Food Security and the Sustainable Development Goals

NAECJonathan Brooks, Head of Agro-food Trade and Markets Division, OECD Trade and Agriculture Directorate

The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a significant number of interconnected objectives related to agriculture and food. SDG 2 focuses explicitly on food by seeking to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, but multiple other goals relate to challenges in the food system. SDG 1 focuses on poverty reduction, where agriculture and food has a key role to play. Sustainable agriculture plays a central role in achieving SDG 6 on water, SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production, SDG 13 on climate change adaptation and mitigation and SDG 15 on land use and ecosystems.

A majority of the world’s poor lives in rural areas, where farming – predominantly by smallholders – is the central economic activity. Large increases in agricultural investment will be needed both to raise incomes and increase the supply of food sustainably. Most of the investment will need to come from the private sector, but governments have an important role in establishing the framework conditions. Public investment, supported by development aid, can also complement and attract private investment. Policies that support agriculture’s enabling environment, but do not distort incentives or crowd out the private sector, are likely to be more effective in the long term than specific subsidies to the agricultural sector. Priority areas for public spending include research, innovation and rural infrastructure, together with social protection and backstopping to ensure improved nutrition.

Agricultural productivity growth will increase food availability and benefit consumers to the extent that domestic prices are lower than they would otherwise be. Productivity gains imply lower unit costs and also translate into higher incomes for innovating farmers. But the resulting decline in prices dissipates some of these gains. Farmers who fail to innovate will only experience the price decline and thus face adjustment pressure. For that reason, broad-based development is needed to ensure that less competitive farmers are pulled, rather than pushed, out of farming into more remunerative activities.

Trade will have an increasingly important role to play in ensuring global food security. Developed and major emerging economies in particular need to avoid policies that distort world markets, making them a less reliable source of food supplies. Multilateral action to ensure that national policies do not generate a new range of spill-overs that compromise food security in poor countries has been elusive thus far but remains a priority for early action.

Climate change and the degradation of land, water and biodiversity resources are expected to require changes in production systems. Policies at the national level need to be aligned towards sustainable productivity objectives. An essential step is to remove agricultural policy incentives to market-distorting environmentally harmful practices, such as subsidies to energy and agricultural inputs. More efforts are needed in the areas of agricultural R&D, technology development, and skills. Environmental policies are also required to ensure well-defined property rights for natural resources and to tackle economy-wide environmental challenges. Given the local specificity of the challenges, targeted agri-environmental policies have a role to play to effectively redress negative environmental impacts and to ensure a better management of resources.

Fisheries provide jobs and nutrition to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, especially in poor coastal areas. Overfishing threatens the long-term health of fisheries and ultimately harms fishery-dependent communities. The benefits of reform of fisheries policies are clear. Controlling harvest to achieve maximum sustainable yield is estimated to enable the sector to produce an additional USD 50 billion per year or more in profits. Recovering fish stocks can lead to eventually harvesting nearly 20% more fish than is possible at current stock levels.

Useful links


Why a meeting of ministers?

Ministers of Agriculture from OECD countries and partner economies around the world will meet at OECD headquarters in Paris on 7-8 April 2016, to discuss Better Policies to Achieve a Productive, Sustainable and Resilient Global Food System (click on the banner for background reports and other resources). Ministers will explore the new policies needed to achieve this widely shared interest, and will exchange on how to ensure that existing policies begin to shift in these directions more quickly.

Agriculture Ministers last met at the OECD in February 2010, in the midst of volatile world food markets. Six years later, and as requested by Ministers, it is again time to assess whether the policies governments are pursuing are well targeted to address emerging issues and public priorities. Population growth and increasing prosperity are driving and changing demand for agricultural products. The sector will need to adapt to climate change, including to the expected increased frequency of extreme events, and will also have to be part of the mitigation effort. There will be increased competition for limited natural resources, in particular water.

