Beyond this crowded room at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, more than 97,000 viewers tuned in to Chris Barrett’s lecture via Facebook Live and other social media on April 4.

Barrett: Food security is ‘challenge of the century’

Cornell professor Chris Barrett, speaking in Rome before researchers and policymakers from around the world, did not spare words: “Food security may be the defining global challenge of the century.”

Barrett gave the 15th annual George McGovern Lecture at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, April 4 at its headquarters in Rome.

“The prospect of failing to meet the food security challenge is nothing short of an existential crisis for states around the world and for stable societies,” he said. “But even more than that, it is an existential crisis for the planet – because we’re hitting boundaries, as land, water and marine resources are growing more limited.”

He offered ideas to attain a sustainable, food secure future for the globe:

  • Accelerate agricultural adaptation to climate change, water scarcity and soil health in food production;
  • Boost food safety nets for the world’s poorest people;
  • Enhance mineral and vitamin availability in staple foods and especially by promoting greater access to vegetables, fruits and animal-source foods; and
  • Reduce the number of areas of conflict around the world.

“The centerpiece of this talk is about the human condition. It’s about human flourishing,” said Barrett, an agricultural and development economist, and the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

“[Food security] is not about agricultural science, per se, although agricultural sciences are crucial … but humans must flourish through an active and healthy life,” he said.

Barrett, a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the co-lead of the center’s Food Security Working Group, noted that food system success from the 1940s to the 1980s led to a dramatic reduction in poverty and improved living standards. But the improvements induced complacency, which led to underinvesting in food system innovations, with the result that inflation-adjusted food prices have risen roughly 40 percent since 1999.

Barrett mentioned global food instability and countries in conflict go hand-in-hand, as the world’s socio-political hot spots give rise to food insecurity.

“Conflict is down worldwide over the long sweep of history,” he said, noting that 80 percent of the world’s children whose growth has been stunted live in areas suffering violence. “We are increasingly concentrating the children with nutritional challenges in conflict-affected countries. We have to get to work in the hardest places to work.”

Stability of the global social order, sustainability, and food security will depend on rapid, inclusive progress, Barrett said, adding this will require policymakers to be progressive, have faith in science and show solidarity with the poor.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli