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Global Food

Renowned economist's outlook darkens on global food prospects Add to ...

Put your money on food, not fighting.

Investments in ways to boost agriculture productivity in the poorest areas of the world will go further towards long-term global security than the millions of dollars a year spent on intensive military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, says Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned Columbia University economist and special adviser to United Nations' Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In light of recent food price spikes - some of which exceed the peaks reached during the now notorious food crisis of 2008 - and the continuing political instability in the Middle East, Dr. Sachs's outlook was markedly darker than usual during a video talk he delivered Friday to a gathering on food scarcity and global security held at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Despite his trademark frankness in articulating global challenges, Dr. Sachs has traditionally been an optimist.

"Something very dramatic is happening," he warned a rapt audience. "We've entered a new global scenario with respect to food, hunger and conflict … an era where things are likely to get tougher, not easier, in terms of production," he said. "We're hitting boundaries that are very important to understand and very important to counteract."

Chief among those is the fact that global demand for food - and the agricultural commodities used to produce it - is outpacing the growth of supplies. The onset of climate change, which affects everything from the water supply to crop yields, is a ballooning wedge that will continue to force those trend lines in opposite directions, Dr. Sachs said.

He pointed out that although it has been 213 years since the British economist Thomas Malthus published his eponymous essay on the principle of population, which pessimistically asserts the human population will one day outstrip humanity's ability to feed itself, the prediction continues to loom.

"In a way we think we've beaten the Malthusian challenge for the last two centuries, but Malthus still has a spectre hanging over us," Dr. Sachs said. "What we've not proved is that we can feed the entire planet on a sustainable basis for the long term."

In the past, Dr. Sachs has worked hard to counteract this. From 2002 to 2006, he was director of the UN Millennium Project, an ambitious global effort to reduce poverty, disease and hunger by the year 2015 agreed on by 189 of the UN's member nations. Leaders gathered in New York last fall to discuss remedies to their lagging progress toward the goals.

Dr. Sachs continues to advocate for achievement of the goals and took aim Friday at both the U.S. and Canadian governments for having a "deplorable … short-term focus" when it comes to supporting critical research. Experts around the world continue to be flummoxed by the challenges presented by a rising population (projected to hit 9.1 billion people by 2050) with improved economic circumstances who will demand more meat protein in their diets. Meat is one of the most environmentally taxing foods to produce (one kilogram of beef, for example, requires 10 kilograms of grain). Add to that rising temperatures, glacial retreat, overuse of water and the onset of drought in some of the poorest and hungriest nations, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

"That all means that we're in for a major ecological challenge in the coming decade simply to keep up with where we are right now, much less be able to respond effectively to increasing population and economic growth," Dr. Sachs said.

A sufficient international response "has proven to be beyond us so far."

Dr. Sachs is particularly incensed by the failure of G8 countries to come through on a $22-billion pledge made in 2008 to establish a World Bank fund to help smallholder farmers. Improving the livelihoods and farming practices of smallholders across a host of poor countries is seen by many economists as a critical approach to tackling hunger.

"The way India and China were able to dramatically increase their food supplies in the '70s and '80s was through smallholder agriculture, which then fed into markets and overall supply of the countries," said Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of the Agricultural Development Policy and Statistics for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Sachs said G8 countries are guilty of merely feigning support.

"The G8 lied. It made the promise but didn't follow through," Dr. Sachs said. "Your Mr. [Stephen]Harper is so big on accountability, but there is no accountability whatsoever and there is no money in the bank."

Although Canada is a small country. Dr. Sachs said Canada bears a share of the responsibility for the fact that wars are getting more investment than agriculture, the boosting of which is a well-known ground stone of development. The jobs and education that come with development are what lead to political security.

"Both our countries have conservative governments right now. … the result is a planet that is out of kilter and likely to get worse until we get our politics and our heads straightened around these issues," he said. "We used to depend on Canada as being the conscience of North America but we don't depend on it any more."

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