in 2004-06, and 18% in 1995-97.
Food insecurity is both an immediate tragedy and threat to longer-term wellbeing. Faced with hunger, families first tend to reduce consumption of higher quality foods, such as meat or vegetables. But as the crisis continues, they may have to sell the means by which they normally earn a living–animals or tools for instance–or take out loans that will leave them impoverished and indebted for years to come. Education and healthcare may become luxuries they can’t afford.
There are fears that hunger will never be eradicated and that, on the contrary, the situation will continue to get worse for many people, with demand for food commodities accelerating while the increase in per capita food supply slows. It’s true that several factors are combining to boost demand. For a start, there’s the mechanical effect of population growth. Output will have to double over the next 40 years to feed a world population of 9 billion in 2050.
Added to that, although there will be crises and recessions in the future, the trend is for the world to get richer and for more people to adopt Western-style diets rich in meat, dairy and other foodstuffs that demand higher inputs than diets based on cereals or tubers. Biofuels also play a role here. Finally, environmental pressures on agriculture are growing, with climate change introducing a number of uncertainties.
Two assumptions underlie the pessimistic outlook: hunger is due to a lack of food supply, and it will not be possible to increase this supply fast enough to keep up with growth in demand. Such worries are not new. Ever since Malthus published his famous essays on demography at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries, there have been predictions that the world will face mass starvation. As Malthus himself put it in An essay on the principle of population: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
Malthus was criticised for underestimating the potential for improvement through scientific and technological innovation, but his legacy persisted. Over a hundred years later, the Club of Rome sounded the alarm in The Limits to Growth, published in 1972. This too was criticised, not least by the OECD’s Interfutures Project, launched in 1976. Interfutures argued that the physical limits to food production are not a given, and that it was possible to offset the negative impacts of environmental or other trends.
In reality, the world has never produced so much food, and the EU and the US even had to implement policies to reduce various food “mountains” and “lakes”–butter, beef, milk, wine and so on. The rate of progress in agricultural productivity over the past few decades has been phenomenal, even for long-established crops. Take wheat for instance. It took a thousand years to increase yields in England from around half a tonne a hectare to 2 tonnes. To increase from 2 tonnes to 6 tonnes took forty years. The global area under crops expanded by about 12% between 1960 and 2000, but cereal production increased by over 100%, oil crop production by over 300% and fruit and vegetables by over 200%. Meat production shows a similar pattern. Permanent pastureland increased by 10% over this forty-year period, but bovine meat production grew by 90% and that of pigmeat by 240%. The increase in poultry production was even more spectacular, at over 650% in the same period.
If people are hungry today, it is because they cannot afford to buy food, not because there is not enough available. Obesity is now a problem even in some developing countries, and much of the food produced (half, according to Oxfam) is either thrown away uneaten or spoiled because of poor storage and transport conditions. The immediate answer to hunger is to reinforce the capacity of the World Food Programme and other emergency response initiatives, but a more lasting solution requires placing food security in the wider context of economic development.
Historical evidence–and common sense–suggest that as a society becomes richer, food security becomes less of a problem. Developing countries with very different levels of economic development, population size and geographical location have succeeded in reducing poverty and improving nutrition. Despite the significant differences among them, they share some characteristics. During the period when they had the greatest success in reducing poverty, the macroeconomic context became progressively more favourable. Their own governments were lowering export taxes, reducing overvalued exchange rates and dismantling inefficient state interventions in agricultural markets. Meanwhile, the governments of rich country trading partners were reducing the kinds of support to their farmers that distorted production and trade the most.
In other words, the agriculture sector is important, but on its own is unlikely to be able to eradicate hunger. The objective should be to ensure that people–and countries–can buy enough to eat, not necessarily that they become self-sufficient. Some developing countries will not have the physical conditions needed to produce enough food, but that’s the case for developed countries too. Japan, for instance, is a major food importer, but it can easily afford this thanks to its exports.
When the non-agricultural sector expands, the food and agriculture sector benefits too because the purchasing power of local consumers increases, and the country can take advantage of international markets both to buy food more cheaply than it could produce it and to sell its own products, whether agricultural or not. Trade liberalisation and improved global transport networks have already made food imports more readily available everywhere, including for the least developed countries. In 2003, grain imports accounted for 17% of their consumption, compared with 8% in 1970, and 55% of their vegetable oils were imported, compared with 9%.
Developed countries have a role to play, and not just through example. For a start, they could remove the trade barriers that prevent developing countries from competing with rich country producers and, through initiatives like Aid for Trade, provide help to develop the capacities needed to take advantage of opportunities in both domestic markets and abroad. The OECD itself can contribute through its expertise and experience in data collection, analysis, policy advice and programme monitoring.
The OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) is the exclusive source of information on its member countries’ aid and monitors aid flows to agriculture and food security. The OECD also leads the consortium of organisations created to track the Aquila Food Security Initiative pledges that were made at the 2009 meeting of the G-8 in L’Aquila, Italy. There, world leaders committed $20 billion over three years for sustainable agriculture development and safety nets for vulnerable populations. Such commitments, however important and well-meaning, will not help to put food on the table if they are not followed by action to bring about improvements across a broad range of areas linked to agriculture, particularly trade, but also education and training, infrastructures, and management and marketing skills. Get the policies right on these, and food security will surely follow.
Cervantes-Godoy, D. and J. Dewbre (2010), “Economic Importance of Agriculture for Poverty Reduction”, OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Working Papers, No. 23, OECD, Paris.
OECD (2009), OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2009 to 2018, Paris. Available at
US Department of Agriculture (2009), Food Security Assessment, 2008-09, Washington DC. Available at www.ers.usda.gov/
FAO World Summit on Food Security, www.fao.org/wsfs/world-summit/en/ and www.oecd.org/development
©OECD Observer n°278, March 2010
Where are we in the current economic crisis?