According to UN estimates, it will feed 9 billion people by 2050: a considerable challenge given that nearly one billion people currently suffer from hunger worldwide. According to Jim Harkness of the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, the answer is not just technology, it must be primarily political. In an article which we recommend reading1, he emphasized the need to ensure remunerative prices to farmers, to recognize the harmful effects of two decades of unregulated trade liberalization in agriculture, to end the financial deregulation of markets agricultural, and finally to build a strong network, democratic and effective international organizations responsible for rethinking the global food system.
Momagri editorial board
Feeding 9 billion people by 2050 will be an enormous challenge. In many circles when people talk about feeding the world in 2050, the focus is almost exclusively on increasing food production. How can we do what we’re already doing better? What technologies can we produce to get more yield, or calories, out of the handful of crops and food animals that dominate the global food supply?
I’m going to present you with a very different perspective on this issue, because in fact the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050 has as much to do with how our global agricultural markets are constructed as it does with increasing production. There are about a billion people undernourished today, far more than there were 30 years ago. But, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we produce 17 percent more calories per person today than we did 30 years ago, and far more than enough for everyone on the planet to have plenty to eat.
So you see, the challenge of global hunger today isn’t fundamentally whether we can produce enough food. It’s that close to a billion people don’t have access to that food. And people trying to buy food find that the cheapest calories are often the least healthy. We now have over a billion people around the world who are obese, and about a billion going hungry. Our global food system is increasingly vulnerable and failing more and more people. This is a market failure and policy failure, not a lack of production. If we don’t get to these systemic challenges, it’s not going to matter much how much food we can produce in 2050—many more than a billion will be left behind.
I don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to quickly highlight what I see as the main systemic challenges for our global food system and how they will need to be fixed by 2050.
1. We have to address global poverty. We cannot separate the global food economy from rest of the global economy. This is the elephant in the room that is not talked about enough. We now have 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S., and rising. In 2005, the World Bank estimated there that there are about 1.5 billion people in the world living in poverty—we can be sure that number is much higher now. So, right now—and in 2050—the biggest challenge for global hunger is the ability of everyone to afford food, and as we see by rising obesity statistics, enough healthy food. How to accomplish this is a huge question, and all over the world right now people are asking it: how do we create new jobs. But one place we might start is by looking at fair prices for farmers and fair wages for farm workers and food industry workers. The International Fund for Agricultural Development calculates that 70 percent of those living in extreme poverty are in rural areas. So, better prices for farmers would help to reduce poverty because agricultural development is the key basis for growth of developing country economies. Food and food industry workers are a significant part of the global workforce, and traditionally have been among the most exploited groups in terms of wages and labor practices.
As you may have guessed, I believe that feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is primarily a policy challenge, rather than just a technological challenge. What we’re doing now isn’t working, so simply doing more of the same isn’t going to get us there. People around the world are demanding their right to food, and they want the right food.
2. We have to acknowledge the crushing effect two decades of trade liberalization has had on food security. For much of the past 30 years, “free trade” has been hailed as the best way to get food to those who need it most. Developing countries were urged and sometimes forced into cutting border tariffs, eliminating subsidies to producers and selling off buffer stocks, on the promise that global markets would reward their farmers and bring lower cost food to consumers. With the exception of a few middle income agriculture exporters such as Brazil and Argentina, that promise has proved hollow. […]
3. Financial deregulation has created chaos in agriculture markets. In early 2008, we heard that farmers in the Midwest were having trouble getting forward contracts from the local grain elevator. We looked into it, and later that year put out a report showing how a series of deregulatory moves in Congress and in the executive branch opened up commodity futures markets—which include agriculture—to a wave of new speculative money. This money played a role in dramatically driving up prices in 2007-08, and after a massive sell-off, prices collapsed. This type of extreme price volatility continues today. A series of institutions—from the U.N. to the Senate Committee on Investigations—have concluded that this is an issue that must be dealt with. Our moderator, Alan Bjerga, has just written a book on this topic which I look forward to reading. But the bottom line remains: If Wall Street is allowed to continue to treat commodity futures markets as a high stakes casino, its impact will be a major blow to our efforts for 2050.
4. We must have serious climate change policy that reduces emissions, and supports climate-resilient agriculture. No sector of our economy is more affected by climate change than food production. […]
5. We need to support the ability of food insecure countries to build—and, in many cases rebuild—their own food systems. This need is acknowledged by just about everyone; it was enshrined in a commitment by G-8 leaders in 2008 and is part of the Obama Administration’s Feed the Future program, but in both cases, actual investments have been limited. If we’re going to address poverty, food production and climate change all at once, we need to rebuild these systems through agro-ecology, an integrated approach that applies ecological principles to agriculture, with an emphasis toward what works for small-scale agriculture. […]
6. Just as we need to integrate climate-resilience into our agriculture systems, we also need to integrate public health into our food system. As I mentioned before, just because there is access to calories doesn’t mean there is access to healthy food. In fact, in many parts of the world struggling with food security, including within the U.S., unhealthy food is the most readily available. […]
7. Finally, we are going to need a much more effective and democratic system of global institutions. Right now, we have the World Trade Organization stuck in the mud for a decade. We have U.N. agencies and conventions that are woefully under-funded and have limited effectiveness. The World Bank and IMF have long been criticized, and rightly so, for pushing a neoliberal economic model that has failed many parts of the world. These institutions aren’t working well right now, but ad hoc power blocs like the G-20 have proved no more effective and have less legitimacy. As I have explained, feeding the world requires action on a number of pressing global issues: better regulation of trade, investment and financial markets; climate change; and multilateral support to build sustainable food systems in the developing world. Rebuilding a strong, democratic and effective system of international institutions will be essential if we are to build the kind of food system we need, from the local level to globally, by 2050.
The message that policymakers have so far failed to hear is that we have to create policies that recognize food not just as a tradable commodity but as a basic necessity for survival; policies that give individuals, communities and nations more control over where their food comes from; policies that nurture and reward those who provide the kind of healthy, culturally appropriate, food people need in a way that is environmentally sustainable.
1 To read the full text on IATP’s website: http://www.iatp.org/documents/the-2050-challenge-to-our-global-food-system