by Greg Page
Executive Director, Cargill
All of us at Cargill are looking forward to the insights the Food Chain Reaction exercise will provide into how governments, institutions and private sector interests can best collaborate to address future stresses on the global food system. As a company that has been at work in this complex, interconnected system for 150 years, we have seen that certain cornerstone principles are instrumental to food security and further improving access to safe, nutritious and affordable food for all the world’s people. These cornerstone principles include: appreciating the importance of price, honoring comparative advantage, harnessing the power of emulation and embracing sound science.
With respect to food, price increases are nearly always cast as villains – as harbingers of inflation or signs of unfair manipulation. That is a mischaracterization. In our global food system, we need to appreciate the power of prices to signal farmers what and how much to produce. In 2012, in the face of a severe drought in the U.S. Midwest, rising prices for corn and soybeans motivated farmers from South America to Central Europe to increase production. Their response to price signals mitigated the impact on global food production of the Midwest drought. Global cereal grain production fell less than 3 percent from the prior year’s record harvest.
Demographics dictate that our global food system must also increasingly honor the principle of comparative advantage. Global population is generally growing faster in parts of the world less well endowed with climates and soils conducive to agricultural production. To feed a world on its way to 9 billion more urban and more prosperous people, and to do so in the most economically sound and environmentally sustainable way, we need agriculture and trade policies that encourage farmers to cultivate the crops best suited for their growing conditions and to trade the surpluses. China has shown us the way here, making a smart-for-the-globe decision to exploit its comparative advantage in growing starches such as wheat, rice and corn and meeting its needs for soy through imports from Latin America and the U.S.
The power of emulation also will help keep us on a path to a more food-secure world. Many of the productivity gains we have seen in agriculture over the past 50 years resulted from “fast followers” emulating practices first tried and proven by innovators and early adopters. Economic incentives, some born out of environmental and resource constraints, will spark experimentation with new practices to conserve water, preserve soil, reduce chemical use, improve yields and more. Food security will benefit from the rapid propagation of proven practices.
The power of emulation is highly dependent on a fourth cornerstone principle for creating a more food-secure world: embracing sound science and winning social permission to employ it in in our food. We can feed the world without using genetically modified seeds — but if we care about conserving water, preserving soil and reducing agriculture’s hydrocarbon footprint, we should weigh the consequences of foregoing proven means to protect and improve yields. Science and technology also are critical to improving food safety, reducing waste, fortifying foods and increasing global agricultural resilience, but these gains cannot be realized in the absence of consumer acceptance and trust. Among consumers and those who influence them, we need to improve understanding and appreciation for the role of sound science, environmentally and nutritionally, in the food on our plates and in our global food system.
A food system built on these cornerstone principles has moved the world further from famine than it has ever been, but new challenges are emerging as diets and demographics change, and we confront a changing climate and its impact on food production. To ensure adequate, safe and affordable nutrition for all, we best be mindful of these principles and their implications for trust, transparency and collaboration among all stakeholders in our global food system.