How to feed nine billion people by 2050 has been a big worry since food prices rose drastically in 2007-08. But any fight against hunger must deal with the one billion people who lack food right now.
Calls for “new thinking and a lot more money appear in a report for a 1,000-delegate Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development, this week in Montpellier, France. The world could need 70 to 100 percent more food over the next four decades to meet demand from population growth and from higher incomes in such countries as India and China.
But those calling for radical change ignore two things.
Firstly, the world has drastically increased food output before. With discoveries like hybrid seeds, we were able to grow twice as much cereal on the same land. China increased food production by 3.5 percent over the past 50 years.
Food production far outstripped population growth in the 20th century, despite widespread pessimism. And the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) says there is enough land and water to allow this to continue through the 21st century.
Secondly, hunger is mainly caused by bad government policies, from import restrictions to internal duties and lack of property rights, keeping prices artificially high.
Barriers to trade are four times higher in developing countries than in rich countries: the average tariffs on agricultural products in the developing world were 15.2 percent in 2001- compared to 2.8 percent in high-income OECD countries. These counterproductive and cruel policies push up the price of food amid widespread malnutrition.
In India, for example, governments have consistently punished agriculture. Price fixing, subsidies and restrictions on land ownership and transfer keep farming largely manual and inefficient. With no incentives, there is little investment in infrastructure and research.
These policies also cause waste. Some 30 to 40 percent of food in India, Africa and other developing regions is lost because of poor infrastructure, poor storage and bureaucratic delays, especially at customs.
Rarely has government interference been as damaging as throughout the food crisis. The price of wheat, maize and rice more than doubled in less than two years. Despite adequate supplies, rice peaked above all others due to an Indian ban on rice exports which caused panic buying among importers.
Despite widespread condemnation from the United Nations, the World Bank and heads of states, export bans and restrictions were common throughout and after the food crisis. In fact, over 40 countries – including fifteen in Sub-Saharan Africa – have restricted food trade in the past year, helping prices stay around 20 percent higher than before the crisis in many developing countries.
Although the subsidies that the US and EU lavish upon their already wealthy farmers do indeed disadvantage poor farmers around the world, developing countries have the most to gain from liberalizing their own agricultural sectors, a World Bank analysis of the stalled World Trade Organization s Doha Development Round shows. Simply put, there is no need to wait for the West to deal with its own vested interests.
Hunger is caused not just by barriers against the movement of food itself but barriers against technology.
Although technology such as hybrid seeds and drip irrigation are making a big difference by increasing yields and lowering food prices in countries such as Malawi, tariffs and other harmful policies elsewhere have driven up their price and put them out of farmers’ reach. As a result, only four percent of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, compared to 38 percent in Asia. Fertilizer application in Africa is a tiny average of eight kilos per hectare, compared to a developing-world average of 107 kilos. Food production has actually fallen in Africa over the past 30 years.
Before dreaming up complicated and expensive investments and research for the future, governments should spare a thought for those who are going hungry today because poverty and hunger are imposed on them. Removing barriers to the production and movement of food and technology would be a cheap and easy step towards feeding the world.
Caroline Boinis a Project Director at International Policy Network, London, an independent think-tank working on economic development.