Against this background Ministers will:

  • exchange ideas about which policies would best accompany the sector in responding to these opportunities and challenges and how to manage the transition to a new policy framework
  • cover the entire food chain, with a strong focus on the knowledge and innovation systems needed to achieve sustainable productivity growth
  • discuss how to strengthen global collaboration to that end, including through trade, science and technology, and education and advisory services
  • reflect on how the food system can contribute to the overall well-being of their economies, and on how overall policy settings can be more conducive to achieving sustainable productivity growth in the global food system

This meeting of Agriculture Ministers comes in the wake of several other important high-level events: the G20 Agriculture Ministerial under the Turkish Presidency of the G20 in May 2015, the UN Special Summit on Sustainable Development in September 2015, the COP21 in November-December 2015, the WTO Ministerial Conference in December 2015, and Germany’s Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in January 2016.

Global Food Security: Challenges for the Food and Agricultural System

OECD work on sustainable agriculture

West Africa: Security crisis and food crisis

Laurent Bossard, Director of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat. A shortened version of the article is available in French on Le Monde Afrique

“The outlook is good”, concluded food security experts who reviewed the food and nutrition situation in the Sahel and West Africa at the 31st annual meeting of the Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA), held from 14-15 December 2015 in Dakar. The region recorded a cereal crop production of 63.6 million tonnes, an increase of 5% over the previous season and 12% over the average of the last five campaigns. Tuber production is estimated at 158.6 million tonnes, up 8% and 18% compared to last season and to the five-year average respectively. Only Chad recorded a decline in its food production, with a decrease of 12%. Markets are generally well supplied, and the availability of food products is all the more satisfactory with new harvests arriving. In spite of the difficult and late start to the 2015-16 agro-sylvo-pastoral campaign, “the sky has shown mercy on the Sahel and West Africa”, a region where agriculture still largely depends on rainfall.

Despite this excellent agricultural performance, the Network notes – as it does every year – that malnutrition remains a major challenge for the region: between January and October 2015, almost a million children have been detected and treated for severe acute malnutrition. Whether harvests are good or bad, each year the region has to manage between 3 and 5 million people experiencing food insecurity. The region faces chronic food and nutrition insecurity. Rates of global acute malnutrition (GAM) in the Sahel have exceeded the 10% warning level at least since the beginning of this century. In many areas, they regularly exceed the emergency threshold of 15%.

According to the 2013 State of the World’s Children report, about 39% of children under five in the Sahel are stunted. “Whether the granaries are full or empty is of no interest to a 6-month-old baby,” recalls Noël Marie Zagre, regional adviser in nutrition for the UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Office. He deplores the fact that the rate of exclusive breastfeeding remains low in the Sahel countries (around 40%) while stressing the importance of the first 1 000 days for the cognitive and physical development of infants. Nutrition does not depend solely on food security, but also on many other factors such as health, education, poverty that limits access to food, weak social protection systems, etc.

As we approach the next lean season in the Sahel, from June to August 2016, the situation is expected to become even more dire than usual, particularly in areas affected by insecurity. Indeed it is insecurity that this year could be the primary cause or decisive aggravating factor for acute malnutrition. Around 10.5 million people could face a food crisis, including 5.2 million in northern Nigeria. The entire perimeter of Lake Chad – vulnerable to attacks by Boko Haram – is at risk due to the high numbers of displaced persons and refugees, 1.7 million according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including 1.4 in Nigeria alone. In the Diffa region in southeast Niger, border villages have been deserted and 150 schools closed. Grain prices have increased sharply due to transport difficulties and a very weak millet harvest around Lake Chad. The food and nutrition situation is also strained in northern Mali. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in early November that the prevalence of global acute malnutrition in the Timbuktu region has increased from 14.8% to 17% (the emergency threshold is 15%).

Response plans are under preparation, both by the countries concerned and at the international level. But will they help reach those who desperately need it? Will humanitarian workers be able to venture into north-eastern Nigeria, and more generally around Lake Chad? Will the restoration of state authority, as expected throughout the entire territory of northern Mali, be sufficient to allow for the delivery of emergency aid to the north? Another cause for concern: the collapse of international oil prices, which translates into drastically reduced budgetary resources in Nigeria and Chad. Allocations for social programmes benefiting the most vulnerable are likely to suffer, since at the same time, the fight against terrorism requires increasingly significant financial means.

