I arrived in Bratislava to participate in a workshop for FoodSecure, a EU project on food and nutritional security in the developing world. Bratislava is the capital of the young republic of Slovakia. It is only 60 kilometers from Vienna, and has a rich and turbulent history of its own. It was a border town of the Roman Empire, was conquered by the Turks, and was the capital of the great Hungarian empire.
I took a tour of the city, and learned that 19 Hungarian kings and queens were coroneted in a beautiful church in Bratislava between 1563-1916, including Maria Theresa, the Austro-Hungarian parallel of Queen Elizabeth I, and Katherine the Great of Russia, perhaps the most important ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
During the tour, I also learned where every famous composer (Beethoven, Heiden, Mozart, and Liszt to name a few) played when he was in town, and was introduced to some of the famous and beautiful squares, palaces and churches in the old city, including the one where Maria Theresa lived. The dominating structure in the city is a castle overlooking the Danube River, which was able to stand attacks by the Mongols in the 13th century and Turks in the 16th century, and held the crown jewels of the Hungarian Monarchy.
Since the fall of communism, Slovakia has gone through a process of revitalization and renewal. Slovakia has become a major producer of vehicles and has grown much faster than most other EU countries (admittedly not a tough benchmark). Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic in 1993, and one can observe nationalism typical of a new state: flags everywhere and people explaining to you, without being asked, the differences between the Czech and Slovak people, which they present as being huge and unbridgeable.
To the nations’ credit, the division of Czechoslovakia was peaceful. Peaceful divorces between nations are rare (As Jo Swinnen aptly pointed out, one of the reasons Slovakia and Czechs could split peacefully was because they did not share a capital. The capital of Czechoslovakia (Prague) was 100% part of the Czech Republic, which was not contested by the Slovaks.) Hopefully we can reach such a peaceful outcome in the Holy Land.
Bratislava has been largely rebuilt in the last 30 years – since the communists’ demise. In downtown you see modern shops and high-rise buildings among enormous older brick and cement buildings, remnants of the communist era. The old city boasts large piazzas, impressive statues, clever art (including the statue of a Napoleonic spy with whom I took a picture).
While there are obvious pockets of poverty — one can observe beggars, homeless people, and drably dressed mostly older people, there are many more hip youngsters and elegantly dressed professionals, junk food outlets, and gourmet restaurants — all signs of growing prosperity. The food is very good here; the dumplings, soups, and my favorite dish, fish with almonds, are especially good. The place is not far from Vienna, and the restaurants feature appetizing cakes, making it very difficult to keep my diet. However, in my humble opinion, the cakes look better than they taste (and are nothing compared to my wife’s baking). However, I am not qualified to comment on food, but it becomes common for people to venture beyond their area of expertise. For example, food critics (in the NY Times, for example) tend to comment constantly on agricultural policy and farming technologies.
FoodSecure: a fascinating project
FoodSecure, the reason for my venture to Slovakia, is a fascinating project. It has four elements: research on the state of food nutrition and development in developing countries, models for predictions, scenario analysis, and outreach. In the workshop, I learned that food security is improving in the sense that the percentage of people that are malnourished is declining (from 24% in 1990 to 14% in 2013). This is because of economic growth in the developing world as well as enhanced trade. Still, the situation varies across countries, and the number of malnourished people is in the hundreds of millions, and we are challenged to eradicate it.
As most people consume sufficient amounts of calories, obesity has become a major nutritional threat and the emphasis of nutritional interventions has been shifting from providing calories to improving the intake of micronutrients and protein. A less encouraging finding is that the gap in the growth productivity of farmers between high and low-income countries is increasing, suggesting a growing income gap and continuing rural poverty. I also learned that attitude towards biofuels has somewhat changed — the high prices they caused seemed to be short lived and the negative perceptions mostly dissipated over time.
In some cases the higher prices actually helped some farmers. The media attention on the high prices helped raise awareness to challenges facing agriculture and enhanced investment in agriculture. As usual, agricultural biotechnology was a main talking point — while some studies found that it has actually made significant positive contributions through increased yields, increased farm incomes, and reduced pesticide exposure in places it has been adopted, attitudes towards it among many are still negative.
It was encouraging to see that the capacity of models to combine biological and weather information to reasonably predict the impacts of various policies is improving. What I found even more encouraging is that the access of policy-makers that are on the ground in developing countries to these modeling tools is increasing as computer technology continues to advance. But one needs to realize that these mechanical tools are decision aids and do not replace human judgment. Furthermore, their use requires continuous education of decision-makers and the general public.
The more I become engaged in this type of policy work, the more I appreciate the value of literacy in economics. Basic economics should not be an elective you can select late in high school, but a part of the required educational curriculum. In such forums, I continue to realize how much we need to learn in order to improve our analyses of developing countries’ situations. We need to understand the role of basic supply chains in development, the link between nutrition and cognitive ability, the interaction between economic and political systems, etc.
In many ways, the visit to Bratislava provided a most valuable lesson in economics and politics. Speaking with our delightful host, we learned that only 30 years ago this wonderful city was terribly polluted, grim, and much poorer. Of course, Slovakia has its problems, but increased personal freedom, introduction of democracy and rule of law, market institutions, and integration with the EU have contributed to form the lively and elegant city we enjoyed.