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Chapter Nine: The Production and Distribution of Food

9.1 Crops and Animals: Major Patterns of Food Production

The Development of Modern Industrialized Agriculture
I. Until 150 years ago, the majority of people in the US lived and worked on small farms.
Humans and animal labor turned former forests and grasslands into systems that
produced enough food to supply a robust and growing nation. Farmers used
traditional approaches to combat pests and soil erosion: crops were rotated regularly,
many different crops were grown, and animal wastes were returned to the soil.
II. The Industrial Revolution revolutionized agriculture so profoundly that today, in the US,
some 3 million farmers and farmworkers produce enough food for all the nation’s
needs, plus enough to trade on world markets.
A. This revolution increased the efficiency of farming remarkably. Since the mid-
1930s, therefore the number of farms has decreased by two-thirds, while the size
of farms has grown fourfold.
B. The revolution has achieved such gains in production that the US frequently has
to cope with surpluses of many crops.
III. Virtually every industrialized nation has experienced this agricultural revolution. Crop
production has been raised new heights.
A. An incredible array of farm machinery handles virtually every need for working
the soil, seeding, irrigating, weeding, and harvesting. This machinery has enabled
farmers to cultivate far more land than ever. However, the shift from animal labor
to machinery has created a dependency on fossil-fuel energy.
B. Agriculture has an enormous impact on the landscape. Increases in crop yields
and consistent crop surpluses have taken the pressure off of additional
conversions to cropland, enabling farmers to be selective in the land they
cultivate. The surpluses have also given farmers the opportunity to take erosion-
prone land out of production. Under current farm policy, the Conservation
Reserve Program reimburses farmers for retiring erosion-prone land and planting
it with trees or grasses.
C. Essentially all of the good cropland in the US is now under cultivation or held in
short-term reserve. Globally, agriculture occupies 38% of the land, and the net
rate of growth of this land has been constant at around .3% per year over the past
30 years. The expansion in cropland comes at the expense of forests and wetlands,
however, which are both economically important and ecologically fragile.
D. When chemical fertilizers first become available and began being used, farmers
discovered that they could achieve greater yields. When levels of fertilizer are too
high, the excess is washed away, resulting in groundwater and surface-water
E. Chemical pesticides have provided significant control over insect and plant pests;
but, due to natural selection, the pests have become resistant to most of the
pesticides. As a result, pesticide use has tripled since 1970, but the percentage of
crops lost to pests has remained constant.
IV. Worldwide, irrigated acreage increased about 2.6 times from 1950 – 1980. By 2003,
irrigated acreage represented 18% of all cropland and produced 40% of the world’s
A. Irrigation is still expanding, but at a much slower pace because of limits on water
resources. Much of the current irrigation is unsustainable because groundwater
resources are being depleted. In addition, production is being adversely affected
on as much as 1/3 of the world’s irrigated land because of waterlogging and the
accumulation of salts in the soil—consequences of irrigating where there is poor
V. Several decades ago, plant geneticists developed new varieties of wheat, corn, and rice
that gave yields double to triple those of traditional varieties. This feat was
accomplished by selecting strains that diverted more of the plant’s photosynthate to
the seed and away from the stems, leaves, and roots.
The Green Revolution
I. The same technologies that gave rise to the agricultural revolution in the industrialized
countries were eventually introduced into the developing world. There, they gave
birth to the remarkable increases in crop production called the Green Revolution.
A. Within a few years, many of the world’s most populous countries turned the
corner from being grain importers to achieving stability, and, in some cases, even
becoming grain exporters.
B. The Green Revolution has probably done more than any other single scientific
achievement to prevent hunger and malnutrition.
C. The high-yielding modern varieties are now cultivated throughout the world and
have become the basis of food production in China, Latin America, the Middle
East, southern Asia, and the industrialized nations.
II. Because the technology raises yields without requiring new agricultural lands, the Green
Revolution has also held back a significant amount of deforestation in the developing
A. The crops do best on irrigated land; water shortages have begun to occur as a
result of this dependence.
B. The modern varieties require constant inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, and energy-
using mechanized labor, all of which can be in short supply in developing
III. The CGIAR recently sponsored a study on the impact of the Green Revolution in the
developing world between 1960 and 2000. They came to the following conclusions:
1. The early years of the Green Revolution were only the beginning; research on
high-yielding crops has continued, and more varieties continue to be developed,
released, and adopted by farmers.
2. More recent research has featured resistance to diseases, pests, and climate
stresses. This work has been the key to the increased adoption of modern
3. The early Green Revolution contributed greatly to expanded food production in
Asia and Latin America; the later years of the Green Revolution have benefited
Africa and the Middle East, as a greater variety of crops was developed.
