Population Matters

Another Food Fight?

January 10th, 2011

The FAO’s announcement last week that food prices have reached a new all-time high has renewed what Andrew Revkin at the New York Times calls the “eternal food fight.” In his blog he has set up a debate between Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute on one side and Vaclav Smil, a risk analyst at the University of Manitoba, on the other side. 

Brown insists that there is a long-term rising trend.  He notes that “Grain and soybean prices, and food prices more broadly, are moving up,” and concludes that, “There is not anything in sight to reverse this trend.” 

In response, Smil doesn’t contest that food prices are rising, but he insists that “Any food shortages are 95%+ a matter of poor or no governance, not any “extreme” climate and “gunwale inching.”   This, of course, is just a variation of the old “there’s plenty of food to go around” argument, which holds that we simply need to eliminate waste and improve governance to solve any “food crisis.”

Smil’s response reminds me what my Dad always said when I proposed some harebrained scheme. He would say, “Yes, when pigs fly.”  Of course, if you could reconfigure the DNA of pigs enough, I suspect that they could fly. But they don’t fly and they won’t fly, because it’s not in their DNA and won’t be, if ever, without millions of years of evolution.

Waste occurs in a free market economy because for many people, particularly those with high disposable incomes, the “marginal cost” of preventing waste is much higher than the cost of wasting food.  Higher food prices may discourage food waste, particularly among low-income households, but it has had little or no effect on the behavior of most American households.   And concerns about grain shortages notwithstanding, when incomes rise people tend to eat more meat. Similarly, we can look at tyrannical or badly managed governments, such as in Zimbabwe, and suggest that the food situation would improve with better governance, but Mugabe has been around a very long time, and he doesn’t seem inclined to leave anytime soon.

Looking decades ahead, is it really likely that “better governance” alone will overcome the impact of population growth, rising temperatures, intensified drought and flooding, increasing shortages of arable land, higher costs for fuel and fertilizer, and loss of topsoil?  Hardly. With a rising global middle class, is it likely that meat consumption will fall so that others might eat more grain?  Not likely. 

The simple truth is this:  when—for whatever reason–food prices for basic commodities go up 50 or 100 percent, people living in urban areas on less than a $1.25 a day are at the cruel mercy of food prices, and they must eat less.  All the wishing and theoretical constructs in the world will not help them in time.  They live in the real world, and so must we.  Sorry, Mr. Smil.  Get real.  Unless we do more to expand voluntary family planning, and invest far more heavily in agricultural development, tens of millions of people living in severe poverty may be battling malnutrition and potential starvation in the decades ahead.  There’s nothing wrong with “better governance” or reducing global meat consumption, but don’t bet the farm on it.  Pigs still don’t fly.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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