World hunger: the problem left behind

Here is my new New York Times column, about the tall task involved in doubling world food output by 2050:

The green revolution has slowed since the early 1990s, and it has become harder to bolster crop yields, as I have discussed in my book, “An Economist Gets Lunch.” And recent research by Dani Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at Harvard, indicates that agricultural productivity improvements are among the hardest to transmit from one nation to another.


In a recent address, Michael Lipton, an economist and research professor at Sussex University in Britain, offered a sobering look at Africa’s agricultural productivity. He suggests that Rwanda and Ghana are gaining, but that most of the continent is not. Production and calorie intake per capita don’t seem to be higher today than they were in the early 1960s. It remains an issue how Africa’s growing population will be fed.


There is no shortage of writing — often from a locavore point of view — in support of more organic methods of farming, for both developed and developing countries. These opinions recognize that current farming methods bring serious environmental problems involving water supplies, fertilizer runoff and energy use. Yet organic farming typically involves smaller yields — 5 to 34 percent lower, as estimated in a recent study in the journal Nature, depending on the crop and the context. For all the virtues of organic approaches, it’s hard to see how global food problems can be solved by starting with a cut in yields. Claims in this area are often based on wishful thinking rather than a hard-nosed sense of what’s practical.

I can’t stress that last sentence enough, and I find it amazing what passes for a good pro-organic argument in this area.

There is also an excellent recent essay by Jeremy Grantham on agriculture (pdf), too pessimistic in my view but still more right than wrong.  For an interesting look at why future gains from GMOs may be limited, at least in the short run, read R. Ford Denison’s Darwinian Agriculture.  Nature already has done a lot of the optimization.

The bottom line is this: right now agriculture is a laggard sector — in part due to state interventions — and this is not totally unrelated to recent headlines about unrest in the Middle East.


Global warming ,assuming it actually exists,could be a help in this area . Imagine if the huge swath of land across northern Scandinavia,Russia,Alaska ,and Canada becomes productive agriculturally .

Not just that, but increased CO2 concentrations increase crop yields.

How does increased drought and increased heavy rains and flood help increase crop yields?

Warming means increased energy. Increased energy means increased evaporation of oceans, faster melting of snow and ice, both leading to flooding, and the latter to low river flows. Increased energy means higher winds which are forced into new patterns steering ocean moisture to different regions.

And those northern lands won't get more light so the higher temperatures will not compensate for the loss of production in regions with lots of light but too high temperatures, too much water, and too little water.

The crops in northern climes can be rather high productive, but that requires changes in the production system, abandoning corn, rice, soybeans as the dominant crops. The farmers in the US growing sorghum have been getting good yields next to fields of corn that produced nothing. Farmers in the 60s grew sorghum in equal volume to corn as part of the crop rotation for both its soil building and feed stock, with the bonus of spreading risk from weather and disease.

Since Africa still is a basket case from an agricultural perspective, it appears to me that the food problems would not be so difficult to fix. Africa appears to be a "low hanging fruit", where marginal improvements should lead to great improvements. I would be much more worried if Tyler told us that Africa is already producing as much as it could and we were still facing food shortages. In that scenario, improvements would be much more difficult to come by.

So says also an Ag economist neighbor who goes to Africa and Latin America as well.

In many cases, agriculture is self-sustaining for the locals who live near the food--no one is dying from starvation--but does not produce a surplus that could be exported or introduced to a market because there is no infrastructure or markets for the sale of a surplus. In some cases, markets do not exist, for want of transportation and storage infrastructure.

If you look at it wholistically--ag production, distribution, storage and markets--you have a different problem than if you look at it simply as ag production and producing more per acre..

For example, my friend is currently working in Nicaraugua doing a feasibility study for the exportation of goat milk in the form of goat cheese. In the area he is working, they could produce much more goat milk, but there is currently no market for it. So creating cheese production facilities and developing a market are the limiting factors, not the land, water or other ag inputs or even yields.

But building infrastructure never works.

Look at how terrible an idea it was for people like Lincoln promoting massive wasteful government subsidies in railroads which just connected every community in the US, even in the middle of nowhere like Kansas and Iowa where no body lived....

Until Lincoln signed the land reform law that took the land from its historic owners and handed out free land to immigrants in small farm plots a quarter mile square - real farms and ranches need to be massive hundred square mile affairs. It was a disaster to have two million people, many immigrants, become small farmers after the Civil War.

It is from our disastrous American history that economists are against land redistribution and government programs to build railroads that would have their terms of service dictated by government to benefit small farmers. Republicans in their first half century demonstrated all the wrong ways to develop an economy.


Please abandon your sarcasm, I have no idea what you are advocating.

C'mon Cliff, sing it with me:

"Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?"

If only we had spent the last century building more railroads!

