The Guardian recently ran a piece titled “Food scarcity: the timebomb setting nation against nation.” It was retweeted a lot across my social network, enough that I feel the need to respond to it. So, here it goes. The article is yet another example of the remarkably durable narrative of production crisis that dominates discussions of food security today. The article operates from the assumption that we are running out of food, and then selectively interprets quotes from Lester Brown and Oxfam to support this attention-grabbing story. The problem here is that Brown/Oxfam make much more nuanced claims than suggested by the headline, which perpetuates the neo-Malthusian agenda of scarcity that dominates modern food security. In short, I find the very title and tone of the article to be terribly irresponsible – in attempting to bring attention to the very serious issue of global hunger, this article sets back intelligent conversation about the causes of the problem, and therefore its solutions.
It takes little but careful reading to see that the Guardian piece doesn’t actually have the evidence to say that food scarcity is a geopolitical timebomb. Brown never says we have an absolute scarcity of food in the world, just increased levels of pressure on the food system. The issue of increased pressure is not, as the article suggests, about production, per se: it is about a complex global political economy that intersects in complicated ways with the remnants of colonialism, failed development, and environmental change in particular ways in specific places. Sure, US grain production is down 15%…but that isn’t a big deal against the GLOBAL 40% rate of waste in the food system. We can cover the current US shortfall (indeed, more or less any conceivable global shortfall) with ease just by cleaning up some low-hanging fruit in the global supply chain, such as improving the transportation networks from farm to market in the Global South.
The only actual argument for scarcity in the article is buried down the page, in Evan Fraser’s claim:
“For six of the last 11 years the world has consumed more food than it has grown. We do not have any buffer and are running down reserves. Our stocks are very low and if we have a dry winter and a poor rice harvest we could see a major food crisis across the board.”
It seems to me that Fraser is misreading his evidence. It is possible that the world has consumed more food than has been available on agricultural markets…but this is NOT THE SAME THING as the amount of food grown. In each of the last 11 years, humanity grew much more food than it consumed. It’s just that each year we then wasted about 40% of that production as it either rotted on the way to market (a common problem in the Global South) or we threw it away uneaten (a problem in the wealthy countries).
So if there is no global food production crisis, why are we seeing land grabbing that will set “nation against nation”? After all, if there is plenty of agricultural production globally, land-grabbing for food supplies is nonsensical behavior. Prices are where they are because the global food system has significant problems that could be addressed relatively easily and at relatively low cost (when compared to the challenge of completely reengineering an agricultural ecosystem). Anyone analyzing things in a serious way should see this, and recognize that food prices are a bubble that could be popped by a serious infrastructural development push. And, as it happens, they have. If you read the article carefully, you realize that there is no evidence in this article that land grabs are for food as much as they are for biofuels. Oxfam’s report is more to the point – the planting of biofuels has to be taken seriously, as that does take arable land out of local production, which can stress local food systems. But if anyone thought there was a serious global food shortage, they would not buy arable land for biofuels – they would buy it for food itself, as after a certain point food prices become inelastic. The very fact the land grabs are heavily for biofuels tells us all we need to know about the idea of a global food shortage.
Rising food prices in today’s world just signal a stress point on today’s (astonishingly inefficient) food system. Leveraged correctly, these pressures could bring about dramatic changes in global food markets, as saving even half of the food that rots on the way to market in the Global South would more than offset all but the most extreme local food deficits. This is an opportunity to make changes in the food system that are immediate and relatively cost-efficient. For all of the noble intents here, ginning up cries of false scarcity in the name of focusing attention on global hunger drags the policy conversation away from real, achievable solutions.
A piece on the Guardian‘s Poverty Matters Blog today sets up one of the oddest, and most pointless, dichotomies I’ve seen in a discussion of development. To summarize, the post by Rick Rowden argues that a focus on aid effectiveness and poverty reduction
perpetuates a bloated aid industry that doles out millions of dollars each year to legions of contractors and NGOs to carry out projects in dozens of poor countries.
What it does not do, apparently, is work toward any definition of development
In recent decades, earlier notions of development economics have been replaced with meeting the MDGs. But poverty reduction is not development. We seem to have suffered collective amnesia about the history of development, which used to be widely understood as industrialisation – in which poor countries undergo a transformative process out of primary agriculture and extractive industries into manufacturing and services industries with higher value-added over time.
First, this is an absurdly reductionist definition of development. If Rowden wants to talk down to his readers about the history of development, he’d do well to note that his particular take fell out of currency in the late 1960s because IT DIDN’T WORK. There is a reason modernization/big push theories fell out of favor (unless you are Jeff Sachs, and then you are forever reviving the corpse of the big push at the community level via the MVP. Then again, Sachs doesn’t seem to read development history, either). In short, the borrowing required for industrial ramp-ups almost never paid off with enough revenue to pay off the loans. To understand why this happened is to understand the country-specific interplay of three key factors. First, there were (and still are) structural issues in world trade that locked much of the developing world out of key markets. Second, these policies failed because markets were dominated by large corporate entities operating with very small margins because of their huge economies of scale, basically undercutting any new competitors on price because they had the advantage of a huge head start provided by colonialism. Third, massive corruption within countries drained the productive capital out of these loans, dooming the projects there were meant to fund. Countries had to address either two or three of these factors, in varying ratios, at different times. Modernization theories pushing industrialization had little to offer in addressing them. This is why we eventually saw the rise of an attention to institutions and governance in development – not just at the level of the state, but also in markets and broader trade arenas. It is also why so many countries in the Global South found themselves saddled with crushing debt at the end of the last century – many of those debts were the original loans and continued accumulation of interest tied to these failed policies.
The other issue is that industrialization requires resources (to make products) and consumption (to sell them). At a time when our demand on the natural environment is already beginning to overshoot its capacity to serve our needs, asking countries to take on even more unsustainable activities is an absurdity that will end in failure. There is nothing sustainable in this pathway – and if you look at the post, you will see that the entire argument is framed in an unlimited world, where the only constraint on development is growth:
If countries are unable to use the industrial policies they will need to transform their domestic industries, diversify their economies and build up their own tax bases over time, how will they ever get off the foreign aid bandwagon? Here the “poverty reduction” discourse is misleading; it neglects to ask how countries are supposed develop without industrialising.
Well, that isn’t totally true unless you take a very, very narrow reading of the poverty reduction discourse. A lot of us are working in this space to imagine alternatives. Indeed, there are community level projects that, while not elevating people to the standards of living seen in the Global North, have created sustainable, substantive changes in the quality of residents’ lives. The examples are out there if people want to look.
Beyond all of this, though, is the larger issue – Rowden clearly has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to development when he dichotomizes poverty reduction and development. Even if we saw economic growth as the be-all, end-all of development, there is a lot of work out there arguing that endemic poverty is a huge drag on economic growth and therefore has to be addressed as part of a growth package (see the OECD Observer here). So even in a fairly reductionist view of development, you need poverty reduction . . . and I don’t know anyone who believes that growth adequately addresses poverty. Not even at USAID. Really.
So poverty reduction and development are not an either/or proposition, from any reasonable perspective on development. Rowden’s piece would have been interesting . . . in 1960. I have no idea what the point was in publishing it today.