World University Presidents Keynote, China Agricultural University Centennial, September 16, 2005

Facing the Shared Challenge of Global Food Security in an Interdependent World

Keynote Address of Jeffrey S. Lehman

The World University Presidents Forum at

The Centennial of China Agricultural University

September 16, 2005

I am truly honored to be with you on this momentous occasion.  The centennial of C.A.U. is a time to celebrate the past, to congratulate a great university for its contributions to China and to science over the past hundred years.  But as the planners of the World University Presidents Forum have recognized, it is also a time to contemplate the future.  It is a time to think about how this university, and all universities, will contribute to our world over the next hundred years.

I’d like to begin my remarks by talking about a challenging but simpler time.  The time was the 1920’s, when famine was widespread in central and northern China.  The University of Nanjing and Cornell University together developed a comprehensive research and educational program known as the Summer Institutes of Crop Improvement.  The Institutes sought to draw on state-of-the-art scientific knowledge to improve the principal food crops of the famine areas.  And they also sought to train local farmers in the principles, methods, applications and organization of crop improvement.

The Institutes were offered four times between 1926 and 1931.  They were, by all accounts, a great success.  Barley yields improved by as much as 21%, wheat yields by as much as 28%, and rice yields by as much as 30%.  And a new generation of sophisticated plant breeders was developed that continued to provide technological innovation for decades after the Institutes were done.  It is a wonderful story, one that is told and re-told at Cornell as an example of how transnational collaboration can make a direct and visible difference in the world.

Now, 75 years later, we face challenges of far greater scale and complexity.  And my theme this afternoon is that we can address those challenges most effectively if we see them as derived from a single, overarching challenge:  the challenge of interdependence.  If the academic leaders of today are to have the impact that the academic leaders of Nanjing and Cornell had in the 1920’s, they must understand the challenge of interdependence.  And they must appreciate their special role in building the relationships of trust that are needed to address that challenge.

World trade is directly tied to national vulnerability and interdependence.  Early in the nineteenth century, the economist David Ricardo wrote about how, when countries allow their citizens to trade with one another, the principle of comparative advantage means that the overall well-being of individuals in both countries will increase.  Yet that same principle also means that free trade will lead each country’s economy to become more specialized.

If the goods that are being traded are perceived as luxuries, like wine or television sets, then the case for free trade is easy. But politicians and nations have often hesitated when it comes to goods that seem essential to their sovereignty, like food or energy.  If specialization will lead a country to produce less of a good that seems essential, then that country will become dependent on the continuation of friendly trading relations with the other country.  And if it would take a long time to regenerate the capacity to produce more of the good in question, the country is both dependent and vulnerable.

It is not easy to choose to become vulnerable in this way.  Of course, some countries don’t have any choice:  their limited endowments of natural resources mean that self-sufficiency is not even an option.  But for countries like the United States and China, a certain degree of self sufficiency has been an option.  So each has, from time to time, adopted policies that try to preserve self sufficiency with respect to certain goods.  Such policies disrupt trade in those goods, ensuring that they will be produced less efficiently.

And here is my first point.  One of the most striking features of the past 75 years is that, over and over again, countries have backed away from such policies.  They have decided that maintaining self sufficiency would impose too big a penalty on their citizens.  They have chosen free trade.  And, by doing so, they have chosen dependence and vulnerability.

Consider, for example, the United States and energy.  If it wanted, the United States could intervene aggressively in the markets for energy in ways that would, at least over time, eliminate the country’s dependence on foreign oil.  But neither the American public nor America’s leaders have been willing to make the sacrifices that energy independence would require.  The benefits of trade have been too large to resist.  The United States has chosen a more comfortable vulnerability rather than a less comfortable security.  And this has been the typical pattern.

Of course, it is easier to accept the idea of depending on others if we know that others are depending on us as well – if, for example, one country produces the food that is needed by another country that produces the energy.  Inter-dependence is more fun than simple dependence.  But even interdependence entails vulnerability.  We tolerate that vulnerability more or less well, according to the extent we trust and have confidence in our trading partners. 

The technology-fueled emergence of a global market economy, and the associated appearance of some critical institutional structures like the WTO, has accelerated the process of increasing global economic interdependence.  And we are becoming more interdependent in other ways as well.  More and more, the dangers we face are dangers that do not respect national borders.  Infectious diseases that emerge in one region quickly circle the globe.  The risks of ozone depletion and global warming are not confined to a few countries.  We all need to be concerned with how humanity will meet its energy needs when fossil fuel stocks are inadequate to meet demand.  No nation is immune to the dangers posed by heavily armed political extremists.

