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Strong opinions, weakly held

Why food is becoming more expensive

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.

7 Comments

  1. I’ve chimed in on this topic [before](http://rc3.org/2008/02/23/is-local-food-production-overrated/#comment-2414 “my previous rantings”), so I’ll just make one small aside.

    Norman Borlaug has personally been responsible for most of the developments in increasing agricultural yields in the past several decades, especially in in Mexico, China and India (three areas that have seen radical economic improvements across the same decades, not sure if work has been done on establishing a correlation there or not).

    It’s been said that “Dr. Borlaug has saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived, and likely has saved more lives in the Islamic world than any other human being in history.”

    Here’s a neat chart from [his wikipedia page](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug “Norman Borlaug’s Wikipedia Page”): ![Norman’s Life Work](http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/30/Wheat_yields_in_developing_countries%2C_1951-2004.png “Wheat Yields in Developing Countries”)

  2. (Wow, looks like I did something horribly wrong with my markdown, greatest apologies).

  3. I emotionally tend towards the organic/smaller scale farming side, while my head sees the necessity of large scale agriculture. Similarly, I understand the argument for higher fuel taxes to curb emissions, while I desire lower petrol prices to keep my household budget from meltdown (rural dweller!). While it would be useful to see the organic movement face this dilemma, I fear heels will be dug in and, at least over here in the UK, fundamentalists will drive the movement to the point of a split, leaving the realists engaging with large scale concerns and the Fundi’s exhorting the back-to-basics notion of self-sufficiency.

    But then my large-scale neighbour’s farm is a barren monoculture, with minimal wildlife, that feels desolate and uncomfortable, while my family-run small scale neighbours have farms (all sheep around us) that ooze charm and variety, while surviving only through subsidy and a cultural resistance to any other option. Like you, I would rather buy organic local produce, but I doubt that the system that provides that food for me, could provide it also to the worlds poor.

  4. One problem with the argument that current industrial agriculture is required to feed the world is that it is very petroleum-intensive (machinery, fertilizer and chemicals), and the petrol gets scarcer and more expensive all the time.

    Same goes for Borlaug’s methods.

  5. -) The world can only sustain so many people; even with industrial farming, there is an upper limit. We can either choose to exist below this limit (birth control) or we can have the limit imposed upon us (war/famine).

    -) GM crops may not be they’re all cracked up to be. Google “Morgellon’s Disease” for more.

  6. Bryan,

    I call BS on your casual suggestion of a relationship between Morgellon’s syndrome and GM crops.

    It’s not even known yet that the symptoms that are attributed to Morgellon’s actually constitute a single cohesive illness. At this point, casually suggesting it’s caused by GM crops is pure fear-mongering and tinfoil hat territory.

  7. @bryan I think the problem is that stupid people are more numerous than smart people. Furthermore, these dull, lesser evolved “normal” people have a habit of protecting their kind with short-sighted claims of “humanity”.

    What we need to do is enslave the stupid. That will make them the first to deal with a food shortage and decrease their ridiculous breeding rates. As a result the rest of the population will restore it’s former intelligence. As it stands, the idiots are the ones having 10+ kids and RUINING the world.

    While it makes sense from an evolutionary stand point (“if you can’t win with brains, you might win by numbers”), in all actuality, human kind doesn’t win with that approach (unless your idea of winning is extinction).

    It might be considered “inhumane”, but 100 years from now, people will be a lot happier from such drastic action. As it stands, we’re going backwards. We’ll end up with riots in 50 years and we’ll be back to the stone age 50 years thereafter.

    We have approx. a century to get our shit together.

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