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Raj Patel: Can the world feed 10 billion people? Yes, but social change needed

Maize farmers in Malawi.

[For more discussion on the "population question", click HERE.]

By Raj Patel

May 5, 2011 -- http://rajpatel.org, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Here’s a piece I wrote for Foreign Policy, updated with news about revised population estimates for the rest of the century.

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The world’s demographers this week increased their estimates of the world’s population through the coming century. We are now on track to hit 10 billion people by 2100. Today, humanity produces enough food to feed everyone but, because of the way we distribute it, there are still a billion hungry. One doesn’t need to be a frothing Malthusian to worry about how we’ll all get to eat tomorrow. Current predictions place most of the world’s people in Asia, the highest levels of consumption in Europe and North America, and the highest population growth rates in Africa — where the population could triple over the next 90 years.

There are, however, plans afoot to feed the world. One of the countries to which the world’s development experts have turned as a test bed is Malawi. Landlocked and a little smaller than Pennsylvania, Malawi is consistently among the world’s poorest places. The latest figures have 90 per cent of its 15 million people living on the equivalent of less than US$2 a day. By century’s end, the population is expected to be nearly 132 million. Today, some 40 per cent of Malawians live below the country’s poverty line, and part of the reason for widespread chronic poverty is that more than 70 per cent of Malawians live in rural areas. There, they depend on agriculture — and nearly every farmer grows maize [corn]. “Chimanga ndi moyo” — “maize is life”, the local saying goes — but growing maize pays so poorly that few people can afford to eat anything else.

If you arrive in Malawi in March, just after the rainy season, growing food seems like a fool’s game. It’s hard to find a patch of red soil that isn’t a tall riot of green. From the roadside you can see maize about to ripen, with squash and beans planted at the base of the thick stalks. Even the tobacco fields are doing well this year. But there’s a rumble in this jungle. Malawi’s swaying fields are a battleground in which three different visions for the future of global agriculture are ranged against one other.

Three visions

The first and most venerable development idea for Malawi sees these farmers as survivors of a doomed way of life who need to be helped into the hereafter. Oxford economist Paul Collier is the poster child for this “modernist” view, one that he presented in a scathing November 2008 Foreign Affairs article in which he cudgeled the “romantics” who yearned for peasant agriculture. Observing both that wages in cities are higher than in the countryside, and that every large developed country is able to feed itself without peasant farmers, Collier argued the virtues of big agriculture. He also called on the European Union to support genetically modified crops and for the United States to kill domestic subsidies for biofuel. He was one-third right: biofuel subsidies are absurd, not least because they drive up food prices, siphoning grains from the bowls of the poorest into the gas-tanks of the richest — with limited environmental gains, at best.

Collier’s contempt for peasants seems, however, to rest on something other than the facts. Although international agribusiness has generated great profits ever since the East India Company, it hasn’t brought riches to farmers and farmworkers, who are invariably society’s poorest people. Indeed, big agriculture earns its moniker — it tends to work most lucratively with large-scale plantations and operations to which small farmers are little more than an impediment.

It turns out that if you’re keen to make the world’s poorest people better off, it’s smarter to invest in their farms and workplaces than to send them packing to the cities. In its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank found that, indeed, investment in peasants was among the most efficient and effective ways of raising people out of poverty and hunger. It was an awkward admission, as the World Bank had long been trumpeting Collier’s brand of agricultural development. Farmers organisations from Malawi to India to Brazil had been pointing out that access to land, water, sustainable technology, education, markets, state investment in processing, and — above all, access to level playing field on domestic and international markets — would help them. But it took three decades of lousy policy for the development establishment to realize this, and they’re not quite there yet.

Because of its colonial legacy, Malawi had long been following conventional economic wisdom: exporting things in which the country had a comparative advantage (in Malawi’s case, tobacco) and using the funds to buy goods on the international market in which it didn’t have an advantage. But when tobacco prices fall, as they have of late, there’s less foreign exchange with which to venture into international markets. And being landlocked, Malawi also faces higher prices for grain than its four neighbours — Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania — simply because it costs more to transport into the country. According to one estimate, the marginal cost of importing a ton of food-aid maize is $400, versus $200 a ton to import it commercially, and only $50 to source it domestically using fertilisers. Particularly at a time when food and fertiliser prices are predicted to rise, Malawi is wise to consider how vulnerable to the caprices of international markets it wants to be.