Federal railroad subsidies were, for the most part, small and ineffectual. Municipal and some state subsidies were much more substantial and effective as development (the Erie Canal and B&O, for examples), though much of it was misguided and diffused by political concerns (the early Penn RR, among many others, especially in their attempts to cross the Alleghenies and/or to compete with NY as a major port). The majority of existing railroad infrastructure was built by private capital for the purposes of exploitation of real, existing opportunity rather than development (the NY Central and the Great Northern, for examples).

Hugh Bennett once said, "The Homestead Act of 1862, limiting an individual to 160 acres, was on the western plains almost an obligatory act of poverty."

If it's so hard to transfer productivity improvements across nations, might it not be easier to transfer agricultural land between nations? This certainly seemed to be the ruling wisdom regarding Africa circa 1900. Does anyone doubt that if Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia that between its climate, historical fertility, mineral resources and the current bull market in commodities that it wouldn't be a natural resources powerhouse much like Australia today.

If global food prices keep rising and a bunch of potentially high yielding fertile tropical land is just sitting for the taking, only protected by banana republic militaries, that's going to look preeettttyyy tempting. If Western nations don' step up for the taking the Asian tigers with their high densities and lack of historical guilt over colonialism might make an aggressive grab. As I understand China's already colonizing much of Africa in all but name.

You might be seeing this happen already: in parts of Africa, Saudi and other Middle East countries sponsor ag development by acquiring land and bascially paying off tribal and other government officials with bribes to acquire land. Increased efficiency doesn't mean increased employment, however, or that food production is sent to the village either.

Well, good idea that is likely to happen, BUT, not in the "classical" way you have envisioned. As Bill is pointing out, there are newer ways to skin this cat. Huge swathes of Russia and Eastern Europe, African countries like Angola, Southern Sudan etc. sit on fertile land that is underutilized, and primed for an economic solution.

"Second, the United States government should stop subsidizing its own corn-based biofuels, mainly ethanol. Today, about 40 percent of America’s field corn goes into biofuels, thanks to a subsidy and regulatory policy dating from 2005. With virtual unanimity, experts condemn these subsidies as driving up food prices, damaging land use and costing the taxpayers money. Once the energy costs of producing the biofuels are taken into account, it doesn’t even appear that this policy helps slow climate change. It has become a form of crony capitalism, at great global expense."

I am becoming increasingly convinced that there is no single policy change that would be both more beneficial and less controversial than ending the ethanol mandate(s). In complete seriousness, what do you think is the most cost-effective (where cost is money, time, networking capital, or anything else) way of achieving this?

Move the Iowa caucuses to July.


Or move them to Virginia.

It seems one of weirdest contradiction of the world economics is the richest nation is becoming the world's Saudia Arabia of grains. Whereas higher grain prices has some effect on the US consumers, it has much larger effect on competing foreign labor. (Higher grains are heating up inflation on wages in India and China.) So long run, US wages benefits from higher grain prices.

My question would be how does rising grain prices hurt the US GDP? It seems like rising grain prices will help the US economy so why would this country look to lower the price? I know it makes sense for the world economy but how does this help the US?

there is enough food grown for 4,000 calories for every person on the planet. stop eating meat, wasting food, and producing ethanol, and we're all set.

If the world were homogenous, well and done, but in reality food prices can rise to the point of creating a sustenance crisis for the poorest 20% of the planet without signaling a need for behavior change to the richest quintile.

And much of that as with India's programs is due to governance not lack of food. In any case, the point is this debate is inconsistent. Tyler says organic is an unreasonable starting point because it decreases effective yields. Well, why are we accepting meat consumption as a 'reasonable' 'hard-nosed' starting point? The 'hard-nosed' approach would be to stop raising and slaughtering cows to the tune of 8lbs of feed per 1lb of meat. "Hard-nosed" discussions suddenly become a lot harder to find when they go against what the writer personally wants.

Agree. Tyler, it is shocking that a column in the Times could neglect the most important and least understood point of the "global food crisis". There is plenty of food. End grain subsidies, employ a carbon tax, perhaps with an additional tax on meat, and you will have solved the problem (as much as it can be solved without direct aid).


That comment shows why vegetarian activists often act to hinder environmental preservation.

That feed production you talk about is highly subsidized and the iron law of economics is you get more of what you subsidize.

A person knowledgeable about ecosystems, ag production and habitat preservation would see that the fastest, most effective, and taxpayer friendly method of helping the environment would be to end subsidies for grain production.

The problem is vegetarians and vegans ignore grain production subsidies and prefer to grind an axe against meat consumption.

The ethanol mandate became law in 2007. As of this year around 40 % of the US corn crop is used to make ethanol. If vegetarians and vegans are serious about protecting the environment they will focus on ending the ethanol mandate and other grain production subsidies, not meat consumption.

