Food (Policy) For Thought

A grad student's musings on sustainable food systems, agriculture and more!

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National Geographic Tackles Food!

Well, this is exciting – National Geographic just announced that their entire next issue will surround the way we will be able to feed a world of 9 billion. I really like the amount of research and the exquisite photography that go into their work, so I’m pumped for when it’s out!

As a sneak peek, check out the Feeding 9 Billion online article, written by Jonathan Foley (who gave the TED-talk on “The Other Inconvenient Truth” on my About page!) and illustrated with photography by Jim Richardson, one of my favorite NG photographers, among others. The conclusion of the article is nothing we haven’t heard before – let’s use technology to increase sustainability, develop both biotech and organic methods, reduce food waste and change our diets – but it’s really aesthetically pleasing (particularly how the photography is incorporated) and I think it would be a good introduction for anybody who asks “so what’s the deal with our food system?”, so consider passing it on!

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 08.01.21


The website dedicated to all things National Geographic and Food,, is already amazingly stocked with articles, videos, and reporting that NG has done previously on food and agriculture, which is definitely a handy way of putting more information at our fingertips.

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National Geographic have also just launched a new blog, The Plate, along with the hashtag (of course) #futureoffood. Apparently, the blog will host a 9 months discussion on the most important global food issues of our time.

Personally, I can’t wait to read the May issue and am really happy that National Geographic has chosen this topic as one of its priorities throughout 2014. I just hope that they will add to the discussion rather than rehash things that have already been said – but considering their high standard of reporting, I’m not too worried. Welcome to the foodie scene, NG!

Do you like reading National Geographic? Or scrolling through their photography portfolios?

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Video Times!

Hey peeps, how is your Tuesday? Are you looking for a reason to procrastinate and not feel bad about it? Well, you are in luck, because I have a list of informative and entertaining videos for your viewing pleasure today! Guaranteed to give you some food for thought…

on the origins of agriculture (via CrashCourse World History, an amazing youtube channel):

on the health effects and benefits of consuming dairy products (via the Healthcare Triage channel):

on a fascinating experiment about the effects of food labels, investigated by NPR:

and on upholding tradition within the development towards feedlots within the Argentine cattle industry, told by the Perennial Plate:

Which video surprised or interested you the most?



Source: Who Will Feed the World? Oxfam Research Report, April 2011, by Wegner & Zwart, p. 19


Fun Facts About Farm Size

In my agricultural history class, we talked about the vast differences in farming between regions, which is also reflected in the average farm size in different areas. This motivated me to go into more detail about where farm holdings are the smallest or largest, and to do some research on reasons behind it. This is what I learned:

  • According to the FAO’s World Census of Agriculture, and this working paper, there are about 570 million farms in the world, and around 513 million of them can be considered family farms. Family farms thus constitute around 90% of the world’s farms and own around 70% of the world’s land. The data also shows that there are about 410 million farms less than 1 hectare in size and more than 475 million small farms that are less than 2 hectares in size. These 84% of the world’s farms (that are smaller than 2 ha) only control 12% of the farm land. Conversely, 16% of the world’s farms operate 88% of the world’s farm land.
Source: Lowder, S.K., Skoet, J. and Singh, S. 2014. What do we really know about the number and distribution of farms and family farms worldwide? Background paper for The State of Food and Agriculture 2014. ESA Working Paper No. 14-02. Rome, FAO, p. 12

Source: Lowder, S.K., Skoet, J. and Singh, S. 2014. What do we really know about the number and
distribution of farms and family farms worldwide? Background paper for The State of Food and
Agriculture 2014. ESA Working Paper No. 14-02. Rome, FAO, p. 12

  • It’s instructive to take a look at mean farm sizes across continents (source: this great Oxfam paper – reading recommended! – which cites as its source the World Bank):
Region Mean size (ha) % < 2 ha
East Asia 1 79%
South Asia 1.4 78%
South-east Asia 1.8 57%
Sub-Saharan Africa 2.4 69%
West Asia & North Africa 4.9 65%
Central America 10.7 63%
Europe 32.3 30%
South America 111.7 36%
USA 178.4 4%
Australia >3000 ?%


To put that into context, I actually googled “how large is a hectare”, and stumbled upon this helpful website. Basically, a hectare is about as large as a football field or the inside of an athletic track:

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So many farmers are deriving their livelihoods from just about the size of a sports field! We see that there is a massive range of farm sizes, which are linked to a massive range of production systems. This is, according to the World Bank and Oxfam, because agricultural production has relatively few inherent technical (dis)economies of scale which would make large-scale farming obviously better than small-scale or vice versa. Instead, there are tradeoffs that have to be made.