Security crisis and food crisis work in tandem to undermine the resilience of millions of West Africans. They feed off each other. Yet the security responses and humanitarian responses are still designed and implemented separately.

Useful links

For more than 30 years, the Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA) has brought together all food and nutrition security stakeholders in the Sahel and West Africa. It relies on the political and technical leadership of ECOWAS, UEMOA and CILSS and benefits from the support of the Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD).

WARI magazine/TV5 Monde on the 31st RPCA annual meeting

World Food Day 2015: Building Resilient Societies and Breaking the Cycle of Rural Poverty in the Sahel and West Africa Region

WFDOusman Tall, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

The official programme marking World Food Day takes place today at the Universal Exposition in Milan, under the theme, “Social Protection and Agriculture: Breaking the Cycle of Rural Poverty”. This theme underscores the role of social protection in ensuring that food and other basic needs of the most vulnerable individuals and households are addressed. Furthermore, embedded in this theme is the assertion that social protection programmes tied to productive activities, such as agriculture, are the most sustainable approach to eradicating poverty and achieving food and nutrition security. This has considerable implications for Sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty is pervasive in rural areas.

Sub-Saharan Africa, especially the Sahel and West Africa region, is one of the poorest and most food-insecure regions in the world. Out of the 25 poorest countries in the world, 23 are in Sub-Saharan Africa with 11 of them in the Sahel and West Africa Region. It has the world’s fastest growing population, where 65% of countries are classified as low-income countries and over half of the population is living below the poverty line.[1] To address the high levels of food insecurity and poverty, a number of social protection initiatives have been put in place, including national social protection strategies in some countries. In 2014, the European Union alone assisted 1.7 million food-insecure people and 580 000 malnourished children in the Sahel.[2] This has provided a strong argument and a basis for a pro-smallholder agricultural intervention in rural areas in the Sahel and West Africa region.

Most Recent Food Insecurity Situations in the Sahel and West Africa Region (click for full size)


© Map produced by CILSS/Agrhymet. Source: Regional analysis of the Cadré harmonisé (CH), Bamako, 22-23 June 2015.

Linking social protection programmes with economic activities, productivity, ownership and long-term sustainability is important. Tackling risk and vulnerability and at the same time ensuring pro-poor growth through investments in social protection programmes lead to greater inclusive growth.[3] These should be the guiding principles in the design and implementation of social protection programmes. However, most social protection initiatives and interventions in the region are project-oriented, mainly addressing poverty and food insecurity during times of crisis. With the persistent nature and recurrence of crises in the region, there is a need to go beyond interventions during crises, to build the resilience of the most vulnerable populations in adapting – in a sustainable manner – to these emerging and recurrent crises.

Cognisant of this and at the invitation of the EU, stakeholders of the Sahel and West Africa region and their Technical and Financial Partners (TFPs) met in Brussels on 18 June 2012 to discuss the root causes of the recurrent food and nutrition crises in the region, which were weakening the livelihoods of the most vulnerable households. To tackle these problems, which are multiple and complex, the stakeholders agreed on a long-term collaborative effort that gave birth to the establishment of the Global Alliance for Resilience (AGIR) – Sahel and West Africa. AGIR is not a new policy or program, but a kind of framework or approach that seeks to channel the efforts of stakeholders in the region towards a common results-focused framework based on a shared definition of resilience: “The capacity of vulnerable households, families and communities and systems to face uncertainties and risk of shocks as well as to recover and adapt in a sustainable manner”.

Just ten days after the World Food Day Programme, the Sahel and West Africa Week will be celebrated at the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan from 26-30 October. Organised by the Sahel and West Africa Club and its Members and partners, the Week will provide an opportunity for stakeholders to exchange best practices and shared solutions on issues such as food insecurity, malnutrition, poverty and resilience. AGIR stakeholders will meet to assess progress made since 2013 when 17 countries adopted the AGIR Regional Roadmap and committed themselves to its implementation. Consistent with the Roadmap, countries have organised national inclusive dialogues and are developing their own National Resilience Priorities (NRP-AGIR).

