Global food security: past, present and future

Some personal background may come in handy when I write this blog on Food Tank, regardless of my membership. I grew up on a farm in Miami County, Ohio (just north of Dayton), worked in a small family-run tomato cannery for over a decade, then left to become an economist. I got my PhD from Harvard University, majoring in economic history, but my thesis is on a more classified topic (Estimating the Probabilistic Frontier Production Function of American Agriculture). Through good fortune and perhaps sensitivity to food issues, I ended up as a development economist specializing in agriculture, food, and nutrition issues, mostly in Southeast and East Asia. Aside from the academic portion of my career spent at Stanford, Cornell, and three colleges at Harvard, UCSD, and San Diego, I have been deeply involved with national policymakers in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam.

I have two main specialties: (1) Avoiding food crises by rice price stabilityin both individual countries and global markets, and (2) management structural transformation, reflecting my early experience in Asia with the changing role of rice in local economies at various stages of development. During the historical process of structural transformation, agriculture as an economic sector plays a progressively smaller role in the overall economy, at the same time becoming more productive at the farm level. Both topics introduce controversial political issues for the economics profession.

To do this work, it is necessary to understand the “diets” in which each society operates. On February 20, 2022, New York times book review Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Food and Why We Need to Save Them Written by Dan Saladino, Pete Wells, New York times A restaurant critic, he gave a very unflattering definition of “food system”.

“What we really mean is the company’s profit-focused logic launched on a global scale at an incalculable cost to health, economic stability, cultural cohesion, and fun.”

No doubt this definition resonates with many of the readers of this blog, but it also resonates with someone who over the past several decades has tried to make different food systems work better for the poor. However, the definition overlooks the fundamental trade-offs in those efforts, trade-offs that reflect the enormous complexity of food systems at both global and local levels. In the midst of a global food crisis, it is impossible to know how to successfully intervene to stop it without a clear understanding of these complexities and trade-offs.

Even with this background, it seems reckless to write about the prospects for global food security in these very uncertain times. In more than half a century of closely watching the global food economy, the future has never been less clear. I watched the impact of successive monsoon failures in India in 1965 and 1966, when I was a graduate student at Harvard University. The Indonesian government helped weather the global food crisis from 1972 to 1974, when Thailand literally shut down the global rice market by banning rice exports. She helped prevent the 1996 rice crisis by demonstrating the need for Indonesia’s external rice supply after the Food and Logistics Agency (BULOG) failed to track rice stocks in a hurry to get rid of past rice surpluses. In 2008, my colleague Tom Slayton and I helped persuade the US government to persuade a reluctant Japanese government to sell unwanted “WTO rice stocks” of imported high-quality American and Thai long-grain rice to the Philippines, which was desperately seeking rice imports (“ie price.”) In the midst of what was clearly a speculative panic in national and global markets, the Japanese Prime Minister announced in June 2008 that his government would begin negotiations with the Philippines to export this rice causing the bubble to burst. Within a month, rice prices were back to normal levels as farmers, traders, shopkeepers and international rice brokers realized they were sitting on expensive rice hoards that had suddenly lost half their value. No ton of Japanese-owned rice was exported, and global rice prices have remained relatively stable ever since. The lesson was learned among the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – do not panic, and they gained rice reserves.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted global food supply chains along with most other economic activities. Food prices have risen steadily, but food shortages have been localized and tended to occur in areas facing civil strife. The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 quickly changed this local, but often manageable, food shortage to the prospect of global food shortages. Energy and fertilizer markets have also been embroiled in the war, and since February the global food community has been on edge trying to keep pace with rapidly changing conditions, in the war for land and in commodity markets around the world.

As written in early August 2022, what are the prospects for global food security? There are several reasons for hope.

Indonesia is the Chair of the G-20 Summit meeting in Bali, in November 2022. After initially saying that the impact of the war in Ukraine on food security was not part of the agreed agenda for the summit meeting, the Indonesian government quickly realized that global leadership was needed to prevent Countries and Markets from Panic (a lesson from 2008), and is now very actively leading efforts to make food security a central component of G20 discussions and commitments;

An agreement negotiated by Turkey and the United Nations between Ukraine and Russia to reopen the Black Sea ports for the export of wheat and other agricultural commodities offers great hope that some supplies will make their way to world markets by the end of the year. Russian missile attacks on Odessa port facilities after agreeing to open trade have increased the risks of conducting these exports, and there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the ultimate scope of agricultural exports from the Black Sea ports;

—Prospects for crop production are now better than they might have seemed even two months ago, as weather cooperated in important wheat producing areas and farmers responded to higher prices. Canadian and US wheat crops seem likely to recover from last year’s serious droughts. China’s wheat harvest isn’t as bad as feared in the spring, and it appears that a record heat wave in India earlier this year didn’t hurt the wheat crop as much as originally expected. Globally, the USDA Commodity Report for July 2022 (WASDE) forecast wheat exports for 2022/23 to be 205.5 million metric tons, a significant increase from 2020/21 and 2021/22.

why worry? Prices for wheat, vegetable oil, fertilizer and energy remain sharply higher than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. These high prices place a huge burden on poor countries and poor families who have to buy their food from global and local markets. In a sense, the world is lucky to have dodged an important food supply Shortage, but now the problem is greatly Financial issues. The global actors needed to solve these financial problems differ from those needed to solve physical food shortages, but active global cooperation will still be needed to prevent the spread of hunger and famine.

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Image copyright Raul Gonzalez, Unsplash

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