I support getting rid of crop subsidies, and I'm not sure why those things are mutually exclusive. In any case what is the evidence that eliminating grain subsidies will on its own decrease meat consumption? Other than that that's the way it's "supposed" to work? The chinese rice subsidy recipients were supposed to eat more rice and they ate more meat instead, remember?

Oh and you omitted (for some reason, I wonder why) that the *other* 40% of grain is used for livestock.

More generally, I think that people blindly supporting classes of policies (eliminating subsidies) based on an ex ante view of the world (an economically efficient, libertarian one in this case) that may or may not hold in any particular case (Giffen goods!), rather than supporting *whatever* combination of policies achieve the desired *goal* (decreased meat consumption), is one of the reasons our policy-making apparatus is so completely dysfunctional.


Your smuggled premise is that decreasing meat consumption is a useful goal.

You have not shown that to be true.

"what is the evidence that eliminating grain subsidies will on its own decrease meat consumption?"

If feed were unsubsidized meat would be more expensive and consumption of it would decrease. Currently, meat consumption is subsidized.

"Your smuggled premise is that decreasing meat consumption is a useful goal.
You have not shown that to be true."

The China Study provides a number of very good reasons for decreasing meat consumption.

We accept meat consumption as a starting point because humans evolved as omnivores. It is possible for us to live on a no-meat diet, but very few people have the knowledge to successfully pull it off. Even fewer have the patience and commitment to put in the effort (do not ignore the opportunity cost).

The much better solution is to let the cows eat what they evolved to eat and stop with the subsidized grain-fed production. Grass-fed beef is better for humans anyway.

" very few people have the knowledge to successfully pull it off."

Almost the entire population of China just a generation ago? Less developed economies do not eat meat at anywhere near the levels that developed countries do. As places like China have gotten wealthier, their meat consumption has soared (example and The Economist ran an article a few years ago with similar data), and I would like to see the data that shows that this has anything to do with new agriculture subsidies as suggested above. I agree with your comments about grain-fed production. We would likely have more of this had the Homestead Act of 1862 not been passed.

Learning to cope with a new diet is not that difficult to do once you start (see the Alphabet Diet for why this is not important in the long run).

To start with... ruminants?

Australia's agricultural situation doesn't look too promising. It looks like we will be faced with higher temperatures and even drier conditions in the productive, temperate areas of the country, while the far north will have increased rainfall but also increased humidity. And high humidity limits plant transpiration and so limits agricultural production. On the bright side, Australia still the capacity to greaty increase the amount of food kilojoules it produces, but food prices would have to stay high for a prolonged period and it would take a considerable amount of investment.

Trade you wine for grain?

No calamities!

Sorry, I think we have enough wine. And if we have lousy wine production in the future we will probably also have lousy grain production. On the other hand, at the moment I have some nice wines if you're interested. I highly recommend the $2.45 Le Plonk.

Classic example of how political instability (or in the case the wrong kind of political stability) can impact a country's agricultural output is Rhodesia.

To me, organic has all the same as alternative energy arguments except 10x better (when they aren't EXACTLY the same as in tractors and fertilizers using oil, etc.). So, if you don't like organic, you like alternative energy 1/10th as much.

If you believe in declining fossil fuel production in the future you want to develop alternative energy and maintain non substitutable fossil fuel inputs into agriculture which is a relatively small proportion of fossil fuel use.

Speaking of Middle East, this reminds me of the article you posted regarding Yemen and how most of the country's water is used on Qat production. Like Zimbabwe, there are plenty of examples of countries enacting policies (some state directed some not) that have disastrous consequences for ag production. This is definitely a topic for further exploration.

The free market provides transport for qat - bike trails, but not for commodity crops - railroads.


You completely missed the point.

Zimbabwe was the bread basket of Africa, producing and exporting vast amounts of food. Then big government policies wrecked agriculture production in Zimbabwe and brought famine to the country.

Another real world example of the dangers of big government.

So Yemen is now an example of a free market society...


At least you had the originality to use Yemen not Somalia.

Interestingly enough the big government policies in Zimbabwe wrecked the economy so thoroughly that for a while Somalia had an economy that was superior to Zimbabwe's.

Lesson to be learned: While having no government might be bad big government is worse.

I think you are picking on the wrong person this time. I was mearly trying to highlight the absurdity in mulp's claim that a country of which 1/2 has been ruled by marxists since 1967 has too much free markets and not enough state planning


Your right it looks like we agree I was confused by the comment threading.


oops, I should say you're right....

