June 27, 2016

Sara Shares: In response to The Economist’s “Feeding the Ten Billion”

Sara ScherrEcoAgriculture Partners

Future food security will not be achieved simply with shiny new toys.

This is the letter I sent in response to The Economist‘s editorial “Feeding the Ten Billion” that appeared in its June 13, 2016 issue and the special Technology Quarterly on Agriculture published June 11. They declined to publish it.

Dear Editor,

The June 11th article “Feeding the ten billion” gave a very misleading impression to your readers of the realistic and appropriate avenues for eliminating hunger by 2030, as is called for by the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically, it gave the impression that future food security could be achieved with ‘shiny new toys’. While many of the innovations you highlighted will indeed likely be deployed more widely (and some of the science really is cool), most are neither necessary nor sufficient to meet global production needs in 2030.

First of all, your article fails to mention that since that 2009 report suggesting that food production needs to increase by 70 percent, the Food and Agriculture Organization has acknowledged that this number ignored large potentials for reducing food losses, transition to healthier diets, and better food access.

Most notably, the article ignored entirely the greatest threat to food supply—the widespread degradation of the natural resources and ecosystem services that underpin production. Drought- tolerant seeds may have a role to play, but far more critical is the restoration of water catchments, recharge of underground aquifers that supply irrigation water, and rehabilitation of waterholding capacity of degraded soils. To manage pests and diseases in a world with warmer temperatures and more erratic rainfall will require a strategy of diversifying farm crops, genetics and landscapes, yet the business models of most of the new technologies you described are only economic a small number of crops and varieties are grown over very large areas.

And your survey was remarkably limited. There has been a worldwide explosion of innovative science and technology for non-industrial sustainable agriculture, including from the CGIAR research system. Soil scientists are developing highly efficient agroecological management of crops with greatly reduced external inputs. Landscape ecologists are designing spatial arrangements for crops and other vegetation that enable farmers to harvest water to supply their crops and also restore year-round streamflow. New tropical agroforestry systems, where farmers grow their crops under a tree canopy, increase production through microclimates that reduce temperature and water stress. These innovations require mainly better technical services for farmers and resource managers, not expensive industrial inputs.

Why were these ignored in your article?


Photo, Sugar cane harvesting in Fiji, courtesy of the Asian Development Bank on Flickr.

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