A Perspective on Food Systems from a World Renowned Researcher and Food Tank Member – Food Tank

Most members of the Food Tank community will not know who I am or why I am writing an op-ed for the Food Tank blog. I grew up on a farm in Miami County, Ohio (just north of Dayton), worked in a small family-run tomato canning factory for many years, and then left to become an economist. I obtained a PhD from Harvard, specializing in economic history. Through good luck and perhaps a sensitivity to food issues, I ended up as a development economist specializing in agricultural, food and nutrition issues, mostly in Southeast and East Asia. Apart from the academic part of my career spent at Stanford, Cornell, Harvard, and the University of California, San Diego, I was deeply engaged with national policy makers in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam.

I have two main specialties: the first is stabilizing rice prices, both in individual countries and in global markets. My second area of ​​expertise grew out of my earlier experience in Asia with the role of rice in domestic economies at different stages of development: the structural transformation. During this process, agriculture as a sector plays a progressively smaller role in the macro economy, at the same time that it becomes more productive at the farm level. The need to stabilize rice prices changes radically during the structural transformation, at least in welfare terms. Politics is a different story.

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

What we really mean is profit-minded corporate logic set free 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 supporters, but it also resonates to someone who has tried over the past several decades to make various food systems perform better for the poor. However, it misses the essential trade-offs in those efforts, trade-offs that reflect the overwhelming complexity of food systems globally and locally.

The food systems of the world are being asked to carry a very heavy load these days. First, it used to be fine if they were productive and supplied adequate food supplies to their households, community or country. Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for helping to achieve this goal for a generation, but he warned in his Laureate acceptance speech that the Green Revolution offered only a temporary respite, perhaps 30 years, from the return of Malthusian solutions. This warning was ignored.

Second, ensuring that food systems provide nutritionally balanced and healthy diets was a leading goal of Food Policy Analysis. But the complex interplay among 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 powerful cultural dietary habits (perhaps deeply wired in our brains ) have prevented much progress on the nutrition front. If anything, we have lost ground in the past decades in terms of global nutritional well-being, with obesity replacing hunger as the main policy concern (this is before the COVID-19 pandemic put hundreds of millions more at risk of hunger).

A third objective for food systems is that they be sustainable ecologically. This goal became an imperative several decades ago, with at least lip service paid, but again, we are losing ground, not gaining. Climate change, to which food systems are a major contributor, is making the sustainability problem much harder to solve.

Finally, an entirely new set of objectives for food systems has emerged from the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the United Nations in 2015, and these objectives have also been reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Food systems now must address issues of inclusion and equity—putting people at the center. Equity was an objective for food policy analysts in the 1983 volume, but strictly from an economic perspective.

It is reasonable to ask if this highly ambitious agenda is actually feasible. The historical trends are not encouraging. Not a single country, rich or poor, has resolved all these issues historically, with little promise of doing so sustainably in the future. Still, two recent initiatives promise to bring more clarity to these issues, at least in terms of understanding their complexities and trade-offs.

The Food System Dashboard, an on-line, interactive data base, has been built and maintained by a consortium of universities, think tanks, and government organizations, led by the Global Alliance to Improve Nutrition (GAIN) in Geneva and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. A substantial team of researchers is led by Professor Jessica Fanzo at Johns Hopkins.

The Dashboard can be used to describe and analyze complex issues facing national and global food systems, and is an important new tool for policy makers who are grappling with how to meet their daunting, and often conflicting, objectives: raising agricultural productivity to feed another 2 billion people in the next 30 years or so; accomplishing this task in an environmentally sustainable manner without exacerbating climate change; and at the same time, making the entire food system address income and social inequalities, and bring marginalized food producers and consumers into the mainstream.

Glenn Denning’s forthcoming book, Universal Food Security—Ending Hunger without Wrecking the Planet, provides a complementary perspective, or counterpoint, to the approach of the Food System Dashboard (Denning, forthcoming). Denning has been a Professor of Practice at the School for International and Policy Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University for more than a decade, and before that was a skilled and widely sought-after practitioner of agricultural development. I met Glenn at IRRI in the early 1980s and have learned a lot from him over the years. His academic training in agronomy provided insights not available to someone with an economics background, and his experience in the field and deep engagement with international food agencies is quite different from my own.

Denning’s approach stresses field experience, learning by doing on the job, and participating in, even leading, the process of change. This approach is very different from the data-driven approach of the Dashboard consortium, where policy makers should rely on the best available data and high-quality analysis to drive change. The two approaches are, however, complementary knowing what to do, and then knowing how to get it done. Capturing the possible synergies will require a new generation of students, analysts, and activists.

Both Denning and the principals behind the Dashboard express optimism that the basic problems of hunger and malnutrition can be solved in a sustainable fashion. That optimism is based on obvious “possibilities,” the technical realities staring us in the face. These problems can be solved. I came to a similar conclusion myself in Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger Is So Hard. But experience over the past decade or so is more sobering.

Why have we not made more progress, despite the obvious potential? Here the Dashboard analysts, and Denning, are basically silent, although there are hints that politics might be a problem. Both approaches emphasize the considerable heterogeneity across the country-food-system types in each of the dimensions requiring attention, and consider this heterogeneity as evidence for hope, because not all countries are failing at all of the tasks. But that is a false hope without understanding why no country has ever succeeded in solving all of these multi-dimensional problems in a sustainable, long-term fashion.

The answer is obvious: a failure of political systems to come to grips with the problems. But this answer just pushes the issue deeper. Why do political systems, all of them so far, fail so badly at solving these complicated, long-term problems? My hypothesis is that the human brain, and human society, is not “wired” to solve these kinds of problems. Making sure that food is on the table every day (even if that requires depleting the soil or cutting down forests), that local opportunities to make a living are accessible to all (even if it means digging coal, extracting petroleum, or raising livestock in industrial factories), and that the fruits of social and political cooperation augmented to our community or tribe (and not to others), seem to dominate day-to-day political decision making. In such a political environment, the short run always wins out over the long run, and it is impossible to mobilize society to solve life-threatening, but distant and somewhat fuzzy, problems.

Is there, then, no hope? Elon Musk thinks humanity’s only hope is a colony on Mars. In the past, we have muddled through. Churchill once observed that Americans could be relied upon to do the right thing, after they had tried everything else. Denning argues that the future will rest on a new generation of well-informed practitioner-leaders who face today’s realities and are concerned about tomorrow. As the problems worsen, perhaps a sense of urgency will return, with a majority of the electorate persuaded to get on board the political process to support such practitioner-leaders. The necessary actions might then be taken. I am not convinced this is an even odds bet, but it is probably the best bet that we have.

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Photo courtesy of Julian Hanslmaier, Unsplash

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