Farming First: A Recipe to Feed a Crowded World

If this approach sounds familiar, it should

Timothy A. Wise
Heated
Published in
7 min readApr 30, 2019

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People walk in a crowded street in Mexico City on November 4, 2011. The United Nations estimates that the world population reached 7 billion on October 31, 2011. Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

One version of an old joke features a shipwrecked economist on a deserted island who, when asked by his fellow survivors what expertise he can offer on how they can be rescued, replies, “Assume we have a boat.” Economists have a well-deserved reputation for making their theories work only by making unrealistic assumptions about how the real world operates.

I was reminded of the joke often in the five years I traveled the world researching my book, “Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food.” Policymakers from Mexico to Malawi, India to Mozambique, routinely advocated large-scale, capital-intensive agricultural projects as the solution to widespread hunger and low agricultural productivity, oblivious to the reality that such initiatives generally displace more farmers than they employ.

Where are the displaced supposed to go? “Assume we have employment,” can be the only answer, because economic growth sure wasn’t generating enough jobs to absorb those displaced from rural areas. No one can sail home on an economist’s assumed boat. And assumed jobs wouldn’t address the chronic unemployment and underemployment that characterize most developing countries.

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Timothy A. Wise
Heated
Writer for

Author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, & the Battle for the Future of Food. Advisor with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.