World hunger and the locavores

By Felix Salmon
January 30, 2010
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.

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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.

Barber isn’t anti-science, nor is he anti-innovation. But he knows (and the panelists know too) that a system of globalized agriculture can break down, as we saw during the commodity boom of 2008. As the price of soy and rice and wheat soared, exporters started hoarding rather than selling, and importers couldn’t obtain necessary supplies at any price. As the World Bank’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala noted, Ukraine had 5 million tons of surplus wheat, but the international food markets were very thin, and it was extremely difficult to get that wheat exported. The system didn’t work like it was meant to: when put to a real-world test, it broke down.

Problems associated with monocultures can pop up even when there isn’t a commodity-price bubble, too: look, for instance, at the tomato plight which devastated the northeast US last year. Barber explains clearly what happened: millions of more-or-less identical starter plants were transported across the US by huge corporations like Home Depot and Wal-Mart which have neither the inclination nor the ability to notice when the plants are showing signs of blight. Those starters, planted by enthusiastic amateurs across the nation, then started “transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses” into the local biosphere.

The solution to this problem, in Barber’s view, is indeed disease-resistant plants, but not in the sense that a company like DuPont thinks of such things.

To many advocates of sustainability, science, when it’s applied to agriculture, is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic…

That includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell that the Stone Barns Center is testing in a field trial. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to the pathogen.

Mountain Magic is an example of regionalized breeding. For years, this kind of breeding has fallen by the wayside…

Healthy, natural systems abhor uniformity — just as a healthy society does…

What does the resilient farm of the future look like? I saw it the other day. The farmer was growing 30 or so different crops, with several varieties of the same vegetable. Some were heirloom varieties, many weren’t. He showed me where he had pulled out his late blight-infected tomato plants and replaced them with beans and an extra crop of Brussels sprouts for the fall. He won’t make the same profit as he would have from the tomato harvest, but he wasn’t complaining, either.

This kind of thinking involves education, but not education of the top-down, web-enabled type that one hears so much about at Davos every year. Instead, it’s a slower but more robust form of bottom-up education, enabling farmers to identify problems, find their own individual solutions, and reject one-size-fits-all approaches. Everybody in the audience was excited when Bill Gates started talking about how much extra wealth flood-resistant rice strains brought to some of the poorest rice farmers in south-east Asia. But no one talked about creating relatively small and self-sufficient agricultural communities: the model is still very much that you sell your one crop for money, and then use that money to buy whatever other food you might need.

And there are big problems with that model, not least because the hungriest nations on earth tend to lack the transportation infrastructure necessary to affordably get different crops from one side of the country to the other. There was some interesting talk on the panel about what the CEO of ADM called “post-harvest innovation” — research into the questions of how to get food from big producers of single crops and into the mouths of the hungry without it spoiling or getting somehow diverted or lost. And there was lots of talk based on a simple — indeed, simplistic — syllogism: there are 1 billion hungry people in the world who suffer from malnutrition, therefore there isn’t enough food in the world and we need to invest in agricultural innovation so that we can produce more.

But Barber doesn’t buy it: there’s more than enough food in the world already, he says. Literally more than enough: look at what’s happening to obesity rates, and look at how much food is wasted every day. In a world producing corn and soy on a mega-industrial scale, more food doesn’t necessarily mean less hunger: it’s much more likely to simply result in more waste and worse public health.

Barber’s vision of farmers listening to nature and producing a wide variety of crops suited to the local terroir is compelling, even if it isn’t a panacea: I’d urge you to watch his TED talk, especially where he ties it all together in the final three minutes. Food will always be a commodity, and as the world becomes increasingly urbanized, it will always be trucked in to massive cities over long distances. But there’s no reason why different cities in the same country should increasingly eat exactly the same food. Localization and heterogeneity have to be part of the solution, and there was no sense of that at all on the Davos panel.

When I was at Davos two years ago, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters were big draws. This year, Barber is getting a lot of attention. But there seems to be a disconnect: people think of the locavores as solving a luxury problem of how to eat healthier and more delicious food in rich countries, and they’re not asking whether they have anything to teach with respect to big questions like world hunger.

