OPINION: critiques on the United Nations’s GAPS model of estimating food supply and demand

In his new, peer-reviewed paper (20 pp.) The Myth of a Food Crisis, Latham critiques the United Nations’s GAPS model of estimating food supply and demand – and by extension, he refutes the validity of all similar food system models. (GAPS = Global Agriculture Perspectives System)

Latham summarizes the four major flaws:

1) That biofuels are driven by “demand”.

As the paper shows, biofuels are incorporated into GAPS on the demand side of equations. However, biofuels derive from lobbying efforts. They exist to solve the problem of agricultural oversupply. Since biofuels contribute little or nothing to sustainability, land used for them is available to feed populations if needed. This potential availability (e.g. 40 percent of US corn is used for corn ethanol) makes it plainly wrong for GAPS to treat biofuels as an unavoidable demand on production.

2) That current agricultural production systems are optimized for productivity.

As the paper also shows, agricultural systems are typically not optimized to maximize calories or nutrients. Usually, they optimize profits (or sometimes subsidies), with very different results. For this reason, practically all agricultural systems could produce many more nutrients per acre at no ecological cost if desired.

3) That crop “yield potentials” have been correctly estimated.

Using the example of rice, the paper shows that some farmers, even under sub-optimal conditions, achieve yields far in excess of those considered possible by GAPS. Thus the yield ceilings assumed by GAPS are far too low for rice and probably other crops too. Therefore GAPS grossly underestimates agricultural potential.

4) That annual global food production is approximately equal to global food consumption.

As the paper also shows, a significant proportion of annual global production ends up in storage where it degrades and is disposed of without ever being counted by GAPS. There is thus a very large accounting hole in GAPS.

The specific ways in which these four assumptions are incorporated into GAPS and other models produces one of two effects. Each causes GAPS to either underestimate global food supply (now and in the future), or to overestimate global food demand (now and in the future).

 Conclusion 

1)  The dominant, corporate-driven model of agriculture is based on overproduction, which produces low agricultural commodity prices to benefit agribusiness corporations, rather than an agroecological model designed to benefit farmers and eaters with affordable, healthy food. And the myth of ‘feeding a hungry world’ is fabricated to justify the dominant approach.

2)  There is no global shortage of food – not now nor in the foreseeable future.

Even with population growth and shifting diets, worldwide production can easily surpass increased demand. In fact, the current and future glut will continue and will likely cause commodity prices to decline.

One wild card is the way climate disruption may change the field of play. But promoting industrial agriculture as a way to mitigate or adapt to climate change, when industrialized food systems are the leading emitter of carbon dioxide, defies logic.

Instead, agroecology, which sequesters atmospheric carbon into the soil, needs to be promoted and scaled out to

  • cool the planet
  • provide better nutrition
  • serve farmers needs and
  • protect biological diversity and the integrity of ecosystems around the world

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