The Scienttific Alliance Newsletter - Changing and informed scientific debate

3rd June 2011


Is the food production system broken?
Oxfam believes it is. The headline on their web page makes their case unambiguously: “The System’s bust: It’s not just drought. Or famine. Or a bad harvest. Rising food prices, climate change and complacent world leaders mean nearly 1 billion people don’t have enough to eat.”  This is accompanied by a picture of a traditionally-dressed African woman, holding some grain in her hands, against a background of barren earth. And to emphasise that this is a major campaign, the photo was taken by Rankin. He is joined by a modest galaxy of other celebrities – including Scarlett Johansson, Kristin Davis, Helena Christensen and Zoe Ball – to launch a report which underpins the new Grow campaign, Growing a Better Future.
Development charities, despite the undoubted good work that they do and the idealism and commitment of their supporters and staff, have become big business. The star-studded launch of Oxfam’s report represents a further step in what might be called the Bono-isation of development policy. In an increasingly sophisticated and competitive arena, charities have to compete for our money with emotional messages, but often backed up with research reports which provide the intellectual justification for their appeals.
Few people actually read the reports (indeed, it takes a bit of searching even to find a link to Oxfam’s on their website). But it is important that they are looked at critically. People making donations deserve to know that their money is being used constructively. And, by this, I don’t mean that trying to help people get enough to eat is not a very deserving cause, because it clearly is. But we need to ask why they are going hungry and how to best tackle the root causes.
If food was equally available to all, there would be enough to feed everyone adequately. FAO figures show that food availability per capita has actually been increasing, from 2,250 Kcal per person per day in 1961 to 2,800 in 2003, over a period in which the population more than doubled. Plant breeding – particularly the work of Norman Borlaug and colleagues in developing semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties – and better use of fertilizers and crop protection products enabled the green revolution in the 1970s and harvests have grown steadily since.
Food production is not really the issue, although the need to perhaps double yields yet again over the next half century will certainly provide challenges. But there are real issues of inequality of distribution. Discussions of malnutrition usually conjures up an image of sub-Saharan Africa, but the greatest number of the roughly one billion who are chronically hungry are in South Asia. India in particular has grown rapidly in recent years, spawning a large and relatively prosperous middle class. But it still has a stubbornly high rate of malnutrition, particularly among children, despite high-profile government intervention (for more detail, see Putting the smallest first, from the Economist).
The problem is almost entirely one of poverty. Poor mothers are often anaemic and poorly fed themselves and give birth to underweight babies who in turn are malnourished. Stunting occurs in the early years of life and cannot be reversed, leaving adults less capable of productive work and so continuing the vicious circle. Poverty leads to malnutrition and malnutrition leads to poverty.
Despite continued moral pressure on governments to increase their aid budgets, the overall positive impact has been difficult to see, although there are doubtless cases where it has worked. There have been serious criticisms expressed over many years, most recently by the African-born, former World Bank consultant and Goldman Sachs employee Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid (see ‘Everybody knows it doesn’t work’, an interview in the Guardian).
Moyo, however, accepts that targeted aid from charities can make a real difference to people, while pointing out that much of Africa seems to have gone backwards despite $1 trillion dollars of aid since WWII. What, then of the Oxfam campaign?
Their analysis defines three major challenges:
• The sustainable production challenge: we must produce enough nourishing food for nine billion people by 2050 while remaining within planetary boundaries;
• The equity challenge: we must empower women and men living in poverty to grow or to buy enough food to eat;
• The resilience challenge: we must manage volatility in food prices and reduce vulnerability to climate change.
It is easy to agree with the broad thrust of this, but the danger is that Oxfam is trying to reform an entire system, and in a rather prescriptive way. So, to quote from the report:
“Achieving the vision for 2050 requires a redistribution of power from the few to the many – from a handful of companies and political elites to the billions of people who actually produce and consume the world’s food. A share of consumption must shift towards those living in poverty, so everyone has access to adequate, nourishing food. A share of production must shift from polluting industrial farms to smaller, more sustainable farms, along with the subsidies that prop up the former and undermine the latter. The vice-like hold over governments of companies that profit from environmental degradation – the peddlers and pushers of oil and coal – must be broken.”
This is uncompromising politics, pushing all the radical buttons in a few lines. Fortunately, such tub-thumping is not found on every page. But there are certain built-in assumptions, not least about the concept of sustainable intensification. This term has become widely used since the publication of the Royal Society report Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. But, whereas this report essentially supported the application of the best available science to grow more food on the same land area, Oxfam seem to have hijacked the term to propose a lower-input approach. For example “Use of animal and green manure reduce dependency on expensive inorganic fertilizers, the price of which is linked to oil.
Undoubtedly, there are many regions where pitifully low yields could be improved very significantly by relatively low-tech approaches such as rainfall capture, inter-cropping and use of manure. But to get close to the far higher yields regularly achieved in Europe – and this is what will be needed to meet the food security challenge – this is not enough.
Neither is it enough to criticise the hold that big business has on the food system. The intensification of agriculture over the past half century is what has made possible the relatively high level of food security most of us enjoy today. Yes, the number of undernourished people is far too high, but it has remained at a similar number over the same period. The system which Oxfam condemns has reduced the percentage of malnutrition dramatically.
What remains is not the fault of some malign international conspiracy, and nor will it be solved by a centralised redistribution of wealth. Those who contribute to Oxfam should see their money being used to help poor farmers support themselves and their families by having access to the best farming technology they can use. The system isn’t broken. It doesn’t need fixing. Targeted interventions to allow families to be self-supporting and make their own decisions about the future are the way out of the relentless cycle of poverty and dependency. 

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