Entries tagged with “hunger”.


Friend/colleague/journalist Keith Kloor has a very interesting piece about the problematic character of some research that recently purported to cast doubt on the health safety of GMOs.  The piece is an excellent effort to push back against crap science and crap evidence in the GMO debate, and stands as an interesting example of a general need to critically evaluate “scientific” claims about any number of issues from the harmful character of vaccines to those would deny anthropogenic climate change.  However, the piece, in making a strenuous argument for evidence, overreaches in its conclusions and too-quickly dismisses the ecological issues associated with GMOs – exactly the opposite outcome Keith was seeking.

In general, I agree with Keith that the screaming about the health impacts of GMOs has greatly outstripped the evidence, but I take issue with the idea that GMOs have been largely proven safe all around.  There remain significant questions about ecological impacts that have not attracted a solid scientific consensus (i.e the impact/cost/tradeoffs of gene flow between GMOs and the surrounding ecology, pest resistance, etc. –.  The evidence base in this area is pretty small, and ecological systems are very diverse and complex, so the levels of uncertainty here are fairly epic (Pamela Ronald, whose article Keith references approvingly, even notes that the ecological impacts of GMOs are still an open issue).  Honestly, Keith is too dismissive of this challenge:

Some of these folks are worried about new genes being introduced into plant and animal species. But humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals pretty much since we moved out of caves, manipulating their genes all the while. The process was just slower before biotechnology came along.

Modern genetic engineering does not have all that much to do with selective breeding.  We are doing things in GMOs that could not occur in nature, which is rather different then applying what amounts to a modified evolutionary force (human selection of seeds to plant the next season or animals to breed) in the selection of traits within certain crops.

Another big concern that has been widely reported is the “rapid growth of tenacious super weeds” that now defy Monsanto’s trademark Roundup herbicide. That has led farmers to spray their fields with an increasing amount of the chemical weed-killer. Additionally, some research suggests that other pests are evolving a resistance to GMO crops. But these problems are not unique to genetic engineering. The history of agriculture is one of a never-ending battle between humans and pests.

Again, this is a bit off to one side.  Yes, agriculture has always been about the radical simplification and management of ecosystems in a complex world, and therefore is indeed an endless battle for control between farmer and surrounding ecology.  What this elides, though, is the fact that some of these GMOs have made things harder for us in the long run.  It is hard to sell this as a good, or even neutral, outcome.

I raise this issue because of its implications for conversations about food security. People (some, but not all) working in food security tend to be a bit dismissive of the ecological concerns surrounding GMOs, loosely equating them with the human consumption concerns that have largely been disproven at this point.  The response to insistent questioning about ecological impacts is the argument that, on balance, GMOs have done more good than harm and/or that GMOs are necessary for global food security going forward.  The “more harm than good” argument seems to me based on evidence that is hardly complete, and often references a glowing, startlingly unproblematic vision of the Green Revolution.  The “we need GMOs” is a crisis narrative of food production that drives current and future claims about their value.  At the moment, much of the food security world is arguing that there is a dire food production crisis either coming or just arrived (embodied in the 2008 and 2011 food price spikes), and therefore we cannot wait for the burden of proof surrounding any issue associated with GMOs – we must act now!  This crisis narrative effectively reduces anyone who raises objections to an all-out push for more production to some sort of monster who would rather let innocents starve than engage with the messiness of the real world. Basically, precaution is conflated with timidity, making those who show concern over the ecological impacts of GMOs into the food security equivalents of Neville Chamberlain.

This would perhaps be true…if, in fact there were a global production crisis and we needed GMOs to feed everyone. This is a much harder thing to sell, however, when one realizes that the world produces roughly twice as much food as needed to feed everyone adequately each year.  There isn’t a global production crisis (though there are local production crises that arise from complex causes and need to be addressed in locally-specific ways). I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: globally, there is plenty of food. Now, and likely for quite some time. Period.

In the twitter conversations that emerged around Keith’s article, Robert Wilson, a mathematical ecologist, argued for “an adjusted precautionary principle where we consider the risks of inaction, as well as action.”  This strikes me as both reasonable and necessary when discussing food security policy and programs these days.  If we did this, though, I think we would find that the risks of inaction are, in fact, substantially smaller than the risks of action – this is not to say there are necessarily huge risks to action, just that when you are producing twice the calories needed already, the risk from doing nothing is, at least in the short term, pretty small.  There is time to test more crops, more widely, under more conditions, before we arrive at any production crunch.  There is no need to rush.

