"It is the most interesting book I have ever read and inspires me to do something immediate to save our civilization." —Hanh Lien, translator for the Vietnamese edition of World on the Edge
Chapter 9. Feeding Seven Billion Well: Action on Many Fronts
Historically, the responsibility for food security rested largely with the ministry of agriculture. During the last half of the last century, ensuring adequate supplies of grain in the world market was a relatively simple matter. Whenever the world grain harvest fell short and prices started to rise, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would simply return to production part of the cropland idled under supply control programs, thus boosting output and stabilizing prices. This era ended in 1996 when the United States dismantled its annual cropland set-aside program. 67
Ministries of agriculture bear the primary responsibility for expanding food production to satisfy the world’s seemingly insatiable appetite. The fast-growing demand from the addition of 70 million mouths to feed each year, from 5 billion people wanting to move up the food chain, and now, for the first time, from the insatiable demand for farm commodities to produce automotive fuel will pose an unprecedented challenge to ministries of agriculture. At the same time they are faced with a dwindling backlog of unused agricultural technology, shrinking supplies of irrigation water, and the prospect of crop-withering heat waves. Demand growth and supply constraints together will challenge agricultural leaders as never before.
In this chapter, we have discussed some of the newer measures that can be used to raise land and water productivity. Adoption of these and other actions are obviously important, but in the new world we have entered, the policies of other ministries also bear heavily on the food security prospect.
Now with our finite planet being pushed to its limits and beyond, the capacity of health and family planning ministries to educate the public about the consequences of population growth and to meet family planning needs has become a food security issue. Whether individual couples decide to have one, two, or three children directly affects world food security.
In today’s world, decisions made in ministries of energy on whether to stay with fossil fuels and continue to drive the earth’s temperature upward or to shift to renewable energy sources and stabilize the earth’s temperature could have a greater effect on long-term food security than any actions taken by ministries of agriculture.
And in much of the world, water is a more serious constraint on food production than land. The success, or lack thereof, of water ministries in raising water productivity will directly affect future food security and food prices.
Similarly, in a world where cropland is scarce and becoming more so, decisions made in ministries of transportation on whether to develop auto-centered systems or more diversified transport systems that rely heavily on less land-intensive transport forms, including light rail, buses, and bicycles will also affect world food security. Policies adopted by the ministers of transportation in land-scarce countries like China and India directly affect world food security.
More broadly, how far governments go in encouraging the use of scarce agricultural resources to produce commodities to be converted into automotive fuel will directly affect efforts to eradicate hunger. The question is how effective governments will be in managing this emerging competition between cars and people for food commodities.
In our increasingly crowded world, the responsibility for food security extends far beyond the ministry of agriculture, involving all ministries in the effort to fully realize the earth’s sustainable food production potential. At the same time, there are many agricultural successes that can be imported by countries struggling to improve their food security. Encouragingly, the two big breakthroughs in expanding animal protein supplies—the dramatic gains in milk production in India and fish farming in China—can be replicated in many other developing countries.
67. USDA, ERS, Natural Resources and Environment Division, Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 1996–1997, Agricultural Handbook No. 712 (Washington, DC: 1997).
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