Big farms or small, the struggle to feed 10 billion people

Can the world feed 10 billion people? As economists and demographers come to terms with a rapidly growing population, so must the agriculture industry -- and the policy that regulates it.

An article in Foreign Policy this week asks a daring but realistic question: can the world feed 10 billion people?

That's the number that demographers believe will be the world's population by the year 2100. Anyone who reads Time, Newsweek or even this site will know that while the world is pretty adept at producing enough food for everyone, it's not so good at distributing it -- leaving hundreds of thousands hungry around the globe.

A population boom -- particularly in developing nations, which have an outsized number of the world's poorest residents -- will most definitely exacerbate the problem, Raj Patel writes.

The problem: most of that rapid population growth will occur in cities. (So much so, in fact, that the trend will create new megacities before the end of the century, demographers predict.) And while wages tend to be higher in dense urban areas, all those people need someone to feed them.

But it's a stormy mix of policy and theory that clouds the debate.

Patel reports:

[Oxford economist Paul] Collier argued the virtues of big agriculture. He also called on the European Union to support genetically modified crops and for the United States to kill domestic subsidies for biofuel. He was one-third right: biofuel subsidies are absurd, not least because they drive up food prices, siphoning grains from the bowls of the poorest into the gas-tanks of the richest -- with limited environmental gains, at best.

Collier's contempt for peasants seems, however, to rest on something other than the facts. Although international agribusiness has generated great profits ever since the East India Company, it hasn't brought riches to farmers and farmworkers, who are invariably society's poorest people. Indeed, big agriculture earns its moniker -- it tends to work most lucratively with large-scale plantations and operations to which small farmers are little more than an impediment.

It turns out that if you're keen to make the world's poorest people better off, it's smarter to invest in their farms and workplaces than to send them packing to the cities.

Access to land, water, technology, education, capital and the greater domestic and international markets -- that's the answer, right? Yet a complex maze of private, rather than public, goods subsidies nearly derails what seems to be common sense for most economists.

Investment is surely good. But it's even better when it's directed in the right way.

Can the World Feed 10 Billion People? [Foreign Policy]

Photo: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture/Flickr

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