Food, Agriculture, and Development: Catherine Bertini and Christopher Delgado

Catherine Bertini, Professor of Public Administration and International Relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and former Chief Executive of the United Nations World Food Program, joined Christopher Delgado, Program Manager of the Global Agricultural and Food Security Program (GAFSP) and of the Global Food Crisis Response Program (GFRP) at the World Bank to consider agriculture, rural development, and sustainability as they relate to global food security.

Bertini and Delgado sat down with Calumet students Michale Lance, Emily Hren, and Claire Wild on May 15th.





Q: What do you see as the fundamental cause of food insecurity?

Christopher Delgado: Well, during the 60’s, it was not uncommon to read in the newspapers about killer famines.  Compared to what we thought of as a food crisis in 2007 and 2008, it was much worse in 1974, which was the last time we had a confluence of a spiking of fuel prices, grain prices, and an environmental crisis.  That was a time when a couple of million people died in Asia, and about a hundred million across the arid belt in Africa.  The size of the price spikes, and the associated price spikes that went along with them was much higher.  The poor tend to grow their own food, are barely above subsistence levels, and at times when food prices are high, they’re usually the ones that have to compress their consumption.

Basically, there are a lot of reasons why people go hungry.  But the difference now is that some of the simpler solutions are not so simple anymore.  Since 1980, the price of staples, rice, wheat and corn, has gone down in real terms by about half, until about 2005, when they suddenly when up again.  Now they’re volatile, but they were remarkably stable.  The reason for that is the big reserves that were built up, not for food security reasons at all, but for farm policy reasons both in the US and Europe.  It had the side effect that at least if countries had a drought, they could import food.  That’s no longer true.  It’s true sometimes, but it’s not certain.  There was a point in 2008 when Liberia, which is a very poor country, was not able to find grain to import anywhere.  One of reasons was that in 2008 shipping was very expensive.  To actually move grain to the port of Liberia in time wasn’t possible.

At different times and different places, there are different reasons for food insecurity, and those reasons are going to reoccur.  It’s often nothing to do with a shortfall on food; it’s usually a shortfall of livelihood.  During the potato famine in [Ireland] there was no shortage of wheat, but the livelihood, the entitlement to food of the Irish poor depended on potatoes and there was a potato blight, so they lost their livelihood.

So to give you a systemic answer: you’ve got supply shocks, which have always been there, such as drought…  Most famine nowadays comes from civil disruption or civil war, which really interrupts the supply chain.  You have much more uncertainty.  When we had this problem in 1974, people really responded: things we now take for granted like the UN system, which was there, but not nearly as food oriented as it is now.  The UN food based agencies started rising at that time: the FAO was there but didn’t amount to much.  They created the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Program; all these things really ramped up after the ‘74 famine.  I won’t go on but I could…

And food production: the Green Revolution, which came out of all this, probably saved 2 billion people from starving.  It’s the single most important fact to people living in rural areas of South Asia.  I bet no-one taught you that in high school because we’ve become complacent, and forgotten how bad it used to be.


Q: You were saying that around the time of the famine around the 70’s, the solutions were a lot simpler, but over time it’s become a more complex issue. What would you say the fundamental causes of food insecurity are?

Catherine Bertini: Right now the fundamental cause of food insecurity is poverty, but over time that’s going to change as population increases, and as people become wealthier and eat more.  There’s a mantra, that “there’s enough food in the world to feed every man, woman, and child, but it’s access that’s the issue.”  I think that’s still true now, but it’s fast moving towards a supply issue.  We have to increase our food supply by 70% by 2050, to feed the numbers of people and the improved diets.


Q: What kind of agricultural methods do you propose to increase our food supply and make sure everyone has enough food?

CB: Well, first there needs to be a focus on the poorest countries, whose GDP is primarily based on agriculture.  If you think about poor countries over history, agriculture has been the predominant income source of the poor.  So, the first thing we need to do is support the needs of these countries that rely on agricultural production and in particular to help small farmers improve production. That’s the broader policy piece that we need to work on.

It’s also in our interests as Americans to do so in order to create stability. For instance, a few years back there were food riots caused by volatility and lack of availability. A few countries pulled back and decided create their own supply of exports and that exacerbates the problem elsewhere.

CD:  We were talking about the 1970’s food shortages and how the world responded to that. The response was very much based around cereals yields. That was the green revolution. Yields were increasing 3% per year in developing countries and the problem kind of went away.  People became complacent again once yields rose and the share of national budgets and assistance fell by half. Cereal yields have fallen and are far too low now to keep up with a growing population. Worldwide the rate of consumption of grain, including for industrial purposes, has increased.  Production is uncertain. Since 1990, exports of cereals and grains have increasingly come from places like Latin America, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and these places are more subject to climatic variability, even without climate change, than the corn-belt is. So there are several things built into the system that make the supply shocks more variable and more difficult to make progress on. We’ve got a steady upward growth in the use of cereals so we’re actually headed for a train wreck but it’s so hard to get people enthusiastic about this.


Q: Do you think we need to reconsider how grain is used, particularly in terms of biofuels and food for livestock?

CD: Biofuel is a much bigger player than livestock but it hasn’t technically diverted any grain from food. What biofuels did was take off all the increments from U.S. corn production and put it into industrial use but also stimulated growth in those markets. In the past, stockpiles of U.S. grain had been feeding the world. When the world needed more grain, the U.S. just produced more and exported it but that stopped because of biofuels. It was sort of “cold-turkey” for the rest of the world, where they relied on the U.S. for grain since we built up large stocks in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If a country had trouble one year, or had ineffective agricultural policy, the U.S. could bail them out.

Biofuels may not be a good thing but it’s not the fundamental issue. The issue is that in developing countries, 85% of the food consumed is from the same country it is produced in. It’s local. And the bulkier and heavier the food is, like grain, the more that’s true. The entry point for the solution is increasing supply where the consumption is increasing.

Q: What would you say to people who advocate for food sovereignty and closing off markets so countries produce their own food?

CD: I’d say it’s putting blinders on the horse. It’s not a long-term good policy for that country. You have to reach higher income levels and production levels and you have to export. I would ask them to show us countries that have been successful in feeding their own population and pulling people out of poverty.


Q: I know you do a lot of work on empowering women… how do you do that? What type of education do they need (general education, agricultural specific?)

CB: Women are less likely to be literate than men. Girls still don’t have the same opportunities to go to school as boys, and if they do, there are a lot of cultural issues that keep them back, or sometimes security issues, or just needing to be part of the workforce at home. So, there’s a literacy issue. Literate farmers are more productive than illiterate farmers, no matter what their gender. If they can read and they can count, they’re going to be able to organize their farm better. So, we have women who are less literate, literate farmers are better off, and then we have women that depending on the region of the world, crop, or community, do a very large share of the actual work on the farm. So, girl’s education isn’t a roundabout way at all…educating girls is a critical long-term strategy. In the short term, [educating girls] can be done by literacy programs, but there are a lot of options and that is just one of them.

CD:  I just want to build on that – I used to work at the International Food Policy Research Institute and my colleagues, the nutritionists, there were very concerned with the 1,000 days initiative. It’s [a program] based on the fact that if children aren’t adequately nourished from the time of conception until about [age] two, the first thousand days, there is often permanent damage, either mental or stunting. That’s a hell of a …they think after the 2008 price spike there are more than 170 million children that actually were permanently affected in one way or another. That’s a pretty horrible kind of thing. Now, one thing that has been clear, is that when women are better educated, or have better control over income, childhood malnutrition tends to go down. There’s a correlation between the education of women in the kinds of societies we’re talking about, probably in this society too – wouldn’t surprise me – education and the inclusiveness of women and the nutritional outcomes of small children. Which, considering if kids do go through [permanent damage], you’re going to deal with that for generations to come.


Q: I was actually going to ask you about micro loans and how that may impact the issues at hand. I’ve seen some articles discussing how many of these loans are targeted towards women based on their levels of repayment.

CB: I highly recommend that you look into what [Muhammad Yunus] has said about this, but when he created the Grameen bank, in the late 70’s, he started lending very small loans to women who applied to him and he found, first of all that the payback rate was very different for women. Women had a payback rate in the high 90’s. The second thing he found, which was to him critically important, was that the investment that women made with the income from the loan was almost exclusively for the betterment of the family. And, the investments that men made, more often revolved around the man himself. So, he thought it was a better social good to lend to women as well as a better economic, or business, decision. That’s one reason that many of these programs are geared predominantly towards women; it doesn’t have to be, but a lot of it is for those two reasons.