This partly explains why, in the late 1990s, almost a decade before it became fashionable, Malawi bucked the advice of its international donors and decided to spend the majority its agriculture budget on fertiliser, the first and perhaps most necessary ingredient in prepping the soil for producing viable crops. The government gave farmers a “starter pack” with enough beans, improved seeds and fertiliser to cover about a fifth of an acre. International donors weren’t pleased. A USAID official decried the program as consigning farmers to a “poverty treadmill” in which farmers would be stuck growing just enough maize to survive, but never enough to get rich. Although the program had modest success, it took off when Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika expanded the program over the 2005-2006 growing season, quadrupling the amount of fertiliser available. Although driven by domestic political promises, his international timing was perfect — he was embarking on a policy whose time had come. And this is why what happens in Malawi’s fields today matter so much beyond its borders.

History of agricultural policy

To understand why, we need a quick history of agricultural policy in developing countries. Many developing countries were, especially before World War II, pantries to be raided by their colonisers. Post-independence, rural areas were often net contributors to government revenues, but there were some assurances of stability, with government schemes to buy crops at guaranteed prices. Internationally — especially in Asia — the post-war era saw governments pressured to feed a restive population that was increasingly wondering whether their lot wouldn’t be improved through socialism and a change in land ownership. In order to fight the Cold War in foreign fields, the US government and key foundations invested heavily in agricultural technologies such as improved seed and fertiliser. These technologies were designed to keep land in the hands of its feudal owners, food plentiful and communists at bay. In 1968, William Gaud, the USAID administrator, dubbed it a "Green Revolution", because it was designed to prevent a red one.

For a range of mainly geopolitical reasons, the Green Revolution was implemented with less fervor and success in Africa than in Asia. The International Fertilizer Development Center observed in 2006 that $4 billion worth of soil nutrients were being mined from the African soil by farmers who, struggling to make ends meet, weren’t replenishing the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous in the ground beneath their feet.

The prescription for declining soil quality lay, however, not in addressing the policy causes of farmer’s environmental panic — a systematic neglect since the 1980s to which the World Bank itself admitted in an internal evaluation — but to fix the soil with technology. So in 2006, the Rockefeller Foundation (the original sponsors of the Green Revolution in Asia) joined the Gates Foundation to launch The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA. This is the second brave new development policy that hopes to feed Africa.

Soil technology the answer?

AGRA claims to have learned the lessons of history, rejecting Collier’s view and focusing on policies that “unlike the Green Revolution in Latin America, which mostly benefited large-scale farmers because they had access to irrigation and were therefore in a position to use the improved varieties … [are] specifically geared to overcome the challenges facing smallholder farmers”.

So did it work in Malawi? It depends on the goal. If the aim was to increase output, then yes. Although economist and Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs recently over-egged the data by suggesting that production had doubled because of the fertiliser subsidy (it only increased by 300,000–400,000 tons or up to 15 per cent, the rest being mainly due to the return of the rains), the amount of maize in Malawi has undoubtedly gone up.

As the 50 million people who are food insecure in the United States know all too well, though, having enough food in the country doesn’t necessarily mean that all people get to eat, and Malawi still has more than its fair share of glassy-eyed and underweight children. Chronically hungry kids have low height for their age and the number of children malnourished in this way — “stunted” is the term in the statistics — has remained stubbornly high since the subsidies began.

Measuring increased yields of maize from fertiliser and starter kits doesn’t necessarily translate into a society that is well fed and economically viable in terms of agriculture. Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario who also works in Malawi as a project coordinator for the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project, isn’t surprised. “Any nutritionist would scoff at the notion that increased yield automatically leads to increased nutrition”, she says.

Bezner Kerr told me that having more crops in the fields and bigger yields can actually be a bad thing, taking “women out of the home and away from domestic work. Particularly if they are doing early childcare feeding, this can lead to poorer nutritional outcomes.” What happens within the household is crucial in translating increased output into better nutrition.

