According to a new peer-reviewed paper, “The Myth of a Food Crisis,” corrupt philanthropic and academic sectors in agriculture and development perpetuate the lie that Big Ag is the only way to feed the world.
Sustainable, local, organic food grown on small farms has a tremendous amount to offer. Unlike chemical-intensive industrial-scale agriculture, it regenerates rural communities; it doesn’t pollute rivers and groundwater or create dead zones; it can save coral reefs; it doesn’t encroach on rainforests; it preserves soil and it can restore the climate. Why do all governments not promote it?
For policymakers, the big obstacle to global promotion and restoration of small-scale farming (leaving aside the lobbying power of agribusiness) is allegedly that, “it can’t feed the world.” If that claim were true, local food systems would be bound to leave people hungry and so promoting them becomes selfish, short-termist and unethical.
Nevertheless, this purported flaw in sustainable and local agriculture represents a curious charge because, no matter where one looks in global agriculture, food prices are low because products are in surplus.
Often, they are in huge surplus, even in the hungriest countries. Farmers will tell you they are going out of business because, as a result of these surpluses, prices are low and continuously falling. Indeed, declining agricultural prices are a broad trend continuing, with the odd blip, for over a century, and applying to every commodity. This downward trend has continued even through a recent biofuel boom designed to consume some of these surpluses. In other words, the available data contradict the likelihood of food shortages. Despite the rising global population, food gluts are everywhere.
Global food models
The standard justification for claiming that these surpluses will one day turn into global food shortages comes from various mathematical models of the food system. These models are based on food production and other figures supplied to the UN by national governments. Whereas anecdotal or local evidence is necessarily suspect, these models claim to be able to definitively assess and predict the enormous, diverse and highly complex global food system.
The most prominent and most widely cited of these food system models is called GAPS (Global Agriculture Perspectives System). GAPS is a model created by researchers at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. These models — and most often GAPS — are thus what is being cited in any quantitative discussion of future food needs. GAPS, for example, is the basis for the common ‘60% more food needed by 2050’ prediction, what Britain’s chief scientist John Beddington called “a perfect storm” facing humanity.
How reliable are these food system models?
In 2010 Professor Thomas Hertel of Purdue University gave the annual presidential address of the U.S. Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. He chose to discuss the ability of mathematical models like GAPS to predict future supplies (this work was subsequently published). Hertel told his audience that those models are faulty.
What Hertel highlighted is that economic analysis has plainly shown that food supplies respond to long-term prices. That is, when prices for food items increase, food production also increases. For example, when prices increase, it becomes more worthwhile for farmers to invest in boosting their yields; but when prices are low there is little such incentive. Other actors in the food system behave similarly.
Yet global food models, noted Hertel, have adopted the opposite interpretation: they assume global food supplies are insensitive to prices.
In the firm but diplomatic tone expected of a presidential address, Hertel told his audience:
“I fear that much of this rich knowledge has not yet worked its way into the global models being used for long run analysis of climate, biofuels and agricultural land use … it is not clear that the resulting models are well-suited for the kind of long run sustainability analysis envisioned here.”
This is rather important. Since the whole point of these models is long-term prediction, if global food models underestimate the ability of food systems to adjust to higher demand, they will tend to predict a crisis even when there isn’t one.
Like all mathematical models, GAPS and other food system models incorporate numerous assumptions. These assumptions are typically shared across related models, which is why they tend to give similar answers. The reliability of all such models therefore depends crucially on the validity of shared assumptions like the one Hertel focused on.
Hertel’s analysis therefore prompts two important questions. The first is this: If GAPS contains an assumption that contradicts the collective wisdom of conventional agricultural economics, what other questionable assumptions hide in global food models?
The second question is this: Is it significant that the error identified by Hertel will tend to generate predictions that are unnecessarily alarmist?…
When the last small farmer succumbs to “the market” and everyone eats toxic factory food, the depopulation begins in earnest.