Richard Smith: Nourishing the world

Richard Smith

About a billion people end the day hungry, another billion are obese, and food prices are steadily rising. Clearly something is very wrong with the world’s food system, and the Economist last week held a conference on Feeding the World. As several people pointed out, it might better have been called Nourishing the World as it’s not just a matter of filling bellies. Some 165 million children are stunted because of malnutrition, and two billion people are deficient in vitamins and minerals.

We are living, said Gordon Conway (professor of international development , Imperial College, London), in a time of crises—financial, food security, water supply, climate change, and strife—most of which are getting worse, and these crises are all connected.

Population growth, he said, is the seen by the public as the big problem on the demand side of the food crisis, but a bigger problem is changing food patterns, with many in the developing world adopting diets with more meat, fish, and dairy products. Half of all the pork and pig meat in the world is consumed in China. Another problem is demand for biofuels, with the price of corn undoubtedly being pushed up because it can be fed to humans or animals or used as biofuel.

Low yields are the major problem on the supply side with farmers in Africa producing about one ton per hectare of land, which was the yield in the UK in the days of the Roman Empire. Much of the world’s food is produced by 500 million smallholders, 80% of whom are women. They need much more support. The rise in oil prices is pushing up fertilisers, and climate change is producing both stress and shocks, like the heat wave in Russia or the floods in Pakistan. Stress is shortening growing seasons. Land and water scarcity are also major problems.
We have, said Conway, to intensify, produce more for less. But it must be done in a way that is sustainable and resilient, able to stand the shocks that are likely to increase. Doing all of this, he concluded, is a whole order more difficult than the green revolution that greatly increased yields.

We produce enough food now to feed the world, said Kanayo Nwanze (president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development), but 90% of soya beans and 40% of grain are fed to animals. Around 40% of food produced in Africa never reaches the table, and 30% of food in developed countries is wasted. Our problem, he said, is inequity, and the inequity is worst in developing countries with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer.

Most of the poor (70%) live in rural areas, and most food is produced in rural areas. But 80-90% of farmers globally farm less than 2 hectares.

The answer to the global food crisis, said Nwanze, is rural development, not just improvements in agriculture but also in education, health, transport, energy supply, finance, insurance, security, and access to markets. Equally important, he added, is to invest in women. A study in the Ivory Coast showed that $1 invested in a woman farmer produced the same yield as $11 invested in a man. Several others at the meeting made the same point, and David Nabarro (special representative of the UN Secretary General for food security and nutrition) later said: “The time of women, especially mothers, is one of the most valuable resources in the world.”
The highlight of the meeting for me—and, I suspect, many others—were short interviews with two people both of whom are fundamental to nourishing the world but who occupy very different places—Rose Adongo, a smallholder farmer from Northern Uganda, and Hugh Grant, the chairman and CEO of Monsanto, the world’s largest seed producer and an evil empire to many people.

Adongo’s main concern was ownership of land. Women in Uganda comprise 80% of the farmers and produce 60% of the food but own only 1% of the land. The land belongs to men, some of whom are inclined to grow tobacco for cash rather than food.

The farmers in Adongo’s area use hand hoes, and it takes a week to hoe an acre. Animals for ploughing are expensive, and tractors are unaffordable. Fertilisers are available, but use is minimal again because of expense. There is no microfinance system, but village women have pooled money and allowed borrowing. The farmers do sell their produce, but everybody produces the same things and sells in the peak season, when prices are low.
Asked what she would like, Adongo said both women and men owning land, and technology so that a woman could spend more time with her family and less time working in the fields. Asked if things are getting better or worse she said she saw light in the tunnel.

If I had to imagine the head of Monsanto I would think of a hard boiled, soulless, humourless American technocrat. In fact Grant is a Glaswegian who reminded me of a Glaswegian friend who has been years in the US and is about the funniest person I know. I could imagine spending a delightful evening in a Scottish pub with Grant.

His main point was that the main barrier to feeding the world is not technology: we have the technology. The yield of some farms in the US is 400 bushels per acre: those farmers, he said, are on “first name terms with every plant.” The average yield in the US is 150 bushels per acre, and it’s around 100 in India, Mexico, and Brazil. But in Africa, which has 60% of the world’s agricultural land, the average yield is 20 bushels per acre. Inequity, he said, is the problem, agreeing with Nwanze . Why is the yield not 90? There is “no need for biotech” to produce such a yield He thought that yields in Africa could be tripled not through technology but through “relationships, partnerships, and linkages.”

Grant, clearly a lover of numbers, also made the point that to take a ton of grain from the US to an African village cost about $1200, whereas to grow it locally cost about $120. Not many things in this world, he said, are 10 times better.

Monsanto has set itself the aim over 30 years of producing seeds that will double yield while using a third less “stuff,” particularly water.
Emma Duncan (deputy editor, Economist), who conducted the interviews, began her interview with Grant by asking why Monsanto was “extremely unpopular.” He answered that he didn’t really know but thought that the company was “massively misunderstood.” Asked how much this was the company’s fault, he said that he thought that they had been wrong to think that that they were just seed producers and should have recognised that they were about more. They talked a lot to farmers but should have talked more to consumers. Asked if he’d “given up on Europe” he said no and later said that he thought the “anti-GM movement” in Africa was less effective than it used to be and that things were “turning a corner.”

A movement was the theme of Nabarro’s talk when he injected great optimism into the meeting by describing the huge and rapid growth in Scaling up Nutrition (SUN). SUN is, its website says, “a unique Movement founded on the principle that all people have a right to food and good nutrition. It unites people—from governments, civil society, the United Nations, donors, businesses and researchers—in a collective effort to improve nutrition.” It now operates in 47 countries.

I asked Nabarro if had built a social movement, something that many people aspire to. We built it, he answered, by getting out of the way. To build a movement you need a compass, a big tent with very few exclusions, and a solid base of trampolines and springboards. What, I asked, did he mean by trampolines and springboards? He said things like the business network, which has some 40 companies, but there are also country, civil society, donor, and UN networks.

So I left the meeting not horribly depressed, as I’d expected, but uplifted. SUN, said Nabarro, is held together by the conviction that we can defeat hunger in our lifetime.

“The time of women, especially mothers, is one of the most valuable resources in the world.” David Nabarro, head of food security at UN

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.

Competing interest: The standard registration rate for the conference was £995, but I was let in for free. I’m not sure why, but I’m grateful. Perhaps nobody was actually paying. I did have two cups of coffee but no lunch.