Most members of the Food Tank community will not know who I am or why I am writing an article for the Food Tank blog. I grew up on a farm in Miami County, Ohio (north of Dayton), worked for many years in my family’s small tomato cannery, and then left to become an economist. I received my PhD from Harvard with a degree in economic history. Through luck and perhaps food sensibility, I became a development economist specializing in agriculture, food and nutrition, primarily in Southeast and East Asia. In addition to my academic career at Stanford, Cornell, Harvard and UC San Diego, I have been active with national politicians in Indonesia, China and Vietnam.

I have two main specialties: the first is the stabilization of rice prices both in individual countries and in world markets. My second area of ​​expertise grew out of my previous experience in Asia with the role of rice in the national economy at various stages of development: structural transformation. During this process, agriculture as a sector plays a smaller and smaller role in the macro economy, while at the same time it becomes more productive at the farm level. The need to stabilize rice prices is changing radically with structural change, at least from a welfare perspective. Politics is a different story.

To do this work, it is necessary to understand the food systems in which each society operates. In a review of Dan Saladino’s book in the New York Times Book Review, Pete Wells, a New York Times food critic, gave a very unflattering definition of “food system.”

What we are really talking about is a profit-driven corporate logic released on a global scale at an incalculable cost to health, economic stability, cultural coherence and joy.

This definition no doubt resonates with many Food Tank proponents, but it also resonates with those who have been trying to improve the functioning of various food systems for the poor over the past few decades. However, he overlooks important trade-offs in this effort, trade-offs that reflect the enormous complexity of food systems on a global and local scale.

These days, the world’s food systems have to bear a very heavy load. First, it used to be okay if they were productive and provided their household, community, or country with enough food. Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for helping to achieve this goal for a generation, but he warned in his nomination speech that the Green Revolution provided only a temporary reprieve, perhaps 30 years, from the return of Malthusian solutions. This warning was ignored.

Second, the main goal of the Food Policy Analysis was to ensure that food systems provide balanced and healthy diets. But the complex interplay between market incentives for farmers (to encourage them to invest in new, more productive technologies), low food prices for consumers (to keep the poor from starving), and strong cultural eating habits (perhaps deeply ingrained in our brains). ) have prevented significant progress in nutrition. If anything, we have lost ground in terms of global nutritional well-being over the past decades as obesity replaced hunger as a major political issue (this was before the COVID-19 pandemic put hundreds of millions more at risk of hunger).

The third goal of food systems is to be environmentally sustainable. This goal became imperative a few decades ago, at least in words, but again, we are losing ground, not gaining. Climate change, driven by food systems, makes addressing the issue of sustainability much more difficult.

Finally, from the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) endorsed by the United Nations in 2015, an entirely new set of targets for food systems has emerged, which have also been reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Food systems must now address issues of inclusion and equity by putting people at the center. Fairness was the goal of food policy analysts in the 1983 volume, but strictly from an economic point of view.

It is reasonable to ask whether this very ambitious program is really feasible. Historical trends are not encouraging. No country, rich or poor, has tackled all of these problems historically, and there is little promise to do so sustainably in the future. However, two recent initiatives promise to bring more clarity to these issues, at least in terms of understanding their complexity and trade-offs.

The Food System Dashboard, an interactive online database, was created and maintained by a consortium of universities, think tanks and government organizations led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in Geneva and the Bloomberg School. Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. A significant group of researchers is led by Professor Jessica Fanzo of Johns Hopkins University.

The dashboard can be used to describe and analyze the complex issues facing national and global food systems and is an important new tool for policy makers trying to meet their complex and often conflicting agenda: to increase agricultural productivity to feed another 2 billion people in the world. next 30 years or so; meeting this target in an environmentally sustainable manner without exacerbating climate change; and at the same time force the entire food system to address income and social inequality and bring marginalized food producers and consumers into the mainstream.

Glenn Denning’s forthcoming book Food Security for All – End Hunger Without Destroying the Planet provides an additional perspective or counterpoint to the Food System Dashboard approach (Denning, forthcoming). Denning was Professor of Practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Political Affairs (SIPA) for over ten years, and prior to that was a skilled and highly sought-after practitioner in the field of agricultural development. I met Glenn at IRRI in the early 1980s and have learned a lot from him over the years. His academic background in agronomy has provided insights not available to a person with an economic background, and his experience in this field and deep interaction with international food agencies is very different from my own.

Denning’s approach emphasizes hands-on experience, on-the-job learning and participation in the change process, and even his leadership. This approach is very different from the Dashboard Consortium’s data-driven approach, in which policymakers must rely on the best available data and high-quality analysis to drive change. However, these two approaches complement each other: you need to know what to do and then know how to do it. Realizing possible synergies will require a new generation of students, analysts and activists.

Both Denning and Dashboard executives are optimistic that the underlying problems of hunger and malnutrition can be addressed in a sustainable way. This optimism is based on obvious “opportunities”, technical realities that catch our eye. These problems can be solved. I myself came to a similar conclusion in Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard. But the experience of the last decade or so is more sobering.

Why haven’t we made more progress despite the obvious potential? Here, analysts at Dashboard and Denning are largely silent, although there are hints that politics may be the problem. Both approaches highlight the significant heterogeneity in the types of country food systems for every aspect that needs attention, and see this heterogeneity as a sign of hope, as not all countries fall short of all challenges. But this is a false hope without understanding why no country has ever managed to solve all these multifaceted problems in a sustainable and long-term manner.

The answer is obvious: the inability of political systems to cope with problems. But this answer only deepens the problem. Why have all political systems so far been so bad at dealing with these complex, long-term problems? My hypothesis is that the human brain and human society are not “programmed” to deal with such problems. Making sure food is on the table every day (even if it requires soil depletion or deforestation) so that local livelihood opportunities are available to everyone (even if it means coal mining, oil extraction, or raising livestock for industries) and that the fruits of social and political cooperation accrue to our community or tribe (and not others) seem to dominate daily political decision-making. In such a political environment, the short term always takes precedence over the long term, and it is impossible to mobilize society to solve life-threatening, but distant and somewhat blurred problems.

So there is no hope? Elon Musk believes that humanity’s only hope is a colony on Mars. We have been confused in the past. Churchill once remarked that you can rely on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else. Denning argues that the future will depend on a new generation of well-informed, practical leaders who face today’s realities and care about tomorrow. As the problems deepen, there may be a return of a sense of urgency when a majority of the electorate is convinced to join the political process to support such practitioner leaders. After that, the necessary actions can be taken. I’m not sure if this is an even odds bet, but it’s probably the best bet we have.

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Photo courtesy of Julian Hanslmeier, Unsplash

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