Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Only Way to Feed 9 Billion Poeple

I've written about it once already, but I want to return to The Economist's recent special series about how industrial agriculture is the true and only way to feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the world by 2050. The framing, I think, is extremely interesting.

 The widely revered magazine identifies two strains of thought on the food system's future: one serious and one frivolous.

The serious one -- made up of "food companies, plant breeders, and international development agencies" -- is "concerned mainly with feeding the world's growing population," which it plans to do "through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries."

The frivolous one -- "influential among non-governmental organizations and some consumers" -- "concentrates more on the food problems of richer countries, such as concerns about animal welfare and obesity," The Economist writes. This group fixates on the question of "what should we have for dinner," but has little to say about feeding the globe's growing population.

And since The Economist's special report "concentrates on the problems of feeding the 9 billion," not the trivial omnivorous dilemmas of wealthy Berkeleyites, the magazine throws its lot in with the companies, plant breeders, and international development agencies -- the Serious People Looking for Real Solutions for Feeding the World.

Given these conflicting aims, it is not surprising that the food crisis has produced contradictory accounts of the main problem and radically different proposals for solving it. One group is concerned mainly about feeding the world’s growing population. It argues that high and volatile prices will make the job harder and that more needs to be done to boost supplies through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries. For those in this group—food companies, plant breeders and international development agencies—the Green Revolution was a stunning success and needs to be followed by a second one now.

The alternative view is skeptical of, or even downright hostile to, the modern food business. This group, influential among non-governmental organizations and some consumers, concentrates more on the food problems of richer countries, such as concerns about animal welfare and obesity. It argues that modern agriculture produces food that is tasteless, nutritionally inadequate and environmentally disastrous.

It thinks the Green Revolution has been a failure, or at least that it has done more environmental damage and brought fewer benefits than anyone expected.  My son-in-law let me borrow a book espousing this view, Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma" which opened my mind  It starts by asking: “What should we have for dinner?” By contrast, those worried about food supplies wonder: “Will there be anything for dinner?”

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