4. If there had been no Green Revolution, crop yields in developing countries would
certainly have been lower, leading to higher food prices and an increase in lands
brought under cultivation everywhere. Less would have been available, leading to
higher levels of hunger and malnutrition and higher infant mortality.
Subsistence Agriculture in the Developing World
I. In most of the developing world, plants and animals continue to be raised for food by
subsistence farmers, using traditional agricultural methods. These farmers represent
the great majority of rural populations.
A. Subsistence farmers live on small parcels of land that provide them with the food
for their households and a small cash crop.
B. Subsistence farming is labor intensive and lacks practically all of the inputs of
industrialized agriculture. Also, it is often practiced on marginally productive
land. It is often practiced in regions experiencing the most rapid population
II. The pressures of population and the diversion of better land to industrialized agriculture
lead to practices that are often unsustainable and sometimes ecologically devastating.
In many regions in developing countries, woodlands and forests are cleared for
agriculture or removed for firewood and animal fodder, forcing the gatherers to travel
farther and farther from their homes and leaving the soil susceptible to erosion.
A. The ensuring scarcity of firewood leads the residents to burn animal dung for
cooking and heat, thus diverting nutrients from the land. Erosion-prone land
suited only to growing grass or trees is planted to produce annual crops. Good
land is forced to produce multiple crops instead of being left fallow to recover
B. All these factors tend to increase the poverty that is characteristic of population
supported by subsistence agriculture, and, in a relentless cycle, the added poverty
in turns puts increased pressure on the land to produce food and income.
III. Because subsistence agriculture practice varies with the local climate and with local
knowledge, it is difficult to draw sweeping generalities.
Animal Farming and Its Consequences
I. ¼ of the world’s croplands are used to feed domestic animals. The care, and feeding of
some 4 billion livestock and 18 billion birds constitutes one of the most important
economic activities on the planet.
A. The primary force driving this livestock economy is the large number of the
world’s people who enjoy eating meat and dairy products.
B. In the developed world and increasingly in the developing world, animals are
raised in large numbers and often under confinement. In rural societies in the
developing world, livestock and poultry are raised on family farms or by
pastoralists who are subsistence farmers.
II. Industrial-style animal farming can damage the environment and human health in a host
of ways.
A. Because so much of the plant crop is fed to animals, all of the problems of
industrialized agriculture apply to normal animal farming.
B. Rangelands are susceptible to overgrazing, either because of mismanagement of
prime grazing land or because the land on which the animals graze is marginal dry
grasslands, used in that manner because the better lands have been converted to
producing crops.
C. Another serious problem is the management of animal manure. In developing
countries, manure is a precious resource that is used to renew the fertility of the
soil, build shelters, and provide fuel. In developed countries, it is a wasted
resource. This waste leaks into surface waters and contributes to die-offs of fish,
contamination with pathogens, and a proliferation of algae.
D. Crowded factory farms are perfect conditions for diseases to incubate and spread
among the animals and from animals to humans.
Prospects for Increasing Food Production
I. Food production is keeping up with population growth. In particular, rising incomes in
the developing world have stimulated the rapid rise in meat consumption.
A. The International Food Policy Research Institute expects the demand for grains to
be much as it has been, slightly outpacing population increase. But it also expects
a big jump in the world’s consumption of meat. This increase is traced to rising
demands in the developing world. The major consequence of this rise in demand
for meat is a shift from grains for human consumption to the production of feed
grains and soybeans.
B. The prospects for developing countries to meet the rise in demand for grains are
not good. The opposing trends of degrading agricultural lands and opening up
new lands are likely to offset each other. However, more lands probably will be
irrigated, putting more pressure on groundwater supplies.
II. The rising demand for grains in the developing world will have to be met by trade, and
the major producers in the developed world will have to be willing and able to meet
that demand.
A. Poorer countries will likely not be able to afford the imports and be will be left
III. There seem to be only two prospects for increasing food production: 1) continue to
increase crop yields and 2) grow food crops on land that is now used for feedstock
crops or cash crops.
IV. The great differences in yields of grain between regions have little to do with the genetic
strains used. Once the agricultural land is planted with high yielding strains and
fertilized to the maximum, other factors limit productivity. These environmental
limits are a reminder that agricultural sustainability is highly dependent on soil and
water conservation and on the weather.
A. Variations in weather affect harvests locally and globally, injecting significant
instability in food production that makes future planning extremely chancy.
V. Feed grain can be considered a buffer against world hunger; if the food supply becomes
critical, it might force more of the world’s people to eat lower on the food chain. The
trend, however, is in exactly the opposite direction.