What does this interdependence mean for agriculture?  Among other things, it means that agriculture today is not a set of independent national challenges.  Food security is a global challenge.  We have a shared interest in creating a robust, interdependent international system of agricultural production and distribution.  

Changes in our world since 1930 have generated extraordinary new challenges and opportunities in the quest for global food security.  The most obvious issues arise directly from population growth.  In 1930, China’s population was approximately 500 million people.  That number has increase by 160% over the past 75 years.  During that same period of time the total human population on our planet has grown even faster, by 225%, to its present total of 6.5 billion people.

When population increases but arable land does not, we face obvious technological and scientific challenges.  Simply put, we must increase our production of human-digestible calories.  We need the modern day counterparts to the crop improvement programs of the 1920’s.

But modern agricultural science has grown far more sophisticated about the complexity of agricultural production.  Crop yields still matter.  Enormously.  But they are not all that matter.  Today, we expect crop yields to increase under a much more sophisticated, comprehensive, robust set of constraints.  Today, we are much more attuned to the subtle and complex interdependencies among ecosystems and human systems, and we see the challenge of feeding the world as a challenge that calls for the integration of insights from a vast array of intellectual disciplines.

Yes, we must increase our production of human-digestible calories.  But we must do so in ways that are not ecologically devastating. We must produce them in forms and combinations that meet the nutritional requirements of the people who must consume them. We must produce them in forms that are culturally tolerable to the people who must consume them.  We must produce them and then place them into a distribution system that combines market and non-market processes to ensure that every person who needs the calories can obtain them.

Let me be even more concrete. I asked some of my most distinguished Cornell colleagues to identify important challenges to our abilities to produce and distribute the food we need in this century.  Their responses spanned a broad range of issues.  I would like to group them into four categories:  inputs, technologies, contexts, and byproducts.

First, inputs.  Agricultural production depends heavily upon the availability of land, labor, machinery, water, and fertilizer.  Let me focus on just two of them: labor and water.  With respect to labor, modern agriculture requires a better educated workforce; how can we ensure a level of literacy among rural populations that will permit the most sophisticated agricultural technologies to be deployed?  And with respect to water, how can we ensure that our scarce water resources are preserved and employed as efficiently as possible?

Second, technologies.  Genetic engineering, biotechnology more generally, and nanobiotechnology have created dramatic new possibilities for the practice of modern agriculture.  Moreover, new agricultural technologies have broadened the uses to which agricultural products may be put, towards energy production for example.  How can we ensure that scientific and technological understanding continues to advance, so that our options and choices for the future are maximized?

Third, contexts.  We are today much more aware of the extent to which agriculture is affected by larger societal contexts.  The contexts of cultural and educational systems determine what forms people want their food to take, and therefore determine the value of different types of food.  Consider for example the widespread consumer resistance to genetically modified food in Europe.  Or consider the rapid increase recently in demand for vegetables and meat and the declining demand for cereal grains in China.

The contexts of political and economic systems determine whether farmers are literate or not, whether they are healthy or not, and whether their work will enable them to escape poverty or not, all of which in turn influence how many of the next generation of workers will prefer to seek farm or non-farm employment. The contexts of legal and administrative systems determine whether land owners can transfer the use of their property, by sale or lease, to people who can use it most productively.

Some of these contextual systems can be more easily modified than others.  How can we modify contextual systems in ways that promote our agricultural goals?  How can we better understand the contextual systems we cannot modify?

Fourth, byproducts.  Systems of agricultural production create much more than food.  Every step of the production and distribution process creates byproducts, most of which are safe, but some of which are quite dangerous.  Moreover, because a well-functioning market economy responds relatively quickly to the preferences and desires of consumers.  Therefore, a byproduct of the system can be rapid shifts in dietary patterns that may bring on widespread adverse health consequences, like obesity and diabetes.  How can we ensure that our systems fully account for the dangerous byproducts and risks associated with different production technologies?  And how can we ensure that consumers are educated about the potential health risks of abrupt changes in dietary pattern?

All in all, what we are seeking is a set of approaches to inputs, contexts, technologies, and byproducts that is comprehensive, integrated, and each year is demonstrably more sustainable than the prior year’s set of approaches.

