More on Food and the World

Maize field.jpgFrank’s post, Food Shortages and Aid Wastages, hits on a point that must be addressed so thanks Frank for bringing it up. Still what is odd about the Economist coverage is that it asks “Global food shortages have taken everyone by surprise. What is to be done?” There is no surprise here. The Economist ran a cover in early December 2007 called “The end of cheap food.” That story noted:

But the rise in prices is also the self-inflicted result of America’s reckless ethanol subsidies. This year biofuels will take a third of America’s (record) maize harvest. That affects food markets directly: fill up an SUV’s fuel tank with ethanol and you have used enough maize to feed a person for a year. And it affects them indirectly, as farmers switch to maize from other crops. The 30m tonnes of extra maize going to ethanol this year amounts to half the fall in the world’s overall grain stocks.

The recent story also explains:

But the food scare of 2008, severe as it is, is only a symptom of a broader problem. The surge in food prices has ended 30 years in which food was cheap, farming was subsidised in rich countries and international food markets were wildly distorted.

Ricefield.jpgJust to bring home how this works, as Frank quoted “For the middle classes it means cutting out medical care. For those on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.”

Here is a little more to explain how many people are affected by these changes:

On a conservative estimate, food-price rises may reduce the spending power of the urban poor and country people who buy their own food by 20% (in some regions, prices are rising by far more). Just over 1 billion people live on $1 a day, the benchmark of absolute poverty; 1.5 billion live on $1 to $2 a day. Bob Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, reckons that food inflation could push at least 100m people into poverty, wiping out all the gains the poorest billion have made during almost a decade of economic growth. (emphasis added)

This is not a “new” problem. No one should be surprised. That the Economist is calling for the world to pay attention to food and its impact on world politics is excellent. That its recent article suggests this issue is a surprise and change will be slow because the reality of supply and demand for food means a long response time (it takes time to grow crops), is perhaps disingenuous. Disingenuous, not entirely for the Economist; rather, the magazine and many others have known about these issues for some time. Policy folks who say switch to alternative fuels and feel good about not relying on oil know of these problems. Policy that ignores the numerous impacts on billions sows seeds of political unrest, revolution, and war. To ignore the immense power of what we can do to mitigate these possible results is arguably immoral. It also fails to live up to the United States’s proven ability to be a leader in innovation while wasting a chance to rebuild its place on the world scene. Even if one disagrees and wishes to focus on self-interest, ignoring the problems increases the chance that more dire consequences will reach out and touch our day-to-day lives.

Image1: A corn field in Liechtenstein, WikiCommons, Public Domain

Image2: Ricefield in Bangladesh WikiCommons, Public Domain

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4 Responses

  1. Hey Deven,

    I just want to sound a brief here in urging we recall Sen’s findings from “Poverty and Famine,” that famine is much more likely to stem from sociopolitical institutions, structures, and causes, than from natural disasters, food shortages, etc.

    I’m not suggesting that food prices and shortages are insignificant. Rather, the point is that the efforts we make to redress the problems cannot avoid the importance of social and political justice; that we can provide as much humanitarian aid as we like, but without attention to the political and social structures that are largely responsible for funneling the food to the hungry, our impact is unlikely to be what we might hope for. Justice, then, is more than an abstract value, something we should generally strive for, but of little consequence to people’s lives.

    If Sen is right, and I tend to think he is, unjust structures are a principal cause of famines and starvation.

    I suspect organizational sociologists might concur and/or have some wisdom on the subject to share, but in discussing global justice, I am often amazed at how few seem to recall Sen’s analysis, which was important enough, along with the greater body of Sen’s work to earn a Nobel Prize!

  2. “…unjust structures are a principal cause of famines and starvation.”

    Government, in the guise of ethanol mandates and ridiculous agricultural subsidies, impacts the hows and whys of our food productions. I’ll agree that that’s an unjust structure with predictable results…but by all means let’s get them more involved in our health care.

  3. Deven says:


    I hope I did not indicate that I disagree with the point you are making. Regardless, thanks for bringing up Sen’s ideas and offering a solid summary of the reasons behind arguing for more directed projects.


  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    In addition to the aforementioned book by Sen, audacity prompts me to suggest the following titles should be counted among those essential to understanding the economic and political structures and variables at play here:

    Bardhan, Pranab. Scarcity, Conflicts, and Cooperation: Essays in the Political and Institutional Economics of Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

    Bardhan, Pranab, Samuel Bowles and Michael Wallerstein, eds. Globalization and Egalitarian Distribution. New York: Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    Barry, Christian and Thomas W. Pogge, eds. Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Global Justice. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    Dasgupta, Partha. An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    Dreze, Jean, Amartya Sen and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Hurrell, Andrew and Ngaire Woods, eds. Inequality, Globalization, and World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Kerbo, Harold R. World Poverty: Global Inequality and the Modern World System. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

    I’ll hazard the guess that very few people, apart from a handful of economists and political scientists/theorists, are well acquainted with this absolutely fundamental literature.