Jason Barton

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How to feed the world

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As evidenced by the other comments on this site about their articles, I very much respect and enjoy The Economists’ coverage of the news, particularly food, energy, and environmental issues. But I take exception to this week’s article on how to feed the world for a couple of minor issues and one major disagreement. The minor issues are the reasons they fail to consider in the spike in food prices in 2007-2008. Most leading analysts[1] pointed to five factors that caused this spike: The high price of oil; several poor harvests from major grain providers such as Australia and Russia; the increasing income in places like China and India, leading to more food consumption, particularly meat, which is much more resource intensive; the increasing use of food and agricultural land to produce biofuels; and the declining U.S. dollar. The Economist described the first four in an article last year, but did not include the devaluation of the dollar. In this week’s article, they state, “None of the underlying agricultural problems which produced a spike in food prices in 2007-08 and increased the number of hungry people has gone away.” But oil prices have fallen considerably and this year’s harvests were much better, as they even point out a few sentences later. But this is nit-picking, especially given the fact that oil prices will likely indeed rise again, and several ecological issues threaten global harvests even more severely in the coming decades.

Slightly larger problems exist in the explanation of lack of research into agricultural productivity. It’s true that public expenditures have been on the decline, but much of this is due to trade liberalization and attempts at having private industry            provide services once offered by government. So the reduced government spending is true, but a bit of a half truth. The decline in productivity gains could also be a sign that we are maxing out the potential in soil for those grain crops we have been breeding and improving over generations now.

The glaring problems with the article, though, are the contradictions between calling for increased government intervention and even giving away seed while also touting free markets, and that they neglect a central truth so clearly illustrated by the Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen: There is not a food production problem; there is a food distribution problem[2]. In the case of the former, it’s difficult to reconcile those two, at least the way it’s explained here.

Nov 19th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Business as usual will not do it

IN 1974 Henry Kissinger, then America’s secretary of state, told the first world food conference in Rome that no child would go to bed hungry within ten years. Just over 35 years later, in the week of another United Nations food summit in Rome, 1 billion people will go to bed hungry.

This failure, already dreadful, may soon get worse. None of the underlying agricultural problems which produced a spike in food prices in 2007-08 and increased the number of hungry people has gone away. Between now and 2050 the world’s population will rise by a third, but demand for agricultural goods will rise by 70% and demand for meat will double. These increases are in a sense good news in that they are a result of rising wealth in poor and middle-income countries. But they will have to happen without farmers clearing large amounts of new land (there is some scope for expansion, but not much) or using up lots more water (in parts of the world, water supplies are stretched to their limit or beyond). Moreover, they will take place while farmers also wrestle with the consequences of climate change, which, on balance, will do more harm than good to farmland round the world.

Read the entire article here.


[1] Such as Abbott, P.C.; C. Hurt, and W. E. Tyner. “What’s Driving Food Prices?” Farm Foundation Report, March, 2009.

[2] Sen, A. “The Ingredients of Famine Analysis.” Qtrly Jrnl of Economics, 1981.

Written by Jason

November 19th, 2009 at 6:01 am