FSI's New Program on Food Security and the Environment Tackles Global Hunger and Environmental Destruction

This past autumn, the Freeman Spogli Institute ( FSI ) in conjunction with the Woods Institute for the Environment launched a program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE) to address the deficit in academia and, on a larger scale, the global dialogue surrounding the critical issues of food security, poverty, and environmental degradation.

“Hunger is the silent killer and moral outrage of our time; however, there are few university programs in the United States designed to study and solve the problem of global food insecurity,” states program director Rosamond L. Naylor. “FSE’s dual affiliation with FSI and Stanford’s new Woods Institute for the Environment position it well to make significant steps in this area.”

Through a focused research portfolio and an interdisciplinary team of scholars led by Naylor and Center for Environmental Science and Policy (CESP) co-director Walter P. Falcon, FSE aims to design new approaches to solve these persistent problems, expand higher education on food security and the environment at Stanford, and provide direct policy outreach.

Productive food systems and their environmental consequences form the core of the program. Fundamentally, the FSE program seeks to understand the food security issues that are of paramount interest to poor countries, the food diversification challenges that are a focus of middle-income nations, and the food safety and subsidy concerns prominent in richer nations.


Although the world’s supply of basic foods has doubled over the past century, roughly 850 million people (12 percent of the world’s population) suffer from chronic hunger. Food insecurity deaths during the past 20 years outnumber war deaths by a factor of at least 5 to 1. Food insecurity is particularly widespread in agricultural regions where resource scarcity and environmental degradation constrain productivity and income growth.

FSE is currently assessing the impacts of climate variability on food security in Asian rice economies. This ongoing project combines the expertise of atmospheric scientists, agricultural economists, and policy analysts to understand and mitigate the adverse effects of El Niño-related climate variability on rice production and food security. As a consequence of Falcon and Naylor’s long-standing roles as policy advisors in Indonesia, models developed through this project have already been embedded into analytical units within Indonesia’s Ministries of Agriculture, Planning, and Finance. “With such forecasts in hand, the relevant government agencies are much better equipped to mitigate the negative consequences of El Niño events on incomes and food security in the Indonesian countryside,” explain Falcon and Naylor.


With rapid income growth, urbanization, and population growth in developing economies, priorities shift from food security to the diversification of agricultural production and consumption. “Meat production is projected to double by 2020,” states Harold Mooney, CESP senior fellow and an author of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. As a result, land once used to provide grains for humans now provides feed for hogs and poultry.

These trends will have major consequences for the global environment—affecting the quality of the atmosphere, water, and soil due to nutrient overloads; impacting marine fisheries both locally and globally through fish meal use; and threatening human health, as, for example, through excessive use of antibiotics.

An FSE project is analyzing the impact of intensive livestock production and assessing the environmental effects to gain a better understanding of the true costs of this resource-intensive system. A product of this work recently appeared as a Policy Forum piece in the December 9, 2005, issue of Science titled "Losing the Links Between Livestock and Land."

Factors contributing to the global growth of livestock systems, lead author Naylor notes, are declining feed-grain prices, relatively inexpensive transportation costs, and trade liberalization. “But many of the true costs remain largely unaccounted for,” she says, including destruction of forests and grasslands to provide farmland for feed crops destined not for humans but for livestock; utilization of large quantities of freshwater; and nitrogen losses from croplands and animal manure.

Naylor and her research team are seeking better ways to track all costs of livestock production, especially hidden costs of ecosystem degradation and destruction. “What is needed is a re-coupling of crop and livestock systems,” Naylor says, “if not physically, then through pricing and other policy mechanisms that reflect social costs of resource use and ecological abuse.” Such policies “should not significantly compromise the improving diets of developing countries, nor should they prohibit trade,” Naylor adds. Instead, they should “focus on regulatory and incentive-based tools to encourage livestock and feed producers to internalize pollution costs, minimize nutrient run-off, and pay the true price of water.”


The future of the program on Food Security and the Environment looks bright and expansive. Building on existing research at Stanford, researchers are identifying avenues in the world’s least developed countries to enhance orphan crop production— crops with little international trade and investment, but high local value for food and nutrition security. This work seeks to identify advanced genetic and genomic strategies, and natural resource management initiatives, to improve orphan crop yields, enhance crop diversity, and increase rural incomes through orphan crop production.

Another priority research area is development of biofuels. As countries seek energy self-reliance and look for alternatives to food and feed subsidies under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, the conversion of corn, sugar, and soybeans to ethanol and other energy sources becomes more attractive. New extraction methods are making the technology more efficient, and high crude oil prices are fundamentally changing the economics of biomass energy conversion. A large switch by key export food and feed suppliers, such as the United States and Brazil, to biofuels could fundamentally alter export prices, and hence the world food and feed situation. A team of FSE researchers will assess the true costs of these conversions.

The FSE program recently received a grant through the Presidential Fund for Innovation in International Studies to initiate new research activities. One project links ongoing research at Stanford on the environmental and resource costs of industrial livestock production and trade to assess the extent of Brazil’s rainforest destruction for soybean production. “Tens of millions of hectares of native grassland and rainforest are currently being cleared for soybean production to supply the global industrial livestock sector,” says Naylor. An interdisciplinary team will examine strategies to achieve an appropriate balance between agricultural commodity trade, production practices, and conservation in Brazil’s rainforest states.

“I’m extremely pleased to see the rapid growth of FSE and am encouraged by the recent support provided through the new Presidential Fund,” states Naylor. “It enables the program to engage faculty members from economics, political science, biology, civil and environmental engineering, earth sciences, and medicine—as well as graduate students throughout the university—in a set of collaborative research activities that could significantly improve human well-being and the quality of the environment.”