ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For the past century, food has been getting cheaper and more abundant. And yet we often hear warnings about potential food shortages. Some economists say this fear itself can cause problems. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Maybe you've heard how hard it might be to produce enough food for a growing world population. For instance, here's the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization Kip Tom, also a big-time farmer in Indiana, at a panel discussion in 2018.
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KIP TOM: We got a growing world and a hungry world. We need to make sure we do our part in helping feed that hungry world.
CATHERINE KLING: That is totally the mantra.
CHARLES: This is Catherine Kling, an economist at Cornell University.
KLING: I bet I've been to 50 talks in the last five, 10 years where the beginning is, we have to feed 9 billion people by 2050. This is a crisis situation. The term crisis gets used regularly.
CHARLES: Every once in a while, it really does seem like a crisis - for instance, in 2008. Tom Hertel at Purdue University remembers it well. Demand for corn to make ethanol was booming.
TOM HERTEL: This was right in the thick of the biofuel-driven madness.
CHARLES: Rice and wheat prices were spiking for other reasons.
HERTEL: People were really panicking.
CHARLES: And some economists were saying this is the new normal - food shortages, high prices. But Hertel didn't believe it. He and his colleagues have a computer model of long-term trends that drive supply and demand for food, and their model predicted plenty of food, lower prices.
HERTEL: So we wrote this paper debunking the new normal, and it was very unpopular. In fact, we weren't able to publish it.
CHARLES: Not right away, at least. But Hertel turned out to be right. Prices soon came back down. In fact, the long-term trend has been ever more abundant food, declining prices. Now, it's true. Millions of people in the world are hungry or malnourished. But Hertel and Kling say that's mainly because they don't have the money to buy food or because of war and political oppression. So solving that problem means addressing poverty and conflict, not just growing more food. Kling from Cornell's a little mystified by all the talk about food shortages.
KLING: Part of the explanation may simply be a - it's a really effective communication device.
CHARLES: Farmers and their lobbyists can talk about how the world needs more food when they fight environmental regulations that might force farmers to pay for polluting streams and rivers.
KLING: Oh, we can't possibly impose those costs. Farmers will go out of business, and we'll starve.
CHARLES: Or maybe part of it is there's always something to worry about that could disrupt the food supply - for instance right now, climate change. Tom Hertel's been looking at this. He says agriculture could get hammered by climate change after, say, 2050. For the next few decades, though, the trends point toward continuing abundance. Farmers keep finding ways to grow more food on the same amount of land. Population growth is slowing down. In fact, U.S. farmers have been so unhappy about low prices for their corn and soybeans and milk in recent years, they've demanded and received billions of dollars in government aid. Hertel says this situation gives governments an opportunity to address something more pressing.
HERTEL: The issue is not, can we produce enough food? It's, can we produce the food in a way that doesn't destroy the environment?
CHARLES: Farming consumes so much land and water. Increasing productivity makes it possible to ease that burden on the planet. In Europe, they're already doing this - paying farmers to turn some crop land back into grasslands or forests or wetlands.
HERTEL: If farmers were paid to do this, this could be a great - a very profitable activity. And it could become an important part of their revenue stream.
CHARLES: It would reduce greenhouse emissions, and it could help farmers cope with the warming climate down the road.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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