That might be changing: Barber told me about a brief conversation he had with Bill Clinton, where Clinton said that he now greatly regrets a lot of the agricultural policies he put in place as president. And Clinton, of course, is thinking long and hard about designing agricultural systems these days, given that agricultural production accounts for most of the wealth of Haiti and needs to be rebuilt more or less from scratch. Here’s hoping that Clinton helps to build an agricultural system in Haiti which is designed first and foremost to feed Haitians through diverse local food production, and only secondarily to provide export income to buy food and other necessities. Because the cash-crop model, as we’ve seen many times, is far too prone to disastrous failure.

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16 comments so far

Thank you. I occasionally despair reading you because of your tendency to pontificate. You more than make up for those times when you teach me something of which I had no clue.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

No Israelis on the Panel?

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive

The modern trend of production of goods includes industrialization, scaling up, automation, and product distribution over very large distances. One could add “de-nature-ing” of processes using science and technology. Every one of these steps is viewed as desirable by investors and most politicians. If automation is not possible or economic, export the production to a region where labor is cheap, and laws are lax.

But each of these steps decreases the number of people – especially middle class people – required to make a unit of product. This is not a sustainable pathway for western countries.

The really stupid & racist-tinged response to this – especially in some parts of America – has been to say that we Americans will do the “high level”, design-oriented, creative jobs, and export all the manual, “low level” jobs to other countries. An architect who lamented that the really challenging skyscrapers and infrastructure were being built in Dubai, China, etc, took solace in the fact that the towers of Dubai were being designed by American architects!

Posted by jimvj | Report as abusive

The West has a rotten history when it comes to dictating other economies into ruining the food chain. The players at the top may wear different masks and might whistle in a slightly different key with new verses of jargon but their vapid Muzak is not about to change anytime soon.

Bill Quigley of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti writes:

Thirty years ago Haiti imported no rice. Today Haiti imports nearly all its rice. Though Haiti was the sugar growing capital of the Caribbean, it now imports sugar as well. Why? The US and the US dominated world financial institutions – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – forced Haiti to open its markets to the world. Then the US dumped millions of tons of US subsidized rice and sugar into Haiti – undercutting their farmers and ruining Haitian agriculture. By ruining Haitian agriculture, the US has forced Haiti into becoming the third largest world market for US rice. Good for US farmers, bad for Haiti.

In 2002, the US stopped hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Haiti which were to be used for, among other public projects like education, roads. These are the same roads which relief teams are having so much trouble navigating now!

In 2004, the US again destroyed democracy in Haiti when they supported the coup against Haiti’s elected President Aristide.

Haiti is even used for sexual recreation just like the old time plantations.

US based corporations have for years been teaming up with Haitian elite to run sweatshops teeming with tens of thousands of Haitians who earn less than $2 a day.

The Haitian people have resisted the economic and military power of the US and others ever since their independence. Like all of us, Haitians made their own mistakes as well. But US power has forced Haitians to pay great prices – deaths, debt and abuse.

It is time for the people of the US to join with Haitians and reverse the course of US-Haitian relations.

It is time for the people of the US to withdraw funding from agribusiness and financiers intent on dragging the entire world down into Happy Meal Hell.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

There are 525 million farms in the world, 85% are less then 5 acres. Farms under 5 acres are about half of all cultivated acreage in the world. At least, that’s what Paul Polak, a man with decades of experience in eradicating poverty in the developing world through International Development Enterprises, says. His book, _Out of Poverty_ is very good.

We need to concentrate on small scale, more diverse, and urban agriculture if we are to survive let alone thrive. It’s eminently possible (and more delicious) but it doesn’t make the large profits for corporations that is the model Davos prefers.

More at http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/4  /9/15206/95759

Posted by gmoke | Report as abusive

@ Bill Quigley, I have to wonder, the Haitians quit growing their own rice, although they must have had the resources to do it–because they were doing it, because they can afford internationally sourced rice better than they can what they could grow. Have they forgotten how to grow rice?

Aristide was not forced out of his first term by the US, but instead by the military of Haiti, and those officers were forced to back down by the US–Aristide was returned to power to finish his term because of the US.

