Serving up some home truths about food

Although it is more of a textbook than a polemic, Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics flambés many of the myths about the food price crisis and the Malthusian lobby’s fearmongering about mass hunger.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

In 2008, global food prices shot up. The cost of wheat, rice and corn all rose sharply in commodity exchanges. Protests, even riots, followed in a number of countries. Major crop-producing countries like Ukraine suspended food exports to protect prices for basic commodities at home. The cosy assumption that humanity had solved, or was at least on the way to solving, the problem of supplying food to a growing population was called into question.

In an informative primer on a wide range of food-related topics, Robert Paarlberg – professor of political science at Wellesley College, Massachusetts – argues that these food price rises did not, in themselves, represent a food crisis. ‘International food price fluctuations are easily misinterpreted. The underlying causes often originate from beyond the food and farm sector, and the resulting impacts on actual human hunger are actually limited because use of the international market is limited.’

Paarlberg slays a number of the common explanations for the problem. For one thing, he writes, contrary to claims around scarcity, there was plenty of food around during the price crisis. While the harvests in some countries – Ukraine, Russia and Australia – were adversely affected by drought, that in itself cannot explain such sharp rises in price. There will always be bad weather somewhere in the world. For other commodities, like rice, production was actually increasing ahead of rising consumption. China, whose demand is often cited as a cause of rising prices, remained a net exporter of rice, wheat and corn. And the diversion of American corn to produce biofuels was not particularly important, says Paarlberg, because production also increased to take advantage of US government energy subsidies.

Far more significant, he suggests, were factors that had little to do with agriculture. Two were particularly important. First, a sharp rise in commodity prices as investors looked for alternative investment opportunities when the US housing market went into meltdown. Most importantly, this happened not just in the agricultural sector but also with many other commodities. For example, the price of oil peaked at $147 per barrel, increasing the cost of producing food in a variety of ways, from the use of farm machinery and transport to producing fertilisers. The second factor was the domino effect created by price rises: when major exporters decided to restrict sales, other countries and major corporations decided to buy crops, and options on crop purchases, to protect themselves against price rises – fuelling a price bubble.

This bubble quickly burst. The arrival of global recession pushed energy prices down to a low of $40 per barrel within a few months and the prices of food commodities fell back considerably, too. Yet all of this actually had very little practical effect for most of the world’s population. Only a small proportion of global food production – about five per cent – is actually traded. Most food is grown, sold and consumed domestically. The uproar came in places where urban populations were more dependent on imports, like Cairo. For most of the world’s really poor people, prices on the world market had only a small effect on an already-marginal existence. Indeed, having the resources to make greater use of the world market for food – even with its ups and downs – would make their lives much less precarious.

Paarlberg is very good at putting these events into context. Taking a step back from the immediate problems of 2008 (and their echoes in export bans and price rises this year), his book provides a sense of perspective on where we stand in terms of food supply and its many related issues. This is where Paarlberg really believes there is a problem – but it has been rumbling on for so long that it barely gets noticed.

Billions of people survive on very low incomes, with the result that they are constantly under threat of suffering food shortages. The irony is that these people are overwhelmingly food producers themselves: farmers in the developing world. Their major problem is that without any investment in production – such as fertilisers, irrigation, pesticides and the techniques and equipment to use them effectively – these farmers are simply much less productive than farmers in the developed world. ‘As long as agricultural labour earns only about $1 a day’, writes Paarlberg, ‘the vast majority of rural citizens who work as farmers will remain poor and hence vulnerable to chronic undernutrition’.

Paarlberg usefully reposes the problem of food as one of politics and economics rather than as one of the technical capacity to produce enough food or the perceived problem of environmental limits. This political aspect helps to explain the differing ways in which people react to new technologies. For example, Paarlberg notes how the ‘green revolution’, which greatly boosted agricultural productivity in the 1960s and 1970s, is generally seen as a good thing in Asia but as a major problem in Latin America. In Asia, small farmers owned their own land and benefited from greater yields. In Latin America, big landowners used the new developments to push small farmers off good land on to more marginal agricultural areas, further impoverishing them. By and large, due to a failure of governments to invest, the green revolution has passed Africa by, with the result that crop yields per capita have actually fallen since the 1980s.

Another example of how politics, rather than technology, is paramount is in the discussion of genetically modified food. In the US, the assumption was made early on that GM foods were not significantly different to other kinds of foods and they were quickly approved for industrial purposes and for animal feed crops. In Europe, the ‘mad cow’ disease crisis in the UK, along with vigorous lobbying from green groups and other NGOs, led to a precautionary approach, where GM foods were effectively banned. This in turn has had serious consequences for the adoption of the technology: where developing countries mostly relate to the US, GM crops have been embraced; in developing countries that relate to Europe more strongly – like many parts of Africa – GM has been rejected, despite the potential it has to improve productivity.

Generally, Paarlberg is sanguine about the prospects for food production. He is critical of Malthusians, who have persistently underestimated the potential to increase farm productivity; he notes how the influence of Malthusian ideas has had damaging consequences. For example, he argues, the initial British reaction to the Irish potato famine of 1845-49 was to assume that it was a product of excessive breeding rather than disastrous British policy. It was an outlook shared by William and Paul Paddock, authors of the 1967 bestseller Famine 1975!, who argued that it would be counterproductive for the US to send food aid to India because the country could never feed its growing population. (By 1975, Indian farming had so improved thanks to the green revolution that it was able to stop accepting food aid altogether.)

On matters of policy, Paarlberg provides a refreshing clarity to the debate about the future of food. Essentially, we can produce much more, to the benefit of more people, if barriers to trade are removed while governments invest in production methods and the infrastructure required to enable better connections between producers and markets.

The book is weaker on its discussion of obesity, a problem Paarlberg takes at face value and with the usual explanations: people eat too much of the wrong kinds of food while undertaking too little exercise. He argues that governments have done very little to tackle these problems. Actually, governments are obsessed with lecturing their citizens on the dangers of obesity, with little apparent effect on waistlines, and in the past few years there have been plenty of proposals for taxation on the ‘wrong’ kinds of food. The problem of obesity and health is far more complicated than Paarlberg suggests, mixing together overblown health fears with the desire of governments to find new points of contact with the populace. To take the template of his book, it is more of a political creation than a health problem.

Even here, however, Paarlberg does call into question some of the major explanations for the so-called obesity crisis. For example, the film Food Inc (see my review here) suggests that the problem is one of mega-corporations taking advantage of cheap, subsidised corn to foist unhealthy foods upon us. If that were so, says Paarlberg, why is Europe suffering similar problems when corn is much more expensive? While Paarlberg claims that the American diet is not as good as in the past – pointing to a decline in fruit and vegetable consumption – pat explanations about big companies selling us junk just don’t add up, either.

Food Politics is not intended to be a polemical work by any means, being written more as a useful basis for food policy courses and a wide-ranging introduction for the interested reader. But Paarlberg does provide many pointed and interesting criticisms of some of the supposedly commonsense positions in the food debate as it exists today. Food Politics would be an invaluable read for anyone who wants to go beyond the headlines to look at the real state of the debate about food today.

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.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Become a spiked supporter