I recently had a chance to chat with Rosamond Naylor, a keynote speaker at this week’s UVM Food Systems Summit. Rosamond is the Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University. Her upcoming book, The Evolving Sphere of Food Security, will be published in August.
Food Feed: How did you first get interested in food systems issues?
Rosamond Naylor: I became involved in food systems issues in a somewhat indirect way. As a graduate student in economics, I was interested in development economics and poverty around the world. Most of the poor people and communities around the world work and live in rural agricultural areas and depend on agriculture for a major source of their livelihoods, as well as their food. In the early ‘80s I began to feel that I needed to know something about agriculture if I was going to know anything about reducing global poverty. It really came through the lens worrying about inequality and poverty around the world.
I did a lot of field work in Indonesia in grad school in the ‘80s and it was really fun to engage with the social side of things—the communities, the farmers, the people in these areas who were growing rice. I loved the intersection of the biophysical and the economic—that you actually had to understand what crop improvement, weather, and the climate was all about. I loved the interdisciplinary nature of the research, and it was during this period that I started taking on an interest in looking at agriculture from an interdisciplinary lens.
As an undergraduate, I was very interested in the environment and I majored in economics and environmental conservation. I’m from Colorado, and I thought I would maybe go to law school and work on water resources, which is a big issue in Colorado. But as I went down my path, I realized that agriculture is the world’s biggest water user, biggest land user, and biggest threat to biodiversity. So from an environmental and resource point of view, agriculture was also so relevant.
I fit my research into this bigger frame of agriculture, development, and environment. Unlike many of my students, who are interested local food and what’s on your plate, it was from the perspective of global environment, development, and poverty.
FF: How does your research address agriculture and food issues?
RN: My research on agriculture comes from the economics perspective. I actually got interested in economics as a freshman at UVM. I had a great professor, who was basically a social renegade, and he was convincing us back in 1976 that economics was the root of all evil, and I thought, “Wow! I need to know about economics, because this is the issue that’s transforming the world!” So I came at economics because I knew it was such an influential point of change, rather than loving economics theory per se.
My research looks at the supply side of agriculture as well as the demand side. On the demand side, I look at how population is influencing the kinds of agricultural patterns we see, or, even more importantly now, how income growth and demands for various crops, including meat, processed foods, and biofeuls, is influencing the types of production systems that we see.
On the supply side, I’ve worked with colleagues at Stanford on the use of fertilization to get the productivity growth needed to meet the demand. Fertilizer is an essential part of the equation, but only about 40% is taken up by the plants, so you’ve got about 60% that is lost in the environment and has all these deleterious impacts offsite that aren’t accounted for in the price mechanism at all.
I also do studies looking at what’s happening in agricultural markets. We’ve been in a crazy period of agricultural markets globally since 2008. My view is that a lot of this was actually motivated by the biofuel boom that happened at the time. Prices for the main commodities shot up and they’ve been bouncing around since then, so I look at the implications for food security. For example, can poor consumers manage? Are they even affected by these global prices? And also, what’s factoring into that market volatility? Is it the demand for biofuels and meat as economies go from poor to emerging and higher income? Or is it driven by supply shocks such as climate impacts or major pest infestations?
So to boil it down, what I’m interested in is the world food economy. What are the demand drivers and supply aspects that are influencing it? And how does behavior affect what we see in the world food economy, in terms of the economic motivations for getting into crops like oil palm, for example, which is having a major impact on global environmental land use, forests, and carbon sequestration.
I spend a lot of time focusing on specific actors and decision makers in the global market. It’s not a utopic system where there’s some sort of social engineering at the core —the world food economy is about real people making real decisions. They may be very poor people just trying to get a meal, or they may be agribusiness fitting into an economic niche, and for them it might not be about feeding the world, but more about making a profit or becoming certified in sustainable systems.
Unlike most sectors in the global economy, agriculture is more influenced by policy intervention than any other sector in the world. You can imagine why this is true, because food is so essential and important to every country’s population. Once you get a policy intervention, giving incentives to producers to grow certain crops or to use certain practices, it’s really hard to reverse those policies. Policies tend to get entrenched—we see this in our own farm bill here in the U.S., and how political it is. In fact, the policies we implement here in the U.S. have implications for food security all over the world because all countries are connected through trade and prices and markets.
So my own view of the world food economy is based on a fundamental economic model of demand and supply equilibrating at a certain price, decisions responding to that price, and policies altering the price incentives. There are so many issues to look at when you think of it in this context. That’s what makes my job really fun! I don’t think I would ever get bored in my job, because there are so many really important agriculture, food, and social issues at the root of this field.
FF: Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming trip to Indonesia?
RN: I started my work in agriculture in Indonesia on basic staple crops and the impact of the earlier Green Revolution on livelihoods. At the time, there was some great policy support for investing in agriculture and investing in smallholders. Indonesia went from having 80% of its population under the poverty line to only 15%, so the Green Revolution in Indonesia’s case was really successful in lifting a lot of people out of poverty.
It’s a very different trip this time. This time it’s about the next revolution—the tropical oil seed revolution. We’re seeing amazing growth, similar to what we saw in the staple crops in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. The biggest demand is from emerging economies for soybeans, palm oil, and other edible oils. This revolution is very different than the Green Revolution because it’s not scale neutral. This is large scale, very extensive, mostly in rainforests and on native grass or shrub land, but also on degraded lands. It has big environmental impacts, and is led by very large multinational companies. It also involves smallholders, so there’s a poverty alleviation component, but it’s driven by these large companies who are taking advantage of the huge demand for cooking oil, meat, and processed foods coming out of the emerging economies in China, India, and Indonesia. Several of them are now becoming certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and other regional certification programs. So it’s a very different sort of revolution, and one that is much more unsettled in terms of the state of the planet.
My colleagues and I will be looking at the roles of smallholders and these larger companies, and how they are navigating more responsible production. What are the land tenure and land rights issues involved on the ground? I want to learn more about what the technology equation is right now. What kinds of investments are being made in germplasm and crop management? It’s very different with a perennial crop—palm oil stays in the ground for over 20 years.
I like these trips because my work gets motivated by talking to farmers, households, and communities on the ground. I don’t just sit in my office at Stanford and think up these questions. I may have an idea of how the world economy is working, but I really like to get out and talk to people and see what the real issues are. Hopefully I’ll have some good stories to bring to the talk when I come to Vermont for the Food Systems Summit.
FF: What are you most looking forward to during your time in Vermont?
RN: I’m looking forward to seeing what’s happened at UVM since I was a student there in 1976. I was very inspired by some of the professors there working in the environment area. I’m also looking forward to talking with UVM faculty about how to build interdisciplinary collaborations across different schools, and how an institution can build a unique food systems program.
Also, I like how you’ve structured the Summit audience to include academics as well as the government sector, the private sector, and the NGO sector. It’s really necessary for finding improvements and solutions for feeding people with good nutrition and having healthy livelihoods—we do need all those groups at the table. It can’t be done by any single group, and those interactions are so important in moving forward. That’s an audience I particularly want to address, so I’m excited about that.