The 2002 aid stoppage was because of how Aristide seized power to begin his second term, ending in the events of 2004. The US in 2004 aided Haitian forces driving him into exile when his second run for the Presidency of Haiti was contrary to that country’s constitution, and Aristide’s party annointed him the winner of that election before counting was fully underway!

I suppose we should help Iran build it’s hangman’s scaffolds?

Posted by tdperk | Report as abusive

Typical Davos: have a panel on “rethinking how to feed the world” but don’t invite anyone from e.g. the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) or the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

And frankly, the lack of expertise shows. No one with any knowledge of food markets would use the world wheat market as an example of international food markets being thin. Wheat trade is close to 20% of world wheat production (about 680 million tonnes). For an example of thinness look at the market for rice: barely 7% of world rice production (445 million tonnes) is traded. Or the markets for coarse grains where trade is about 10% of production (see e.g. FAO Food Outlook December 2009 http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/ak341e/ak3 41e00.htm).

The difference this makes was evident during the food price crisis of 2007-08. Between June 2007 and May 2008, the fob (Gulf) price of US No. 2 hard red winter wheat increased by about 50%. Over the same period the international price of 100% B-grade Thai white rice almost trebled.

I hope the World Bank guy was misquoted. I hope he didn’t really say that Ukraine’s difficulties with exporting a mere 5 million tonnes of wheat were due to the thinness of the world wheat market, because it ain’t so.

Even where rice was concerned, the thinness of the rice market did cause international rice prices to shoot up, but every single one of the major rice consuming countries of Asia still managed to feed their populations.

I sympathise with Dan Barber’s points about monocultures being dangerous. But this is logically distinct from encouraging or discouraging international food trade. The extreme specialization you get in Ricardian trade models is a consequence of assuming that the opportunity cost of expanding production of any commodity is constant. Make the more realistic assumption of rising opportunity costs ancd you don’t get extreme specialization. So the real question is how to encourage farmers to avoid monocultures when the whole domestic system of incentives pushes them in the direction of monocultures.

One last point. It is a fact that the continued existence of malnourishment in the world is a consequence of income (mal)distribution. It is true that the existing output of food is enough to feed the hungry. So why are 1 billion people hungry? Well, because they can’t afford to buy food, i.e. food prices are too high relative to their incomes.

So then isn’t it misguided to call for more food production? Well no, because food production is a source of income and entitlements as well as a source of supply of the commodity food. The hope is that increasing food production will a) keep food prices lower than they would otherwise have been and b) increase the incomes of poor, rural households — hopefully even landless people who can get jobs working for people with land. There is no guarantee that b) will happen in e.g. societies with extreme inequalities of asset ownership (central America?). However, even if a) happens, that’s good. [I am ignoring the fact that world population is likely to increase by almost 33% by 2050. That alone requires some increase in food production]

There is a wealth of information on food prices, production, trade, consumption etc. on the FAO World Food Situation webpage http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/en  / and also on the webpage set up for the high-level expert forum convened by FAO on “how to feed the world in 2050″ [http://www.fao.org/wsfs/forum2050/wsfs- forum/en/]

The IFPRI website is also an excellent source of information, with a focus on food policy: http://www.ifpri.org

[To allow your readers to apply the appropriate discounts, I should mention that I worked for IFPRI for 8 years and have worked for FAO for the past 10 years]

Posted by Sumiter | Report as abusive

I believe this discussion needs to be considered in terms of the countervailing forces of massification and demassification. In his “Birth of Plenty,” Bernstein documents those few characteristics that are essential to prosperity in a society, all of which first appeared in the early 1800s in England. These factors were interwoven with the process of massification: mass production, mass distribution, mass retailing, mass media, all of which became highly efficient in the following 100 years.

The inexorable massification resulted in massive benefits for producers, consumers, and everyone else. HOWEVER, accompanying the growing prosperity, there were flies in the ointment, primarily because some attendant problems also became massified. Besides things like plant diseases discussed in this thread, there were things like iatrogenic diseases due to pushing sick people together in hospitals. Sewage management in rural septic systems becomes nightmarish when towns are stacked on top of each other.

But some of those massifications problems, including social pathologies, continue to cause some to lean toward Luddite approaches. Personally, I have some sympathy with “Luddite” complaints. But it is also very important to note that we are in an advancing stage of the countervailing demassification, whereby, often through technology, society is fragmenting.