Women

Indeed, gender matters when it comes to food and farming. Sixty per cent of the world’s malnourished people are women or girls. Yet the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently pointed out that by increasing access to the same resources as men, women could boost their farm’s output by up to 30 per cent, leading to a 4 per cent increase in total agricultural output in developing countries. In Malawi, 90 per cent of women work part time, and women are paid some 30 per cent less than men for similar jobs. Women are also burdened with care work, especially in a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Even if they own land and have access to the same resources as men, women find themselves torn between the demands of child and elder care, cooking, carrying water, finding firewood, planting, weeding and harvesting.

Social change

These problems are better addressed through social change — abetted by programs like the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project — than chemistry. Yet these are precisely the kinds of programs that are crowded out by fertiliser subsidies. The fertiliser program has been a jealous child, sucking resources away from other programs. The opportunity cost of fertiliser for farmers is money that might have been spent on something else — a serious concern when global fertiliser prices are going through the roof. Research by the World Bank in Latin America and South East Asia has suggested that it’s smarter for government to subsidise public goods like agricultural research and extension services and irrigation, rather than directing money at private inputs like fertiliser.

Again, this matters beyond Malawi’s borders, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The world’s population growth is scheduled to be driven by “high fertility countries” — most of which are in Africa. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, recently argued that the world might be better fed not by pumping the soil with chemicals, but by using cutting-edge “agroecological” techniques to build soil fertility, and using policy to achieve environmental and social sustainability. In a review of 286 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 developing countries covering 91 million acres, a team led by British environmental scientist Jules Pretty found production increases of 79 per cent — again, far higher than the fertiliser subsidy in Malawi, and with a far broader range of ecological and social benefits than increased food production.

These programs succeed, in part, because they don’t see hunger as the consequence of a surfeit of peasants or a deficit in soil, but as the result of complex environmental, social and political causes. You don’t just need chemists to solve hunger — you need sociologists, soil biologists, agronomists, ethnographers and even economists. Paying for their skills is the opportunity cost of spending precious dollars on imported fertiliser. Of course, agroecology is an entirely different paradigm than one in which technology is dropped into laps from foreign laboratories accompanied by a sheet of instructions. The programs require much more participatory education work, and much more investment in public goods, than the Malawian government and donors currently seem inclined to provide.

Agroecology is the third development vision battling for the future. In Malawi, it works. By growing cowpeas and groundnuts with maize — expanding the range of crops — Bezner Kerr’s program has beat the fertiliser program’s yield by 10 per cent and increased nutrition outcomes too. Yet even agroecology has its limits. Fifteen per cent of Malawians remain ultra poor, living on less than a dollar a day and unable to buy enough to eat. They tend to be people who are landless, or who have poor quality land and have to sell their labour at harvest time, just when they need it the most. They remain untouched by the Malawian miracle.

Peasants displaced

The future doesn’t look terribly promising for agroecology. Concerned about the financial sustainability of its fertiliser subsidy program, the Malawian government is about to embark on a Green Belt project, in which thousands of acres will be irrigated to induce foreign investors to begin large-scale farming of sugar cane and other export crops. The foreign exchange brought in by this program, it is hoped, will bankroll the fertiliser spending. The result will help balance the country’s current account, but as a consequence, thousands of smallholders are scheduled to be displaced to clear lands that will attract the kind of large-scale agriculture of which Collier would approve.

Particularly in the light of the new population projections for the 21st century, it seems foolish to stick to 20th century agricultural policy. Recall that the agroecological interventions in Malawi turned on women’s empowerment. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has famously argued that there are few policies better placed to improve individual, family and community lives (and lower fertility rates) than education — particularly the education of women and girls. The prophesies presented to us by demographers vary widely — change the assumptions, and you end up with a world of between 8 billion and 15 billion people. No matter what the future holds, though, it’s clear that a world in which everyone gets to eat depends on women’s empowerment — and rather than treating that fact as something irrelevant to feeding the world, agroecology puts it right in the middle.

