October 8, 2010


A textbook myth-buster: Robert Paarlberg’s introduction to the politics of food flambés many of today’s Malthusian myths and puts that food-price crisis in perspective. (Rob Lyons, September 2010, spiked review of books)

Billions of people survive on very low incomes, with the result that they are constantly under threat of suffering food shortages. The irony is that these people are overwhelmingly food producers themselves: farmers in the developing world. Their major problem is that without any investment in production - such as fertilisers, irrigation, pesticides and the techniques and equipment to use them effectively – these farmers are simply much less productive than farmers in the developed world. ‘As long as agricultural labour earns only about $1 a day’, writes Paarlberg, ‘the vast majority of rural citizens who work as farmers will remain poor and hence vulnerable to chronic undernutrition’.

Paarlberg usefully reposes the problem of food as one of politics and economics rather than as one of the technical capacity to produce enough food or the perceived problem of environmental limits. This political aspect helps to explain the differing ways in which people react to new technologies. For example, Paarlberg notes how the ‘green revolution’, which greatly boosted agricultural productivity in the 1960s and 1970s, is generally seen as a good thing in Asia but as a major problem in Latin America. In Asia, small farmers owned their own land and benefited from greater yields. In Latin America, big landowners used the new developments to push small farmers off good land on to more marginal agricultural areas, further impoverishing them. By and large, due to a failure of governments to invest, the green revolution has passed Africa by, with the result that crop yields per capita have actually fallen since the 1980s.

Another example of how politics, rather than technology, is paramount is in the discussion of genetically modified food. In the US, the assumption was made early on that GM foods were not significantly different to other kinds of foods and they were quickly approved for industrial purposes and for animal feed crops. In Europe, the ‘mad cow’ disease crisis in the UK, along with vigorous lobbying from green groups and other NGOs, led to a precautionary approach, where GM foods were effectively banned. This in turn has had serious consequences for the adoption of the technology: where developing countries mostly relate to the US, GM crops have been embraced; in developing countries that relate to Europe more strongly – like many parts of Africa – GM has been rejected, despite the potential it has to improve productivity.

Generally, Paarlberg is sanguine about the prospects for food production. He is critical of Malthusians, who have persistently underestimated the potential to increase farm productivity; he notes how the influence of Malthusian ideas has had damaging consequences. For example, he argues, the initial British reaction to the Irish potato famine of 1845-49 was to assume that it was a product of excessive breeding rather than disastrous British policy. It was an outlook shared by William and Paul Paddock, authors of the 1967 bestseller Famine 1975!, who argued that it would be counterproductive for the US to send food aid to India because the country could never feed its growing population. (By 1975, Indian farming had so improved thanks to the green revolution that it was able to stop accepting food aid altogether.)

On matters of policy, Paarlberg provides a refreshing clarity to the debate about the future of food. Essentially, we can produce much more, to the benefit of more people, if barriers to trade are removed while governments invest in production methods and the infrastructure required to enable better connections between producers and markets.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 8, 2010 9:09 AM
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