Through the NRP-AGIR, countries are fostering the improvement of social protection for the most vulnerable by strengthening food and nutrition programmes and improving their governance systems. They are also targeting income generating activities, especially through the agricultural value chains, in order to increase productivity and access to food for vulnerable segments of the population. These interventions are in recognition of the fact that the rural sector in the region is dominated by poor agricultural households that are faced with uncertainties as a result of numerous factors, ranging from socio-economic and political factors to natural disasters, such as flood, drought and pest infestation.

It is obvious that with the many uncertainties and the recurrent nature of crises in the region, livelihoods will continue to be affected, with individuals, households and communities becoming more vulnerable. To break this cycle, strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable segments of the population should be at the core of every social protection programme in the region. This is a fundamental priority of the Alliance. AGIR recognises that the state has an essential obligation in providing a framework to build resilience, and that this requires long term strategic planning based on existing national policies and programmes.

The strength of the Alliance lies in the fact that it is co-ordinated through the Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA). Created in 1984, the RPCA has acquired remarkable experience in not only managing but preventing crises in the region. The Network benefits from a strong level of regional ownership, operating under the political leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), with the co-facilitation of the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) and the SWAC Secretariat, and brings together all stakeholders working in the region. Through the Network, there is now broader co-operation among technical and financial partners, especially those working on food and nutrition security, poverty, social protection and resilience. At the occasion of World Food Day, the SWAC Secretariat, in collaboration with ECOWAS, UEMOA and CILSS, is launching today a film dedicated to the RPCA which raises awareness about the Network’s achievements and future challenges.

Finally, the AGIR objective of “zero hunger” (to completely eradicate hunger and malnutrition in the region) in 20 years is consistent with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” To achieve this objective, there is a need for all stakeholders to reaffirm their commitment to the implementation of the AGIR Regional Roadmap, especially at a time when the Sustainable Development Agenda has been endorsed by Heads of States at the United Nations General Assembly. There is no better place for AGIR stakeholders to reaffirm their commitments than at the Universal Exposition in Milan during the Sahel and West Africa Week.

Useful links

[1] Food security in focus: Sub-Saharan Africa 2014. The Economist Intelligence Unit 2014

[2] ECHO Factsheet – Sahel: Food & Nutrition Crisis – May 2015

[3] Promoting Pro-Poor Growth: Social Protection-OECD 2009,

Can China feed itself?

OECD FAO Outlook 2013It could be the biggest Chinese takeover ever of a U.S. firm. But this deal doesn’t involve Silicon Valley, high-tech widgets or Hollywood stars. Instead, a Chinese firm is proposing to pay a whopping $4.7 billion for a U.S. business that produces … pork.

Shuanghui International’s offer for Smithfield Food has attracted some controversy. One U.S. senator has described it as “concerning”. Others see it more positively: According to the Financial Times, the “deal will help open the Chinese market for US meat producers”.

That’s a growing market. China’s emerging middle class is eating more, and especially more meat, and is increasingly concerned about food safety. But meeting their demands is set to become a bigger challenge as China confronts environmental and demographic issues and the impact of climate change. And that’s part of the reason why Chinese businesses are eyeing up overseas suppliers like Smithfield.

So far, China has been able to meet much of its growing demand itself: Between 1980 and 2011, agricultural output (not all of it food, of course) expanded 4.5 times, thanks in part to increased use of machinery, improved irrigation, and hybrid crops. In parallel, the number of people going hungry has fallen sharply: In 1990, around one in five Chinese was malnourished; today it’s under one in eight. Food security has also improved: In 1978, for example, rural households spent 68% of their income on food; today it’s only around 40%.

Indeed, one – unwanted – marker of China’s success in feeding itself is the rise in overweight and obese people: Between 1991 and 2006, the proportion of overweight people doubled to just under 27%, according to an OECD report.

But, as the latest OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook explains, maintaining the growth momentum in Chinese agriculture won’t be easy, for several reasons. The first is demographics: China’s countryside faces a double whammy of an ageing population and migration to the cities. In 1992, around 844 million people lived in the Chinese countryside; by 2022, the UN estimates that figure will fall to below 600 million. Not only will the rural population be smaller, it will also be older, meaning there will be fewer skilled workers available to manage increasingly complex farms.

