The world's demographers this week increased their estimates of the world's population through the coming century. We are now on track to hit 10 billion people by 2100. Today, humanity produces enough food to feed everyone but, because of the way we distribute it, there are still a billion hungry. One doesn't need to be a frothing Malthusian to worry about how we'll all get to eat tomorrow. Current predictions place most of the world's people in Asia, the highest levels of consumption in Europe and North America, and the highest population growth rates in Africa -- where the population could triple over the next 90 years.
There are, however, plans afoot to feed the world. One of the countries to which the world's development experts have turned as a test bed is Malawi. Landlocked and a little smaller than Pennsylvania, Malawi is consistently among the world's poorest places. The latest figures have 90 percent of its 15 million people living on the equivalent of less than two dollars a day. By century's end, the population is expected to be nearly 132 million. Today, some 40 percent of Malawians live below the country's poverty line, and part of the reason for widespread chronic poverty is that more than 70 percent of Malawians live in rural areas. There, they depend on agriculture -- and nearly every farmer grows maize. "Chimanga ndi moyo" -- "maize is life," the local saying goes -- but growing maize pays so poorly that few people can afford to eat anything else.
If you arrive in Malawi in March, just after the rainy season, growing food seems like a fool's game. It's hard to find a patch of red soil that isn't a tall riot of green. From the roadside you can see maize about to ripen, with squash and beans planted at the base of the thick stalks. Even the tobacco fields are doing well this year. But there's a rumble in this jungle. Malawi's swaying fields are a battleground in which three different visions for the future of global agriculture are ranged against one other.
The first and most venerable development idea for Malawi sees these farmers as survivors of a doomed way of life who need to be helped into the hereafter. Oxford economist Paul Collier is the poster child for this "modernist" view, one that he presented in a scathing November 2008 Foreign Affairs article in which he cudgeled the "romantics" who yearned for peasant agriculture. Observing both that wages in cities are higher than in the countryside, and that every large developed country is able to feed itself without peasant farmers, Collier argued the virtues of big agriculture. He also called on the European Union to support genetically modified crops and for the United States to kill domestic subsidies for biofuel. He was one-third right: biofuel subsidies are absurd, not least because they drive up food prices, siphoning grains from the bowls of the poorest into the gas-tanks of the richest -- with limited environmental gains, at best.
Collier's contempt for peasants seems, however, to rest on something other than the facts. Although international agribusiness has generated great profits ever since the East India Company, it hasn't brought riches to farmers and farmworkers, who are invariably society's poorest people. Indeed, big agriculture earns its moniker -- it tends to work most lucratively with large-scale plantations and operations to which small farmers are little more than an impediment.
It turns out that if you're keen to make the world's poorest people better off, it's smarter to invest in their farms and workplaces than to send them packing to the cities. In its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank found that, indeed, investment in peasants was among the most efficient and effective ways of raising people out of poverty and hunger. It was an awkward admission, as the Bank had long been trumpeting Collier's brand of agricultural development. Farmers organizations from Malawi to India to Brazil had been pointing out that access to land, water, sustainable technology, education, markets, state investment in processing, and -- above all, access to level playing field on domestic and international markets -- would help them. But it took three decades of lousy policy for the development establishment to realize this, and they're not quite there yet.