CD: [The structure of these programs is one reason], incidentally, that you have to be careful on the livestock side. The overwhelming majority of Grameen loans actually go to livestock; you know, a few chickens, a goat, or whatever, because it’s one of the few things that you can do to make money in the societies that we’re talking about. If you have a fast growing economy, women or the village can make money selling prepared foods, handicrafts, and so forth, but if you have a fairly stagnant economy, that’s one of the few things you can do is to produce a tradable and livestock is one of the few tradables in poor, dry villages or where people are landless. And [these landless individuals] have to feed the animals grains, which doesn’t help in terms of a supply demand balance like we discussed earlier. [This balance is thus] driven by the individual decisions of billions of people. I think [this phenomenon] is going to slow down anyway because grain is so much more expensive than it was.

That’s the issue. There’s a lot of demand pushing, particularly urban demand that’s rich enough to deal with higher prices, but you’ve still got more than 2 billion people in Asia alone that are at less than $2 a day, in 2005 dollars, that are just at the point of crossing [the $2 barrier] which is where dietary diversification starts happening. So, it’s going to be very hard to control [the livestock issue] through policy measures. It’s not even fair that you’d want to. I mean, there are some Chinese cities are already consuming at European levels, several kilos per capita, but if you go in rural areas, particularly in Africa, there are very small quantities of meat in countries where it’s not really feasible, on a regular basis, to distribute vitamin pills and they [only] have green, leafy vegetables six weeks a year. There aren’t a lot of alternatives to get the micronutrients they need. It’s not a major food policy topic, but since you raised the livestock issue. If you’re talking about a pig factory in Zhengzhou, that’s one thing, but if you’re talking about the livestock generally it’s a more complex topic.


Q: There have been criticisms of U.S. farm subsidies, especially with global markets and things like soybeans, which may go to feed livestock, how would you respond? What about criticisms that these subsidies may be making it difficult for other countries to compete?

CB: [I see] those [as] two different things. The subsidies are criticized for one reason and trade barriers for another, but now is an opportunity for change in the U.S. on subsidies. I’m part of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that advocates for eliminating the subsidies and replacing them with an insurance program because the biggest problem that farmers have is risk – the weather, the prices, everything else – they built an insurance program that was based, and you can do a different formula, but 70% of the farmer’s income for the last five years or something like that rather than, “here’s money for your corn;” that might be a better system. Also, it could be extended to all farmers, not just the ones currently receiving subsidies. If you compare the U.S. nutrition policy versus the farm subsidy policy, they make no sense whatsoever. For instance, vegetables are part of the recommended diet, but the vegetable farmers are on their own – we don’t propose that they should be subsidized. On the other hand, other folks should not be subsidized that are not as useful [to our dietary recommendations]. So, thinking back on the biofuels question, corn for instance is subsidized and then, at least until recently, we were also subsidizing the price of ethanol and mandating its use. It’s all very complicated. Anyway, we should do away with [the subsides] and we should go back to the table to negotiate trade barriers, but that’s got to be a joint effort.

CD: You know before 1973, the U.S. was the king of soybeans. At some point, partly a mix of domestic [and international] politics because there are always the users as well as the producers, soybean prices went very high. The U.S. threatened, and didn’t actually impose as far as I can remember, a soybean ban to Brazil, which was a livestock producing country, didn’t have enough soybeans, and was a major customer of the United States. There were [actually] two customers the Japanese and the Brazilians. Both of them said, “uh-huh, unreliable supplier [i.e. the U.S.]” and the Japanese funded the development of the Cerrado…they had this big development of private sector soybean in the previously uncultivated, southwest area. Now Brazil is the soybean power of the world – it has dislodged the U.S.. That’s just a cautionary tale of what export restrictions can do to you.


Q: Just a quick follow up, is the main policy vehicle that you are considering the 2012 Farm Bill?

CB: Yes. The [U.S.] Senate has made some changes, but they haven’t gone as far as we would like…[and the Farm Bill] is not up [for approval] again for another five years. This is the time – right now we have high prices, so farmers don’t need the subsidies and we have a budget crisis so everybody is looking for places to cut; the traditional farm lobby has a harder time promoting this bill. Five years ago, a big coalition of NGO’s tried to go against the farm lobby and they didn’t get anywhere. [My organization was working with them] too. This is absolutely the time to [make the changes we desire].