Looking Beyond the Crisis

02/12/2015 08:34 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

A cycle of rapid expansion of credit and finance, like we saw a decade ago, initially provokes pro-cyclical euphoria, but soon turns to woe when the bubble bursts.

In Europe, as in the BRICS and other countries that experienced rapid growth during the expansive phase of the cycle, we are now in the phase when the down side of the curve teems with uncertainties that discourage decisions to invest.

Such a severe confluence of setbacks -- with the sole and contradictory exception of US indicators -- has been further aggravated by plunging oil prices. It is a context that provides no solid ground to forecast future prices of commodities, particularly food.

Agricultural markets monitored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) display record production, recovering stocks and tumbling prices. FAO's international food price index for December was 1.7% lower than in November and 8.5% lower than in December 2013. This was the third year in a row that the index fell.

Prices are not expected to return to pre-2005 levels, but sell orders on commodity markets show that investors still see no light at the end of the global tunnel.

So we need to ask: can falling farm commodity prices favor the fight against hunger?

It is not only the undernourished and the malnourished who yearn for an answer to that question. Food production has tripled since 1945, with average per capita supply up 40%. This is enough to feed the planet, but abundant production does not solve bottlenecks that prevent people from accessing food.

More than 800 million people are still undernourished, two billion face micronutrient deficiencies and more than 500 million are obese. These figures express old, but yet unsolved problems. The fact that they affect over half of the world's population means that we must make our current food security policies more far-reaching.

This means guaranteeing a 60% relative increase in food supply to meet estimated demand in 2050, when the world population will top 9 billion people.

How feasible will that be in a scenario that overlays the specter of deflation with saturation of the 40-year-old Green Revolution's intensive agricultural model? Increasing humanity's t food supply by 60% in the next 35 years, through the agricultural practices we use today, would require some 50% more energy and 40% more water, according to the latest FAO estimates.

The question: "Is that sustainable?" carries such broad implications that we cannot allow any silver-bullet rhetoric to cut through the complexities of finding an answer.

We need the kind of planning that stubbornly pushes for sustainable production and consumption systems, and is intrinsically endowed with greater economic, social, environmental and political balance. Therefore it must also be adapted to local contexts, both ecologically and in terms of promoting greater social inclusion.

Considering the crossroads at which we stand, we can ill afford to waste resources or human lives. When the planet is facing its environmental Rubicon, it makes no sense to fight yesterday's battles. This hour of truth also obliges us to relinquish false dilemmas.

In the 21st Century, our choice is no longer between producing more food or more biofuels. We need them both. The well-established priority of food cannot make biofuels a villain. Nor can our urgent need for bioenergy be allowed to threaten food security. In any case, new technologies now promise a second generation of biofuels, using grain and sugarcane straw, or any other kind of plant waste. The results are doubling per-hectare yields, while sugar cane now even generates electric power by burning the bagasse, thus lowering the push for more hydropower plants and more floodable areas.

Let us emphasize the positive linkages of this interaction. Successful and sustainable biofuel systems already provide an additional source of income for farmers, including poor farmers. The full potential is no small matter: nearly 70% of the people with food insecurity in the world live in rural areas of developing countries. These are people who often produce their own food, but not enough to meet their own needs, as we see in the rural areas of Africa, Latin America and Asia.

In times of abundant stocks and falling farm prices, using corn and oilseeds as biofuels offers solid ground for farmers with access to technology tools and generates new income opportunities for the poor. Rather than threatening conventional supplies, support for additional demand could be created to keep lower prices from discouraging planting for the next crop. This however, would be to the detriment of achieving food security for all.

Today we have accumulated experience in managing projects to combine incentives and barriers that will adapt the flow of biofuels to the social, environmental and economic importance of each economic cycle, thus enhancing rather than threatening food security.

Flexibility is the key word if we are to harmonize the need for biofuels and balance social justice with supply in today's world. In practice, that means being able to change the mix, based on harvest forecasts. It is as simple as that.

Agriculture can and must do its part in contributing to a sustainable energy supply -- part of the new global Sustainable Development Goals, to be set by the international community by the end of this year. This is not just a response to the crisis, it is the way to make tomorrow possible by shifting our expectations today.