The feature story for last month’s Wilson Center newsletter, Centerpoint
, was on the popular full-day conference “Rebuilding the U.S. Economy – One Heirloom Tomato at a Time
,” hosted by the Program on America and the Global Economy
in March. The conference focused on organic, local farming and the idea of creating “sustainable” food production that was healthier but also better for the economy than relying on imports from afar.
ECSP was asked to provide some international context for the discussion with a brief “Point of View.” I tried to paint a little bit of the big picture 21st century supply and demand story and give a sense of how today, globalization has helped linked everyone in this food security discussion:
Dramatic events over the last year have shone a spotlight on the problem of global food security: massive fires in Russia, which reduced wheat supplies; famine and drought in Niger and Chad; and food price riots in the Middle East and elsewhere. These stresses come amid price spikes that echo the food crises of 2008 and reveal the linked nature of food security today and some of the fundamental challenges facing poor countries’ efforts to feed their growing populations.What do you think: What’s the best way to inject the urgency that people looking at demographics and consumption rates around the world are feeling about global food security into a discussion about organic agriculture in the United States? Is there a tension between quality and quantity of food in the organic vs. agrobusiness debate that needs to be addressed in a global context? And what’s the role of policy in determining that balance?
In most countries, food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, poor governance, and/or poor infrastructure. For example, developed countries can often rebound from natural disasters relatively quickly. However, in drought-prone countries like Niger and Chad or flood victims like Pakistan and North Korea, such structural weaknesses leave them unable to bounce back as quickly from extreme events. This makes development efforts more difficult and can cause vulnerable countries to quickly become a burden on their neighbors or more prone to internal instability.
In the long term, reducing vulnerability in developing countries will be one of the most critical factors to ensuring global food security. But to meet the projected demand from increased consumption and continuing population growth, global yields must also increase.
The Green Revolution of the 1960-70s saved millions of lives by introducing heartier strains of rice and improving other staple crops in South and Southeast Asia, and most agree that a “Second Green Revolution” (whether or not it looks like the first) will likely be necessary. If so, the current tensions in the West over organic or sustainable practices versus agribusiness models will need to be reconciled in a way that can provide the most immediate help for the world’s hungry.
An important requirement, however, is that in a more resource-constrained world, these yields must be increased without destroying our future capacity. How we go about this, whether through traditional industry, organic techniques, or a mixture of both, will be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century.