Beginning with the 1972 crop, increasing exports began to create the expectation of an era of export-led prosperity for U. S. farmers. They began to believe that they had a responsibility to increase production and exports so that the hungry of the world could be fed.
At the time of the World Food Conference in 1974, over 800 million people out of a world population of 4.2 billion were classified as chronically hungry. The participants of the World Food Conference pledged to eradicate hunger within a decade.
Over 20 years later, the 1996 World Food Summit pledged to reduce the number of hungry by half by 2015. At the time the number of hungry still exceeded 800 million out of a world population of 5.8 billion.
Today the world population is 6.8 billion and the number classified as chronically hungry has risen to over 1.1 billion, and 2015 is just five years away. The effort to reduce the number of hungry has gone backwards. Once again, there are efforts to significantly reduce this number.
To help us understand what is going on, we took some time to look at changes in both world population and the world production of major grains and oilseeds. Over the last 30 years (1980-2009), the world population has increased by 51.7 per cent from 4.45 billion in 1980 to 6.76 billion in 2009.
During this time period the production of eight major grains (barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, and wheat) has increased by 54.6 per cent, just slightly more than the population increase.
The production of seven oilseeds, on the other hand, has increased by 188.7 per cent over this period. Together the 15 crops have increased by 67.4 per cent over the 1980-2009 period.
During this period we have seen extended times when the price of these 15 crops was well below the cost of production. Despite the low prices, the level of hunger did not decrease because even with a low price 800 million people still can’t afford enough grain to reduce chronic hunger.
Enough calories, but
Do we produce enough of the basic grains and oilseeds to provide an adequate diet that also includes fruits, vegetables, and animal products? The data from the last 30 years suggests that while we need to continue to increase agricultural productivity, we have been producing enough calories to meet the needs of the world, albeit there may be a need to adjust the production mix.
But are the hungry able to afford this food or have the wherewithal to produce it themselves? The answer to this question is much more problematic as evidenced by constant presence of 800 million to 1.1 billion chronically hungry people in the world.
In looking at some of the activity that surrounds the cause of “feeding the world’s 9.2-9.5 billion people in 2050,” we have
A significant part of reducing hunger in the world depends upon taking small-holder agriculture seriously.
some concerns because the activity only focuses on productivity. We have no doubt that the world’s farmers will be able to increase the crop production at a rate faster than the increase in population over the next 40 years. The question is whether those who need it can afford it.
Looking at a number of historical and contemporary models, we have come to believe that a significant part of reducing hunger in the world depends upon taking small-holder agriculture seriously, providing small producers with the level of public research and extension that will enable them to feed themselves and their family.
The exporting of crops will always have its place in balancing the variability of local production, but exports alone have not brought prosperity to farmers in the developed world or freedom from hunger among the world’s poor.
Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center www.agpolicy.org.His column is written with the research and assistance of Harwood D. Schaffer.