Future of Food

National Geographic has launched a series of stories and videos on the future of food.  One of the big questions they intend to answer is: how will we feed 9 billion people by 2050 without harming the planet? 

A video on the site hints at their five answers:

  • use resources more efficiently
  • grow more on existing farmland
  • stop expanding farms
  • change our diets
  • reduce waste

It's not a bad list.  The first three will require science and new agricultural research and development if they are to be achieved.  The need for technological progress often gets short shrift in discussions about food sustainability, but here it is (implicitly) a prominent solution.  Even the last "food waste" issue has an important technological dimension.  In many developing countries, food waste is a result of poor storage facilities and transportation infrastructure; it isn't all just a result of rich people throwing away too much food (although that is part of it too).  It seems to me that Land Grant Universities are well poised to address precisely these issues, although I suspect we won't get much mention in National Geographic's stories.   

It is also important to discuss the role of economics - particularly the role of prices - in achieving these outcomes.  We may well need to "change our diets."  But, the question is whether this outcome will result from paternalistic policies and dictates or whether changes in relative prices will cause us to change our diets.  If eating a particular food is, truly, "unsustainable", then the price for it must rise as the resources needed to produce the food become more scarce.  

Here is what I had to say on this issue in the Food Police when discussing organics.

Economics teaches that price differences are important, though sometimes imperfect, signals about resource use.  The price we pay for food in the grocery store must reflect all the costs that went into producing it: from land rent to the value of the farmer’s labor to the prices of seed and fertilizer.  Higher prices for organic means that somewhere along the line, organics used more land, more labor, more seed, more fertilizer, or more of any of the other inputs required to produce food.  The prices of all these inputs were each determined by their scarcity relative to people’s desires to use them for other purposes unrelated to food production.  So, when we see that organic is higher priced, it signals us that organics are using many more of the resources that society finds valuable than non-organics.  Using up more resources is exactly the opposite of sustainable.      

Normally the price mechanism is used to ration scarce resources and signal us as to how to allocate resources over time.  Rising prices for increasingly scarce resources like oil and fertilizer cause us to naturally back away from consuming them – thereby resulting in a “sustainable” future.  The fact that we are now using a lot of oil and fertilizer in agriculture means they are currently in ample supply relative to demand.  The sustainability movement represents an elitist attempt to ration scarce resources using social pressure, guilt, and regulation.

As I've previously discussed, desiring sustainable outcomes is uncontroversial - it's how we go about it that matters.  We need to let price mechanism work in telling us when to cut back on particular foods.  That last sentence in the above quote might seem a tad harsh, but shielding consumers from price changes, and distorting market forces, is truly unsustainable.