Produce more food not fewer people

It is not rising population levels that lead to food-price crises - it is economic underdevelopment.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Last week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced that its food price index – an amalgam of the prices of six basic commodities – had reached record levels. Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the FAO in Rome, told the Financial Times that ‘The world faces a food price shock’ and warned that this spike in prices could lead to a food crisis if it is prolonged.

The effects are certainly being felt, especially in countries that are reliant on imports. On Thursday, for example, there were protests in Algeria over steep rises in the price of vegetable oil, sugar and wheat. In September, there were disturbances in Mozambique after a 25 per cent rise in bread prices.

The world still has bad memories of the food price shock in 2008, when the FAO’s food price index leapt by 24 per cent in a single year. The problem then was partially due to some poor harvests, but the situation was made significantly worse by two other factors. Firstly, as prices rose, a number of major producing countries banned exports, leaving countries that rely heavily on imports to chase a much smaller supply on the world market. This magnified the effect of the original price rises.

Secondly, 2008 saw a considerable shift of funds into commodities as investors with cash on their hands turned away from the crisis-hit financial markets. This affected a range of commodities, including food directly, but also oil. Since oil is crucial both as a fuel and as a source of agricultural chemicals, this compounded the problem.

There is a degree of history repeating itself in recent months. Drought conditions in Russia, for example, led to an export ban being imposed in August to preserve supplies for the domestic market. Production in America’s Midwest was lower than expected, too. And to cap it all, the recovery of the world economy more generally means that oil prices are on the rise.

Yet things are not yet as serious as in 2008, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, most food is not traded internationally, but is grown and traded locally. Since production of many staple foods in Africa and Asia – particularly rice – was good in 2010, the poorest people in the world have not been as badly hit, so far, as in 2008. Secondly, although oil prices are now on the rise, and are soon expected to hit $100 per barrel, that’s still way below the peak of $147 per barrel seen two years ago. Stocks of food are also higher this time around.

Yet there’s no doubt that those who think there are too many people in the world will use food price rises as an excuse to push forward their dodgy arguments. What the current spate of price rises is not, however, is a sign that the world cannot produce enough food.

According to FAO statistics for 2007, for each person in the world there was food to provide an average of 2,768 calories, 76 grammes of protein and 78 grammes of fat per day. That’s easily more than enough to feed us properly. Of course, not all of this food is actually consumed – much of it is wasted – nor is it evenly distributed. For example, the UK produced the equivalent of 3,426 calories per person per day while in the Democratic Republic of Congo the average was just 1,500 calories per person per day.

We could easily produce far more food if the best techniques – including fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation and so on – were applied more generally around the globe. In fact, our progress in food production in recent decades has been remarkable. As Professor Denis Murphy noted in spiked’s debate on the future of food, ‘despite the world population more than doubling since 1950, crop production has more than trebled over the same period. This means that we now produce over 40 per cent more food per capita than we did in the 1950s.’ Recent price rises should also be set against the falls of the past few decades. As Douglas Southgate points out: ‘Market trends constitute irrefutable proof that food grew less scarce, not more so, during the second half of the twentieth century. Prices of corn, rice, and other staple grains were 75 per cent lower in the middle 1980s than in 1950. Real prices then stayed at low levels for two decades.’

One factor holding back production, in the developed world at least, is that considerable land has been taken out of agriculture in recent decades. As James Heartfield has noted on spiked: ‘The programmes of land retirement and reservation have been so successful worldwide that between 1982 and 2003, national parks grew from nine million square kilometres to 19million, 12.5 per cent of the earth’s surface – or more than the combined land of China and South-East Asia. In the US more than one billion acres of agricultural land is lying fallow.’

Even where food is produced, lack of development often means that much of it is wasted. For example, storage facilities for crop surpluses are often poor; refrigeration and other preservation techniques are often unavailable; pests may attack food both in the field and after harvest. The agronomist Vaclav Smil has estimated that if all low-income countries lose 15 per cent of their annual crop of grain, it would amount to 150million tonnes of cereals – six times the additional amount required to give the world’s malnourished people, of which there are currently about a billion, a decent diet. Given the right technology, it should be possible to limit the crop losses to just four per cent of the annual total.

It is not bad weather that causes hunger, nor an excess of mouths to feed. Thanks to the world market, the globe is now our food store, so a poor crop in one country can be alleviated by a surplus elsewhere. The real problem is poverty. In the UK, we spend about 10 per cent of our incomes on food; in Sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is more like 60 per cent. For countries that import a lot of food, therefore, global food price rises can be particularly harsh.

If we really want to end the problem of hunger, we need to make the case for economic development for everyone. But suggesting, as more and more commentators seem to do these days, that such problems are caused by the reproductive habits of the poor rather than by economic or political failings will only distract attention from the serious business of feeding the world.

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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