Feeding the World

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From the Summer 2015 Issue "Climate's Cliff"

By David A. Andelman

There was a time, many years ago, when Cambodia was one of the primary rice bowls of Southeast Asia—able to feed its population and then some. By the time I arrived in Phnom Penh in February 1975 to cover the final weeks of a long and violent war that was about to get even worse, rice production had shrunk below subsistence levels. The entire economy, it seemed, was teetering on two legs of a stool—American economic aid, which continued to pour into the federal treasury, financing what was left of a shrinking and corrupt bureaucracy; and vast quantities of rice, airlifted in on a constant parade of cargo flights by several relief organizations, particularly Care, and two Christian missionary groups—Catholic Relief Services and World Vision. In 1972, when the war really cranked up, the rice harvest was barely 26 percent of the figure just three years earlier, and in the final weeks of the war, barely any land at all was under cultivation and accessible to whatever population was still controlled by the American-backed government. As I wrote in one of my first dispatches to The New York Times

The heavy steel grates of Phnom Penh’s shops have been locked and barred for the last week. The stalls in the central market are deserted at what should be the afternoon rush hour. There is fear in the Chinese community, and the economic heartbeat of this isolated city of two million people has come to a virtual halt…..

This fear of looting, vandalism, even violence against the ethnic Chinese by roving bands of Cambodian high school and college students has caused the shutdown of more than 90 percent of the estimated 6,000 Chinese shops and 10,000 market stalls that are the lifeblood of this capital city.

For the last two decades the Chinese have controlled Cambodia’s monetary economy and now they are being blamed for the sharply rising food prices, the inflation that is leaving Cambodians without enough to eat.

But in fact it was not the Chinese, or even greed. It was war and the resulting forced migration from ancestral rice-growing lands that caused the social and financial dislocations and all but total disruption in the food supply network.

One immediate fallout from these imperatives was inflation, a daily reality familiar to we journos, as well as our Khmer colleagues and all those with whom we came in contact. U.S. dollars—generally in the form of $100 bills—exchanged on the black market had effectively become the nation’s only functioning currency. I’d “pigeoned” in several thousand dollars worth of the long green in a money belt, strapped around my waist beneath my undershirt. Dith Pran, the brilliant journalist and photographer who served as our translator, guide, and soul mate would exchange these dollars for the local currency—rials, or the short pink as we called it, a reference to the color of the worthless Cambodian currency. On the day we would have to settle our hotel accounts, our driver would appear with large shopping bags filled with bricks—stacks of thousand and five thousand rial notes that were never undone. Each stack was worth just a dollar or two, and we’d pile them in huge stacks on the front desk of the hotel as their cashier would solemnly count them up. And each time it would take a few more stacks as inflation continued to soar to Weimar Republic levels—only instead of overprinting their banknotes, the Cambodians simply bundled them into bricks and toted around stacks of them. 

The Khmer Rouge thought they had a solution to this dilemma. Years before the carnage broke out, Khieu Samphan, one of several brilliant and utterly twisted leaders of the Cambodian insurgents, had written in a dissertation at Paris’s Institut des Sciences Politique, an outline of an idyllic Khmer state—a pastoral, Rousseau-esque nation where farmers would labor all day in the fields for the common good; where poverty, inequality, and injustice would disappear along with all the evils attendant to an urban lifestyle of profligacy and greed. This end would justify any means to achieve it. Effectively, it was a blueprint for the charnel house that Cambodia would become as the illiterate, yet victorious peasant troops who entered Phnom Penh triumphantly 40 years ago this April, forced into the countryside the effete intelligentsia of the capital to forage and grow rice in the countryside. What the hardships of the rice fields did not accomplish, their overlords all too often completed.

And there were many, especially among the blinkered European left, who believed in this vision, through a thoroughly distorted prism. As Jacques Decornoy, a classmate of Khieu Samphan at Sciences-Po and foreign editor of the great liberal French daily Le Monde, wrote on July 18, 1975: 

These people are at work day and night, if one believes Radio Phnom Penh—there is no reason not to believe in this respect—everyone lives the same way, in terms of transport, pickaxe, rebuilding, transplanting, seeding, harvesting, irrigating, from children to the elderly. The revolutionary joy, it seems, has transformed the human landscape….A new society is certainly being born in this revolutionary kingdom.

