Are Open Food Systems Compatible with A Sustainable Agriculture?

DENNIS KEENEY, Emeritus Professor, Iowa State University, Ames IA 50011, 515-232-1531, and RICHARD LEVINS, Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, St Paul MN 55108, 612-625-1222;


In its most basic formulation, open economy theory holds that if nations will allow free exchange and encourage production specialization, those nations can always make themselves better off. Differences in domestic and international prices lead countries to specialize in those things for which they have a comparative advantage, produce more than the domestic economy can use, then trade the surplus for less expensive goods from other countries. An underlying assumption, that receives virtually no attention, is that manufacturing and biological processes are essentially the same. But manufacturing and biological processes are fundamentally different. Intense specialization in a few food crops brings about costs that are not measured by the conventional pricing models used in trade theory. Both soil and water quality suffers as crop diversity is minimized. Major ecosystems such as the Mississippi River suffer from its over emphasis as a transportation system for export of bulk grains. Also, diseases and pest infestations are more difficult to manage in specialized systems. Therefore, long-term food production capacity can easily be compromised in favor of short-term gains from open economy theories. Further, the emphasis on free trade causes cash-poor nations to emphasize exports at the expense of the nutrition of local citizens. Even though there may be advantages for trade in manufactured goods, we argue that emphasis on a balance between open food systems and local food production will best serve global needs in the long run.


"Far back in the mists of time, when humans began trading shells and beads with each other, the first markets emerged, but such traditional markets were never free. All traditional markets are embedded in societies and are regulated and restrained by those societies for the purpose of maintaining social cohesion."

Peter Montague.1999


"A food system describes the network of technology, production, processing, distribution, and retailing that brings food to consumers. An open system is one where production and trade are guided by market forces that are not distorted by subsidies or trade barriers."

Food and Agriculture Committee of the National Policy Association, Washington Dc. September, 1998.


"We should be aware that food problems usually come out of problems other than international food markets"

Robert Paarlberg


Clearly then if the problem of world hunger is to be solved it must come through expanded food production in the low-income food deficit countries, where the majority of the world’s population live on the land and are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Moreover, with out the development of domestic agriculture-and achievement of an adequate and reliable food supply-the development of commerce and industry will be forever retarded.

Borlaug and Dowsell, 1994


For the poor, it doesn’t matter if there’s a lot of wheat out there. You can’t buy it anyway.’

Mark Rosegrant


"For the poorest countries, an increase in agricultural productivity is the key to improving food security. In these countries, imports play a small role in the domestic food supply because of limited foreign exchange availability"

Economic Research Service Report, August, 1999



What is really meant by an open food system? Is it the ability to provide to all of those who can afford it the nutritious food they desire at the cheapest possible price? And if so, is this the way to protect the environment, to "save land for wildlife" or "spare land for nature"?

This paper explores the issue from the perspective of the environment, and tries as much as possible to stay away from the "hunger" question.

Causes of Hunger

Much has been said about the growing hunger caused by a burgeoning population, rising life styles, and shrinking natural resources. This has raised concerns that world stability will be threatened in the near future and has been used to justify the push to high production levels, accompanied by the industrial infrastructure and internal transportation systems needed to transport bulk grains to shipping points.

Importantly, much data indicates that the world is sufficiently supplied with food and feed grains, that population will stabilize in the next 30-50 years, and that current hunger and malnutrition is largely the result of political issues and economic decisions. Numerous countries with high levels of malnutrition, hunger and poverty actually export considerable food in exchange for foreign reserves.


In essence the world has been able to meet food needs for the past two centuries, in spite of the concerns of Malthus in 1800 (Evans, 1998). Food production has evolved from expansion of arable land under cultivation to improvement of yields through various technologies. This transformation occurred about 1960, at the time the world reached 3 billion people (Evans). This major watershed in world agriculture not surprisingly was associated with a move to a more industrialized system of food production, especially in northern countries. Now we pass 6 billion and look to a stable figure in the range of 8 to 12 billion people. Coupled with increased per capita demands assuming that the world’s economy remains stable, food production will have go more than double in 30-50 years. Can this be done?

Table 1 gives the main components of an increased global production system. These are obvious components, but not easily met.

Table Main components of an increased global food supply by crops (Evans, 1998)


  • Increase in land under cultivation
  • Increase in yield per hectare per crop
  • Increase in number of crops per hectare per year
  • Displacement of lower yielding crops by higher yielding ones
  • Reduction of post-harvest losses
  • Reduction in use of feed for animals.


We wish here to emphasize the problems associated with meeting food needs as outlined in Table 1 and the opportunities, both from technology and policy, to meet these needs. The following Tables outline the discussion. Few doubt that the most critical factor in maintaining productivity, especially in rice but also in other grain crops, is the availability of irrigation water. Water shortages have become endemic throughout the Asia Pacific region, particularly China and India.




(Probably the most intractable problem)


  • Demand from urban and industrial uses is increasing rapidly
  • Decline in water quality because of overuse
  • Increase in water logging



  • Restrict urban and industrial development
  • Increase water use efficiency
  • Improve irrigation infrastructure, drainage
  • Minimize fertilizer, pesticide use
  • Price water at its true value


Arable land availability is also a huge constraint, but it has been thus for over 4 decades. However, there are suggestions that considerable crop land could be made available with changes in land tenure, that is the breakup of large land holdings into properties large enough to be viable as farms but small enough to be managed as a family farm unit





  • Nearly all productive land now in use


  • Land tenure changes to permit small farm holdings
  • Manage land as watersheds, stop deforestation
  • Research for a brown revolution


What is a brown revolution? We are talking here about emphasis on the more fragile soils.


