Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The hunger strawman

A few questions are almost guaranteed to come up from an audience whenever I give a public talk, regardless of what I talk about. Probably the most persistent question is something like “Don’t we already produce more than enough food to feed everyone?” or its close relative “Isn’t hunger just a poverty or distribution problem?”

Some students recently pointed me to an op-ed by Mark Bittman in the NY Times called “Don’t ask how to feed the 9 billion” that rehashes this question/argument. It probably caught their attention because I teach a class called “Feeding 9 billion”, and they’re wondering why I’d organize a class around a question they supposedly shouldn’t even be asking. The op-ed has some catchy lines such as “The solution to malnourishment isn’t to produce more food. The solution is to eliminate poverty.” Or “So we should not be asking, ‘How will we feed the world?,’ but ‘How can we help end poverty?’" My first reaction to these kind of statements is usually “Gee, why didn’t anyone think of reducing poverty before -- we should really get some people working on that!” But more seriously, I think it’s really a quite ludicrous and potentially dangerous view for several reasons. Here’s three:
  1. To talk about poverty and food production as if they are two separate things is to forget that in most of parts of the world, the poorest people earn their livelihoods in agriculture. Increasing productivity of agriculture is almost always poverty reducing in rural areas. The 2008 World Development Report explains this well. Of course, the poor in urban areas are a different story, but that doesn’t change the critical global link between underperforming agriculture and poverty.
  2. Food prices matter, even if they are low enough that many of us barely notice when they change. If you go to a market, you’d of course rather have hundreds of dollars in your pocket than a few bucks. But if you are there with a few bucks, and you’re spending half or more of your income on food, it makes a big difference whether food prices are up or down by, say, 20%. If you could magically eliminate poverty that’d be great, but for a given level of poverty, small changes in prices matter. And if productivity of agriculture slows down, then (all else equal) prices tend to rise.
  3. Maybe most importantly, there’s no guarantee that past progress on keeping productivity rising and prices low will continue indefinitely, especially if we lose sight of its importance. There’s a great deal of innovation and hard work that goes into simply maintaining current productivity, much less continuing to improve it. Just because many remain hungry doesn’t mean we should treat past successes as failures, or take past successes for granted. And just because we have the technology and environment to feed 7 billion, it doesn’t mean we have it to feed 9 billion (at least not on the current amount of cropland, with some fraction of land going to bioenergy, etc.).

When Stanford had Andrew Luck, we didn’t go undefeated. The football team still had some weaknesses and ended up losing a couple of games, sometimes because of a key turnover or because we gave up too many points. Nobody in their right mind, though, concluded that “the solution to winning football games isn’t to have a good quarterback, it’s to have a good defense.” That would be the wrong lesson to learn from the Andrew Luck era. In other words, it’s possible for more than one thing to matter at the same time. (Incidentally, this year Stanford football has produced more than enough points to be a great team; they just haven't distributed them evenly across the games.)

Similarly, nobody that I know is actually claiming that the only thing we have to worry about for reducing hunger is increasing crop production. That would be idiotic. So it’s a complete strawman to say that the current strategy to reduce malnourishment is simply to raise yields in agriculture. It’s part of a strategy, and an important part, but not the whole thing.

I’m not sure why this strawman persists. I can think of a few cynical reasons, but I’m not really sure. To paraphrase a joke a student told me the other day: there’s really only one good use for a strawman. To drink, man.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to go out on a dangerous limb here and (very politely and respectfully) disagree with my advisor on this. I quite liked the Bittman op ed mainly because in my experience with the general public I've found most people believe food insecurity is due to a physical scarcity of food at the global scale. I'm invariably met with surprise when I explain that we today produce more than enough food to feed everyone a perfectly decent diet and that therefore increasing food production at the global level is neither necessary nor sufficient for reducing hunger.

    Of course there are connections between raising food production and reducing hunger. But re-framing the problem of increasing economic rather than physical access to food makes it clearer that in some cases raising production might improve food security, in some cases in won't, and in some (probably most) cases it will only do so in the presence of additional policies. And it also makes clear there are lots of opportunities to reduce hunger that don't involve increasing food production.

    So I was glad that Bittman took on what I think is a very common mis-conception among the American public. If I had to take a guess as to why this belief is so prevalent, I'd have to say the long history of framing some environmental problems in terms of absolute limits to production, over population, the carrying-capacity of the planet etc. I would say these themes are still pretty prevalent in the way food and hunger are discussed in public fora today and therefore a prominent and accessible counter-argument is generally a good thing, even if it does have elements of the strawman about it.