The issue, of course, is what or who were dying at the same time in the service of propagating a vision that had little grounding in any human reality. 


Food is all too often a hostage to a host of issues—security, climate, control of land and property, technology, and science. At the same time the imperatives of growing, harvesting, producing, and distributing the fuel of life are often overwhelming and consuming. Moreover, the true test of the stage of development of a nation or society is the ability to produce and distribute food.  A lack of food, like water or oil, is increasingly likely to trigger conflict, war or civil turmoil, economic malaise or worse. Imbalances in the supply of food can trigger or be triggered by inflation, recession, and vast disparities in employment and wealth.

In Phnom Penh, we knew definitively that the war was over on March 23,  1975, when I reported that the American airlift of food, fuel, and ammunition—the last real lifeline for Phnom Penh to the outside world—had been suspended “until the situation improves.” The Khmer Rouge was continuing quite wisely and with increasing success to target the capital’s Pochentong airport in an effort to place a final stranglehold on the Cambodian capital. And with its equal success at targeting government munition dumps going up in a colossal ball of flames, it seemed like the Khmer Rouge was on the verge of rolling into the city at any moment. Clearly, the end of the daily relief flights of food meant the end of Cambodia as we knew it.

Today, food remains a basso continuo to many of the world’s most deadly or potentially destabilizing conflicts. Ukraine has been for centuries a breadbasket. It is today the sixth largest grain exporter in the world. Not surprisingly, it was among the first territories annexed by Lenin’s forces accumulating land and peoples in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Nor should it be surprising that today, attempts to hive off part, even all, of Ukraine and cement it more firmly back into the Russian motherland is so central to Vladimir Putin’s taxonomy. While routinely couched as a step in Russia’s efforts to build a pure security buffer of the near-abroad around the Russian heartland, in fact it is also a way to make certain that Russia has access to the vast grain fields of the Ukrainian plains in the event orfdroughts at home.

Within the next three years, Ukraine hopes to increase its grain harvest to 100 million tons—nearly half of it wheat. Already in the past year, it’s exported some 37 million tons, Agriculture Minister Oleksiy Pavlenko told Bloomberg News. Nearly 6 million tons went to China, which is looking to invest some $25 billion in Ukraine’s agri-industry from irrigation systems to export logistics. Equally, it’s looking to the European Union as a huge grain market. Russia cannot help but view these plans with some considerable angst. Combined, the two countries produce some 83 million tons—a substantial chunk of the world’s grain production of 195 million tons. The question, of course, is whether the slim 4 percent annual increase will be enough to feed the world’s new consumers.

So not surprisingly, while nations like China may be looking to Ukraine and its substantial surplus production to help fill its larders, it’s equally anxious to cement control of its own grazing lands of Inner Mongolia for cultivation and development. But these pastures are how the Mongols have fed themselves for a thousand years, and they will not go quietly. The result has been decades of often-violent conflict over these territories. The rulers of Beijing have long ago recognized this dilemma. Searching desperately for a way to avoide internal turmoil and insure their growing and increasingly urban population of sufficient reserves of food and water, they have now gone looking abroad. 

The reason for these conflicts is simple—supply and demand, which can lead to desperation or a perception that a nation must prepare for a future that may never come. Back in the 1970s, when OPEC held the world hostage to its ability to control not only the availability but the price of oil, it seemed as though we were all plunging toward a crisis of existential dimensions. In 1973 and again in 1979, when Americans were waiting in mile-long lines at service stations and gas was being rationed according to the last digit of their license plate, it seemed as though we were headed for a future of ever-shrinking supply and ever-rising demand. Today, the world is, of course, awash in oil, and gas prices have plunged by a third to a half of their levels of even a year ago.

So, when we consider the future of the supply of food and water to cultivate our crops and feed our cattle, it would seem that in 2015 terms we could be headed for an equally existential crisis.


The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization believes that an additional 175 million acres of new agricultural land will be necessary to feed the 9 billion people who are projected to be living on our planet by the year 2050. At the same time, the pace of urbanization suggests that there will be fewer individuals left on arable land to produce this food. Instead, this critical process will increasingly devolve to industrial farm producers with immense economies of scale and a high degree of mechanization. These gigafarms, each at least 250,000 acres, are rare but increasingly prevalent. Indeed, in Russia there are farms in excess of 750,000 acres or nearly the size of the entire state of Rhode Island. The question is not so much whether they can be farmed economically, but rather how much investment capital they can attract that will make them financial viable as food producers. And the answer, increasingly, is that such large-scale farming can work—indeed the accelerating farm-to-city migration must work if much of the world is to be able to produce enough to feed all of us.

