What is stopping us from feeding the world?

Malthus was wrong about the inevitability of famine, but we still need to ask why so many people don't get enough to eat.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

An international summit to tackle a problem that already affects one billion people worldwide and may very well affect billions more if we don’t act immediately and decisively. That’s going to be big news, right? Yet just such a summit has passed, almost unnoticed, under the radar of the world’s media. While there is ever more intensive handwringing about the outcome of the UN’s Copenhagen summit on climate change next month, from endless demonstrations to blow-by-blow accounts of tedious negotiations, a similar UN event on the small matter of feeding the world has prompted comparatively little coverage.

The World Summit on Food Security, held over the past three days in Rome, produced many of the usual platitudes, but few hard commitments of cash to solve the problem on malnutrition. Food has been, relatively speaking, a success story for humanity in recent decades. UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) figures suggest there were 878million people undernourished in the period from 1969-71, or 24 per cent of the world population. That fell to 825million by 1995-97, but that was just 14 per cent of the population. Since then, the proportion of the population who don’t have enough to eat has started to climb again and now the FAO estimates that ‘the number of people who do not get enough food energy, averaged over one year, to both maintain productive activity and maintain body weight’ is now over one billion.

The reasons for this rise are complex. The immediate cause of rising hunger has been rising food prices, caused in the short term by a combination of poor harvests, increasing demand from rapidly growing developing countries like China, and a shift in food production towards biofuels in the USA. But these sit in a wider context where the world market for food is tight and innovation has been held back. Because only a small proportion of the world’s food is traded, even small shortfalls can produce wild swings in prices, while the problem of growing more food has become a low priority both for research and international aid.

In her contribution to spiked‘s online debate, What’s the Future of Food?, Caroline Boin, a project director at International Policy Network, puts the blame squarely at the feet of governments. ‘Barriers to trade are four times higher in developing countries than in high-income countries. Farmers are hit especially hard: overall, African farmers pay 60 per cent more in export taxes than other African businesses. More generally, many developing country policies have disadvantaged and exploited their agricultural sectors, in order to subsidise more grandiose urban activities. Food marketing boards and heavy tariffs on the agriculture sector have deterred investments that would have increased agricultural output.’

While developing-world government policies have stifled agricultural development, they are often inspired by Western organisations. ‘Despite the widespread failure of protectionist policies in agriculture, many Western NGOs continue to support the idea of self-sufficiency and protectionism. They argue that developing countries, which are so reliant on agriculture, should be able to protect themselves from the vagaries of the market. But as appealing as these ideas may seem, they are at complete odds with reality.’

Boin points out the irony of self-sufficiency: the countries who are most self-sufficient are often the poorest and the most food insecure: ‘Malnutrition and poverty rates remain high and, despite involving 70-80 per cent of the workforce, agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa only provides 30 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Conversely, food security has increased and food prices have decreased in countries that have opened their agricultural sectors and engaged in trade.’

The theme of free trade is echoed by another debate contributor, Economist business editor Tom Standage. ‘I think that the advantages of free trade and comparative advantage are obvious. It makes sense for people from different countries to grow different things and trade. Yet a lot of people think that agriculture and food are things to which the laws of economics should not be applied.’

Standage also points out that food has been, in a way, a victim of its own success. ‘One of the things that happened after the “green revolution” of the Sixties and Seventies was that lots of people thought that food was a solved problem. As a result, the problem of food production fell off the development agenda. The amount of research and development (R&D) money that was put into agriculture fell as governments thought that agriculture was old-fashioned and they needed to concentrate on building industry. The fact is that a country cannot industrialise, with the associated surge in the urban population, without first undergoing a massive increase in agricultural productivity – that is, producing more food with fewer people.’

What is needed, then, is a new wave of serious work on producing new crops and techniques – or even simply applying existing ideas more widely and effectively – to produce more food. Standage is pretty open-minded on how best to grow food: ‘I think there is a worthwhile analogy with energy here. When it comes to generating electricity, there is no one right answer; we’ll need wind, nuclear and a variety of other sources. And, just as with food, different countries will have different strengths. In Morocco, solar power will be abundant. In the UK, wind and wave power will be the predominant renewable energy sources. With food, too, I think what we need is a portfolio approach where we find the best solution for the local situation, whether it is no-till, GM soya in Argentina or organic methods elsewhere.’

What is distinctly unhelpful is the intervention of Western NGOs, which often impose their own anti-development ideas on the countries that they are supposed to be helping. Standage is critical of the ‘cult of the peasant farmer’ and the ‘fundamentalism’ of the organic movement, which argues that ‘the right amount of chemicals is always zero’.

This all suggests that the problem is not too many people, nor is it even a problem of technology. We already have the means to grow enough food to feed the world, with plenty of potential solutions in the pipeline for feeding even more in decades to come. The real problems are political.

Firstly, we need to allow people to trade freely to encourage the expansion of production, whether it is export barriers in the developing world, driven by misguided notions of self-sufficiency, or import restrictions in rich markets used to protect local farmers. The free market is flawed in many ways, but compounding those problems with heavy state intervention makes things even worse.

Secondly, we need to emphasise the importance of technology and break away from the irrational anti-modern thinking that has dominated food and development policy for so long. African farmers need chemicals, machinery and biotechnology every bit as much as the agro-industrial farmers of the US and Europe.

Thirdly, we need to get our priorities right. The real solution to feeding the world is to make people richer – but tackling poverty just isn’t terribly fashionable any more. Instead, we’re simply bombarded with fears about the environment. Yet this obsession is misplaced. Our climate has constantly changed, creating new problems for society to solve. If we need to adapt to warmer temperatures in the future, we should start to think about how we might do that. But to devote so much political energy to the potential problem of climate change while a billion people go hungry right now shows the perverse logic of politics today.

What do you think? Let us know what you think by joining in the debate here.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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