Then there’s land and water, both in short supply. China has only around a quarter of the arable land per person that OECD countries have. Similarly, its water supply per person is only around a quarter the world average. And both these resources are under pressure: More than 40% of China’s arable land is classed as degraded as a result of erosion, salinisation and acidification. Soil contamination is also a concern.

And, of course, there’s climate change: China, like much of the rest of the world, appears to be seeing a rise in extreme weather events. One result is that the country’s variable water supply is becoming even more unpredictable. Droughts in the arid north are likely to become more common, while flooding will become an even more regular feature of life in the more tropical south.

Despite all these pressures, China will probably go on raising its food output. It’s likely to remain essentially self-sufficient for commodities like rice and to remain a net supplier of others – it’s the world’s top exporter of fish.

But in other areas, most notably dairy and meat products, China may rely more on imports. The bid for Smithfield Food could well be an early sign of that. There are other signs, too, of China’s changing food needs: Hong Kong, for example, has had to put a limit on purchases of baby formula to prevent mainland Chinese parents worried by a succession of food safety scares from clearing the city’s shelves. According to the BBC, retailers as far afield as London and Australia have followed suit.

Indeed, China is likely to have an increasing impact on global food markets. On the downside, that could mean a new source of volatility in the world’s food supply. But, as Craig Emerson, Australia’s trade minister pointed out at the OECD Forum, it could also open important new markets: “There’s no doubt that in Asia, and China in particular, as the middle-classes expand, they will want premium agricultural produce … they’re willing to pay a lot for safe, healthy, clean and green produce.”

Useful links

OECD work on agriculture

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站 (中文)

OECD on Weibo – 经合组织微博

World Food Day: Let’s cooperate

Click to see the other winning images

Last year, the world spent the equivalent of $2000 on arms for every one of the planet’s 870 million malnourished people.  Other than giving the gun money (or guns) to the hungry, how else could we fight malnutrition? On its annual World Food Day, the FAO argues that agricultural cooperatives are the “key to feeding the world”. Co-ops are far more important than most of us realise. According to the FAO, around 1 billion people worldwide are members, and cooperatives provide over 100 million jobs across all sectors, 20% more than multinationals. In 2008, the top 300 cooperatives were responsible for an aggregate turnover of $1.1 trillion, roughly the size of the world’s tenth largest economy, Canada.

Agricultural cooperatives (the main type in many countries) can offer their members a range of services, including credit, training, marketing and access to information, as well as improving their bargaining power when buying inputs or in policy making. That can help them take advantage of opportunities like the surges in food prices seen in 2007-2008, that in fact left many poor farmers worse off because they couldn’t increase their own production but still had to pay higher prices for things they didn’t produce themselves.

People in this situation can become trapped in a vicious circle, where food insecurity is not just an immediate tragedy, but a threat to longer-term wellbeing. As Joe Dewbre explains in the OECD Observer, faced with hunger, families first tend to reduce consumption of higher quality foods, such as meat or vegetables. But if the crisis continues, they may have to sell the means by which they normally earn a living – their animals or tools for instance – or take out loans that will leave them impoverished and indebted for years to come. Or even worse. Earlier this year, the Indian media reported on a wave of suicides among farmers in Bengal unable to repay loans.

Dewbre argues that historical evidence – and common sense – suggest that as a society becomes richer, food security becomes less of a problem. An OECD working paper shows that developing countries with very different levels of economic development, population size and geographical location have succeeded in reducing poverty and improving nutrition. Despite the significant differences among them, they share some characteristics. During the period when they had the greatest success in reducing poverty, the macroeconomic context became progressively more favourable. Their own governments were lowering export taxes, reducing overvalued exchange rates and dismantling inefficient state interventions in agricultural markets. Meanwhile, the governments of rich country trading partners were reducing the kinds of support to their farmers that distorted production and trade the most.

