May 21, 2012
A lot depends on the world’s ability to expand agricultural production over the next 30 years. As the grain price spikes and resulting food riots of 2008 and 2010 attest, nothing less than geopolitical stability is at stake.
The world’s population, currently 7 billion, is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Already a billion people do not get enough to eat on a daily basis. Nearly 200 million children suffer from stunted physical and mental development due to malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
But even as hunger in some precincts increases, there is a large and growing middle class in many of these same countries. Average income in China, Southeast Asia, India, Brazil and parts of sub-Saharan Africa are rising rapidly, which leads to increased urbanization, less space for agriculture and rising demand for high-calorie diets that contain more expensive, grain-fed protein.
President Obama took note of the growing demands on the globe’s agricultural system Friday at a symposium on food security sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The symposium was held ahead of the G-8 meeting that took place at Camp David this past weekend.
“We’ve seen how spikes in food prices can plunge millions into poverty, which, in turn, can spark riots that cost lives, and can lead to instability,” the president said. “And this danger will only grow if a surging global population isn’t matched by surging food production.”
Yet the resources being thrown at the problem are paltry in a world where hundreds of billions can be spent in the blink of an eye to bail out banks and bondholders. Three years ago, the G-8 pledged $22 billion in new aid programs to increase food production in the developing world. The president’s new initiative lined up 45 companies to invest $3 billion in an “Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition,” which is designed to fast-track new agricultural techniques in African countries where 30 percent of the world’s hungriest people live.
Better seeds, better storage, tapping the growing mobile telephone networks to monitor weather and growing conditions, the strategy – if there can be said to be one behind the new aid initiatives – relies on better use of technology to feed a hungry world. Notably, the president made only one passing reference to climate change in his speech. The World Bank will study its impact on agriculture as part of the new initiative.
But experts in the field are thinking about climate change full-time and they’re not sanguine about what they see.
Temperatures are rising across the globe. Fears are mounting that the U.S., the world’s single largest grain producer, is overdue for a major drought. When it comes – and it’s more than likely a when, not an if – it could send global food prices soaring, just as food prices soared after the Russian heat wave of 2010.
“As temperatures go up, plants wither,” said Gerald Nelson, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, which has conducted a detailed study of agricultural needs through 2050 in the context of a warming world. “We’ll throw science at the problem. But at some point, you run out of the ability of science to deal with it.”
The idea that the world will run out of food isn’t new, of course. Political economist Thomas Malthus in the mid-18th century was only first of many prognosticators to get it wrong when comparing contemporary agricultural productivity to the rising curve of population.
Technology certainly worked its magic in the 20th century, which experienced two “green revolutions.” The first came during the 1930s and was largely a product of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agricultural extension service working in conjunction with state-funded land grant universities.
They improved seeds, fertilizers and crop rotation techniques, and diffused the knowledge to American farmers, who became the world’s most productive. Coupled with increasing mechanization, the technology-driven productivity revolution allowed harvests for the developed world’s farmers to soar to unprecedented heights, even as their ranks precipitously declined.
The second technological revolution took place during the 1960s and 1970s among farmers in the developing world. Often associated with the work of Nobel prize winner Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist and Nobel Prize Peace Prize winner who died in 2009 at the age of 95, this second agricultural revolution brought new hybrids, greater yields and multiple growing seasons to the tropical nations of Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Some have estimated that this second green revolution saved a billion people from starvation in the second half of the 20th century, a time of enormous population growth.
There is reason to believe technology and changing agricultural techniques will still play a role in staving off future disaster. “Almost every farmer in the world today will have to adapt,” Nelson said. For instance, Latin American coffee growers are moving their plants to higher elevations to capture the ideal temperature and water conditions needed for healthy harvests.
But more important will be the stabilization of the globe’s population, which will only occur with more rapid economic development. As aspirations rise and people move up the income ladder, they tend to have fewer children because kids are no longer seen as hands for work but brains to educate. When children carry a family’s hope for upward mobility, families tend to have fewer of them and invest more in each one.
“Birth rates are slowing everywhere,” Nelson said, who predicted the globe’s population would stabilize around 9 billion at mid-century. “That’s a good thing because we’re bumping up against the resource limits of the planet, both in terms of land and water.”
However, there are some things in a warming world that technology and economic development are powerless to stop. Last week, as I sought out experts on global water resources, I sent an email to David Molden, director general of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal. He closely monitors the world’s largest glacier system in the Himalayas, which serves 10 major river basins in India and China that are home to 1.3 billion people.
“Temperatures are rising faster at higher elevations (and) that has influence on glaciers in the region,” he wrote back. “There is widespread evidence of glacier shrinkage.” The results could be more water in some areas, and less in others. “We have to be careful not to speculate on disaster,” he said. “But we should prepare for changes.”