And yet Somalia today, and Zimbabwe are not even comparable. The consequences of no Government on Somali's have been really grim. Whereas, Zimbabweans lives are slowly getting better. The forceable deconstruction of as concentrated an landed elite as that of Zimbabwe's was bound to have extreme negative shocks upon an economy as what was seen. The deconstruction though was inevitable, although the methodology was unnecessary. Has uncle bob "borrowed" the money form the International bigwigs, and bought the land, even at haircut rates, he would have gotten the best of both worlds, land distributions and the social transformation the Independence war was predicated upon, AND, an well educated, entrepreneurial, africanized white elite, flush with capital and ready to build tertiary business in Zimbabwe. Anyways, that's all history now.

Zimbabwe has turned out to be a lesson in multiple equilibria. Agricultural output has rebounded since the early days of the land redistribution program. By the way, the policies enacted by uncle bob, were Social Policies, and not really Agricultural policies. The context of social redistribution was via transfer of Agricultural land, but there was no policy framework for Agriculture, involved.

"These opinions recognize that current farming methods bring serious environmental problems involving water supplies, fertilizer runoff and energy use."

"For all the virtues of [industrial] approaches, it’s hard to see how global food problems can be solved by [using energy inefficiently, increasing soil erosion, contaminating water supplies, and destroying ecological integrity through the promotion of monocultures.] Claims in this area are often based on wishful thinking rather than a hard-nosed sense of what’s practical."

"I can’t stress that last sentence enough, and I find it amazing what passes for a good pro-[industrial] argument in this area."

It should be noted that government policy (hello ethanol mandates) are a key driver of abusive monoculture crop production.

Ending government ag subsidies would increase producer flexibility, lower costs to the producer, and improve environmental protection.

Thank you for your work on a very important subject!

Slowly shut down all the factories that employ the Haber Bosch process to fix Nitrogen for artificial fertilizers and the problem will take care of itself. Vaclav Smil has shown that all the arable land in the world! farmed at maximum capacity, could only sustain 4 billion people. It is artificial nitrogen fixing that touched off the population growth and regulating it could snuff it out at its source.

"For all the virtues of organic approaches, it’s hard to see how global food problems can be solved by starting with a cut in yields."

So you're saying the problem is yields and not overpopulation? and so the solution to feeding the growing population is more population. Yes, I'm implying increased agricultural yields are a *cause* and hardly a viable solution, at best a postponement for a worse fate, once you're out of time and options. Well I guess it's still a "market correction" when instead of a gradual curb in growth you have massive die-off.

And the consumers of local and organic produce are those that reproduce less, are wealthier and live better. They consume for their own quality of life, not to feed a population overgrowth. At least I've never seen anyone making the argument that organic farming is a solution for that problem.

There is no food crisis. There is a population crisis.

There is in fact a population crisis, but its sign is the opposite of what you believe, and if anything its making the food crisis less severe.

+1 to Doc. The world's population will plateau around 2050 and start declining. We're not going to have too many problems feeding the planet. Tyler is a concern troll.

We may have problems sustaining the capitalist model of the last 300 years with a declining world population though.

For a good antidote, Matt Ridley addresses food abundance all the time.

It's not a question of organic vs. conventional. More aptly, it's a question of "polyculture, small-plot intensive" versus conventional. The *proper* versions of organic ag produce a lot more calories and quality both per parcel of land or per calorie input. But they take a LOT more human labor and a much more complex level of management. Which means they take KNOWLEDGE and INTELLIGENCE, the real barriers, along with systems of land tenure to support such a model.

Anyway, the organic vs. conventional debate is so tired and superficial, let's put it to rest.

"But they take a LOT more human labor"

You neglect that most people do NOT want to farm. Hard work and all that.

And I think you underestimate the intelligence needed to run a monocrop operation. Any successful farmer could operate an organic farm. Problem is they would have to work harder with less (or at best equal) return. Incentives matter.

Here is to Mr. Cowen, who thinks innovation is slowing down and we are only seeing very low marginal returns to R&D (base on evidence from a single article published in an obscure journal):

Lots of strawmen in the agricultural productivity debate, pun intended. The Economist estimates if we cut 'quality' and substitute 'quantity' there will be no mass famines, so TC is right about junking organic. And this sentence rings true: "The bottom line is this: right now agriculture is a laggard sector — in part due to state interventions " - reminds of the GMO 'tainted' grain that was withheld by African governments from starving people a few years ago because of GMO fears. And in Greece, I am told, the Greeks after WWII fed American donated corn (as in cobs, not wheat) to their pigs--since they did not consider it food fit for humans. Food fetishes abound.

Thanks for mentioning my book. Your short summary is accurate, but I do suggest some improvements past natural selection may have missed, leaving room for improvement by biotechnology or conventional breeding. These are 1) tradeoffs which were rejected by individual-based natural selection in past environments, but which we are willing to accept today, and 2) genetic changes so radical they have never been tested by past natural selection.

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