Increasing global food security: The next gold rush?

What do Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Monsanto, Kraft Foods, and Wal-Mart have in common?

Some of the most financially successful companies in the world? Absolutely. Exploiters of workers and the environment? Some say so. The newest solution to global food insecurity and natural resource conservation? Apparently so.

These seven global companies, along with ten others spanning the agricultural value chain (including BASF, Bunge Limited, General Mills, Metro AG, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, and Yara International) are at the center of a new strategy presented at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland on January 28th. Announced by Rajiv Shah, Director of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the strategy is called “Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A roadmap for stakeholders” and aims to increase food production in an environmentally sustainable way while spurring economic growth. Each decade, the initiative aims to: (1) increase agricultural production by 20% to eliminate hunger and undernourishment; (2) reduce greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of production by 20%; and (3) decrease rural poverty by 20%.

Why is a “new vision for agriculture” needed?First and foremost, even in our world of plenty, nearly a billion people remain undernourished, 98% of who live in developing countries.The world’s population continues to grow at a rate of about 200,000 people per day, putting greater pressure on food production systems. At the same time, the intensity of food consumption is growing in emerging markets such as China; as people’s incomes rise, so does their demand for meat and dairy products, foods which are much more land and energy-intensive to produce.Another challenge arises as urban populations grow. We passed the point at which just as many people live in urban areas as do rural areas in 2007. This trend of urbanization will likely continue, requiring additional resources for packaging, shipping, storing, and distributing food to urban populations.

More food is needed, but it must be produced in environmentally sustainable ways if we expect the earth to continue to support us. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment revealed the horrifying extent to which humans have degraded the natural environment through our efforts to secure food, water and fuel (most of this damage has occurred over the past 50 years). One of the most alarming repercussions of human activity on the environment is global climate change, which will have dire consequences for health – including food security – in the coming years. Agriculture both contributes to and is threatened by environmental degradation and climate change. Additionally, the current agricultural system is heavily reliant on oil, and considering that oil is believed to have reached global peak production, the food system must undergo a massive transition if it is to function in a world of energy scarcity. Read More >

Agricultural Biotech and Chemical Industry Put on Greenwash Show at Iowa State University During World Food Prize Week

In mid-October of every year, Iowa State and Central Iowa sees its fair share (or more) of dignitaries, current and former agricultural lobby folks, Farm Bureau top brass and even usually a cabinet officer or two. This is not the presidential primary, but the World Food Prize week. This year, over 1,000 policymakers, researchers and other experts will be involved in the programs, including the keynoter, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, now chair of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. A number of lectures and side events occur during this time. The award ceremony is modeled after the Nobel Prize ceremonies.

The award winners this year are perhaps the most deserving ever. The WFP laureates for 2010 are David Beckman, who is head of the Christian-based Bread for the World, and Jo Luck, CEO of Heifer International. Both organizations have worked with small farmers in alleviating hunger and building incomes. A full description of Beckman’s and Luck’s activities are at the WFP webpage. Their lectures at the Borlaug dialogue were superb.

The World Food Prize has become a going concern. It was started about the time I came to Iowa State as director of the Leopold Center and over time grew from a luncheon in the Marriott Hotel in Des Moines to its present configuration and as the place to be seen if you are in agriculture. Norman Borlaug, the 1970 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, originated the prize and soon it was embraced by Iowa industrial leaders. It has been a good business model.

But beneath the gloss lurks the soul of industrial agriculture. After the glitter has settled one wonders if this is a classic greenwash for the biotechnology and pesticide industries, their associated lobbyists, and the ever-omnipotent Farm Bureau. Indeed, no better setting could be found than mid-Iowa and Iowa State University, the heart of industrial agriculture.

A prime example is the side-event I attended was the Biodiversity World Tour, October 12, on the Iowa State University campus “to bring together farmers around the world to discuss what they are doing on a daily basis to preserve our planet and how they see these practices improving in the future.” It featured U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and a five-member panel including an vegetable farmer from India (who recently published in The Wall Street Journal on why India needs to participate in the “Gene Revolution”), a corn-soy farmer from Brazil, a corn-soybean farmer (and member of the National Corn Growers and the Iowa Corn Growers Board) from Iowa, a professor of entomology at the Seed Science Center  at ISU, and a staff person for the International Food Policy Research Institute. Read More >