Tuesday Talks with Dr. Patterson

December 16, 2014

We Must Double Food Production

A common argument put forth by agricultural leaders in academia, government, and business today is that we must double food production in the next 35 years to feed the world’s population, which will grow from its current 7.3 billion to an expected 9.5 billion people by 2050. While the outcome (increased population) and the need (increased food production) are defensible and based on reasoned analysis, I am not sure the argument is motivating the kind of response or creating the sense of urgency that is desired or needed. So what are the factors limiting the effectiveness of this message? 

The common use of scare tactics may be one factor. We live in a media saturated environment, where we are flooded with information and messages. Many messages rely on scare tactics as a rhetorical tool and the public seems to be increasingly skeptical of scare tactics. When scare tactics are based on incorrect information, the public should be skeptical. Unfortunately, some valid arguments, like the need to increase food production, may be viewed the same way as the less credible claims. So, some may be summarily dismissing the argument for increased food production as just another scare tactic. 

For some, the argument to increase food production over the next 35 to 40 years may appear to be abstract and of little immediate relevance. First, a change in global population of two billion is hard for some to conceive. Second, 35 to 40 years is very long compared to more typical performance timelines. The American political system rewards performance based on two, four, or six year time periods. Business markets very often focus on performance over a one year period or less. So, 35 years is equivalent to over 17 general election periods or nearly six U.S. Senate terms in office. A 35 to 40 year time period is also nearly the full span of a career or half a lifetime, so it is easy for some to rationalize that this is not their problem. The appeal of the population growth and food production argument faces the same challenge that sellers of life insurance or retirement investments face. To overcome the abstractness or lack of immediate relevance, life insurance salesmen and investment advisors make strong sentimental appeals and logical appeals to compel prospective buyers to act. The agricultural community has not yet been as effective. Like scare tactics, however, sentimental appeals are also sometimes easily dismissed. 

The food production argument also faces the criticism of being perceived as self-serving. To the extent that the public recognizes that increased food production will require improved agricultural productivity that will come from research advancements, some will quickly conclude that the food production argument is only being made to serve the self-interests of agricultural researchers. This too makes the food production-population growth argument easy for some to dismiss. Unfortunately, we have already invested too little in agricultural research and gains in productivity are currently not on trend to meet future food demand (not that I intend to scare you). Furthermore, research is much like life insurance-its purchase cannot be put off until you need it. And, like retirement investments, it is something that needs to be invested in at a sufficient level over a long, sustained period to yield the desired outcome. Furthermore, population growth is just one of many compelling arguments for new research in food production. Other equally compelling arguments include climate change, the waning effectiveness of current technologies due to pest adaptation (e.g. herbicide resistant weeds), and the need to improve food processing, handling, and storage to avoid food losses (up to one-third of food production is never consumed). 

The food production-population growth argument also suffers from a combination of vagueness and complexity. As the argument is presented in an often slogan-like fashion, many cannot understand how a roughly 30 percent increase in population will require 100 percent more food. The agricultural community sometimes fails to explain how the growth in population will be accompanied by increases in income, which will result increased demand for meat protein, which requires additional feed grains for production. This issue is further complicated by the often explicit vagueness in who will increase food production. Market forces likely will cause U.S. production to expand (assuming that research provides new production technologies), but expanded production will also occur in areas which could achieve substantial gains in productivity with the adoption of some current technologies, such as in many parts of Africa. The complexity of the argument and perhaps the resulting vagueness in the communications message may cause some to dismiss the credibility of the claim. 

Some more critical observers may dismiss the population growth-food production argument as disingenuous. They may argue that many of those in the growing global population will be born into poverty. So, increasing food production for a population that does not have sufficient means to purchase it fails to address the underlying problem-poverty. Poverty is a complex social, political, and economic problem. While hunger may be a symptom of poverty, hunger is also a cause of poverty. So in addition to producing sufficient food for the growing world population, poverty will also need to be addressed. This may be a more difficult problem. However, failure to address it will result in more misery and potential social instability. 

So with these rhetorical weaknesses in the population growth-food production argument identified, do I have any suggestions on ways to make the population-food production argument more effective? Leaders in academia, government, and industry will need to continue to voice the argument. Repetition in message is an effective strategy in persuasion. However, these same leaders need to be prepared to respond to the critics and skeptics and offer a complete explanation of this complex, nuanced argument. 

Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.