9.2 From Green Revolution to Gene Revolution

I. Genetic engineering makes it possible to crossbreed genetically different plants and to
incorporate desired traits into crop lines and animals, producing transgenic breeds. It is
now possible to exchange genes among bacteria, animals, and plants. This kind of
technology can help the developing world to produce more food.
The Promise
I. The earliest and most widely adopted genetically altered products to be marketed were 1)
cotton plants with built-in resistance to insects that comes from genes taken from a
bacterium; and 2) corn and soybeans resistant to the herbicide Roundup, allowing
farmers to employ no-till techniques.
A. Farmers in the US have overwhelmingly turned to the transgenic breeds of
soybeans, cotton, and corn.
II. Biotech crop research that can benefit the developing countries is proceeding at a rapid
pace, often in those very countries. The objectives of genomics are 1) to incorporate
resistance to diseases and pests that attack important tropical plants, 2) to increase
tolerance to environmental conditions, 3) to improve the nutritional value of
commonly eaten crops, and 4) to produce pharmaceutical products in ordinary crop
A. The new technologies also involve crop improvements without resorting to
transgenic traits.
B. Among the important environmental benefits of bioengineered crops are
reductions in the use of pesticides, because the crops are already resistant to pests;
less erosion, because no-till cropping is facilitated by the use of herbicide-
resistant crops; and less environmental damage associated with bringing more
land into production, because existing agricultural lands will produce more food.
The Problems
I. Concerns about genetic engineering technology involve three considerations:
environmental problems, food safety, and access to the new techniques.
A. A major environmental concern focuses on the pest-resistant properties of the
transgenic crops. With such a broad exposure to the toxin or some resistance
incorporated into the plant, it is possible that pests will develop resistance to the
toxin and thus render it ineffective.
B. Another concern is the ecological impact of the crops.
C. A third environmental concern arises because genes for herbicide resistance or for
tolerance to drought and other environmental conditions can also spread by pollen
to ordinary crop plants, possibly creating stronger weeds.
II. Food safety issues arise because transgenic crops contain proteins from different
organisms and might trigger an unexpected allergic reaction in people who consume
the food. Also, antibiotic-resistance genes are often incorporated into transgenic
organisms in order to provide a way to trace cells that have been transformed. The
transgenic product could then convey the resistance to antibodies to pathogens in
human systems by a separate process of gene transfer.
A. Another concern relates to the possibility that plants could produce new toxic or
allergenic substances in their tissues in response to the presence of foreign genes.
III. The biotech industry has recognized the advantages of producing pharmaceuticals by
engineering genes for desirable products into common crop plants. The danger of this
practice is that the pharma crops could contaminate ordinary food crops.
IV. The problems concerning access to the new technologies relate to the developing world.
For the first few years, almost all genetically modified organisms were developed by
large agricultural-industrial firms, with profit as the primary motive.
A. Accordingly, farmers have been forbidden from simply propagating the seeds
themselves and must purchase seeds annually. Farmers in the developing
countries are far less able to afford the higher costs of the new seeds, which must
be paid up front each year.
I. Biotechnology and its application to food crops do not exist in a regulatory vacuum. In
the US, the EPA, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug
Administration all have had regulatory oversight of different elements of the
application of biotechnology to food crops.
A. Concern over their oversight led to a report from the National Academy of
Science’s National Research Council. The report concluded that transgenic crops
have been adequately tested for environmental and health effects but that the three
agencies involved need to do a better job of coordinating their work.
B. The report endorsed the science, technology, and regulation. At the same time, the
report called for more research on the environmental and safety issues.
II. On the international level, the UN Convention on Biodiversity dealt with trade in
genetically modified organisms. The conference reached an agreement, called the
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
A. The agreement was welcomed by governments, the private sector, and
environmental groups.
B. At issue was a fundamental philosophy about how technologies should be
C. The Protocol puts the right to deny entry of any of these organisms in the hands of
the importing country, but its decision must be based on sound science. Thus, the
agreement makes operational the so-called precautionary principle, which states
that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of scientific
certainty should not be used as a reason for failing to take measures to prevent
potential damage.
D. Shipments that contain food commodities made with genetically modified
organisms must be labeled to say that they may contain them.