This process is obvious in terms of mass communication, which is being smashed into smithereens by proliferation of access to media – this post is itself and illustration of how one may have a world-wide audience, without “owning” one of the few mass channels.

But it is not just communication that is demassifying. Custom manufacturing, the harnessing of small suppliers/markets by giants like Amazon, is breaking barriers to business entry.

Demassification is sweeping through society, while maintaining the production and efficiency gains that massification delivered. Take heart! It isn’t a war that we are immersed in, it is a reversal of tides, and an ongoing expression of human individuality for which prior modes of massification have provided the wealth.

And in agriculture, the small farm will compete effectively with the giant. But not by trying to deliberately alter “policy,” other than permitting individuals the freedom to pursue their own ideas, at whatever level they are able. Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control” documents how nature uses non-command “economies” to deliver great productivity from otherwise uncontrolled aggregates. In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell traces how the small rice farmer culture of the Chinese created one of the most productive societies on earth.

Courage! There are better times ahead, if the “wise men” will get the hell out of the way of the wise crowd. :-)

Posted by HappyThinker | Report as abusive

Davos is all about getting powerful people together to decide how to fix world problems. The answer from Davos will never be “We smart folks, with monetization, massification, and regulation, are the problem.” Food may be like energy, trading, converting, storing, and transporting it has cost, and locavores, particularly in the form of local folks growing and trading local goods, while less efficient in cost per unit, may be more effective in delivered nutrients per human.

Posted by bobrahm | Report as abusive

“Because the cash-crop model, as we’ve seen many times, is far too prone to disastrous failure.”

Compared to what?

Posted by Despistado | Report as abusive

Felix, I love that you posted on this, but I don’t think where you’re coming out is specific enough to the rural smallholder farming households who make up most of the world’s hungry. They are food-insecure because they can’t produce enough to feed their families and/or they don’t make enough money from selling their surplus crops to buy enough food to close the deficit. “Creating relatively small and self-sufficient agricultural communities” is a nice goal, but we can’t get there in poor countries without figuring out the “how” of improving smallholder productivity.

Staple crop monocultures for these smallholders aren’t necessarily as dumb as they might seem from afar. Which staple crop often varies according to local growing conditions (e.g., in Ethiopia, some regions grow mainly maize, others mainly wheat, teff, or sorghum). And if you’re struggling to grow enough to feed your family on your single hectare of land, focusing on the most productive staple crop – perhaps with a small plot of a cash crop like tomatoes or onions on the side – makes sense.

Agricultural innovation (like, say, flood-resistant rice or drought-tolerant corn, or yield- and sustainability-enhancing crop rotation techniques for that matter) is critical not so the developed world can produce more to ship to the developing world, but rather so poor farmers in developing world can produce enough food to feed themselves.

Posted by PandR | Report as abusive

Oh, for God’s sake. Yeah, let’s just throw out comparative advantage, mass production, genetic engineering, specialization of labor and technology, and free market principles because a chef can’t get a vegetable in Switzerland.

Posted by jmatt | Report as abusive

Remember that the Great Plains, a huge amount of agricultural land, used to be called The Great American Desert. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Ameri can_Desert Relatively fragile vegetable crops don’t do well with the harsh and highly variable weather conditions of the plains, but winter wheat thrives on this previously overlooked land. My parents in Kansas have to water and fuss over their vegetable garden while big fields of winter wheat and soybeans grow without irrigation. Industrial grain crops and huge farm machinery are just a better fit to the climate and scale of a big chunk of the US.