Focus research on marginal lands where crop production could be increased and land degradation reduced

  • An area largely ignored by science and policy
  • Greater risk of crop failures
  • Yield gains more difficult to achieve
  • Needs innovative plant breeding and biotechnology approaches
  • Addresses the needs of the very poor
  • Would lessen migration, land degradation

Another major constraint to increasing food self sufficiency, and a very complicated one, is the economics of farming. There will have to be a balance between market forces and government intervention in prices to affect a change in economic returns.




  • Small landholdings, low capital, lack of knowledge
  • Import of wheat, corn, replacing rice, other adapted crops


  • Shift to higher return crops, diversify
  • Increase integrated farming systems
  • Increase efficiency, reduce inputs by research, management
  • Reward conservation farming, provide incentives to lessen intensification
  • More commercial farms



  • Unpredictable impact, timing, uncontrollable at local scale



  • Accelerate crop breeding to adopt to changing climates
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the losses from rice paddies
  • Sequester carbon in soils, increase organic matter, improve soil quality


Another issue is the unpredictability of global climate change. This is a global issue, and one very difficult to address by those in the Asia-Pacific region. Several studies have shown, however, that emissions of methane from rice paddy culture is especially high relative to other agricultural systems.

Many subsistence areas are exhibiting health problems with farm workers, primarily from overuse of pesticides. As input use is controlled because of economic and environmental reasons, worker health should also improve.

Physiological yield barriers are close to being reached for several crops. Yields have peaked, or declined, indicating to many that the yield barriers are as much due to plant characteristics as to soil and water issues. A major physiological barrier is the limits to crop growth with the enzyme systems for photosynthesis. In spite of considerable research effort, little progress has been made to date increasing the overall efficiency of photosynthesis.




  • Reduced pesticide use through IPM, biological control
  • Develop pesticide resistant crops
  • Crop rotations, education on pesticide use




  • Lack of genetic material
  • Virtually no progress on photosynthesis breakthrough research



  • Increase adoption of hybrid rice
  • Emphasize research on incremental changes in yield by working on interactions of management and input factors
  • Develop crops adapted to stress


Perhaps one of the most worrisome issues is the indications of declining soil productivity, primarily as a result of intensification of agriculture. Addressing this issue is critical to sustainability. Soil quality declines are directly associated with the lack of incentives to maintain a quality soil because this is not a recognized market attribute.

We think the prospects for a secure food supply in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere in the world can be achieved but only if there are concerted efforts to improve local food production, protect and manage the land, including the soils and waters, and if research and extension is emphasized. In addition, the type of inputs so successfully applied in the green revolution can be used again, but modified in accordance with local needs.

REFERENCES (not cited yet, but will work these in the manuscript later)

Lappe, F. M., J. Coillins and P. Rosset. 1998. World Hunger: 12 Myths. Second edn. Institute for Food and Development Policy, Grove Press, 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003

Greenland, D. J., P. J. Gregory, and P. H. Nye. 1998. Land Resources and Constraints to crop production. Pp. 39-57. In Waterlow, J. C., Armstrong, D. G., Fowden, L. and Riley, R. Feeding a World Population of More than Eight Billion People. A Challenge to Science. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Evans, L. T. 1998. Greater crop Production: Whence and Wither? pp. 89-97. In Waterlow, J. C., Armstrong, D. G., Fowden, L. and Riley, R. Feeding a World Population of More than Eight Billion People. A Challenge to Science. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Long, S. P. 1998. Rubisco:The key to improved crop production for a world population of more than eight billion people? Pp. 124-136. . In Waterlow, J. C., Armstrong, D. G., Fowden, L. and Riley, R. Feeding a World Population of More than Eight Billion People. A Challenge to Science. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Winkelmann, D. L. 1998. Productivity, poverty alleviation, and food security. In Waterlow, J. C., Armstrong, D. G., Fowden, L. and Riley, R. Feeding a World Population of More than Eight Billion People. A Challenge to Science. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Verma, D. P. S. 1998. Developing crops with tolerance to salinity and drought stress. Pp. 171-183. . In Waterlow, J. C., Armstrong, D. G., Fowden, L. and Riley, R. Feeding a World Population of More than Eight Billion People. A Challenge to Science. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Greenland, D. J. 1997. The Sustainability of Rice Farming. CAB International.

Wallingford, Oxon UK. 273 pp.

Evans, L. T. 1998. Feeding the Ten Billion. Plants and population growth. Cambridge Univ. Press. 247 pp.

Pingali, P. L., M. Hossain and R. V. Gerpacio. 1997. Asia Rice Bowls: The Returning Crisis? CAB International. Wallingford UK. 341 pp.

Wagagoner, P. E. 1994. How much land can ten billion people spare for nature? Council for Agriculture Science and Technology, Ames, IA 64 pp.

Shapouri, S., and S. Rosen. 1999. Food security assessment: Why countries are at risk. Agr. Inform. Bull. 754. 21 pp.

Borlag, N. E. and C. R. Doswell. 1994. Feeding a human population that increasingly crowds a fragile planet. Keynote lecture, 15tah World Congress of Soil Science, Acapulco, Mexico.

Brown, L. R. and B. Halweil. 1998. China’s water shorgage could shake world food security. World Watch July/August 1998, pp. 10-21.