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Business as usual not an option for rescuing world food system, says Cornell's Pinstrup-Andersen

When the American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Boston Feb. 14-18, among the speakers was the 2001's World Food Prize laureate Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the J. Thomas Clark Professor of Entrepreneurship and the H.E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell. The following is a summary of his lecture on "Science and Policy Priorities for the Global Food System."

The global food system is in disarray.

Three years ago, a 30-year period of decreasing food prices was changed to rapidly increasing food prices. Grain prices increased by 75 percent between 2005 and 2007, and wheat prices doubled during 2007. Prices for meat and dairy products have also increased dramatically. Is this the beginning of a long-term trend of increasing food prices or just a short-term blip?

Biofuel production has tripled during the last three years. Indonesia and other developing countries are cutting down large extensions of native forests to plant oil palm for biofuel, while the price of cooking oil, an important budget item among the poor, has skyrocketed. The U.S. government has put in place large subsidies for biofuel production from corn. Negative ecological effects are virtually certain.

Moreover, severe fluctuations in weather patterns, including flooding, droughts and severe winds associated with climate change, are having devastating effects on poor people in many countries, and globalization continues to influence agricultural trade and the well-being of farmers and consumers.

The new U.S. Farm Bill continues heavy subsidies to American farmers at the expense of farmers in developing countries, many of them poor and malnourished, who are kept out of the American markets by high import tariffs. A rapid concentration in national and international food markets, including the strengthening of the market power of supermarkets in developing countries, is changing the relative bargaining power of farmers and consumers and reducing competition.

So is this the end of the global food system as we know it?

No, but there is an urgent need for new science and policy priorities to guide the system into the future. The focus of science for the global food system should be on creating more with less, assuring sustainability in the management of natural resources and utilizing all appropriate scientific methods.

There is a need to integrate research for the food system and for the health of humans and the planet. Large increases in the public funding of such research is needed to generate the public goods that will facilitate further investment by the private sector. Research is needed to enhance the efficiency in sustainable water and land use, to mitigate the effects of climate change and adapt to the effects that cannot be avoided, and to enhance the understanding of the interactions between the food system and human health, including zoonotic diseases, pesticides and HIV/AIDS.

The extensive rhetoric and the plethora of plans and strategies must be converted into policy action. Achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals should be given overriding priority. It is a disgrace for the world community that it cannot get its act together to reduce poverty, hunger and malnutrition by half over a 25-year period. Developing-country governments need to invest more in agricultural research, rural infrastructure, public health, education and other public goods, without which the private sector, including farmers, cannot function effectively.

Biosafety regimes need to be put in place to guide the development and application of appropriate technology. Environmental costs should be added to private costs of production and marketing. Safety nets and other risk- management tools are urgently needed in many developing countries.

The United States and other countries that have signed the principles set forth by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [cooperation on governmental levels to tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalized economy] should move toward the elimination of trade-distorting agricultural policies and design energy policies that make more economic and ecological sense than the recently designed highly subsidized biofuel programs based on food and feed commodities as feedstock. The high and increasing concentration of the agribusiness sector calls for international regulations and promotion of competition.

The future of the global food system and the well-being of people will depend on foresight in setting science and policy priorities. Every minute around the clock, 10 preschool children die of hunger and nutrition-related illnesses.

Business as usual is not a viable option.

Each 30 minutes 360 preschool children will die of hunger and malnutrition. Twelve a minute, around the clock; more than 6 million a year. But that is only the tip of the proverbial and ugly iceberg. One in four preschoolers in developing countries suffers from hunger and nutritional deficiencies. These children do not grow to their full potential, they have little resistance to disease, they learn less in school and they earn less as adults. Because of low birth weight, they are handicapped from the moment they enter the world.

More than 800 million people -- two and a half times the population of the U.S. -- live every day with hunger, or "food insecurity," as it is often called, as their constant companion. Many more have micronutrient deficiencies: They do not get essential vitamins or minerals in their diets. Insufficient iron, and the anemia that comes with it, is the most widespread of these maladies.

The problem does not stem, as some might think, from insufficient production. The world is awash in food, and more and more people are overeating. ... The main reason hunger and nutritional deficiencies persist is poverty.

"From 'Still Hungry,' by Per Pinstrup-Anderson and Fuzhi Cheng, September 2007 cover story of Scientific American. Copyright © 2007 by Scientific American Inc.

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