In an increasingly interconnected world, export bans, trade-distorting tariffs and inconsistent import standards hinder the free flow of food, worsen local shortages and contribute to price increases. There are more than 1,300 tariff-rate quotas in agriculture and food products filed with the World Trade Organization, including more than 100 in the European Union on important foodstuffs such as animal protein, rice and dairy products. All of them harm consumers.
The second lesson is that markets are better than mandates at allocating food supplies. Commodity prices elevated by low supplies told farmers everywhere — not just in the U.S. — to plant more crops. But in times of tight supply, a mandated diversion of a crucial crop, such as corn, into biofuel production creates unintended consequences for food and feed affordability in poorer countries. I believe biofuels have a role to play, but we need policies to be more responsive to supply and demand.
A third lesson is that we must embrace technologies that help farmers to grow more from less. Food production must increase at least 70 percent, by some estimates, in the next four decades to meet population growth. Optimally we should achieve that increase without bringing sensitive lands into production, by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and by using less water and fewer chemicals. This is possible only if we gain society’s permission to use sound, proven science — including genetically engineered crops — to produce food.
But the most important lesson from the drought of 2012 is this: Our world can’t take food production for granted. Producing food will always be subject to all the uncertainties and unpredictability of the weather. We won’t have a food-secure world if we compound the inherent risks with poor policy.
By 2050 we’ll need to feed two billion more people. How can we do that without overwhelming the planet?
When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.
Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.
The environmental challenges posed by agriculture are huge, and they’ll only become more pressing as we try to meet the growing need for food worldwide. We’ll likely have two billion more mouths to feed by mid-century—more than nine billion people. But sheer population growth isn’t the only reason we’ll need more food. The spread of prosperity across the world, especially in China and India, is driving an increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, boosting pressure to grow more corn and soybeans to feed more cattle, pigs, and chickens. If these trends continue, the double whammy of population growth and richer diets will require us to roughly double the amount of crops we grow by 2050.