Tyler Cowen links to a comment on the FT Economists’ Forum by author Paul Collier on rising food prices and the political problems that prevent us from addressing them effectively. Collier’s argument is that we’re failing largely due to resistance to industrial agriculture and genetically modified crops.
First, here’s why food is getting more expensive:
Paradoxically, this squeeze on the poorest has come about as a result of the success of globalization in reducing world poverty. As China develops, helped by its massive exports to our markets, millions of Chinese households have started to eat better. Better means not just more food but more meat, the new luxury. But to produce a kilo of meat takes six kilos of grain. Livestock reared for meat to be consumed in Asia are now eating the grain that would previously have been eaten by the African poor.
The distastefulness of industrial agriculture is taking its toll:
We laud the production style of the peasant: environmentally sustainable and human in scale. In respect of manufacturing and services we grew out of this fantasy years ago, but in agriculture it continues to contaminate our policies. In Europe and Japan huge public resources have been devoted to propping up small farms. The best that can be said for these policies is that we can afford them. In Africa, which cannot afford them, development agencies have oriented their entire efforts on agricultural development to peasant style production. As a result, Africa has less large-scale commercial agriculture than it had fifty years ago. Unfortunately, peasant farming is generally not well-suited to innovation and investment: the result has been that African agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing productivity frontier of the globalized commercial model. Indeed, during the present phase of high prices the FAO is worried that African peasants are likely to reduce their production because they cannot finance the increased cost of fertilizer inputs.
And here’s why people need to get over their resistance to genetically modified crops:
But the true European equivalent of America’s folly with bio-fuels is the ban on GM. Europe’s distinctive and deep-seated fears of science have been manipulated by the agricultural lobby into yet another form of protectionism. The ban on both the production and import of genetically modified crops has obviously retarded productivity growth in European agriculture: again, the best that can be said of it is that we are rich enough to afford such folly. But Europe is a major agricultural producer, so the cumulative consequence of this reduction in the growth of productivity has most surely rebounded onto world food markets. Further, and most cruelly, as an unintended side-effect the ban has terrified African governments into themselves banning genetic modification in case by growing modified crops they would permanently be shut out of selling to European markets. Africa definitely cannot afford this self-denial. It needs all the help it can possibly get from genetic modification.
One of the reasons this piece really hit home for me is that I feel like I’m often on the wrong side of this argument. Generally I feel like food quality has been lost in the rise of industrial agriculture. I think this is probably more true in terms of meat and dairy than in terms of staple grains like rice, wheat, and soy. Given my choice, I’d prefer to buy food from these guys or these guys rather than buying the industrial products from the grocery store, but large scale farming is what enables us to feed 6 billion people on this planet, and that number is going up.
There are plenty of problems with large scale farming, in terms of quality of food, threats to the environment, badly implemented government subsidies, and so on. At the same time, it’s the only way to feed everyone cheaply and efficiently. More activism should be focused on improving the practices of large scale agriculture rather than trying to eliminate it.