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Food Security and Sustainability: Renewed Interest on a Long-Standing Issue

Thomas Malthus in his Essay on the Principle ofPopulation (1798) described a forthcoming population catastrophe where he predicted a forced return to subsistence once population growth outpaced growth of food production. The accelerated population growth rate in the twentieth century, in particular population growth in the developing countries since the 1950s, renewed Malthusian fears expressed by the Neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich, a biologist, in his book The Population Bomb (1968), a widely read publication that sold several million copies worldwide, argued that in the near future developed countries would be required to undertake some type of food rationing because starvation will be the result of overpopulation in developing countries. In the extreme case, he argued, the lack of food security in developing countries would be the trigger point to serious socio-economic and political developments worldwide.

The wide acceptance of these ideas led to the establishment, in 1968, of the The Club ofRome and the publication of the book The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972). It was argued that if present growth trends continue, and if associated industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next 100 years with the most probable result being the sudden and uncontrollable decline in population and industrial capacity.

Malthusian ideas, however, have not gone unchallenged. Ester Boserup, a sociologist studying pre-industrial societies in Indonesia, wrote in 1965 The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure in which she puts Malthus on his head, claiming that population growth is good for the society as it fosters technical change and innovation. She claimed that people develop the required resources of knowledge and technology to increase food supply as necessary. She agrees that the environment poses limits that restrict population, but these limits can be changed using innovation and technological change, with population growth being the trigger for innovation to allow food supply to increase.

Further, Julian Simon, an economist, published two books challenging Ehrlich further stimulating the population debate: The Economics ofPopulation Growth (1977) followed by The Ultimate Resource (1981), in which he argued that the relationship between population growth and economic growth was not as simple as assumed, and that the extent to which population pressure had an impact on resources was overstated. In his argument Simon suggested that population was the ultimate resource with the capacity to invent new technologies that relax resource limits. He also argued that the current views on population and resource issues fail to take the long view and demographic problems should not be examined in a short time frame.

It is interesting to note that while this debate was taking place, the Green Revolution was expanding rapidly in several parts of the developing world.

Green Revolution is the catchword describing a package of “research, development and technology transfer mechanism” in agricultural production that took place mainly in the 1950s and 1960s. The Green Revolution produced in the research centres (International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global public agricultural research partnership, made widely available new high-yielding varieties of wheat, rice and maize, changing completely the food supply situation in many parts of the world. Although the Green Revolution should be credited to the work of a large number of unknown researchers and scientists of the CGIAR, Norman Borlaug, one of the founding members of CGIAR, has been named “Father of the Green Revolution” and has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for saving over a billion people from starvation by changing food production technology in the new technology package combining high-yielding varieties of cereal grains with irrigation, modern management techniques, hybrid seeds, and chemical technology of fertilisers and pesticides.

It is also interesting to note that while the ideas of “resource constraints and the limits to growth” were popularised, leading to the establishment of the Club of Rome (Meadows et al. 1972), the research of Hayami and Ruttan (1971) has put forward and empirically verified an “induced technical change model” for agricultural development that builds upon the induced innovation hypothesis of Hicks in his Theory of Wages (1932), implying that these resource constraints can be relaxed by scientific discovery, technological change and innovation. The empirical evidence accumulated since the 1970s on the induced technical change hypothesis of Hayami and Ruttan supports strongly the theory of Boserup, “diffusing completely the population bomb” and shaping an optimistic view about the global food-population balances.

The debate between Ehrlich and Simon continued in the 1980s unabated. Simon criticised the conventional wisdom of resource scarcity arguing that it ignores the long-term decline in wage-adjusted prices of raw materials, which is in line with the induced innovation hypothesis of Hicks (1932). Simon argued that increasing wealth and technology make more resources available, because although supplies are limited physically they may be viewed as economically indefinite as new substitutes are assumed to be developed by the market. Simon, as Boserup in 1965, argues that population is the solution to resource scarcities and environmental problems, since people and markets innovate. In this context it is interesting to mention the famous Simon—Ehrlich scientific wager in 1980, through the pages of Social Science Quarterly, in which they agreed betting on a mutually agreed-upon measure of resource scarcity over a decade leading up to 1990. Simon had Ehrlich choose five commodity metals. He chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten, with Simon betting that their prices over a decade would decrease, while Ehrlich said they would increase. Ehrlich lost the bet, as all five commodities that were betted on declined in price from 1980 through 1990, the wager period. However, Ehrlich would have won if the wager was extended to 30 years, on four out of the five metals.

