Thursday, February 3, 2011

Food, Hunger, and Politics

Two articles emerged in the past week pointing out that indices tracking the global price of food had now exceeded the previous peaks that were reached in 2008, and are now at record highs. Prices are expected to continue to rise in the coming months. One should recall that high food prices in 2008 caused rioting in many of the poorer countries, and pushed others to ban exports of major food crops. One should also note that the North African countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, are particularly sensitive to food supply and prices.

Carlisle Ford Runge and Carlisle Piehl Runge have written an interesting article in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2010 that provides a broad perspective for food issues. It is titled Against the Grain: Why Failing to Complete the Green revolution Could Bring the Next Famine. They begin by asking the question: was Malthus right? The answer: probably not. Their bottom line is that if the world’s population tops off at about nine billion people as anticipated, the supply of food should be sufficient to meet the demand. The problem, as they see it, is that “meeting the demand” will not happen automatically. Hunger is a large problem now and it will only continue to get worse unless action is taken.
“In June 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization, a UN agency, projected that hunger now affects one billion people—about one-sixth of the world’s population—due to ‘stubbornly high food prices’ and the global economic slowdown, which has depressed the income of the world’s poorest people.”
The authors point out that the world’s net surplus has been diminishing, making it ever harder to get food to the poorest and most in need. They quote the Earth Policy Institute as claiming that world grain production was below the rate of consumption in six of the last nine years. The authors attribute the growing supply issues to three factors.
“First, the rate of increases in crop yields appears to be slowing. Second, and this is related, agricultural research expenditures have diminished since the 1980s, especially in Africa. Third, global food supplies have begun to fall relative to demand and prices have begun to rise—problems that are being exacerbated by the increasing use, in rich countries, of grain not only as food and feed but also as biofuel.”
The slowdown in the growth of crop yields is not too surprising. There must be a law of diminishing returns that kicks in somewhere, but the actual causes are more subtle and in some cases insidious. The modern agricultural methods that have performed so well in terms of yield, depend on methods that are not sustainable.
“Over-irrigation and the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals polluted and depleted water supplies and sapped the soil’s fertility....Thus, the impressive climb in average agricultural yields over the last half of the twentieth century is but a surface reality. The deeper reality is that in the twenty-first century, as water and soil quality has fallen, unsustainable techniques have pushed the biophysical systems to their limits.”
The slowing in yield growth is also caused by cutbacks in agricultural research. These cutbacks have been particularly severe in funds aimed at the poorer countries, the ones who need help the most. As national and international research budgets have declined, a greater portion of the research is carried on by private companies. The corporations are in the business of making money so it is not too surprising that the beneficiaries of their research are generally the big commercial farming organizations. It has always been true that advanced agricultural techniques have been costly and the ones best able to take advantage of them are the already wealthy.

The authors lament the fact that while farm productivity in some areas exploded, many poor areas were not able to take advantage of the new techniques and fell further behind. It is precisely these countries, with their growing populations, that are suffering the most from meager local supplies and increasing prices.

The food crisis of 2008 led to a response. An article in “The Economist” brings us up to date on the status of that response.

“The first people to say that feeding the world deserved more attention were not politicians, scientists or business people. They were aid workers from the Gates Foundation, a charity originally set up to focus on health. It started paying for agricultural research in 2006, long before food prices leapt. “We realised you couldn’t do health without doing something about hunger and poverty,” says the foundation’s Prabhu Pingali. “And you couldn’t do something about hunger and poverty without agriculture.” Since then, the foundation has given $1.4 billion of grants to third-world farmers; its programme is now comparable to America’s.”
The United States took the lead in initiating an effort to attack agricultural issues.
“In November 2010 he [Obama] set up a bureau of food security in the government’s main aid agency, US-AID, to provide money and give clout to the promise.”

“America bullied other countries into following suit. At a summit meeting in Italy in 2009, the eight richest nations promised $20 billion over three years for food security and agricultural development. That led, after yet another summit, of the G20 (the world’s largest economies) in Pittsburgh, to something called the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP), formally set up in April 2010. Donors pledged $900m, more than half of it from America. These promises embodied the claim that rich countries are pushing for a second Green revolution and are determined to combat global hunger.”
How have these good intentions panned out?
“In November, 20 poor countries submitted their requests to GAFSP for projects worth $1 billion. Only three got anything. That was unsurprising. Roger Thurow of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think-tank, notes that GAFSP is ‘already gasping’. America has handed over only $67m of its promised $475m. Congress has whittled down the president’s budget request for a further $400m to $100m. An accompanying piece of legislation to help switch US-AID’s efforts from emergency aid to long-term investment seems to have been torpedoed. Two dozen aid agencies recently warned Mr Obama of a “strong risk” that GAFSP would cease to exist.”

“Other countries are reneging too. Less than one-third of the promised $20 billion for agriculture turns out to be new money. Much of that has not arrived. A big cause of food-price rises is trade bans by exporters. The G20 has asked the Russian government to study how to block these. But Russia is one of the chief culprits: Foxes Inc regulating hencoop security.”
The developed countries seem to be addressing food supply issues with the same urgency they apply to climate concerns. They should keep in mind that it only takes a few days for a hungry person to get really angry.

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