A great deal of past agriculture policy has been designed either economically to bomb villages in order to save them, or to administer a technological quick fix in order to postpone politics. Collier wants to get rid of peasants. New fads want to keep them, but keep them knee deep in chemicals. Yet if we are serious about feeding the hungry, in Malawi or anywhere else, we need to recognise that the majority of the hungry are women, and that we need more public, not private, spending on those least able to command rural resources. Because when it comes to growing food, those who tend the land are anything but fools.

[Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world. He’s currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to the LA Times, NYTimes.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday and The Observer. His first book was Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and his latest, The Value of Nothing, is a New York Times best-seller. To see Raj’s latest events, visit the Events page on his website.]

 

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Dubious assumptions underlie the UN’s latest population forecast

http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=4450

May 16, 2011

 

A new United Nations report says that there could be a billion more people on earth by 2100 than previously forecast, but New Scientist environmental writer Fred Pearse says the new prediction is based on perverse and contradictory assumptions.

by Fred Pearse
Nature, May 11, 2011

The latest global population projections, published by the United Nations last week, say that the world will be awash with 10.1 billion people by 2100, a billion more than previously supposed. Already, there is talk again of a ticking population time bomb.

But a closer look at the assumptions behind this scenario shows it to be perverse and contradictory. In fact, it looks more like a political construct than a scientific analysis.

The heart of the problem is this: the new UN estimates record that both world population and global fertility rates are currently slightly lower than presumed when the last projections were made two years ago. Yet, they project significantly higher growth rates than those estimated two years ago.

This paradox is created by a seemingly arbitrary change in assumptions about future fertility that requires a proper explanation. And quickly. Plans to cope with an increasing array of global challenges — not least climate change and food policy — are predicated on the UN’s demographic projections. The past few years have seen a plethora of scientific papers asking ‘can the world feed 9 billion?’ It won’t be long before the work is revisited to see whether we can feed 10 billion.

We are doing quite well at defusing the population bomb. Women today, on average, have half as many babies as their grandmothers did. World fertility has fallen from 4.9 children per woman in the early 1960s to an expected 2.45 between 2010 and 2015, a projection revised down from the 2.49 figure of two years ago.

The trend is near-universal. With childhood diseases such as measles and tetanus in retreat, for the first time in history most children get to grow up. Population quadrupled in the past century as this happened. But now women are learning to adjust to falling infant mortality and having fewer children. Other factors include urbanization. On a peasant farm in Africa, young children are an economic asset, minding the goats or fetching and carrying. Once families move to the cities, children are a liability, requiring years of education to get a job. Fertility rates are much lower in cities.

Falling fertility doesn’t instantly translate into fewer babies. That is because of the huge demographic bulge of twentieth-century baby boomers — now adult and fertile. But as they age, and if fertility rates continue to fall, population growth must subside and could go into decline.

The key questions are how fast and how far fertility will fall. As the UN notes, “small variations in fertility can produce major differences in the size of populations over the long run.” That is why the assumptions built into the new projections are so crucial.

The UN’s previous ‘medium variant’ projection, published in 2008, concluded that world population would rise from the present 7 billion and peak in mid-century at around the 9.15 billion expected in 2050. The new projection finds no peak. Instead, world population reaches 9.3 billion in 2050 and 10.1 billion in 2100, with further growth still in the works.

The UN has yet to publish its detailed reasoning, but a collection of frequently asked questions issued alongside the new projections says that most of the difference is due to an upward revision of its fertility forecasts — a revision unrelated to current trends.

There is history to this. For many years, demographers reckoned that world fertility was headed inexorably for the rich-world replacement level of about 2.1 children per woman. But in the past 30 years, this has looked increasingly like too high a number. In almost all developed countries, fertility rates have fallen to well below replacement levels. Despite a minor bounce-back in recent years, most of Europe remains below 1.5.

“In almost all developed countries, fertility rates have fallen to well below replacement levels.” With much of Asia and Latin America on the same path, almost a decade ago the UN rethought the 2.1 end point. In 2003, its UN population division, under then-director Joseph Chamie, decided that its ‘medium variant’ projection should instead assume convergence at 1.85. It was a compromise, Chamie told me. Some argued for 1.6, whereas others wanted to retain 2.1. The latter group, he said, feared that a low estimate would send the ‘wrong message’ that our population worries were over.

