Currently, between 870 million and 1.3 billion people around the world do not get enough to eat. A nearly equal amount – 1.4 billion – are overweight, and suffer from myriad health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease as a result. Furthermore, the global population expected to grow to 9 billion by the year 2050, with growth concentrated in urban areas and emerging economies. In the face of rapid population growth, and changing the food system to fight hunger and obesity at the same time is of the utmost importance. In anticipation of World Population Day on July 11th, Food Tank will feature research and innovations that are working to support the health and nutrition of a growing global population.
This week’s Food Hero, Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, applies scientific inquiry to help innovate solutions to major social problems. Bar-Yam, founder of the New England Complex Systems Institute, specializes in the study of complex systems, and has applied quantitative models to make sense of real-life situations such as food crises, economic crashes, and health epidemics. He has advised public, private, and non-governmental entities alike on how to address these large-scale problems using complex systems science. Bar-Yam’s work on food security includes a crucial study published in 2011 that examined the effect of food price speculation on markets. The study ultimately showed that the practice of financial speculation drives up food prices, to the detriment of low-income consumers.
In light of World Population Day approaching on July 11th, Bar-Yam spoke with Food Tank about the problems of food price inflation, urbanization, and feeding a growing global population.
As President of the New England Complex Systems Institute, you research solutions to problems through complex systems science techniques. Can you elaborate on how you go about developing these models to solve physical, biological, and social crises?
Traditional scientific methods rely on statistics: averages, correlations and trends. We build models that describe the dependencies that exist in a system in a much more general way. These dependencies give rise to “indirect effects,” cascades and panics. This makes it possible to capture the behavior of a system, especially under atypical conditions, where traditional statistics often fail.
What are the economic, social, and environmental conditions that contribute to rising food prices? Can you discuss some of the consequences of food price inflation?
There are many factors that can play a role in increasing food prices. However, there has been a surprisingly sharp increase since 2005, with peaks in 2007-08 and 2010-11. This increase has exacerbated hunger and poverty at a time when development should have significantly alleviated it. A measure used by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to determine global price impacts has more than doubled. This increase is not explained by many of the longer-term trends like rising population, environmental change, and dietary shifts toward meat and dairy; nor by weather events, like droughts, or increasing energy costs. Instead, the main cause of the increase since 2005 is the conversion of corn to ethanol in the U.S. — 45 percent of U.S. corn as of 2011. The peaks in prices are specifically due to speculative bubbles that were made possible by market deregulation and the advent of commodity index funds that allow investors to buy a basket of oil, food, and metals without regard to the fundamentals of those commodities.
The peaks in food prices coincided with many food riots in 2007-08 and the Arab spring in 2010-11. We found that there is a specific threshold of about 210 on the FAO index above which unrest becomes likely. Today, the price is just above that threshold, so there is pressure that can be triggered at any time by local conditions. Social unrest from high food prices is due to the desperation of poor populations with reduced ability to feed their families. A lot of suffering worldwide underlies this unrest.
=What are some efficient ways in which a country can tackle and prevent future food price inflation?
The best strategy would be to reduce the U.S. mandate on corn to ethanol conversion, for which bills are currently pending in Congress, and to re-regulate the commodity markets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is currently trying to implement new regulation but is encountering strong industry opposition. The ability of individual countries to address food inflation is limited by the strong coupling of food prices through international markets. Providing food price supports is very expensive, and increasing agricultural production takes more time than the current rapid changes allow.
China has recently proposed a new urbanization plan to mobilize millions of rural inhabitants into cities and towns in the next few decades. How do you predict other countries will react to increasing populations, and what are some of the benefits of urbanization?
Urbanization is a natural outcome of the standard development trajectory. China has been accelerating that trajectory, and the main problems that arise include the ability to have the many aspects of socio-economic support structures functioning at the same time. Just as one example, air pollution is one of the severe problems that has arisen in Beijing. It is hard to plan everything to make a big city work well, so having less time to make things work properly means that people will bear the burden of these problems.
Can you elaborate on the relationship between urbanization and access to food sources? How can cities sustainably grow to ensure adequate nutrition for all people?
In principle, there is nothing wrong with the dichotomy of urban populations and rural food supply as a mechanism for sustainability. Such a system is vulnerable to disruption, but we cannot avoid such vulnerabilities as differentiation of society occurs (any more than we can avoid the dependency on a particular company for products that we use). We have a very effective global food supply system that was able to keep up with population growth, reducing prices and hunger over decades, from the 1970s until 2005. Development and changing diets do not mean that hunger will arise. Instead, countries that develop can and do invest in agriculture to ensure their food supply. This is a natural process that has occurred in developed countries, so that the developed countries are the food producers for the world today, despite a very small agricultural workforce. This pattern can continue with more recently developing countries.
Since higher energy consumption threatens international food production, how should governments diversify their energy profiles in order to not threaten current production levels? Furthermore, how can we use that knowledge to increase food production and accessibility in countries with growing populations?
Higher energy consumption is not itself a cause of food production problems. Food production can increase in developing countries but it is a slow and gradual process. Currently, agricultural commodity prices are high enough that the process of agricultural development is encouraged economically, but the process takes time and the use of corn for ethanol is diverting increasing production to biofuels right now, even in developing countries.