Proving Malthus wrong, one farm at a time

By Overseas Programming and Training Support
Nov. 4, 2015

Each and every day Peace Corps Volunteers around the world are working to end hunger in their communities. In 2014 alone, almost 2,000 Volunteers worked to improve their community’s food security by helping farmers adopt improved agriculture technologies, teaching mothers about improved complementary feeding practices, and linking farmers to markets where they can sell their produce.

In order to provide the best training and support for Peace Corps Volunteers, Peace Corps staff attend conferences and events to stay abreast of the latest research conducted in the field related to the work of Volunteers. Danielle Niedermaier, Feed the Future Evaluation Specialist at the Peace Corps, recently attended the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security at Cornell University and presented on Peace Corps Senegal’s Master Farmer Program. Following is a summary of some of the things she learned at the conference.

Will we continue to produce enough food to feed everyone as our population grows? In his 1798 work “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Thomas Malthus pointed out that because populations increase geometrically but agricultural productivity increases linearly, we were destined for a future of famine. He hadn’t anticipated the industrial revolution and later the green revolution, which allowed food production to keep pace. But as evidence presented during the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security suggests, populations continue to rise while agricultural productivity has struggled to keep pace in many regions.

Was Malthus right after all?

In many parts of the world, yields have flat-lined as we’ve exhausted the gains from mechanization and fertilizer use. Crop yields, especially staples such as maize and rice, have stagnated for the past 30 years in China. In Bangladesh, the combined effect of population growth and coastal erosion may reduce crop yields, particularly maize. The only bright spot is Sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are far below their potential. Improvements in data availability will allow for comprehensive analyses of soils and climate, and when combined with studies of yields attained by the best farmers, these data suggest yields could double or even triple when using modern technologies and fertilizer.

Across most regions of the world, there is a clear need to increase production—and to do so in such a way that negative environmental effects are at least mitigated and actually off-set at best. For example, maintaining the nitrogen balance is key: Too little, and crops fail for lack of nutrients. Too much, and runoff leads to algae bloom, depriving rivers and oceans of oxygen.

Offering a spot of hope in this gloomy prognosis, many presenters at the conference offered research that will help to advance a sustainable intensification agenda, characterized by growing more food—especially nutritious food—while simultaneously reducing adverse environmental effects.

For example, transporting nutrients (from excretions of humans and animals) from surplus areas to deficit areas could offset as much as 100 percent of the fertilizer needed in the nutrient-deficient areas. And, transporting the nitrogen and potassium from these excretions is actually cheaper than transporting mineral fertilizer. Similarly, intensifying cattle production in Brazil by restoring degraded pasture lands through improved grassland management and reducing feedlot finishing time provides an opportunity to both meet increased demand for beef around the world and reduce carbon emissions – a win-win for all (except maybe the cows …).

Finally, in our pursuit of expanding global agricultural productivity, we cannot forget to ensure that farms produce a diversity of crops and incorporate livestock and aquaculture when possible. Even poor and vulnerable farmers can use (and are using) agroecological approaches to improve both their food and nutritional security and soil health and biodiversity. There are various approaches to assist farmers in adopting or adapting improved technologies, such as Peace Corps/Senegal’s Master Farmer Program, in which local farmers (Master Farmers) develop demonstration and training farms for a variety of improved agriculture and agroforestry technologies. A process evaluation conducted in 2014 found that over 70 percent of farmers who had been trained by Master Farmers had applied at least one improved technology.

Suffice it to say, Malthus had a great and convincing theory, but we have not run out of ways to continue to prove him wrong. Replicating the successes of innovative farmers and, more importantly, investing in state-of-the-art research and development will ensure that our food supply continues to keep up with demand while protecting the environment—which is essential for the longer term sustainability of our production and consumption systems.

About the Authors

Erwin Knippenberg is a Ph.D. student at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Danielle Niedermaier is the Feed the Future Evaluation Specialist at the Peace Corps. Both were members of the Junior Researchers Task Force at the 2nd International Conference on Global Food Security following Theme 3: Sustainable intensification of food production systems.

A version of this post was originally posted on Economics That Really Matters.


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