Which is why, to assure themselves of lands for food production—and the water that enables cultivation—a host of wealthy nations are buying up or engaging in long-term leasing arrangements with countries far from their own borders. From China to Saudi Arabia, private investors and governments are trolling for arable properties, often in Africa. Saudi investors have already snapped up more than 2 million acres of fertile land. Hardly surprising, given that barely 1 percent of Saudi land is at all suited to farming. According to a Standard Bank report, “Local poultry production…is likely to be almost 800,000 tons lower than consumption, while wheat production will be deficient by around 1,800,000 tons and maize by 1,880,000 tons.” It’s also importing large quantities of wheat—as much as 3.5 million tons next year since the Saudi government has chosen to phase out all local wheat production. It simply sucks up too much of the desert kingdom’s scarce water. 

Food rarely rises to our consciousness in the developed world except when French farmers, desiring even higher subsidies from Brussels or Paris, truck their pigs to the streets of the capital and tie up traffic for miles. Or, for that matter, when we find salmonella in our sausages or salad fixings. Or, alternatively, when droughts or other far-off disruptions suddenly translate into a surge in the price of our morning coffee or afternoon chocolate bar. In fact, as it turns out, barely 10 percent of the price of food actually comes from the farm—the other 90 percent represents the costs of transportation, processing, and marketing. And as for scarcity, it doesn’t take long for Chilean blueberries to replace their Argentine counterparts on North American tables if weather or politics dictate.

But what about the moment when we have another billion or so people on the earth, or 4 billion more for that matter—each of whom must be fed? Remember that we passed the 7 billion mark in 2011 in terms of the human population, and we’re growing at the rate of at least 74 million people a year. We’re adding an entire nation of France and Switzerland combined each year, according to United Nations figures. By 2040, we’ll be at 9 billion, and as much as 11 billion a decade later. Nine countries are expected to account for at least half of this 2050 population growth—in descending order India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, the United States, Ethiopia, and China, which would be higher on the list were it not for its long-standing one-child policy.

Moreover, the world can no longer rely on wars to hold down our population growth as has been the case in previous centuries. We are simply multiplying too quickly while at the same time living too long. In some isolated cases, like Africa at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, disease can have a measurable impact. So in Botswana, in 2002, the United Nations estimated that life expectancy of infants born in 2010 to 2015 would drop to 31.6 years from 70.7 because of the spread of AIDS. Equally in South Africa the projection was that average life expectancy would plunge to 41.5 years from 69.9 and in Zimbabwe to 31.8 years from 70.5. In fact, advances in treatment and prevention of AIDS made these estimates too pessimistic. In Botswana, life expectancy did in fact decline from 63 in 1990 to 58 in 2011, in South Africa from 63 in 1990 to 58 in 2011, and in Zimbabwe from 60 in 1990 to 43 in 2000 and 54 in 2011. Of course all of these numbers were far lower than the world’s longest life expectancies of 86 in Japan, 84 in Singapore, or 79.8 in the United States (which is still ranked just 36th in the world). Moreover, none of this was comparable to the impact of the Black Death, or bubonic plague, that decimated Europe in the 14th century when the life expectancy of a member of the British aristocracy who survived childhood diseases plunged to 45 years from 65—lower even than the world’s shortest life expectancy today—that of Central African Republic at 45.91 years. But by the time of the Black Death, the world had already come a long way from ancient Greece when no individual could expect to live much past the age of 28. These days, the average world life expectancy hovers around 67 years—more than twice that of the early 20th century when, skewed by the holocaust of World War I that figure was closer to 31 years of the average human lifespan.

The problem is that the world of food production has always struggled to keep pace. And, indeed, agricultural nationalism is already looming as a critical imperative. This can take the form of new types of international trade agreements at one end of the spectrum to fending off global investors or avaricious nations anxious to co-opt the very means of production and the most fertile land where food is grown.