9.3 Food Distribution and Trade

I. For centuries, the general rule for basic foodstuffs was self-sufficiency. Whenever the
agricultural production of a region was interrupted, the inevitable result was famine and
A. With the Industrial Revolution, trade between nations intensified, and soon it became
economically feasible to ship basic foodstuffs around the world. As trade increased,
the need for self-sufficiency diminished.
Patterns in Food Trade
I. Agricultural production systems do much more than supply a country’s internal food
needs. For some nations, the capacity to produce more basic foodstuffs than the home
population needs represents an extremely important economic enterprise. For many
other countries, special commodities provide their only significant export product.
A. This exchange works well only as long as the importing nation can pay cash for
the food. Cash is earned by exporting raw materials, fuel, manufactured goods, or
special commodities.
II. The most important foodstuffs on the world market are grain and soybeans. Much of this
is imported by high- and middle-income countries to satisfy the rising demand for
animal protein.
A. Today, the trade in grains represents a development with great economic and
political implications.
B. Over the past 45 years, Asia and Africa have shown an increasing dependence on
imported grain. These regions have also experienced 45 years of continual
population growth.
Food Security
I. Food security is the assured access for every person to enough nutritious food to sustain
as active and healthy life. There are three major levels of responsibility for food
security: the family, the nation, and the global community.
A. At each level, the players are part of a market economy as well as a sociopolitical
system. In a market economy, food flows in the direction of economic demand.
Need is not taken into consideration.
II. The most important level of responsibility is the family. The goal at this level is to meet
the nutritional needs of everyone in the family to an extent that provides freedom
from hunger and malnutrition.
A. There are four legitimate options for attaining food security: you can purchase the
food, raise the food, gather it from natural ecosystems, or have it provided by
B. In the event of economic or agricultural failure at the family level, the fourth
option implies that there is an effective safety net. These policies and programs
can be of two types: 1) official policies, represented by a variety of welfare
programs; and 2) voluntary aid through hunger-relief organizations.
III. For developing countries, an appropriate goal at the national level would be self-
sufficiency in food—enough food to satisfy the nutritional needs of all of the
country’s people. To meet this goal, a nation can either produce all the food its people
need or buy the food on the world market.
A. This goal implies the existence of policies to eliminate chronic hunger and
malnutrition among its people, such as a just distribution of land and free market
B. Many nations are not self-sufficient in food, and those that cannot afford to buy
all they need must turn to the global community for food aid and other forms of
technical development assistance.
C. The Millennium Project has recommended designing safety nets that are based on
the causes of poor nutrition in specific areas instead of blanket programs for
whole regions.
IV. The World Trade Organization is the body that governs international trade. The WTO
brings together developed and developing member countries for negotiations and
policy decisions. The wealthy developed countries dominate the proceedings because
of their economic strength.
A. Wealthy countries have maintained policies that are highly protective of their
agricultural sectors, while calling on the developing countries to liberalize their
trade policies. This hypocrisy plays itself out in the tariffs the developed countries
set on agricultural products and in the subsidies given to the agricultural sector.
V. There are other initiatives that could help the poorer countries to become self-sufficient in
food. One of the most important is relieving the debt crisis in developing countries.
A. Another factor in meeting global nutrition needs is the trade imbalance between
the industrial and the developing countries. The developing countries typically
export commodities such as cash crops, mineral ores, and petroleum, and import
more sophisticated manufactured products. Prices for the latter have risen, while
those for the commodities from developing countries often decline.
B. To some extent, the increasing use of labor in the developing countries for
electronic assembly and in the manufacture of clothing has offset this imbalance.
Indeed, the globalization of markets has begun working to the advantage of the
developing countries, which have a surplus of labor and low labor costs. As a
result, many industrial corporations have outsourced their manufacturing to
developing countries.
C. Another consequence of the trade imbalance is for developing countries to “mine”
their natural resources for the international market.

9.4 Hunger, Malnutrition, and Famine

I. The target of the Millennium Development Goals is to cut world hunger in half by 2015.
Nutrition vs. Hunger
I. Hunger is the general term referring to a lack of basic food required for energy and for
meeting nutritional needs such that the individual is unable to lead a normal healthy
life. Malnutrition is the lack of essential nutrients. Undernourishment is the lack of
adequate food energy
A. Disorders due to overnourishment are not very common in the developing world.
Extent and Consequences of Hunger
I. Almost 2/3 of the undernourished live in Asia and the Pacific. Sub-Saharan Africa has
the highest percentage of undernourishment.