Posted by George_B_TX | Report as abusive

Sounds like most of you would advocate this:

dennisbaker2003(at)hotmail.com
RE : The solution to climate change.
( human excrement + nuclear waste = hydrogen )
The USA discharges Trillions of tons of sewage annually, sufficient quantity to sustain electrical generation requirements of the USA.
Redirecting existing sewage systems to containment facilities would be a considerable infrastructure modification project.
It is the intense radiation that causes the conversion of organic material into hydrogen, therefore what some would consider the most dangerous waste because of its radiation would be the best for this utilization.
I believe the combination of clean water and clean air, will increase the life expectancy of humans.
The four main areas of concern globally are energy, food,water and air!
The radiologic decomposing of organic materials generates Hydrogen
By using our sewage as a source of energy we also get clean air , clean water, and no ethanol use of food stocks. Eat food first, create energy after.
Simply replacing the fossil fuel powered electrical generating facilities with these plants, would reduce CO2 emissions, and CH4 emissions, to acceptable levels, globally.
This would require a completely new reactor facility capable of converting human waste into hydrogen and then burning the hydrogen to generate electricity on site.
This solution is sellable to citizens because of all the side issue solutions. I’ve been able to convince most simply with concept of using nuclear waste to a productive end.
Superbugs ( antibiotic resistant ) apparently are created in the waters sewage is discharged into, which is one more side issue solution.
Anything not converting into hydrogen will potentially be disposed of using Transmutation.
The water emitted from hydrogen burning will have uses in leaching heavy metals from other contaminated site clean ups.
I thank you for your consideration, please feel free to contact me anytime.
Dennis Baker

Posted by D.Baker | Report as abusive

This story is leaving something out that cuts the opposite way. Much of the “hording” of food in 2008 wasn’t due to speculation or the like but rather due to stupid export restrictions put in place by countries like Ukraine, Argentina, Russia, etc. These restrictions made it difficult to sell the food on the global market but local prices were not good enough (often there were price controls, too) to make up the difference. So, producers, when they could, waited to see if they could get around the export controls or for local prices to rise to match world prices. The results were predictable- higher prices, shortages, and so on. In these cases it wasn’t the action of markets that caused the trouble but rather the attempt to meddle with them. This wasn’t the only problem, of course (the race to develop bio-fuels and get the government subsidies for them- another non-market problem, was also a big factor) but the anti-market aspect of the story is, I think, almost completely wrong or at least exaggerated. You can’t understand this story without looking at subsidies for bio-fuels and export restrictions that were in place at the time.

Posted by Mattrpcv | Report as abusive

Thank you to all of you….i had begun to despair of ever reading a civilized discussion of any merit on a comment board, so thanks to the moderators…seeing this kind of discourse gives me hope for all of us and reminds me that there are a lot of smart people out there (smarter than me thank goodness), and the fact that they disagree and can do so in a manner that grapples with the ideas and not the person having them is refreshing….

As to the global food situation, i believe that right resource sharing is at the root of many of our issues going forward, what a wonder it is just to be alive and then find our selves in a world so abundant that we thought it could not support 2 billion and now it can support 7 and soon 10… so to put the most outrageous solve out there, how about a world government that taxes all super rich and corporations at a high enough rate, and provides income/credit to all at a base level that enables them to survive…sort of a living stipend…it is my belief that life is hard enough without having to worry whether or not you’re going to eat tomorrow….

How you say? Well get rid of weapons spending and you’re done…Listen we in the West are already doing a lot of “make up” jobs anyway…let’s see we have cereal restaurants…personal shoppers, and Bloggers :) Why not use the robots and automated economy for all of our benefit?
After all in the end we’re all in this together…

Here’s how it works every one gets their 2K a month and they can do as they will…now you can still work a “normal” job and we hope you will…i wonder how much teacher’s or trash pick up personnel would get in the new world economy?….in the beginning we all have to put in 10-20 years etc to get funded in….and if you want to make more fine….but what if we agreed to a cap on personal income, you know let’s say $10,000,000 per year?

And if you make more, fine we’ll name the park bench/escalator or street light after you….Let’s face it you didn’t make that much without help from a lot of other people…

You people are smart you can help me figure out the details….And sure i know it’s idealistic and could probably not happen in our lifetimes, but hey i for one think it’s nice to imagine a world where money is not the highest value….

(e.g. “One last point. It is a fact that the continued existence of malnourishment in the world is a consequence of income (mal)distribution. It is true that the existing output of food is enough to feed the hungry. So why are 1 billion people hungry? Well, because they can’t afford to buy food, i.e. food prices are too high relative to their incomes.”)

And that scarcity is not our mindset…”We are all One, and there is Enough”—N.W. Walsch

Posted by rumwolf | Report as abusive
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