So the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a cornerstone of President Obama’s efforts to jumpstart the U.S. economy and improve its relationships with much of Asia (China will not be included in the pact), is meeting with a mixed reception at home—and in the leading member of the prospective pact, Japan. There are many farmers, worldwide, who welcome open markets for their products and believe that barriers should be lifted to level the playing field. So, the Japanese farm lobby, a powerful force, has made no secret of its opposition to the entire system if the United States refuses to open its markets to its rice and fish exports. Across the Pacific, however, the Coalition for a Prosperous America (CPA), a group representing U.S. agriculture, labor, and manufacturing interests, has been joined by a host of highly special interests, like the nation’s catfish farmers who also feel threatened by the potential of cheap Asian fish arriving on their customers’ doorsteps, not to mention the Canadian dairy industry. By contrast, the National Corn Growers Association is very much on the side of these trade pacts as a way of opening up foreign markets to their farmers. And corn growers aren’t the only ones. U.S. pork exports have increased 1,550 percent in value and 1,268 percent in volume since 1989, the year the United States implemented its free trade agreement with Canada, then Latin America, and started opening international markets for value-added agricultural products. Pork producers and U.S. agriculture are dependent on export markets, so the National Pork Producers’ Council (NPPC) is putting its full weight behind the TPP. 

On the other hand, other American farm groups—indeed virtually every farm lobby except the sugar growers—have banded together under the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba in urging an end to the embargo of that nation. They want to sell dairy products, corn, rice, soybeans, poultry, and pork to the agriculturally-deprived market of Cuba. The American sugar producers, of course, fear floods of cheap sugar cane, depressing prices in the United States and other places abroad where they sell.  During the embargo, dairy producers in New Zealand—nearly 8,000 miles from Havana—have profited by selling powdered milk to Cubans.

A pact similar to the TPP is also being negotiated across the Atlantic with the European Union—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. In both cases, considerable attention is being paid to “localization barriers”—designed to protect farmers and agro-industries of individual countries. They’ve also served as substantial barriers to other suppliers arriving with cheap foreign foodstuffs for local markets. Even large countries like India have potent local content rules. Efforts to limit or eliminate such provisions in one country would apply to all—hence the intense lobbying efforts on both sides of these equations. In all, 12 Asia-Pacific countries and the 28-nation European Union, which combined account for about two-thirds of the world’s gross domestic product, could be covered by the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic pacts.


Protecting nations’ farmers and safeguarding their access to world markets may eventually take a back seat to protecting the land itself where food is produced, while retaining the workers who plant and harvest it. More important to feeding Africa’s skyrocketing urban population is keeping people on the farms who are in a position to produce food in quantities beyond subsistence levels. Many who leave the rural landscape for the city wind up in horrific urban slums. The United Nations estimates at least 860 million people in the developing world, with their numbers growing by at least 6 million per year, are migrating to cities. In sub-Saharan Africa, slum populations are estimated to be growing at 4.3 percent a year—doubling every 15 years. Far from producing their own food for their families and for export, they become yet another tax on the shrinking food-producing sectors of their countries. Moreover, increasing numbers find their way into the international migrant labor stream, warehoused in refugee camps, lost at sea as they flee famine, or become recruitment targets for radical military groups. 

“Migration depends on forces that ‘pull’ migrants to their destinations as well as forces that ‘push’ them to leave their origins,” say Jan K. Brueckner of the Department of Economics at the University of California, Irvine and Somik V. Lall of the World Bank. “People are pushed off their land by severe declines in agriculture, by the pressures of population growth, and by environmental changes that make cultivation no longer viable.” Historically, droughts have had sudden and prolonged impacts on the population distribution in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In China, Rafael Reuveny, an Indiana University political economist, says 20 to 30 million people moved from Gansu and Ningxia provinces to urban centers  during 1980s and 1990s due to floods, land degradation, desertification, and water scarcity. In response, China has compelled rural populations to remain on their lands by requiring special permissions, or hukuo, to leave villages for cities. While this may in the near-term help food production, in the long run it perpetuates or accelerates income and developmental disparities. 

