Every so often at Davos you have a short, startling conversation which completely changes the way you think about a subject -- and I just had one of those standing next to Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill Farm. He's a very smart, very funny guy, who's passionate about food on every level from preparing the ingredients of the dishes in his restaurants to the logistics of feeding the planet.
I bumped into Barber as we were milling around the Davos conference center, waiting for the panel on "rethinking how to feed the world" to begin. I asked him what he thought of the food in Switzerland; he compared in unfavorably to what he was fed by the airline on the way over here. "I haven't seen a vegetable since Thursday," he added, looking a bit overwhelmed by the number of things that the Swiss seem to be able to do with bread, cheese, and bit of veal.
When the panel started, I could almost see the steam coming out of Barber's ears. It featured two heads of state; two agribusiness CEOs; a representative from the World Bank; and Bill Gates. All of them looked at food mainly as a matter of logistics and problem-solving, and they seemed to do so with real good will and good motives. (Well, maybe not the CEO of ADM.) But they were all very much bought into a model which looks, to Barber's eyes, incredibly shaky.
Essentially the problem is that the people on the panel have internalized the principles of comparative advantage and free trade to the point at which they are more or less incapable of thinking any other way. In a Ricardian world it makes sense for Ohio to overwhelmingly grow corn and soy, since growing corn and soy is what it does best. And because of economies of scale, it makes sense to grow just one type of each, on farms of mind-boggling size. Ohio can then trade all that corn and soy for the food it wants to eat, and everybody is better off.
Except in reality it doesn't work like that. Monocultures are naturally prone to disastrous outbreaks of disease, which can wipe out an entire crop. The panel at Davos has a favored method of dealing with such things: the development of disease-resistant crop strains, often through high-tech and patentable genetic modification. Bright research scientists create clever transgenic crops, and then people like Bill Gates and the World Bank try to get them broadly adopted while setting well-intentioned staffers to work minimizing potential problems with IP licensing. Innovation through agricultural technology is the obvious and necessary solution to the problem of global hunger.