The world has done a remarkable job of feeding itself. Despite population growth, the Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the prevalence of hunger in most parts of the developing world has declined from 18.2 percent in 2002 to 13.5 percent in 2013. In part, this is because food itself has become more affordable. Prices of staple foods have declined (with occasional blips): in 1995 the average price for maize was about $350 per ton, in 1995 it was about $200 per ton, and last year the price hit $170. This has occurred even with a significant proportion of the US production going to ethanol. The prices of rice and wheat have shown a similar drop. In the last three years the price of cereals has gone down about 30 percent; overall, food prices have declined by almost 20 percent.
Those long-term, aggregate trends, however, are hard to appreciate because of the hunger-related problems that remain. Occasional price spikes, as for rice around 2008, have created a fear of food shortages and social instability. Extreme weather – droughts and floods, for example – have devastated harvests in some countries.
Out of compassion and self-preservation leaders rush to feed the hungry. The short-term response is almost invariably counterproductive: relief agencies ship in food from overseas, undermining incentives for local producers; and governments provide market-distorting subsidies. And some countries – most of them in Africa – suffer from relatively low agricultural productivity and inefficient distribution channels. Many children are going to bed hungry, and many adults are forced to dedicate all of their energies to simply meeting this most basic of needs. So while the numbers at the highest level are positive, the reality on the ground is far less rosy. We have not yet cracked the code on food security, and by some measures are falling further behind.
In his rambling, ambitious, and pessimistic book, The Reproach of Hunger, David Rieff sees scores of the development community’s fables and foibles through the lens of the current problems in access to food. Those problems are the manifestation, variously, of unaffordable prices for staple foods, population growth in some regions outstripping increases in agricultural productivity, lack of access to foods with important vitamins and minerals, unhealthful food practices, exhaustion of soil nutrients, poor governance and planning, and climate disruptions and political turbulence that affect the production of food. To blame? It’s pretty hard to figure out from Rieff’s telling, but suspects include the over-optimism of people like Bono and Bill Gates, lack of progress in plant breeding, the inherent unfairness of capitalist economies and the impracticality of social reformers seeking to overturn capitalism. Rieff offers not a path toward a solution but an impassioned critique of virtually every effort that’s been marshaled. The overall message seems to be: it’s complicated, and the sets of solutions that have been taken so far don’t do justice to those complications.
While governments and international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank come in for a drubbing, a good share of the critique is focused on the Gates Foundation as an exemplar of “philanthrocapitalism.” The blended neologism “philanthrocapitalism” is philanthropic activity by recently minted billionaires in which the charitable dollars are spent in ways that mimic business practices: in service of specific, measurable goals (a social “bottom line”), deploying a combination of tactics – from investment in R&D to policy advocacy – and benefiting from partnerships with for-profit businesses as well as the non-profit and academic sectors.
Rieff criticizes Bill Gates for invoking an overly optimistic, glib narrative: technological developments will vastly improve crop yield and quality, and a well-functioning market will ensure that food reaches those who need it. Because of the size of the Gates Foundation and the influence of Bill Gates himself, the Foundation’s perspective has shaped a broader set of actions, from the Obama Administration’s Feed the Future Initiative to the priorities of a large share of the world’s international agricultural and nutrition research community. In the Gates world, Rieff argues, technology plus capitalism are in some (implicit) way the solution to the persistent paradox that some people have too little food while others have too much. But Rieff points out, repeatedly, that the fundamental injustices are in fact a function of centuries-old unfair social and economic systems, and particularly the logic of capitalism. By promoting answers that leave the current systems intact, the Gates approach simply perpetuates the underlying problem.
If it’s true that the Gates Foundation is defining contemporary contributions of philanthropy to global food production and policy, can lessons from past philanthropic efforts around food and agriculture shed light on whether the bold vision is benevolent, benign or benighted? Some, certainly, about the potential impact of a technology-focused approach can be found in the history of foundations’ contributions to the Green Revolution. And the lesson is: philanthropy is not well positioned to upend the economic system upon which its wealth was originally accumulated, but investments that support a straight-ahead scientific solution to a complex human problem can indeed have benefits. At the same time, the social, economic and environmental consequences can be vast – and vastly beyond the ability of philanthropists to predict or control. In this, Rieff is completely right: it’s complicated.
