How will we eat in the future? By 2100, the world's population is projected to reach ten billion. The highest levels of consumption will be in Europe and North America, most people will live in Asia and the highest population growth rates in Africa--where the population could triple over the next 9 o years. If tomorrow augurs ill, today is already pretty dire. The global recession has lowered incomes, raised food prices and pushed the number of hungry people to one billion.
We're poorly set to cater tor tomorrow. The policies designed to keep prices low have been responsible for greater instability. Countries were meant to be able to ride out bad weather and poor harvests through trade liberalisation. Grain stores were sold off because, in the event of emergency, the market would provide. But it didn't. Trade and financial networks have in stead become excellent conduits for international shocks. Last year, fires in Russian wheat fields led to riots in Mozambican cities. Commodity speculation has made prices more volatile, and climate change has driven up prices too. Poor weather helped drive bread prices higher this year, fanning the flames of the Arab spring and deepening the woes of China's thousands of protesting migrant workers.
If these are the dividends of the 21st-century food market, then it is unsurprising that the old-fashioned idea that a country might produce a little more of its own food is enjoying rising popularity. There is, however, a war over how to do that. The Oxford economist Paul Collier recently berated the "romantics" who were nostalgic for peasant agriculture. He called for big agriculture, genetically modified crops and for the EU and US to stop domestic subsidies. He is right on the last point: biofuel subsidies drive up food prices, siphoning grain from the poorest into the petrol tanks of the richest. On other points, Collier's facts seem shakier. In its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank found that, on the contrary, investment in smallholder agriculture was among the most efficient and effective ways of bringing people out of poverty and hunger. The question is what sort of investment to bring to small farmers.
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Consider Malawi--a battlefield for the future of farming. A landlocked country a little smaller but with a third more people living in it than Greece, it features consistently among the world's poorest places. The latest figures show nine out of ten people living on the equivalent of less than $2 a day. More than 70 per cent of Malawians live in the rural areas, where nearly every farmer grows maize but not enough people can afford to eat it--about 40 per cent of Malawi is poor and "food-insecure".
Like elsewhere in Africa, the soil in Malawi isn't as rich as the rest of the world's. Farming everywhere depletes the soil of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and poor farmers in Africa in general use very little fertiliser. These missing molecules have led the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supported by various political leaders, to call for a green revolution in Africa directed at small farmers.
This is something of a reversal of Collier's conventional wisdom, which insists that the best way for Malawi to become food -secure is to have large estates exporting things in which the country has a comparative advantage--mainly tobacco--and buy grain on the international market. Today, large-estate tobacco farming is in decline, which means there is less foreign exchange with which to import food.
Being landlocked, Malawi also faces higher prices for grain. According to one estimate, the marginal cost of importing a tonne of food-aid maize is [pounds sterling]250, [pounds sterling]125 a tonne to import it commercially and only [pounds sterling]30 to source it domestically using fertilisers. At a time when food and fertiliser prices are …