Today’s New York Times has a good story on some of the background of the current food crisis (story). The basic point is fundamental: donor nations and international development institutions have substantially disinvested in the great agricultural research institutes that were founded in the sixties and seventies to provide a scientific basis for increasing food security. The story highlights the significant decline of institutions like the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines — with disastrous consequences for the continual challenge of increasing agricultural productivity and — usually — rural incomes. (Click on the graphic to see a great set of graphs documenting investment, productivity, and rice stockpiles.)
There is a direct relationship between investment, scientific activity, and improvement in agricultural techniques, seed varieties, and new forms of pest control. If the world makes those investments, we have a good reason for confidence in the ability of the planet to keep food supply ahead of food demand. But if funding agencies and international institutions falter in their attention to the continuing struggle for agricultural progress — as they most certainly seem to have done — then food security will indeed be a center-stage issue for the coming decades.
Many commentators have also emphasized another crucial point: that hunger and poverty are directly connected. We’ve seen the impact that rising rice prices have on poor people in dozens of countries in the developing world — essentially pushing poor people into ultra-poor crisis. But there is also a virtuous circle that economic development policy makers need to be striving for: increasing the incomes of the poor, leading to greater purchasing power, leading to rising demand for locally and nationally produced food, leading to increased incomes for rural poor people. Seen from this perspective, agricultural development has to be a top priority within economic development policy thinking.