The food and energy crisis of the 1970s led to a fervent research on food and energy demand. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) was established in 1975 as a research centre of CGIAR with the mission to undertake economic research to free the world from hunger and malnutrition providing research-based policy solutions that sustainably reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition. At the same time, a great deal of research in the World Bank was devoted to the definition of food security, the causes and the remedies of food insecurity and research on various aspects of the global food-population balance (see for example Reutlinger 1978, Reutlinger 1985). Policy research was also focused on particular problems of food insecurity, such as buffer stock operation, international finance of food imports for importing countries in periods of supply shortfalls with the objective of providing evidence- based policy options (see for example Huddleston et al. 1982). Other research has focused on the causes of food-population imbalances such as the observed worldwide rapid increase in grain demand, malnutrition and poverty, the lack of trickle-down effects of development to the poor, the proposal for a basic needs approach to poverty alleviation and on targeted measures to address food insecurity.

Significant attention was also given in that period to a rapidly increasing component of food demand, feed grain demand (see e.g. Mergos 1989). The observed rapid increase was in the indirect demand for grains used as feed in animal production to satisfy the rapidly growing demand for meat; this effect was called by some the graduation effect on food (grain). Even at

Three indicators of world food demand (1966 = 100). Source

Fig. 1.1 Three indicators of world food demand (1966 = 100). Source: Adapted from Babcock (2008)

present, reed grain demand is projected to grow rapidly, reaching in 2050 a sevenfold increase compared to 1966, much faster than any other food item (see Fig. 1.1). The observed rapid increase in feed grain demand is explained as the result of changes in factors used in the course of economic growth, especially capital accumulation and labour outflow from agriculture, leading to the introduction in the livestock sector of capital-intensive techniques of production that are also grain-intensive. This leads to higher use of feed grain, lower use of traditional feeds and a changing composition of output, implying long-term prospects for very high growth in feed grain use in the world (see Mergos and Yotopoulos 1988).

Civil society initiatives have also led at the same time to the establishment of non-governmental organisations, such as the Worldwatch Institute, founded in 1974 by Lester Brown, who has been named by The Washington Post as one of the world’s most influential thinkers, with the mission to accelerate transition, through research and outreach that inspire action, to a sustainable world that meets human needs with an emphasis on renewable energy and food. Brown has helped the shaping of the concept of sustainable development and founded, in 2001, the Earth Policy Institute with goals to provide a global plan for moving the world onto an environmentally and economically sustainable path, to provide examples demonstrating how the plan would work, and to keep the media, policy-makers, academics, environmentalists and other decision-makers focused on the process of building such an economy.

The 1980s has been a period of unconstrained optimism about global food supplies (Mergos 1989). Prices of food commodities declined strongly in real terms and optimism about global food-population balances prevailed. On the cover page of a World Bank policy study appeared the following statement: “The world has ample food. The growth of global food production has been faster than the unprecedented population growth of the past forty years....Yet many poor countries and hundreds of millions of poor people do not share in this abundance. They suffer from a lack of food security, caused mainly by a lack of purchasing power’ (World Bank 1986). However, Mellor considered the situation with apprehension, stating that “my message is a simple one: of thanks, for bounteous harvest in much of the world,; of concern that complacency will diminish that bounty; and of apprehension, that the extreme complexity of the task of using that bounty to banish hunger will turn us away from the policies for its sustenance and use” (Mellor 1986).

In the 1980s a shift in thinking on food security took place from global food-population balances to households and individuals. Whereas in the 1970s the focus of the debate was on national and global food supplies, in the 1980s the focus shifted to questions of access to food at household and individual levels. The shift was initiated by Amartya Sen with his book Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981) with a focus on the causation of starvation in general and of famines in particular. Sen showed that the traditional analysis of famines concentrating on food supply is fundamentally wrong, theoretically unsound, empirically incorrect, and misleading for policy. He proved that the collapse due to various reasons of purchasing power of households or individuals, what he calls entitlement, in an entire country or region is principally the cause of famine, although adequate food supplies may be available close by.

This interest of food security research at household level continued in the 1990s identifying four core concepts, implicit in the notion of “secure access to enough food at all the time.” These are: (a) sufficiency of food, defined mainly as the calories needed for an active, healthy life; (b) access to food, defined by entitlement to produce, purchase or exchange food; (c) security, defined by the balance between vulnerability, risk and insurance; and (d) time, where food insecurity can be chronic, transitory or cyclical.

The literature on household food security has developed taking into account developments in other fields. For example, the household itself is a problematic concept or it would be misleading to separate household food security from wider livelihood considerations. This assumes that poverty is the main cause of food insecurity and the two are inextricably linked together in policy interventions. Such a diagnosis implies that policy should be directed towards self-targeting interventions rather than imposing standards.

This approach has taken the form of an international action. Following the Millennium Summit of the UN in 2000 and the UN Millennium Declaration, eight Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015 were adopted, the first of which is to eradicate poverty and hunger. A similar approach is suggested by Collier in his book The Bottom Billion where he challenges traditional wisdom and emphasises that the solution to endemic poverty (and hence food insecurity) in the overlooked “third world” countries whose inhabitants constitute the bottom billion of the world population is to resolve corruption and other internal governance practices and infrastructures that are ineffective by having collective action at the global level that will impose a radical new set of strategies upon these countries in order to force change upon them.

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