I am not talking about the notion of absolute, infinite sustainability, as attractive as such an ideal may be.  I am speaking of the more immediate and practical notion of relative sustainability.  If current practices in any domain, be they technological, economic, or political, cannot be sustained for more than 80 years, are there other practices that might work for 150 years?  And how can human society pass through an indefinite series of necessary transitions, from technology to technology, from social system to social system, in ways that are minimally disruptive and that make economic sense?

To do this we are compelled to deepen human understanding along many different dimensions.  And we are also compelled to strengthen our ability to integrate those different dimensions into a coherent analytical whole.  We are driven to find new ways to deliberate together about whether or not to embrace innovations that produce benefits along one dimension and harms along a different dimension.

The sustainability challenges we face in the domain of agriculture are not confined to any one nation.  Solutions that work locally but not globally are not sustainable solutions.

When one contemplates the magnitude of these challenges, the efficiency gains that come from trade sound even more desirable.  If, by specializing and trading, two countries can dramatically increase their joint agricultural production while respecting the constraints of sustainability, the world would certainly enjoy important benefits.

To promote healthy agricultural interdependence, we need a core infrastructure of laws, customs, and institutions that will permit us to integrate our complementary strengths into a harmonious whole.  This is the essential infrastructure for healthy interdependence.

Unfortunately, worldwide interdependence has arrived faster than we have able to build that infrastructure.  

Many different nations and groups of nations have developed their own institutions, laws, and customs that respond to market failures.  But their different approaches do not fit well together.  We need to develop a way to make them fit.

There are many different appropriate ways to respond to the risks of monopoly, information inequality, agency problems, moral hazard, adverse selection, and externalities.  There is no one perfect set of competition laws, worker protection laws, consumer protection laws, intellectual property laws, or environmental laws.

But as the costs of global trade to individuals fall, and as it becomes easier and cheaper to move investment capital around the world, it becomes more important to at least harmonize these multiple legal regimes across national borders.  Otherwise many potentially beneficial trades will not take place.  Even worse, free trade might amplify the damage associated with certain kinds of market failure.

Our national leaders hold primary responsibility for the creation of this infrastructure. Yet they do not hold exclusive responsibility.  Business leaders have a role to play in its emergence.  And, I would submit, so do the leaders of higher education.

Indeed, the responsibilities of higher education may be the greatest of all.  For it is the special role of higher education to promote knowledge and understanding for their own sakes, without regard to whether they will lead to political advantages or financial gains.  And it is the special role of higher education to bring talented young people together at a crucial moment in their formation, to prepare them for lives of satisfaction and contribution.

I believe that, today more than ever before, we must nurture within our students a transnational perspective on the human condition.  

We must help our students to be open and engaged.  Open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of feeling.  I am not saying they should try to develop a unitary global perspective. Rather, we should help them to transcend transcends nationalism without insisting on a unitary global substitute.  We should help them embrace a vision of universalism that reinforces and is reinforced by pluralism.  And we should help them become eager to participate in the efforts of people everywhere to better understand the world and to improve the conditions of their lives.  To advocate for certain humanist values, even while listening carefully and respectfully to those who might reject those values.

But our obligations go beyond the training of our students.  Remember the different challenges to our quest for global food security in the areas of inputs, technologies, contexts, and byproducts.  Universities have much to contribute to the development of responses to these challenges.

In developing these responses, universities are like nations.  We would sacrifice too much if we thought of ourselves as independent, self sufficient competitors.  The search for solutions in any academic discipline is an interdependent, collaborative process.

Within the academic culture, we have institutions and traditions that sustain certain forms of interdependent collaboration.  Refereed journals and international conferences are the most obvious examples.  Yet how many of our universities have taken the next step and made broad transnational collaboration an explicit institutional goal?  And how many of our universities have committed resources to build an infrastructure for collaboration?  An infrastructure that recognizes that each of our institutions is different, with its own unique strengths, and its own comparative advantages?  An infrastructure that will promote the frictionless movement of ideas and faculty members into environments where they can be the most productive?

That is just one reason why events like the China Agricultural University’s World Agricultural Congress are so important.  By bringing researchers together, they contribute to the development of collaborative solutions to shared problems.  By bringing university presidents together, they contribute to the emergence of structures that can sustain a more strongly interdependent academic world.  And by supporting that process they contribute to the emergence of a larger institutional infrastructure for robust interdependence among nations.

It is not realistic to expect that this project will ever be completed.  It is not realistic to believe that we will ever become a fully integrated world without borders, completely trusting, confidently vulnerable and interdependent.  But I have no doubt that we can all benefit from walking towards that horizon.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon.