Book Review: Feeding the world

Book Review

Feeding the world

Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime: Food Security and Globalization, by C. Ford Runge, Benjamin Senauer, Philip G. Pardey, and Mark W. Rosegrant. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press (for the International Food Policy Research Institute), 2003, 309 pp.

Vaclav Smil

No other fundamental human deprivation affects as many people as does hunger, the chronic shortage of food that makes it impossible to live healthy and vigorous lives. Millions of people live at constant risk in regions of acute armed conflict, tens of millions are afflicted by AIDS, more than 100 million suffer from various chronic parasitic diseases, and malaria strikes about 500 million people a year. But at the beginning of the 21st century, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), hunger was a daily experience for some 840 million people, and more than twice as many suffered from some form of malnutrition. Moreover, chronic hunger means much more than craving for food. It stands for compromised health, lack of physical vigor, limited intellectual achievement, and curtailed life expectancy. The coexistence of this debilitating condition with an obscene food surplus is one of the starkest illustrations of the divide between developed and developing countries. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen points out, the existence of massive hunger is even more of a tragedy because it has been largely accepted as being essentially unpreventable.

This book is a worthwhile attempt at saying otherwise, as it details the global extent of this demeaning phenomenon and surveys and evaluates possible solutions. The authors are all economists [the first three are based at the University of Minnesota, whereas Mark Rosegrant works at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C.] with long records of research, publishing, and policy-related activities in food and agriculture. Unlike many of their more theoretically oriented and narrow-minded colleagues, they are well aware of linkages between economic activities and the environment, health, research, and good governance, and are thus less inclined to offer any purist prescriptions.

Their starting point is the acceptance of globalization as a reality with both positive and destructive consequences. This leads to an automatic rejection of any radical antiglobalization sentiments as well as to the acknowledgment of the inadequacy of private markets in solving problems that involve public goods. The book’s text is evenly divided between two parts: the Challenge, which looks at the extent of hunger and at the linkages with science and institutional change, and Solutions, which deals in detail with the relevant policies and institutions and with the costs of the whole undertaking.

To me the book’s most valuable contribution is its stress on the importance of agricultural research. At a time when research payoffs in many intensively financed but mature fields–from the development of new drugs to improvements in energy efficiency–are often discouragingly low, agriculture remains one of the few areas with an enviable record of translating knowledge into tangible benefits. Although the returns vary depending on the type of crops, the merged result of hundreds of economic studies is that since 1958, agriculture has achieved an average real return of 77 percent, a figure that no other industry has come close to matching over such a long period.

Returns are high, but so are the lead times. This reality is made clear by the book’s most fascinating illustration, which shows the partial pedigree of the wheat variety Pioneer 2375 that was released by Pioneer-Hybrid International in 1989. The branching graph shows more than 50 ancestor cultivars from a dozen countries, with more than a third of the entire pedigree coming from varieties that were introduced before 1940. Accumulation of innovations is thus of immense importance in agricultural research, as is the necessity to realize that research benefits, impressive as they may be, may only begin to flow 10 to 15 years after launching a particular quest. And the book cites one other startling statistic: In the United States, 35 to 70 percent of the research effort may be needed just to maintain the previous research gains.

In view of these realities, two facts are particularly troubling. The authors discuss the first one; I will emphasize the other. The first is the slowdown in the growth of spending on this indispensable research in some parts of the world where it is needed the most. This investment is perhaps best measured in terms of spending per unit of agricultural gross domestic product. Since the mid-1970s, this indicator rose significantly in affluent countries and increased appreciably in Latin America and parts of Asia. But it remained constant in China (the world’s most populous nation, where a rapid dietary transition is leading to much higher demand for animal foodstuffs), and it actually fell in sub-Saharan Africa, the only part of the world that has not seen any real gains in food supply in recent decades (while being ravaged by AIDS). This is obviously worrisome because the future of agricultural productivity, much like its post-World War II past, lies in higher yields; and although the recent rate of yield growth has declined for some crops in some regions, there is no doubt that absolute ceilings are still far off and could conceivably be boosted higher through genetic manipulation.

The second reality is that neo-Luddites (mostly, but not exclusively, Europeans) are now fighting an ideologically motivated battle against genetically modified (GM) crops. In contrast to such counterproductive attitudes, the authors begin their brief discussion of GM crops by noting their popularity with farmers and then calmly weighing the known benefits and possible risks. They conclude by citing former IFPRI director Per Pinstrup-Andersen’s reminder that, although none of us has the ethical right to force the adoption of GM crops on anybody, neither do we have the right to block access to these cultivars, whose benefits should not accrue, as has been the case thus far, only to farmers in rich countries.

Because the development of GM crops is still in a relatively early stage and it will take time to better understand the linkages and complexities involved in their diffusion and use, I cannot blame the authors for not devoting more space to this critical topic. But I would like to stress what too few people seem to be willing to say openly: As the potential risks of GM crops have received widespread scientific and public attention, it has become politically incorrect to extol their enormous long-term rewards. I have no doubt that in long run their promise to revolutionize farming is incomparably greater than the transformation wrought by the Green Revolution.

However, the success of GM crops is by no means the sine qua non for ending hunger. Indeed, institutional changes that could be made today could bring about the conditions necessary for better access to food, the key cause of today’s hunger. Here the authors do an even more thorough job than they did in assessing the merits of agricultural research. They devote two lengthy sections to the institutional and policy changes that will be needed to end hunger.

In these chapters, readers familiar with the issue will be reminded of the strengths and weaknesses of international institutions in the quest to end hunger, the proper role of nongovernmental organizations, the misplaced national desires for self-sufficiency in food supply, and the centrality of female education and adequate water provision. Water shortages (and water pollution) are justifiably given special emphasis because they will affect the future of global food production more acutely than the lack or the degradation of farmland, although the latter is worrisome in many regions.

Those who have never thought about what it would take to end global hunger will benefit from these relatively brief but systematic and fairly comprehensive overviews. They will realize that achieving that goal is an undertaking that is vastly more complex than simply increasing the food supply, and that disparate factors such as the preservation of biodiversity must be addressed before there can be any lasting solution to the challenge. This is where the book really succeeds as it explains how achieving that seemingly simple goal will require a complex combination of diverse responses, adjustments, and transformations. And it shows what can be realistically done, which is not cutting the number of hungry people in half by 2015, as advocated by the FAO, but ending chronic mass hunger by 2050.

Finally, fewer and fewer recent reviews seem to pay any attention to a book’s appearance, but I have always considered this to be an important consideration in a handheld object that is supposed to be more than just printed paper. This book does well on all counts: an uncluttered design, clear graphs (only two global maps are too small and indistinct to be of real use), tables held to an appropriate amount, and black and white images, used as frontispieces in all sections, by Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado that include a number of captivating portraits and contrasts.


Vaclav Smil () is Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, and author of The Earth’s Biosphere (MIT Press, 2002), Energy at the Crossroads (MIT Press, 2003), and China’s Past, China’s Future (Routledge, 2004).