Insights & Advice


Averting a future food crisis

More and more scientists, sociologists and economists are predicting a world food crisis in this century.  Meeting that challenge will require another Green Revolution, but how we accomplish that is the subject of a great deal of controversy.

Between the 1940s and 1970s the world enjoyed its first “Green Revolution.” It was an age of technological advances in food production. This golden age of agriculture introduced new chemical fertilizers and pesticides, better irrigation and planting methods, improved and different varieties of seeds and a new understanding of farm technology. This renaissance in farming resulted in huge gains in the amount of food farmers were able to produce globally. That revolution not only improved the diets of millions, but also saved millions more from starvation.

Of course, there was a downside to this new age of agriculture. The chemical fertilizers were found to deplete the soil of nutrients. They were also are a major contributor to water pollution. We have found out that water  is also becoming a scarce commodity. New products such as Bt corn, which produces its own insecticide, and Roundup Ready crops (genetically-altered food substances), were hailed as saviors of the world.

However, questions concerning the safety of these new bumper crops were raised by environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and other consumer organizations. These groups argue that no one knows or understands the long-term effects of these biogenetically-altered products on humans. Demands to discontinue the use of these products ultimately resulted in a European ban of these bio crops.

As a result, many argue that pursuing further scientific and technological advances in farming is not worth the risk, given its potential impact on the environment and humanity. Instead, they would rely on augmenting tried and true government policies, re-regulation of existing laws, more food aid and increased coordination among countries. All of the above actions are commendable, but I question whether more of the same policies can really meet the future challenges we face. So far they haven’t.

Clearly, there are some obvious ways of beefing up crop production. For example, we could get rid of the biofuels boondoggle legislated by the U.S. It is a multi-billion dollar misguided effort to convert corn into ethanol as a way to use less oil and gas. The process requires enormous amounts of energy, and diverts almost two-thirds of American corn production away from where it’s needed—in the food chain.

“Smallholder farmers” is also an idea that has come of age. Over two billion people work on small farms in developing countries. The problem is that these potential food producers lack investment, infrastructure and technological expertise to even feed their own families, let along their local villages.

Adding insult to injury, for decades, the U.S. and Europe lectured poor countries not to subsidize their own farmers while bestowing billions on their own farming sectors. Only recently have those misguided policies begun to change.

But for my money, my hopes lie with the private sector and profit-driven entrepreneurs. That is where the breakthroughs are occurring in clean energy and fuel-efficient cars. If there is going to be another Green Revolution, science and technology will lead it. It already is.

Researchers in the Philippines and Mexico are breeding new seeds that will produce more stable crops. Crops that will be more pest and weed resistant while yielding higher nutrients. Golden Rice, for example, is a new rice seed which is high in beta-carotene, a source of Vitamin A. It was supposed to be targeted to subsistence farmers in vitamin A-deficient areas. Unfortunately, critics of genetically-engineered crops squashed the idea.

There are organizations working to modify African sorghum into a more digestible food crop.  Others are producing animal-free meat as well as dozens of other food stuffs that could make a huge dent in world hunger. But those efforts are still entangled in controversy.

I believe that as worldwide hunger and famine becomes more acute, environmentalists, consumer advocates and scientists will be motivated to sit down and work together. Faced with few workable alternatives, they will succeed in developing and testing safe, highly nutritious and higher yielding crops and other food stuffs.

Today’s technology is also playing a part in this budding revolution. The FOODsniffer, for example, is a smart phone app that detects infections, toxins and genetic mutations in plant and animal samples. The VitaHerd employs a sensor that captures and analyzes the vital signs of dairy and beef cows to improve health, prevent disease and improve productivity. Another company uses computer vision to identify and eliminate weeds, which could someday replace the entire $25 billion herbicide market. Robots are now being employed to pick, prune and even plant certain specialty crops. Drones are being used to overfly crop land monitoring and identifying potential problems before they become acute.

The point is that another Green Revolution has already begun. It is simply a question of how fast it will be allowed to grow, given the obstacles. Hopefully, its opponents will soon realize that more than hunger and starvation are at stake. Many of the hungriest parts of the world tend to be the most war-torn. As the food crisis grows, so too does the threat of war. No one wants that.

Posted in Macroeconomics, The Retired Advisor