Stanford scholars cross disciplines to tackle global food security


Women in Benin display produce grown with a solar-powered drip irrigation system, part of an ongoing project led by FSE researchers.
Photo credit: 
Jennifer Burney

Hunger touches the lives of people throughout the world, from the affluent Bay Area to the most impoverished regions of rural Africa. Food security – the availability of plentiful, nutritious, and affordable food – is a pressing issue for rich and poor countries alike as the world population moves toward 9 billion by mid-century.

In her new book The Evolving Sphere of Food Security (Oxford University Press, August), Professor Rosamond Naylor takes a holistic approach to the question of how to feed the world. Naylor, a professor of environmental earth system science and director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE), convened 18 colleagues from across Stanford’s diverse disciplines to shed light on the interdependent issues that affect global food security.

Throughout its 14 chapters, and a foreword by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the book takes up two important questions: How does the challenge of achieving food security change as countries develop economically? And how do food and agriculture policies in one country affect nutrition, food access, natural resources and national security in other countries?

Collaboration across disciplines

Naylor, who edited the volume and co-authored several chapters, explained that The Evolving Sphere of Food Security is the first book of its kind to engage faculty and scholars from across Stanford’s campus on issues of global hunger.

Professor Rosamond Naylor

“This book grew out of a recognition by Stanford scholars that food security is tied to security of many other kinds,” said Naylor, who is also William Wrigley Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Food security has clear connections with energy, water, health, the environment and national security, and you can’t tackle just one of those pieces.”

Stanford has a long history of fostering cross-disciplinary work on global issues. It is in this spirit that the idea for the book was born, Naylor said. The book weaves together the expertise of authors from the fields of medicine, political science, engineering, law, economics and climate science.

“Stanford was the ideal place for this project. A book like this exemplifies how collaborative, interdisciplinary research can be greater than the sum of its parts,” Naylor said. “We have painted a much more inclusive picture of food security than if we had approached these questions from only one discipline.”

Rooted in field research

Another unique feature of the book is that each author’s insights are shaped by years of hands-on research and policymaking experience around the world.

Several authors, for example, have been instrumental in shaping U.S. and global food policy for decades. Walter Falcon, professor emeritus of economics and the deputy director of FSE, traces his career as an agricultural economics advisor to the Indonesian government, where he witnessed the country’s dramatic improvements in combating hunger and poverty since the 1960s.

Political science professor Stephen Stedman recounts his experience as a security policy advisor to the United Nations during the 2000s. Recognizing that food insecurity can exacerbate civil conflict, weaken governments and threaten international stability, Stedman worked to integrate food security into traditional security agendas.

Other authors have spent many years working in East Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East and Europe. As a whole, said Naylor, the team has conducted well over a hundred years’ worth of field research all over the world.

Challenges evolve as countries develop

A recurring theme throughout the book – also reflected in its title – is the evolving nature of the food security challenges countries face as they move through stages of economic growth. At low levels of development, countries struggle to meet people’s basic needs. For example, Naylor’s chapter on health, co-authored with Eran Bendavid (medicine), Jenna Davis and Amy Pickering (civil and environmental engineering), describes a recent study showing that poor nutrition and rampant disease in rural Kenya is closely tied to contaminated, untreated drinking water. Addressing these essential health and sanitation issues is a key first step toward food security for the poorest countries.

As nations rise above the bottom rungs of development, they encounter new challenges. Scott Rozelle, director of the Rural Education Action Program, warns that middle income countries like China now face a “second food security crisis” of widespread micronutrient deficiency. Recent rapid economic and agricultural advancements have largely solved the problem of supplying sufficient calories. But this progress masks what Rozelle describes as “hidden hunger,” or a lack of vitamins and minerals that impedes kids’ school performance and could slow China’s long-term growth. Even in rich countries like the U.S., said Naylor, malnutrition can be a drag on educational and economic performance.

Developed countries face other unique tradeoffs in the use of resources for food production. In his chapter on water institutions, Buzz Thompson, professor of law and co-director of the Woods Institute, explains that conflicts over water increase between smallholder and industrial users as countries develop. Eric Lambin, professor of environmental earth system science, and Ximena Rueda, research associate in earth sciences, offer the paradox that as countries grow wealthier, changing patterns of agricultural land use may actually worsen food security by fueling the spread of obesity and diabetes.

At its core, said Naylor, The Evolving Sphere of Food Security is about more than economic and policy trends. “The book puts a human face to food security, because hunger is an intensely human experience,” she said. “This book tells an integrated story about people’s lives, and how they are shaped by resource use and the policy process around global food security.”