Fall 2012

Feeding the Masses

– C. Peter Timmer

What's the problem? The problem is economics. And politics. And markets.

We all want to end hunger. Gordon Conway’s book One Billion Hungry provides the road map. “Think global, eat local,” the mantra of the sustainable agriculture movement, will not cut it. We need serious new policies in well over a hundred countries to meet this goal. Conway, a professor of international development at Imperial College, London (and, before that, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and of the Royal Geographical Society), is perhaps the most knowledgeable and distinguished agroecologist of his generation, and in One Billion Hungry he does not mince words. The fact that for more than a century the international community has not acted decisively to end hunger is the most galling failure of the modern era. There is more than enough food in the world; what’s the problem?

The problem is economics. The problem is politics. The problem is markets. Food is produced to make a profit. Food is marketed and sold to make a profit. Households without the means to participate in that for-profit system go hungry. In India more than a quarter of the population, about 300 million people, require access to the public food distribution system. Even in the United States, 46 million people rely on food stamps. As Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen has reminded us, it is not the amount of food in these societies that determines whether people are hungry, but the nature of their “entitlement” to that food. Worldwide, a billion people fall into the trap between availability and access.

And trap it is. Mothers without enough nutritious food deliver weak and stunted babies, whose own malnutrition condemns them to an early death or, if they are lucky, a hungry survival that allows them to pass their poverty and low productivity on to another similarly deprived generation. People too weak and hungry to pull themselves up by their bootstraps need help.

Conway provides clear (if lengthy) guidelines for what to do and how to do it. Microfinance and insurance programs are necessary to help farmers afford new seeds, fertilizer, and equipment, and to protect against crop loss. Advanced research is needed to develop sustainable and high-yielding technologies that will work on small farms. Government policies and investments are needed to support agricultural research, effective extension to educate farmers, rural infrastructure, and profitable crop and livestock production. Only then can the resulting food system meet the four challenges Conway identifies: “higher productivity, improved stability, more resilience, and greater equitability.”

He speaks convincingly and authoritatively when addressing the promise of agricultural science. One item on his list of 24 “things that need to be done” is that we “accept that biotechnology is an essential tool in attaining food security” — which is sure to displease those who oppose genetically modified foods — and biotechnology is only one of the high-end technological tools that offer promise. I agree.

Despite Conway’s optimism, however, his book did not leave me particularly upbeat. Conway often makes his points with examples that leave the reader wondering whether they are in any way representative. The fact that one woman in Mali has increased her farming area from half a hectare to one hectare because of the World Food Program’s Purchase for Progress does not convince me that this program, which buys commodities from smallholder farmers in developing countries, is the best way to improve those farmers’ market access. And more focus is needed on the steps that are absolutely vital to progress. We can’t succeed if all 24 of the steps Conway presents in the final chapter are indeed essential.

At a more fundamental level, Conway’s discussion of the need to “create” markets so that farmers can connect to input suppliers in one direction and consumers in the other is incomplete, even misguided. The chapter he devotes to this subject starts with a quote from another farmer helped by Purchase for Progress, this time a Ghanaian who benefited when the bags of maize she was selling started to be weighed accurately. That’s a good thing in a local market, but there are bigger issues.

Markets function everywhere, for better or worse. New ones don’t need to be created; the existing ones need to work better. In a market economy (the only kind of economy with a successful record of raising labor productivity, and hence living standards, over many generations), markets must play three key roles. First, as Conway stresses, they move inputs to farmers and food to consumers. Even socialist, planned economies must use markets this way, whether or not there are empty shelves and long lines at the bakery.

But markets fill two deeper roles that imbue market economies with their distinguishing strengths, as well as frequently harsh outcomes. Markets help in the process of price discovery — determining what a commodity or service is “worth.” This, in turn, dictates such important values as the price of rice or the wages for unskilled labor. Price discovery is about who gets what. And, finally, markets serve as the arena for allocating society’s scarce resources to meet the virtually unlimited needs and desires of consumers. The efficiency with which markets perform this allocation process — when price formation functions reasonably well — is the reason market economies have outperformed other forms of economic organization over the long haul.

Efficiency in resource allocation is simply critical to raising economic output in a sustainable fashion, and thus to reducing poverty and hunger, but Conway sees little role for this process in his renewed proposal to end hunger through a “doubly green revolution” that produces higher agricultural yields and is environmentally sustainable. He is a planner at heart — smart and knowledgeable enough to know what needs to be done, and thus able to tell a competent government what to do. I am not so naive as to believe that simply “getting prices right” will solve the problem of hunger (although I wrote a book by that title long ago), but I also do not believe we can plan our way out of hunger by bending markets to our will.

The trick, which only a few countries — mostly in East and Southeast Asia — have managed smoothly, is for government policy and markets to work together to bring poor households into a growing economy that is based on a productive, stable, and sustainable food system. Only then can we abolish hunger for good.

C. Peter Timmer is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Development Studies, emeritus, at Harvard University, and the author or editor of several books about agriculture and food security, including Getting Prices Right: The Scope and Limits of Agricultural Price Policy (1986).

Reviewed: One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? by Gordon Conway, Comstock Publishing Associates, 456 pp. 

Photo courtesy of Oxfam East Africa