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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