Commentary on Billions to Be Served: Meeting the Needs of the People and the Planet

Panel discussion from the the Aspen Ideas Festival.  Thanks to the Breakaway Cook Eric Gower for the tip.

Billions to Be Served: Meeting the Needs of the People and the Planet
The United Nations has determined that, in the next 40 years, we must double crop production to feed, fuel and clothe nine billion people. How do we meet this challenge with converting every forest and savannah into agricultural land? What are the unexpected alliances that can lead the way forward?

My thoughts:

Panelist Jason Clay mentions that one of the ways to increase agricultural yields is to open up patents and other research information to foster innovation and increase equality of access of food production technologies.  Controversy over genetic engineering aside, I can agree in principle with that strategy.  He makes the unfortunate use of the words “intellectual property,” an overreaching and unhelpful term.  What is at stake here is patents specifically, as well as research data (scientific facts, whose protection as “intellectual property” under copyright is questionable).  Patents and copyrights are temporary monopolies designed to promote innovation.  “Intellectual property,” is a confusing and problematic umbrella term that conflates this kind of monopoly with actual physical property.  (See Richard Stallman’s article for more)

I find it troubling that the panel takes it as a given that the human population will continue to grow to reach 9.5 billion and that the trend of increasing income and increased demand for more energy-intensive foods (i.e. more meat) will continue.  Lots of things could happen to prevent the human population from reaching 9.5 billion.  The competition for diminishing resources could lead to large-scale geopolitical conflicts that result in millions of casualties.  But that’s a worst case scenario that I hope does not come true.  My real point is that we also need to look at ways to slow population growth and consumption patterns, not just increase yield to meet demand.  Increasing the educational and social status of women and family planning programs are examples of ways to decrease birth rates.  If a more holistic economic model that takes into account the REAL costs of factory farmed meat were taken into account, either through taxation or more effective environmental protection standards, then the price of meat would go up, and put a check on consumption.  Cheap food is not necessarily a good thing across the board.  Affordable grain yes, cheap meat, not so much.  Grain riots are real, filet mignon riots are not.

It’s not helpful to simply increase corn production if most of the corn is used to feed livestock or used for biofuels.  I’m not anti-meat, but is indisputable that it is less efficient to feed grain to cows to make beef than to feed the corn directly to people. We can’t just focus on increasing yields without reevaluating how those yields are distributed.  We can’t just blindly increase supply using our current business and production models without trying to respond to ways to modify demand.

Henrietta Holsman Fore frames agriculture and food production as a meta-issue that encompasses politics, economics, education, etc.  I agree, but I have a problem with her specific claim that farmers growing opium poppies in Afghanistan instead of “legitimate crops” is a political issue.  Actually, it’s an economic issue.  Even if drug prohibition laws are firmly enforced in Afghanistan as an extension of the US jihad on drugs, simple economics still govern behavior.  Prohibition simply keeps the price of opium and derivatives high, and farmers will still be willing to take the risk of growing opium if they can make more money than growing food crops.  There is also the demand side of things, which is an economic and public health issue in that we need to address the conditions of poverty and alienation that induce people to start using opiates in the first place.

Hugh Grant (CEO of Monsanto, not the actor): “When a farmer can’t feed herself, than something is broken…Farmers need help and training.”

I actually agree with the head of Monsanto on this one.  But that training should not necessarily impose US industrial food production practices on developing countries.  That training should not become a promotional tool for biotech businesses.  Farmers need training, but the people doing the training also need to be knowledgeable and respectful of traditional knowledge.  Farmers can’t feed themselves when they become dependent on growing monocultures of commodity crops.  Crop diversity is one of the keys.

Jason Clay: “Coca Cola’s operations where shut down in many areas of the world (during the food crisis) because they couldn’t buy sugar.”

Sorry, but it’s hard to shed tears over this one.  Just because the world’s billions need food does not mean that they all need to drink Coke.  The worlds farmers could be growing a diverse variety of food crops to feed themselves instead of large monocultures of corn and sugarcane to sell to Coca Cola.

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