Too many mouths to feed? Get stuffed

Food prices aren’t rising because the Earth is full. But Malthusian commentators are certainly full of BS.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

‘[T]he Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.’ So says Aussie eco-entrepreneur and former Greenpeace International chief, Paul Gilding.

Recent events seem to offer plenty of opportunities for such handwringing. For example, food prices have leapt up again, for the second time in three years. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Food Prices Index reached an all-time high in February 2011, and, while it fell very slightly in May, it is still close to these record levels. After decades of declining food prices, this sudden surge in the cost of food has led many commentators to argue that the era of comparatively cheap food is over.

The litany of doom and gloom was well expressed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in an op-ed piece published on Tuesday: ‘You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the twenty-first century – when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados ploughed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all – and ask ourselves: what were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/ climate/ natural resource/ population redlines all at once?’

Given the sheer volume of column inches and government policies devoted to these issues, you might think that we were, indeed, panicking. But what Friedman and Gilding have actually done is naturalise what are in fact social problems.

They assume that the problem is that we are running out of resources, running out of ‘sinks’ to dump our waste in, or simply running out of room as the planet becomes overcrowded. These ideas are all nonsense. The problems we have today in feeding the world, for example, are essentially man-made, and they can be solved by people, too. We are being confronted by the limitations of our social system, not by any immutable natural limits. Moreover, the pessimistic view that the human ‘footprint’ is too large is itself a barrier to the expansion of wealth that is required to meet humanity’s needs now and in the future.

Is the problem with food prices caused by a lack of land? Arable land occupies just 11 per cent of the Earth’s surface at present. Is it really inconceivable that this could be expanded? As James Heartfield has argued previously on spiked, ‘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.’ In Europe, farmers have received payments to not grow food – ‘set-aside’ (although the practice has effectively been suspended since 2008, after food prices rose sharply that year).

Meanwhile, developing countries are starting to act to turn once-infertile land into farmland. In Brazil, a huge area of dry savannah called the cerrado has been converted into productive land. The amount of land we have available for food is flexible, if the price is right. With growing global demand, it is now worth bringing such areas under cultivation.

Nor is it simply a matter of how much land is available: the yield – the amount of food produced per hectare – matters, too. As David Dawe, senior economist at the FAO, has noted: ‘Higher and more volatile food prices are also due to the neglect of agriculture over the past three decades. Falling investment in agriculture resulted in lower growth rates for cereal yields, which fell from 3.2 per cent in 1960 to 1.5 per cent in 2000, while demand for food in developing countries continues to increase. Naturally, this leads to tighter markets and greater vulnerability to shocks.’

As an aside, speculation in commodities has been a favourite target of NGOs in trying to explain rising food prices. There is an element of truth in this. When the balance of supply and demand suggests that commodity prices are likely to rise, investors have in recent years piled in to take advantage at a time when other profitable targets for investment have been thin on the ground. However, this still raises the question as to why the market is so ‘tight’, which brings us back to Dawe’s observation about a lack of investment. If prices go up, the incentive to invest and expand production should go up, too, so food-price inflation may have benefits in the long run.

Perhaps the problem is a lack of other resources. For example, there is constant discussion about when we will hit ‘peak oil’ or run out of fossil fuels generally, making the cost of agricultural machinery and the transportation of food much more expensive. Nitrogen fertiliser is also made by reacting atmospheric nitrogen with the hydrogen in natural gas. Could we end up going hungry because we’re running out of fuel?

That seems unlikely. We don’t need oil to power the world; we need energy. Oil is just one very convenient source of that energy, but times and technologies change. We have a variety of options in terms of supplying the energy we need to power the world’s tractors and container ships. Just as in food, higher prices have encouraged expansion and technological development in relation to oil and gas which are starting to pay dividends; there are also plenty of alternative forms of energy that we currently don’t exploit as much as we could, because oil and gas are still comparatively cheap.

Then there’s the issue of food waste. Post-harvest food losses in the developing world are a major problem but would not be technically difficult to solve. 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, that would amount to 150million tonnes of cereals – six times the additional amount required to turn the deficient diets of the world’s malnourished people into adequate ones. Losses of just four per cent should be possible.

So, to solve the problem of rising food prices, we need investment: in devoting more land to food production, in improving crop yields by using the best techniques available, and in reducing waste by making sure the food we grow is properly preserved and transported speedily to market. None of this sounds like a product of ‘natural limits’. The real limiting factors are poverty and a fearfulness about long-term investment, not nature.

The too-many-people mindset exemplified by Friedman and Gilding actually helps to prevent that necessary investment. The Malthusian outlook suggests that what we need is not more tractors and fertiliser but more condoms and sterilisation; not growing world demand but tightening belts. The conclusion we’re invited to draw is that there is no point in trying to innovate and invest our way around problems because they are the symptoms of a planet that is simply too small to cope with too many people demanding too much stuff.

As long as we misdiagnose the world’s problems by blaming people and not the failings of society, those problems will remain unsolved. The result will be that hundreds of millions will continue to go hungry, while food prices in the developed world will remain high. Blaming people leaves us all worse off.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK). Read his blog here.

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

Topics Politics


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