Ag Economist: Look to Long-Term Sustainability to Solve Food Crisis

May 7, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When it comes to a food crisis, history has taught the world a thing or two. One is what we don't learn tends to repeat. And this current lesson might be the most challenging one we've ever faced, says an Ohio State University agricultural economist.

Luther Tweeten, professor emeritus of agricultural trade and policy in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, has seen the world struggle through two previous food crises: one in the 1960s, culminating with the famous Green Revolution, and one in the early 1970s, triggered by crop failure and frenzy in international markets. But the current global food crisis may be even more dire, said Tweeten.

"The previous food crises had obvious transitory elements that triggered them," said Tweeten. "The underlying elements driving this food crisis may fluctuate, but they are never going to completely go away."

One of those elements is the deteriorating supply/demand balance in energy, specifically oil production.

"The days of cheap oil are over. There are indications that the world has peaked in oil production, and oil is at the core of many of the world's problems," said Tweeten. "The world has plenty of oil, but drilling for it, especially to tap deeper reserves, is becoming uneconomical."

Another element is the growing gap between agricultural production and global population growth. The population boom is increasing faster than crop yields, said Tweeten.

"Yields in the 1950s were increasing at a far faster rate than world population. That is no longer the case," said Tweeten. "What this means is the era of declining food costs appears to be over. The good news for Americans is that they'll hardly notice. Only 3 percent of people's income goes to food at the farm level. The bad news is that poor countries, like those in Africa and South Asia, will suffer."

Tweeten said that the problem facing developing countries is not an inadequate food supply, but the inability to access it.

"Since World War II, there has always been enough food to feed everyone around the world. The problem is people in developing countries lack the buying power to acquire the food that they need," said Tweeten. "Short-term food aid is important. We can't stand by and watch people starve, but ultimately that is not the solution."

Tweeten said that the key is long-term sustainability through a developing country's own economic progress by focusing on six key areas: governance, fiscal responsibility, markets and free trade, infrastructure investments, increased agricultural research, and environmental sustainability.

It's a solution to poverty Tweeten calls the standard economic model.

"The gist is that it's possible for any country, no matter its government or its economic state, to be an economic success by implementing the policies set forth by the standard economic model," said Tweeten. "Those six principles are essential to economic progress and there are many developing countries that don't implement any of them."

Tweeten offers additional long-term solutions to the current global food crisis:

• Increase funding for agricultural research. "Agricultural research is terribly under-funded in many parts of the world," said Tweeten. "For example, the U.S. spends 3 to 4 percent of its agricultural GDP on research. Africa only spends one half of 1 percent of its GDP on agricultural research. If the funds are there and used wisely for research of agricultural technologies, the yields will follow."

• Open up more global free trade. "Global food production varies only about 1 percent per year, but production in individual countries varies by multiples of world variation. So if every country goes it alone, a food crisis becomes more frequent," said Tweeten. "But if countries share production through trade, every country can have available food."

• Research on alternative energy technologies should be subsidized, not the use of those energies themselves. "It is unwise to subsidize and mandate biofuel production at the expense of food production," said Tweeten. "We are using energy profligately as it is. What we need is to subsidize the research and development of alternative energy technologies."

• Improve the technology for energy that already exists, such as finding ways to burn cleaner coal and exploring wider uses for solar energy and nuclear energy.

• Don't ignore the benefits of modern technology, such as genetically modified products. "Technology was the basis of the Green Revolution and lifted the world out of a global food crisis," said Tweeten. "GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have vast potential. It would be an incredible mistake to shut them out in food production. Struggling countries, like those in Africa, can't afford to, but do so anyway."

The current global food crisis, like the previous food crises, is the result of a "perfect storm" of several factors, such as rising food demand in countries such as China and India, increased biofuels production, and environmental impacts on crop production, such as drought on Australia's wheat.

"Like with previous food crises, people are panicking, and they shouldn't," said Tweeten. "The world has great capacity to produce food. Our success lies in coming up with sustainable access to that food by those who truly need it."

Author(s): 
Candace Pollock
Source(s): 
Luther Tweeten