Earlier this week I had the pleasure of giving the George Morris AgriFood Policy lecture at the University of Guelph. I primarily focused my talk on the benefits of food and agricultural technologies and the importance of productivity growth for solving our future world food problems.
At the conclusion of my talk, an audience member played devils advocate asked an important question that deserves more widespread discussion. In short, the question was something along the lines of the following: don't we produce enough food already? It is a question reflected in many popular writings. This headline, for example, is "We Don't Need to Double World Food Production by 2050." Here's Mark Bittman writing in the New York Times: "The world has long produced enough calories . . .". Here's Bittman again under a headline in the same outlet "Don't Ask How to Feed the 9 Billion" because, in his words, "The solution to malnourishment isn’t to produce more food."
Here are my main main thoughts on this line of thinking:
1) Even if we produce enough calories today to meet today's population, that doesn't mean we produce enough for tomorrow's population. Productivity growth is gradual and incremental, and if we found ourselves in a situation of needing more food, the new technologies to produce them cannot be created over night. This is particularly true of our ability to produce in the future is hampered by climate change.
2) There is no binary category of "enough food." Greater food production leads to lower food prices and lower food insecurity. I haven't yet met a food consumer who wouldn't prefer paying lower food prices, holding quality constant.
3) I may be true in an accounting sense that we produce enough calories today to meet total caloric needs. But accounting isn't economics, and we need to consider the incentives of the system that produces the sufficient calories today relative to an alternative system that is either less productive or involves widespread redistribution. Massive redistribution of food can destroy the incentives of people to produce the food. One cannot disentangle the fantastic productivity of our current system with the market forces that led to it's origin. Stated differently, there is no reason to imagine we'd produce the same number of calories if "the system" were changed to one with massive confiscation/redistribution. Brady Deaton altered me to this fascinating paper in the Journal of Political Economy showing that 75% of the increase in China's agricultural productivity after 1978 was due to strengthening of individual incentives.
4) It's important to look at productivity through the lens of sustainability. Higher productivity means getting more (or the same) amount of food output using fewer inputs and resources. Are people really wanting to argue that they'd prefer systems that require more of our natural resources - more land, more water, more fossil fuels? Since when is lower productivity and inefficiency preferred? Even if "enough" food is produced today, improved productivity means we can keep producing the same quantity but shrink agricultural's footprint on the land, use less water, fewer pesticides, etc.
5) If the solution to the food problem is simply shipping food from high productivity countries and sending (or stated more pejoratively "dumping") in lower productivity countries with hungrier citizens, this may harm the livelihoods of producers in low productivity countries and reduce their incentives to adopt efficient forms of agriculture.
6) If places like the US decided to forego new food and agricultural technologies and farmers were forced or incentivized to adopt lower productivity systems, what would happen to patterns of global trade and production. US farmers compete with farmers all over the world to serve US consumers and consumers worldwide. Not only would such policies likely reduce US exports, it would make imports relatively more attractive. Is the solution then import tariffs to prop up our lower productivity system?
7) One can go back to writings from over 100 years ago and find claims that the problem of production and scarcity had essentially been solved, and all that was needed was a heavier handed state to ensure "fair" distribution (e.g., see Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, published in 1888). Imagine the world we would live in today if that premise were widely accepted back in 1888 - that the state of production was "good enough" and we could stop worrying about growth and progress. How much growth would we have lost out on had we stopping innovation in 1888? We'd still be hand-picking cotton, planting with mules, eating much more salt- and vinegar-cured meats, and more. What will the food and agriculture future look like in 2088, and what will we give up if we stop working on productivity-enhancing technologies today?