The projections made in 2008 retained the figure of 1.85, but it has now reverted to 2.1 — the predominant reason for the leap from 9 billion to 10 billion. The assumption now is that countries with higher fertility rates will fall to the 2.1 figure and not below, while those below will rise to reach it.

Is this realistic? As Joel Cohen, a demographer at Columbia University in New York, put it in 2002: “No case is yet known of a population with fertility above replacement level that converged to replacement level and then stayed there.” That remains the case. Chamie this week said he had seen “no compelling evidence” to justify a return to the 2.1 figure.

The UN boasts that its new projections have incorporated a more probabilistic approach into the model. That is good. But, as the UN makes clear, the model “incorporated the additional assumption that, over the long run, replacement-level fertility would be reached”. In other words, the crucial new fertility end point of 2.1 did not emerge from the new probabilistic analysis. It was imposed on it, and the UN should explain why.

Fred Pearce, environment consultant for New Scientist, is author of The Coming Population Crash (published in England as Peoplequake).

Cutting food waste to feed the world

Published May 11 2011 by FAO, Archived May 17 2011
 
By Media Centre

11 May 2011, Rome - Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted, according to an FAO-commissioned study.

The document, Global Food Losses and Food Waste, was commissioned by FAO from the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) for Save Food!, an international congress being held in Düsseldorf 16-17 May at the trade fair of the international packaging industry Interpack2011.

Other key findings include:

  • Industrialized and developing countries dissipate roughly the same quantities of food — respectively 670 and 630 million tonnes.
  • Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).
  • Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food.
  • The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world's annual cereals crop (2.3 billion tonnes in 2009/2010).

Losses and waste

The report distinguishes between food loss and food waste. Food losses — occurring at the production, harvest, post-harvest and processing phases — are most important in developing countries, due to poor infrastructure, low levels of technology and low investment in the food production systems.

Food waste is more a problem in industrialized countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away only 6-11 kg a year.

Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in the poorest regions. In developing countries 40 percent of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialized countries more than 40 percent of losses happen at retail and consumer levels.

Food losses during harvest and in storage translate into lost income for small farmers and into higher prices for poor consumers, the report noted. Reducing losses could therefore have an "immediate and significant" impact on their livelihoods and food security.

Squandering resources

Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.

The report offered a number of practical suggestions on how to reduce losses and waste.

In developing countries the problem is chiefly one of inadequate harvest techniques, poor post-harvest management and logistics, lack of suitable infrastructure, processing and packaging, and lack of marketing information which would allow production to better match demand.

The advice is therefore to strengthen the food supply chain by assisting small farmers to link directly to buyers. The private and public sectors should also invest more in infrastructure, transportation and in processing and packaging.

In middle- and high-income countries food losses and waste stem largely from consumer behaviour but also from lack of communication between different actors in the supply chain.

Over-emphasis on appearance

At retail level, large quantities of food are also wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasize appearance. Surveys show that consumers are willing to buy produce not meeting appearance standards as long as it is safe and tastes good. Customers thus have the power to influence quality standards and should do so, the report said.

Selling farm produce closer to consumers, without having to conform to supermarkets' quality standards, is another suggestion. This could be achieved through farmers' markets and farm shops.

Good use for food that would otherwise be thrown away should be found. Commercial and charity organizations could work with retailers to collect, and then sell or use products that have been disposed of but are still good in terms of safety, taste and nutritional value..

Changing consumer attitudes

Consumers in rich countries are generally encouraged to buy more food than they need. "Buy three, pay two" promotions are one example, while the oversized ready-to-eat meals produced by the food industry are another. Restaurants frequently offer fixed-price buffets that spur customers to heap their plates.

Generally speaking, consumers fail to plan their food purchases properly, the report found. That means they often throw food away when "best-before" dates expired.

Education in schools and political initiatives are possible starting points to changing consumer attitudes, the report suggested. Rich-country consumers should be taught that throwing food away needlessly is unacceptable.

They should also be made aware that given the limited availability of natural resources it is more effective to reduce food losses than increase food production in order to feed a growing world population.

A separate report on food packaging for developing countries also prepared for the Save Food! congress noted that appropriate packaging is a key factor impacting on losses occurring at almost every stage of the food chain.

Original article available here

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