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Diplomacy in Action

Food Crisis: Causes and Cures

Fact Sheet
Office of the Science and Technology Adviser
Washington, DC
March 9, 2009


The problem. Food prices have increased rapidly and drammatically: global average food prices have increased by more than 80% in the past 3 years, with a particularly sharp increase in the past few months. Food riots have broken out in many countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Former Soviet Union and Central and South America. Last December, the New York Times quoted a top United Nations food and agriculture official as saying that “in an unforeseen and unprecedented shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels.” Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Program, was quoted as saying: “We’re concerned that we are facing the perfect storm for the world’s hungry.” She said that poor people were being “priced out of the food market.”

The causes. How and why did this happen? Although many press reports attribute the rise in food prices to increasing use of food crops for biofuels and to rapidly rising oil prices, both of which contribute in some measure, this is a crisis long in the making and much discussed, though little heeded. A major contributing factor is that increasing affluence leads to an increasing demand for a protein-rich diet, particularly meat. This is because an animal protein-based diet is an inefficient use of grain calories, and therefore of land. Beef cattle, for example, convert only about 5% of the protein in their feed into edible animal protein[i]. Since 1900, the fraction of the world’s grain production used to feed animals has increased from about 10% to almost half. An important factoid is that the amount of arable land – that is, land that’s good for agriculture – has not changed appreciably in more than half a century (left). Land is being lost to desertification, salinization and urbanization at about the same rate as it is added from land held out of production and from deforestation. Hence gains in agricultural production must come from gains in productivity, which is the amount of useful grain, fiber or biomass that can be produced per acre. Increases in productivity come from science and engineering. They take time and investment. Hence increasing food prices do not lead to rapid increases in production[ii].

Agricultural production in the developed world has benefitted from increasing scientific advances over the past two centuries. Major landmarks have been the development of synthetic fertilizers, increased knowledge of plants and plant breeding, insect control measures (pesticides and integrated pest management), and mechanization. Most recently, agriculture (in the US and 22 other countries) has benefitted from the introduction introduction of molecular techniques, commonly known as “genetic modification” or GM. Perhaps the best known GM trait is “Bt,” which designates a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that encodes a small protein that is toxic to certain kinds of insects, but not to human beings or other animals. To date, many countries, including Japan and most European countries, have rejected the growing and, in some cases, the importation of GM grains, even for animal feed. Others, including a number of African countries, have not adopted GM crops for fear of losing markets in countries that reject such crops.

What stands in the way of a new Green Revolution? The Green Revolution that boosted agricultural productivity in Asia over the last half of the 20th century was based on mutations that altered plant architecture and ability to use fertilizers in a handful of important grain crops, particularly rice and wheat. Today there are calls for a second Green Revolution, particularly in Africa.

Is it possible? Yes, because agricultural productivity in many places still lags far behind what it could be. What stands in the way? Some of the many complicating factors are:

  • Increases in human population have meant ever smaller land-holdings; increases is productivity in developed countries have come from larger farms, which displaces people.
  • Agricultural price supports in developed countries have made agricultural exports from less developed countries uncompetitive.
  • Less developed countries often lack transportation infrastructure.
  • Fertilizer is often prohibitively expensive and/or culturally unacceptable in less-developed countries, hence land is often nutrient deficient.
  • Agricultural research and capacity-building in less-developed countries have suffered from under-investment by the development community.
  • Molecular methods of crop improvement require expensive laboratories and trained personnel; as well, they are often considered culturally or politically unacceptable.

Finally, many countries lack a food-processing industry. The vast majority of food products sold in western supermarkets are processed on one way or another: dried, canned, frozen, or processed into finished products, such as cereals and packaged foods. Even fresh foods, such as meats, poultry and fish or fresh salad greens are subject to refrigeration at the source and processing that extends their lifetime and increases food safety through treatments such as milk pasteurization. The requisite expertise and infrastructure are lacking in many less-developed countries, hence much food is lost to spoilage.

While much remains to be gained with existing technologies, meeting both the biofuel and food demands of a still-expanding and increasingly affluent human population will necessitate tackling the major barrier to plant productivity: the inherent limit on the fraction of the sun’s light energy that plants can convert to chemical energy through photosynthesis. A first step is to increase the photosynthetic efficiency of Asia’s major grain, rice, to that of corn. Rice what is termed a C3 plant and corn is a C4 plant; the latter are about 50% more efficient in capturing the sun’s energy than the former[iii]. But even greater gains will need to be realized through research if we are to satisfy the projected food, fiber, feed and biofuel demands of the future.

[i] Smil, Vaclav (2000) Feeding the World: A Challenge for the 21st Century, MIT Press, London.
[ii] von Braun, J. “Agriculture for Sustainable Economic Development: A Global R&D Initiative to Avoid a Deep and Complex Crisis.” Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture, Capitol Hill Forum, Washington D.C., February 28, 2008
[iii] Hibberd JM, Sheehy JE & Langdale JA (2008) Using C4 photosynthesis to increase the yield of rice – rationale and feasibility. Cur Op Plant Biol 29:228.

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