  • Indeed, Oxfam has drafted a nice comparison of advantages and disadvantages between smallholder and large-scale farming:
Source: Who Will Feed the World? Oxfam Research Report, April 2011, by Wegner & Zwart, p. 19

Source: Who Will Feed the World? Oxfam Research Report, April 2011, by Wegner & Zwart, p. 19


  •  There are many empirical studies that have shown an inverse relationship between plot size and land productivity. This is due to a number of factors, but the main story is that there are more incentives for family farmers to work their own land hard and be effective. When you increase farm size, you have to hire outside labor and supervise them so they don’t just hang out under your fruit tree in the shade (hyperbolising here). But you’ll never get everybody to work as hard as you would be working yourself. Furthermore, small-scale farmers aren’t driven by work-by-the-hour, rather their whole livelihood depends on making due – which again makes them work harder. It should be said that this is not necessarily a good thing; the expansion of production on the back of small-scale farmers has also historically been labelled self-exploitation. Also, in some contexts there are economies of scale – e.g. in plantation-style work or among highly perishable crops that have to be shipped or processed quickly.
  • Would small-scale farmers actually benefit if they gave up their plot and went to work on a large-scale farm for wages instead? The evidence says no: This table, also from the Oxfam report, shows that remaining on their small plot and growing the equivalent amount of output grants them up to 10 times the amount of income that wage labor would have given them.


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Source: Who Will Feed the World? Oxfam Research Report, April 2011, by Wegner & Zwart, p. 21

  • Furthermore, small-scale farming, because it is so labor-intensive, also provides employment opportunities for rural youth and is a major contributor to the food provision in undeveloped areas. It also contributes more to the local economy. There are dozens of challenges though, ranging from lack of access to assets and capital, problems in adjusting to market developments, lack of market information and access, variability in product quantity and quality, limited use of modern risk-management tools, unfair competition in regional and global markets, and possible negative consequences for the environment, according to Oxfam.
  • Naively, it seems as if the push towards modernization would mean that average farm size would increase with more and more large-scale farms, but the trend is actually reverse: globally, and particularly in most low- and lower-middle-income countries, average farm size has decreased over the last 10 years. However, a larger share of upper-middle-income countries and the majority of high-income countries have indeed found increases in average farm size:
Source: Lowder, S.K., Skoet, J. and Singh, S. 2014. What do we really know about the number and  distribution of farms and family farms worldwide? Background paper for The State of Food and  Agriculture 2014. ESA Working Paper No. 14-02. Rome, FAO, p. 10

Source: Lowder, S.K., Skoet, J. and Singh, S. 2014. What do we really know about the number and
distribution of farms and family farms worldwide? Background paper for The State of Food and
Agriculture 2014. ESA Working Paper No. 14-02. Rome, FAO, p. 10

  • The Oxfam and this IFAD article point out that a lot of large-scale interventions to ‘push’ large, industrialized ag onto developing countries and kickstart the transition process have failed, leading to costly lost opportunities for more efficient growth and employment strategies. The IFAD article posits the following, which I think is a great way to end this list:

Small farms typically face a tilted playing field compared to large farms in terms of accessing land, inputs, credit, technology, and markets. These problems have become more pronounced with the removal or scaling back of the many state agencies that served agriculture prior to the market liberalization programmes of recent decades. Left to themselves, liberalized markets and private agents tend to serve larger farms that are favourably located near roads, while smaller farms are neglected because they are more costly or difficult to serve. The problems are especially challenging for women farmers. If more small farmers are to have a viable future, then there is need for a concerted effort by governments, NGOs and the private sector to create a more equitable and enabling economic environment for their development.

For further reading, check out “Five Big Questions about Five Hundred Million Small Farms” and “Who Will Feed the World? The Production Challenge“, which go into wayyyy more depth on challenges and opportunities for smallholder farmers than can be addressed in one blog post.

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“Nobody Wants to Rule a Hungry People” – Or Do They?

During my agricultural history class, we talked about the reason why agriculture is often seen as a “special” economic sector worthy of disproportionate governmental support (just ask the EU), and agreed that it was because it’s a matter of survival that your agricultural sector works properly – any society is literally dependent on the fact that enough food is produced for everybody to not starve, and even more so, any ruler is dependent on the fact that his people don’t go hungry enough to stage an uprising; as has happened repeatedly during history. Yet, the blanket statement “Nobody wants to rule a hungry people” irked me, since there have been several instances in history where famines were purposefully initiated to subdue a particular part of a society, or at least where nothing was done to ease the suffering though it would have been politically feasible. And with that, I present to you… The top five politically-induced famines over the ages.

