Sunday, January 19, 2014

Article on the flawed food security narrative

This is an amazingly well-thought, well-reasoned, well-explained article about the real food security challenges facing our planet, and how they differ significantly from the common narrative we hear in many media sources.  The author starts by presenting this common narrative about food security.  It goes like this:

"The world's population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet's food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today.
"And that means we'll need to use genetically modified crops and other advanced technologies to produce this additional food. It's a race to feed the world, and we had better get started."

The author then analyzes and breaks down this narrative in various steps.  First he points out its assumption that the current irresponsible US-style food consumption patterns are an inmutable given, and that they will expand as more people on the planet become wealthier.  In the prevalent narrative, it is not explained in depth that our future population will not in fact be double the current population, and that we will only need to double food production if everyone adopts the US's current artery-clogging diet of grain-fed meat and milk, accordingly reducing their consumption of grains, pulses, and tubers.  So subscribers to the prevalent narrative unthinkingly accept that we will need to change our production practices in order to double production, without ever considering that we also could (and indeed should) change our consumption patterns.

The second critique the author offers to the current food security narrative regards the assertion that genetically-modified crops and other high-tech approaches will be necessary to produce more food for a hungry world.  The author is not an objector to genetic engineering per se, but he correctly points out that up to now it has had very little impact on total food production in the world.  More importantly, he explains that the major potential increases in yield are not to be had by applying cutting-edge technology to wheedle out a few extra bushels per acre from modernized Iowa farms, but rather by making accessible rather simple, low-tech improvements like better soil management, drip irrigation, or new plant breeds that can result in huge yield increases for resource-poor farmers in the developing world.

The author finishes with an improved, more nuanced narrative on food security:

"The world faces tremendous challenges to feeding a growing, richer world population - especially to doing so sustainably, without degrading our planet's resources and the environment.
"To address these challenges, we will need to deliver more food to the world through a balanced mix of growing more food (while reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices) and using the food we already have more effectively.
"Key strategies include reducing food waste, rethinking our diets and biofuel choices, curbing population growth, and growing more food at the base of the agricultural pyramid with low-tech agronomic innovations. Only through a balanced approach of supply-side and demand-side solutions can we address this difficult challenge."

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