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Nobel Conference: Bina Agarwal

“Can We Make Food Good for All?”

Bina Agarwal, Ph.D., professor of economics and director, Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, India

Bina Agarwal spoke to us about solving the problems of making food good for the world’s poorest. If you only watch one lecture, I recommend you make it this one. It is the least easily captured in notes, and it contained the best use of slides of any of the talks. As before, below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. Note that Dr. Agarwal used “collectivities” in the place of “collectives” to differentiate them from the Soviet-style agricultural collectives. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • Cooking in mother’s kitchen was a sacred, meditative act. Required bathing and silence.
  • Hindu scriptures divide food into three categories. Satvik (pure and health promoting), Rajasik (over-stimulating), Tamasik (decaying).
  • What food is “good” varies by culture, but the poor cannot always afford nutritious food, much less “good” food.
  • About 1B people undernourished in 2009. Challenge will grow with population, even without climate change.
  • Nutrition/food security challenges: production (who), distribution, preparation, and consumption.
  • Biofeul production in food exporting countries, like U.S. have implications for security of importing regions.
  • Farming labor force is declining worldwide and becoming more female. Biases thus have a large impact on agriculture.
  • Forest lands declining. They are an important source of supplementary food items, particularly for the poorest.
  • Climate change expected to have the most dramatic (negative) impact on the cereal crops of Africa and South Asia.
  • Entitlement to food is not equally distributed either nationally or internationally. Much starvation due to entitlement issues.
  • Clean cooking fuel is a limited resource. Biofuels (firewood, crop waste, animal dung) are not clean.
  • Unclean fuels disproportionally affect cooks (women) and the children who play near them: r espiratory distress, cancer.
  • Even with clean, abundant food, the challenge of junk is ever present, particularly as the rich West is emulated.
  • Community-managed irrigation less sexy than big dams, but taking hold in India. May be more sustainable.
  • Small farmers (mostly women) don’t have political or investment power. Autonomous collectives may be the solution.
  • Small collectives increase skill sets, knowledge bases and economic resources, decrease social isolation.
  • In de-collectivized post-Soviet areas, large percentages of farms voluntarily remained in collectives. Saw many benefits.
  • Collectives have methods to check free-riding. Show higher productivity than single-family farms.
  • Collectives have also made food available cheaply to poor in areas, enhancing community food security.
  • Collectives in India also increasing women’s status. Some evidence for decreasing domestic violence.
  • Degraded forest land has been given to local Indian communities to protect. Forest land now increasing.
  • Clean stoves a good step toward clean fuel, but don’t solve all problems (dependence on forests, etc.). Need to make processed biogasses.
  • Local solutions good, but don’t alleviate international responsibilities: R&D, border issues, understanding interdependence.
  • Women and poor not just main victims of food crisis. Also essential part of the solution.
  • Not good data on utility of microloan programs. Pooled, rotating investment resources in collectives work well, however.
  • Title to land, even not enough land to support you, provides a fallback and bargaining power for more.