5. Zimbabwe, 2002. I have to admit that I only just learned about this one, but in the early 21st century, Zimbabwe faced a famine after draconian laws were imposed by then- and current president Robert Mugabe. In 2002, the summer saw a drought, which combined with a land reform policy that de facto evicted most of the country’s commercial farmers and prohibited them to plant a winter wheat crop. In the resulting food shortage, the ruling party refused food to anybody they suspected of supporting opposition party. Aid organizations found themselves caught in the middle between wanting to help a starving population – estimates of up to 6.7 million Zimbabweans facing starvation were circulating – and playing in the hands of a political farce. As a Danish minister said, “We would like to strongly react against the fact that the Zimbabwe government is using our aid and our food to put political and economic pressure on its own people. They use our aid as a tool in the domestic fight against the opposition to survive, and that is not acceptable.

4. Bengal Famine, India, 1942 – 1943. This incident was reportedly what caused Amartya Sen to study economics and the cause of famines (greatly explored in his essay Poverty and Famine – An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation), who had witnessed it first hand. His later studies concluded that it was an unnecessary loss of 3 million people’s lives, since there was enough food in the region – but the poor could not afford it after price spikes triggered byBritish military acquisition, panic buying, hoarding, and price gouging, all connected to the war in the region“. Food production during these years in the Bengal region was even higher than in previous years, making it clear that hunger and starvation is not only about food availability, but about access to food – still an important distinction when we talk about the right to food and world hunger in general. What caused me also to include this as a politically influenced famine is that the British colonial rulers destroyed boats (purportedly to prepare for the case of a Japanese invasion, but the boats were desperately needed to transport food) and continued to export grains in order to feed their troops during World War II, in stark negligence of the impacts on the local people – which showed to be a reoccurrence of starvation in India under the British mandate which had also happened in the 1870s and 1890s, as well as an uncanny repetition of our next case. Plus, a recent book places a lot of blame on Winston Churchill himself, accusing him of callousness and holding him directly responsible for letting Indians starve. Add to that blatant racism – apparently, the War Cabinet was of the opinion that “Bengalis would sooner starve than eat wheat“.

Children feeding one another during the Bengal Famine. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Children feeding one another during the Bengal Famine. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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What Did Malthus Really Say?

For my new class, I was assigned the reading “The Limits to Growth: Malthus and the Classical Economists” by E. A. Wrigley. It’s a great primer into the worries classical economists had about the state of the economy, growth and population dynamics, and was interesting enough that I decided to look further into the issue. As I sometimes do, I chose to have a little discussion with myself to straighten out some of my previous misconceptions. Enjoy!

Q: So, Malthus was basically this doomsday figure that said our civilization would keep on collapsing because we would have unsustainable population growth, right?

A: Yes and  no. In fact, it’s not quite that simple, but the basic worry of Malthus was indeed that there was an “ineluctable tension between man’s formidable powers of reproduction and his much more modest powers of production” (Wrigley, p. 32). His basic argument was this:

  1. Food is necessary to the existence of man.
  2. The passion between the sexes can be regarded as a constant.
  3. Land (the main production factor for food) is finite on Earth.

 So, if you therefore realize that a constant growth rate of the population means geometric (exponential) growth, but that you could at best grow food production arithmetically (linearly)  (because, when your land is fixed and all you can add is more labor, you won’t be able to more than double the production if you double the people working on your land), Malthus argues that history would go something like this:

  • Because of progress, we are good at producing food and other things, making everybody better off in the short run.
  • Our population grows at a constant rate.
  • Soon, though, the absolute population growth overtakes the food production growth, and we can’t feed all the new people.
  • There are two possible resolutions: a) the positive check: mortality rates go up and people die off quicker until our population falls back to the optimal level; or b) the preventive check, where marital rates go down and thus fertility also decreases.
  • This continues until we arrive at a population size where everybody has a socially acceptable standard of living, at which point mortality falls again and marriage rates increase.
  • Repeat from the top.

Q: Wow, that’s pretty sad. 

A: It comes even worse. Remember that whole “we can grow food production linearly?” Once Malthus thought more about it, he realized that after a while, not even that might be true anymore. Rather, with increasingly intensive use of the same amount of land, you will get less and less increases in output/yields – which is called “the law of declining marginal returns”. This is also the law that most of the work done in agricultural economics is based on. You can now basically prove that increasing fertilizer use, for example, first leads to increasing returns (the more you use, the greater impacts you have), then quickly changes to decreasing returns, and after a certain level even turns into negative returns (putting even more fertilizer on your fields negatively affects your yields). So Malthus was actually pretty ahead of his time.

Q: But there were classical economists that disagreed with him, though, right? Like Adam Smith or David Ricardo? They thought that you could have real economic growth?

A: Actually – and this surprised me – the Wrigley article says that they were basically on the same page on most of these issues. They all agreed that you couldn’t have increasing real wages (basically, because all your additional profit in the short run would be spent on the additional workers that were born because of the better living conditions. David Ricardo actually formalized the law of declining returns and agreed with the pessimistic conclusions.