Brueckner and Lall point out, “conflict has also pushed people to migrate in sub-Saharan Africa and in many other developing regions.” Indeed, in Nigeria, where the virulent terrorist group Boko Haram has sought to spread its Islamic message across vast territories, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees reports that at least 1.5 million people—largely farmers and their families—were forced from their homes and villages. Bloomberg News’ Mustapha Muhammad points out that “the worst-hit states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa produce staple foods such as cowpeas, rice, millet, sorghum, corn, and yams, as well as tomatoes, onions, fish, and livestock,” and that production has fallen by three-quarters since the start of the insurgency. On the border with neighboring Cameroon, Mohammed Sani, a fish seller, told Muhammad, “Before this Boko Haram insurgency, we used to load 40 trucks with fish to the south every week on market days, but now it has reduced to five trucks.” The terrorist-induced disruptions have also led to sharp increases in urban food prices and rising inflation as agriculture accounts for nearly 25 percent of Nigeria’s GDP.


Of course these forces are by no means new, nor confined to the least developed countries. In the 19th century, the Great Potato Famine forced at least 25 percent of the population of Ireland off their farms. A blight struck the potato crop that supported at least 40 percent of the Irish population. At least one million died, and as many as two million more left the country entirely for Australia, Britain, and the United States. 

There were other critical famines, of course. Many were derived from natural disasters—drought, floods, or pestilence. Some were politically-generated like the vicious Holdomor in Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan of 1932 to 1933, when as many as 8 million Ukrainians were estimated to have perished from a famine which Stalin was said to have used as a weapon to eliminate the last vestiges of a Ukrainian independence movement. 

But our rapidly overcrowding world can no longer afford to tolerate such outrages. Rather than encouraging scarcity, driving people from the land, we must learn from our errors of the past and find ways to retain our rural populations that are every bit as important to global well being as the most technologically advanced urban landscape. So, we must migrate the most advanced technologies of our city-scapes to those who choose to remain down on the farm. The super-farms of the developed world may not be the answer for the more primitive urban landscapes of African or Southeast Asian jungles. But this is not to say that these villagers aren’t entitled to the same benefits of modern sanitation, entertainment, and education of their children that will persuade them to stay and produce the food that will feed those who have left. 

Finally, we must make certain that a free market is maintained—that those with wealth and power are not able to force their priorities on the less advantaged, looting the poorest of their birthright as they seek to lock up the most fertile and arable lands to feed those who can pay the prices they command. At the same time, the Rousseauian ideal of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia that led to the death by bloodshed or famine of millions has no place in today’s ever more crowded world. The most privileged among us, who have never known want or hunger, must at all costs protect and defend those who are unable to defend or feed themselves.

The European Union seems to have given little thought to this imperative when it formulated its land use and ownership policy—an effort to breath life into the concept that in the new Europe there are, or should, be no real boundaries to movement of investment, capital, or ownership rights, let alone the product that might emerge from such investments. The result is that wealthy Italian landowners began snapping up cheap Romanian farmland the moment Romania entered the European Union. That has been a mixed blessing for Romanian farmers and will likely result in rising food costs and attendant economy-wide inflation. Efficiencies of scale may well prove to be trumped by investment imperatives. The answer is simple—let each country determine who may farm and own its own land. For some nations, it may prove quite advantageous to allow foreign investors in to tap underused potential. In other cases, such a capital invasion can be highly disruptive.  But each nation needs to have the right to make that choice itself.

Then there is the broader and increasingly pressing issue of climate change and the accompanying growing pace and severity of national disasters and their broad impact on growing cycles and crop production. Eventually, the wealthy,  agriculturally-more advanced, prosperous, or at least more fortunate nations may need to leap to the aid of the less fortunate—perhaps in the form of emergency banks into which farmers and governments pay a portion of their crops each year to make certain that all of the world can be fed at least on a subsistence level. Such a measure may be essential to avoid future conflict, indeed mass violence, that could disturb the natural order.

Equally, the talent of the better-endowed world can and should be brought to bear for all to profit. Just as three Japanese physicists, each sharing the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics, developed the final step needed to produce the energy-efficient LED lightbulb, so such talents and efforts—from Silicon Valley to Nagoya—need to be brought to bear to develop the next generation of crop technology to feed, as well as illuminate, even the most remote corners of our world. Only then can we have a chance of being able to produce enough to feed the vastly greater number of people, living the longest in human history, who will be populating our planet, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. 



David A. Andelman is the editor and publisher of World Policy Journal.

[Cartoon courtesy of Damien Glez] 

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