Starting in the 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation recognized the Malthusian threat of rapid population growth combined with a slowly-growing food supply. While people at the time understood the relationship between an insecure food supply and all manner of social and political disruption, the emphasis was on the practical and the technical. The foundation focused a sizeable share of its grantmaking on research to improve plant varieties, irrigation and agricultural practices. Believing in the importance of strong institutions, the foundation established international research centers in Mexico, the Philippines, Colombia and Nigeria. These centers, which in some countries were co-funded by the Ford Foundation and by bilateral and multilateral donor agencies, had a very particular mission, conceived of primarily in terms of practical scientific advances: to increase the yield of staple crops, and to make them more resistant to disease. The centers also saw their role as transferring knowledge and skills from scientists from the U.S. and many other countries to an emerging cohort of researchers in the Global South, who would then be equipped to help introduce the novel plant varieties and continue research efforts over the long haul. Over time, 15 research centers were established to work on staple crops as well as water management and other aspects of agriculture; they joined together into the Consortium of International Agricultural Centers.
The results, now known as the Green Revolution, were history-shaping. More than 30,000 agricultural researchers from the Global South were trained and given environments in which to do their work. High-yielding wheat, corn and rice varieties were developed and widely introduced. For example, more than one-quarter of all wheat varieties and 40 percent of all spring wheat varieties released in this century contain germplasm developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.
Food-importing countries became food-exporting countries, and massive famines were avoided. While it’s hard to construct a counterfactual to assess the net impact of the introduction of new varieties and farm practices, one study of Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh found that new rice varieties generated about $25 billion of benefits over 20 years. The researchers estimated that about 45 percent of the benefits were captured by those under the $2 per day poverty line, and malnutrition among the poor was greatly mitigated.
At the time, no one thought that healthy and harmonious societies would inevitably grow from improved seeds. These technological advances were not mistaken for solutions in and of themselves. Green Revolution researchers thought that at best they had bought some time for the world to address the challenges of rapid population growth, and extreme poverty and inequality. The increases in food production would, they thought, stave off for 20 years or so a major food crisis in Latin America, South Asia and Southeast Asia, preventing immediate conflict and instability.
They were right about that, and there’s no doubt that the Green Revolution was an enormous achievement. They were, however, wrong about the will and skill of political leaders and civil society to use the time to deal with underlying inequities in education, opportunity and income. The world also saw, over time, that the input-intensive changes in agricultural practices carried with them a host of challenges, from displaced labor to the environmental damage as increasingly marginal lands were exploited for food production.
Yes, focused investments in research and development achieved their narrow aim. But the scientific breakthroughs were not paired with the social and economic changes necessary to prevent a recurring scenario of widespread hunger and malnutrition in more recent years, or to effectively weigh the benefits and disadvantages of particular technologies.
What the experience of the Green Revolution has to offer philanthropists of today is a simple lesson: for true and lasting success, large-scale philanthropic efforts depend on other social institutions to function. Those social institutions include governance bodies at the national and supranational levels, and civil society organizations that authentically represent the interests of effected groups. Philanthropic dollars, which can be profoundly influential in building research and other key types of institutions, cannot substitute for a functioning public sector responsive to an engaged citizenry. So far, philanthropy has been better at figuring out how to turn a charitable dollar into scientific progress than into social progress – and the former should not be mistaken for the latter. To the extent that philanthropy distracts from public debate or helps to relax the pressure that would induce much-needed systemic changes, even the best-intentioned giving can have unintended negative consequences.
This piece was first published at HistPhill.
The authors are grateful for background information from the lecture “Achieving Food Security for All for the Foreseeable Future” by Per Pinstrup-Andersen.
 Raitzer, D.A., Sparks, A.H., Huelgas, Z., Maligalig, R., Balangue, Z., Launio, C., Daradjat, A., and Ahmed, H.U. 2015. Is Rice Improvement Still Making a Difference? Assessing the Economic, Poverty and Food Security Impacts of Rice Varieties Released from 1989 to 2009 in Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. A report submitted to the Standing Panel on Impact Assessment (SPIA), CGIAR Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC). 128 pp.