Saturday, May 10, 2008

Improving Food Security

Incan terraces

There is an interesting letter by Paul Wojtkowski in Science (May 2, 2008). The author challenges the efficacy of the Green Revolution approach (better varieties, irrigation, access to chemical inputs, extension services and policies to increase productivity) as a silver bullet to improve food security. He writes:
Organized traditional societies avoid recurrent periods of starvation through multiple and overlapping mechanisms. For example, the Incas used crop varieties, communal irrigation, stone terraces, and plot scattering, along with community food storehouses, to lessen or mitigate famines.
I like the point made by others that rich people don't die from hunger, even during a famine. Similarly, there has to be enough food to satisfy food needs or the poor are going to suffer from food insecurity. So on a global level, agricultural productivity and economic security are fundamental for food security.

However, crop failure is a local phenomenon. Stress resistant varieties and irrigation can reduce the risks of crop failure, but it is also important for food security to assure that when local food production fails to meet local needs, food can be brought in to make up the shortfall. Thus, one wants an adequate transportation infrastructure, an adequate information infrastructure, crop and food need forecasting systems, and a bureaucratic structure that allows for early planning and management of the logistics of acquisition and distribution of food. All too often, famine is the result not of weather but of conflict, and there needs to be a means of getting food past the warring parties.

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