In fact, the article says that Malthus was less pessimistic than Smith in terms of his views on fertility and mortality. While Smith basically assumed that the fertility of poor people was so high that only their high childhood mortality rates kept population in check, Malthus had pretty complex views of the west European marriage system and its link to population growth. In societies with economic triggers for the decision to have kids (i.e. the couple finds it has sufficient income to support a family), according to his thesis, you would be able to have a greater standard of living than in those where having children is more linked to a biological trigger (if it is considered shameful for a sexually mature girl to remain unmarried and childless). Either way, though, these preventive or positive checks would, according to the economists, make population growth beyond a certain size impossible.

They even wrote each other letters! Image via Flickr CC.

They even wrote each other letters! Image via Flickr CC.

Q: Huh. Well, society clearly hasn’t collapsed, now, has it? So you are saying that basically all classical economists got their basic view of the macroeconomy wrong?

A: Well, wait a second. These insights stem from the particular time they were conceived in – the late 18th (for Smith) and early 19th century (for Malthus and Ricardo). This was a pre-industrial society in which economic production was closely linked to the land. You could say they were living in an organically based economy. Land wasn’t just necessary for food production, but was also the principal source of industrial raw materials (wool, cotton, flax, silk, leather, hair, grain, straw, fur, wood) and of mechanical energy and heat (again through food, feed – needed for human and animal muscle energy – and wood). Thus, all of society exerted a double pressure onto the land – through their food demand as well as the even greater demand for non-food products) which made such conclusions very likely.

Q: So what happened? What was the game changer?

A: One major discovery: Coal. And thereafter other mineral raw materials and fossil fuels which decoupled our production facilities from the limited factor of land. Now, the law of marginal return could be overturned, at least temporarily, for food production, since we had the energy available to switch to a massively mechanized mode of production, including the manufacturing and/or mining (which also required energy) of mineral-based fertilizer. Similarly, our other economic production was decoupled from the land, at least temporarily.

Furthermore, the development of contraception and more advanced family-planned methods actually contradicted the assumption that an increase in wealth would lead to more fertility. Rather, it is the other way round, as Hans Rosling shows so well with his data:

[skip to 6.30 for the correlation between development, improved child survival, and fertility]

Q: Can we still take away anything valuable from these thinkers?

A: Well, yes, of course! For one, some people argue that these basic limits (of a finite planet) still exist, except that we managed to ignore them for one or two centuries longer because we relied on a capital stock of mineral endowments (fossil fuels) that will come to an end sooner rather than later. In today’s carbon-based economy, that would create massive shocks, but the only alternative is to go back to a (of course technologically more sophisticated) organically based economy where the main energy is based on solar and other renewable energy sources that are then transformed one way or another with the help of land and other tools. Thus, maybe we have soon reached a period where “Limits to Growth” (in terms of per capita GDP or wealth) will once more become a reality.

What had you heard about Malthus’ ideas before? 

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Soda Sequestration – What If?

I apologize for the scarcity of posts lately, life/work/business in general has picked up considerably – which is great because there is nothing that makes me more satisfied than spending fulfilling days :) I promise I have a couple of posts in the works, particularly some regarding my agricultural history class, but they require pretty in-depth research and I’d rather do them properly than half-heartedly – they are coming!

Until then, check out this awesome XKCD What-If post, in which the author of the XKCD webcomics tackles ridiculous hypothetical physics questions. The question this time:

How much CO2 is contained in the world’s stock of bottled fizzy drinks? How much soda would be needed to bring atmospheric CO2 back to preindustrial levels?

The answer: A LOT of soda. Enough to cover the entire Earth’s surface in 10 layers of cans.


Image by Randall Monroe, via


Maybe not the most practical solution to prevent global warming.

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April Reads and Thoughts

Wowowow I saw and bookmarked so many articles recently that I wanted to write about in more detail – but first, many of these articles already perfectly describe the issue, and I trust in your ability to read them too, if you want, and second I fear they will be out of date by the time I get round to looking closer into all of them, so let’s just get started with a little mid-week round up!


In other news: Spring has sprung in Uppsala!

1. The IPCC finally released their next report on climate change, and Oxfam masterfully summarized the conclusions regarding agriculture. Pretty scary stuff. IFAD and some other organizations are hosting a webinar on what actions should be taken next – tomorrow, at 10 BST (11 CEST). Tune in – I know I will!

2. Experts from a coalition of NGOs warn that the World Bank’s new pilot project, “Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture”, could backfire and lead to more food insecurity as it ranks countries according to their ease of doing business and of accommodating foreign investors – which could lead to land-grabbing and disregard for the rights of smallholder farmers.

“It is time that the World Bank ceases to ignore that smallholders are the only future of an agriculture that can guarantee food security, ensure a sustainable use of natural resources and bring human development,” their statement concludes. “We know far too well how damaging large-scale industrial farming is to the environment and the people. This model shall not be expanded to the developing world.”

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