OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021: Food security needs sustainability as well as productivity

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Nearly a billion people will go to bed hungry tonight, and if we can’t feed the current population, how will we manage with half as many again by 2050, especially if their diets shift towards resource-intensive Western-style foods? Climate change will complicate matters further, with the worst impacts likely to be on the regions the least well-equipped to deal with them. Moreover, agriculture could find itself in competition for land with biofuels and other non-food uses, notably urbanisation.

Such worries are not new. Ever since Malthus published his famous essays on demography at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries, there have been predictions that the world will face mass starvation if things go on as expected. As Malthus himself put it in his 1798 work An Essay on the principle of population: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

Likewise, there have been critics of Malthusianism from the outset. Marx for instance argued that Malthus did not discover any kind of natural law of population, but was simply describing, extremely badly in Marx’s view, a particular moment in socioeconomic development. (In fact Marx dismissed the essay as “nothing more than a schoolboyish, superficial plagiary… [that] does not contain a single sentence thought out by Malthus himself”).

Malthus was also criticised for underestimating the potential for positive change, through scientific and technological innovation for example. The rate of progress in agricultural output over the past few decades has been phenomenal, even for long-established crops. Take wheat for instance. Farm records in England show that yields increased from around half a tonne a hectare before the year 1000 to 2 tonnes a thousand years later. To increase from 2 to 6 tonnes took only forty years. It would have been impossible to achieve this with the old ways of doing things, where to increase production, you increased the area under cultivation and pasture, either by expanding onto second-choice land or by conquering new territories.

If nothing had changed, Malthus would have been proved right as soon as the physical possibilities of extending production were reached. The answer was intensification, meaning producing much more from a given amount of land or number of animals. The global area under crops grew by about 12% over 1960 to 2000, but cereal production increased by over 100%, oil crops by over 300% and fruit and vegetables by over 200%.

Meat production shows a similar pattern. Permanent pastureland increased by 10% over this forty-year period, but bovine meat production grew by 90% and that of pigmeat by 240%. The increase in poultry production was even more spectacular, at over 650% in 1960-2000.

This increased production was made possible by scientific advances in the “inputs” farmers use – seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. and by new ways of breeding and caring for animals, and organising production, storage and distribution of agricultural produce.

Food production has not only kept pace with population growth, it has outstripped it. The world now produces more food than ever, and even countries that were once practically synonymous with famine have achieved self-sufficiency in staple foods. As we argued in this post, hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity.

Will that be the case over the coming decades? The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021 released today points out that agricultural production needs to increase by 60% over the next 40 years to meet rising food demand. That means an additional billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million more tonnes of meat a year by 2050 compared with 5 years ago levels, and that’s not including biofuel feedstock. Globally, the scope for expanding agricultural land is limited. Total arable land is projected to increase by less than 5% by 2050, so additional production will need to come from increased productivity, as it has for the past 50 years.

At the same time, the sustainable use of available land, water, marine ecosystems, fish stocks, forests, and biodiversity has to be improved. Around 25% of all agricultural land is highly degraded. Critical water scarcity is a fact for many countries, and as we said yesterday, 85% of ocean fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited or depleted.

The Outlook seems cautiously optimistic that “increasing productivity and improving sustainability of agriculture are not mutually exclusive” with the right mix of policies and practices. Actual yields for the main food crops are well below what could be achieved in many regions, with yield gaps in many developing countries of over  50% in 2005, and 76% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although annual growth in global agricultural production over the next ten years will be lower than the previous ten years, it should remain ahead of population growth, and output per capita will continue to increase at the global level.

Useful links

OECD work on sustainable agriculture

OECD work on agricultural policies

Food consumption: Supper sized

Who ate all the pies?

Artists never know what they’re depicting. Or rather, they may be depicting a lot more than they realise, and what seemed banal at the time becomes interesting later. Watch an old movie where the characters go to the cinema, and you’ll probably be struck more by the fact that half the people are smoking than by whatever action is supposed to grab your attention.

Historians try to glean hints of what everyday life was like in the past by examining incidental details in pictures and written accounts. In Vermeer’s Hat, for instance, Timothy Brook uses the objects and scenes in Dutch artwork to explore the development of international trade in the 17th century, examing where the fur for the hat came from for example.

Brian Wansink, of the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell, and his brother Craig, from the Religious Studies Department, Virginia Wesleyan College applied this approach to one of the most painted religious scenes in the history of art: The Last Supper, when Jesus and his followers shared a meal together for the last time (prompting French poet Paul Verlaine to remark that “You can’t judge a man by the company he keeps – Judas’s friends were very nice”).

The Wansinks wanted to see if the paintings revealed anything about how the average amount of food consumed over the ages has changed. Their results, published in the International Journal of Obesity, show that over the past thousand years, the size of the entrées in the paintings has grown by 69%, plate size has increased 66% and the size of the loaves of bread by 23%.

The study also shows how artists have unconsciously reflected increases in food production and affordability over the centuries. Another thing the paintings reflect is the fact that this change was extremely gradual until recently. According to records going back to the tenth century, it took a thousand years to increase wheat yields in England from around half a tonne a hectare to 2 tonnes. To increase from 2 tonnes to 6 tonnes took 40 years in the 20th century.

Portion sizes have also increased dramatically over the few decades. The average size of an American hamburger in the 1950s was just 1.5 ounces (42.5 g), compared with 8 ounces or more today (226 g), and when McDonald’s first opened in 1955, a serving of fries was 2.4 ounces and contained 210 calories, against today’s 7 ounces and 610 calories.

The impacts can be seen on any street, with obesity now a worry in all the developed countries and an increasing number of developing ones too, where the two extremes of malnourishment – obesity and hunger – may exist simulataneously.

Useful links

Linda Fulponi of the OECD’s Trade and Agriculture Directorate discusses “over nutrition” in the latest issue of the OECD Observer

Franco Sassi and colleagues from the OECD’s Health Division discuss strategies to prevent obesity in a working paper, and will be discussing the issues in depth a new book to be published later in the year.

The photo of what would happen to Michelangelo’s David if he adopted a modern diet and lifestyle is from an ad campaign for the German Olympic Sport Committee, “If you don’t move, you get fat”, by Scholz and Friends