As we discussed in this article, hunger exists in rich countries too, but the main food-related problem here is obesity. According to the OECD Obesity Update 2012, obesity rates in OECD countries have doubled or tripled from 1980, when fewer than one person in ten was obese. Now, the majority of the population is overweight or obese in 19 of the 34 OECD countries, and OECD projections suggest that more than two out of three people will be overweight or obese in some OECD countries by 2020. The good news is that the progression of the epidemic has effectively come to a halt for the past ten years in some countries, including Korea (where obesity rates have stabilised at 3% to 4% of the population), Switzerland (7% to 8%), Italy (8% to 9%), Hungary (17% to 18%) and England (22% to 23%).

However, the epidemic isn’t regressing anywhere, and it’s also becoming a problem in developing countries. Data from the WHO show that overweight and obesity are now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. Close to 35 million overweight children are living in developing countries, compared to 8 million in developed countries. The WHO ranks overweight and obesity as the fifth leading risk for global deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In addition, 44% of the diabetes burden, 23% of the ischaemic heart disease burden and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer burdens are attributable to overweight and obesity.

That said, hunger and malnutrition are still the number one risk to the health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. That $1.738 trillion used to buy arms last year could have been better spent.

Useful links

OECD work on food security and nutrition

OECD work on agricultural policies for poverty reduction

Cornflakes at the soup kitchen

Click to see what poverty means to Amira and other children

Amira, the little girl in the photo, had her picture taken as part of a Save the Children campaign against poverty. Unfortunately, we’re used to similar images and actions, except that Amira lives in London and the campaign is the first in the charity’s history to help children in the UK. In the text she wrote to go along with her portrait, Amira explains that it’s great when there’s money to pay the electricity bill because then you can enjoy a long list of things, starting with lights, and ending, well down a long list of things most of us take for granted, with TV. There are 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK according to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies quoted by It shouldn’t happen here, Save the Children’s report on child poverty. One in eight of the poorest children go without at least one hot meal a day, and one in ten of the UK’s poorest parents have cut back on food for themselves to make sure their children have enough to eat.

It’s not just in the UK. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 50 million people lived in food-insecure households last year, 12 million adults lived in households with very low food security (what they used to call food insecurity with hunger), and 8.6 million children lived in food-insecure households in which children, along with adults, were food insecure. The charity Feeding America says that hunger is a reality for 1 in 6 people in the United States. They serve 14 million children including 3 million under-fives, but this may not reflect the whole picture. My colleague Kate Lancaster says that in her home state of Vermont,  there are numerous small local-based groups that probably wouldn’t be known outside the immediate community also providing meals.

I had a look on to see if we had any data, but our reports about hunger only seem to be about developing countries. That said, the general argument that hunger is a problem of poverty rather than availability is even more true in the rich countries than elsewhere. France is the world’s fifth largest exporter of farm and food products, but earlier in the summer a soup kitchen I pass on my way home was serving cornflakes. Maybe it was all they could afford once the winter surge of donations was used up. And cornflakes may not be so affordable next year, given the recent surge in cereal prices following the US drought and poor weather in other major exporting countries.

The OECD participates in the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) set up by the G20  “to enhance food market transparency and encourage coordination of policy action in response to market uncertainty”. The Rapid Response Forum, AMIS’s main body for reacting to abnormal conditions, may meet once an updated forecast of US harvests is available later this week. Or they may not. The FAO Food Price Index averaged 213 points in August 2012, the same as July, but 18 points less than a year ago and 25 points below the peak reached in February 2011.

According to this statement from the French Ministry for Agriculture, following a videoconference with the US, Mexico (current G20 president) and various international organisations, the present situation is worrying but there’s no threat to global food security. They probably meant no additional threat. The USDA’s July report on global food security estimates the number of food insecure people in the 76 developing countries covered at 802 million in 2012, and projects that number to rise by 37 million over the next 10 years.

There’s no projection for the OECD countries, but almost a hundred years after Save the Children was set up to tackle hunger in post-World War I Vienna, who would have predicted that it would be turning its attention to Europe again?

Useful links

Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses

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

Click to read the report

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