In short, we need to be sure that our efforts to push back against crap science (which is really what Keith was doing in his article) don’t overreach and inadvertently empower narratives and arguments that are not supported by the evidence – exactly the opposite outcome Keith sought.

 

In my previous post, I objected to the way in which Tyler Cowen’s recent NYT blog post pushed the dominant “crisis of production” narrative in discussions of food security.  In my opinion, the recurrence of this problematic claim in various popular outlets has a lot to do with people’s relatively surficial understanding of food security and the causes of hunger in the Global South.  For some reason, development seems to lend itself to dilettantism…at least in part, I suspect, because people assume that the global poor are so bad off that any new ideas would be an improvement on what is there.  Of course, there is also the subtle, durable assumption that poor people (especially of darker skin tones) somehow (re)produce their problems because they don’t think rationally/clearly/etc*.  Such arguments fall apart when they are tested with actual evidence, but most op-eds and policies have nothing to do with evidence…

This problem extends beyond how we talk about the poor themselves to how we think about the governments under which they live.  While governance (not the same as government, folks – please try to remember this) is really important to development outcomes, it is not everything…and government (as in the formal rules and structures of governance in a particular place) can be even less important, as many of the global poor live beyond the reach of the state.  So blaming the state and its policies for hunger can be a pretty tricky proposition. When Cowen, in an offhand way, wades into the role of the Malawian government as an illustration of how his presumed production shortfalls are exacerbated by problematic government policies, his lack of understanding of the African context becomes clear:

many African nations have unhelpful policies toward agriculture. Malawi, for instance, subjects corn to periodic export and import restrictions as well as to price controls, all of which thwart development of a well-functioning market. When market speculators save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity, they may be punished by law. These restrictions of market incentives exacerbate the basic supply problems.

First, Cowen cherry-picks Malawian government actions to make this point.  While price controls and import/export restrictions have been used, there is another side to Malawian intervention in the markets: the subsidization of inputs to boost overall farm productivity.  As a result, he ignores the near-perfect correlation between the years when the government intervenes in input markets – effectively, when the Malawian government subsidizes fertilizers – and the years when Malawi is a net food exporter to the extent that it can pay for the entire subsidy several times over (this correlation has proven very durable and very vexatious to some of the more theologically-inclined free marketeers out there).  In the case of Malawi, some market intervention, however distortionary, actually does work to ensure adequate food production within the country each year. Which gets to a much larger point: the Malawian government is doing this not out of ignorance or irrationality, but because it is being responsive to citizens whose short term needs are so dire that to take a long-term only view would result in mass morbidity, if not mortality, in the short run.

For example, in a priori assuming that Malawi’s decision to punish market speculators when they “save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity” (one person’s “saving” is another’s “hoarding”), Cowen fails to parse between the needs of an efficient market (a means of transmitting future price situations into current pricing decisions) with human needs (a means of obtaining adequate food such that members of the household do not die) – in most places I work, there is a large disjoint between the two.  It is this disjoint that the government of Malawi, and indeed many governments around the world must negotiate.  It is this disjoint, and its attendant reality, that is Cowen’s second major problem, as he doesn’t really understand it.  This reality has two parts:

1) Yes, in the long run markets can transmit information about pricing and preferences that can lead to more productive and useful decisions, but in contexts where people are living on a dollar a day, their margins for error are small and their ability to wait for markets to work things out is limited.

2) There is a presumption that the anticipatory price signal will result in actions to address the problem before the shortage actually hits.  However, the causes of shortage generally extend well beyond the management capacity of any single state.  In short, transmitting shortage signals into the present only serves to prolong the challenges that the Malawian poor are going to face, without producing any effective policy or market response because there is no government capacity to respond.  In short, why transmit the emergency into the present when you are going to need help to address it now or in the future?  This is why many African states punish hoarding…though they could be looked upon as comprising a de facto futures market, hoarders transmit not just information, but shortage into the market and onto very vulnerable populations earlier than would otherwise be the case, undermining safety and security sooner and to no good end.  Given the option of an efficient market populated by a lot of dead people and an inefficient, or even broken market populated by live people, most African states are going with the latter.  Until someone sorts out how to set up functioning markets near-instantly, builds enough financial resilience into African livelihoods to weather this sort of market behavior, or builds the financial and infrastructural capacity of African states to a point they can manage this short of shock without external assistance (or some combination of the three), states will continue to be forced into this sort of decision, and will make the same choice.  I am not convinced that the manipulation/corruption of markets Cowen describes is a cause of hunger as much as a symptom of a hugely problematic global political economy that no one small country can effectively manage.

In short, the situation in Malawi is very common in sub-Saharan Africa.  For most countries, the issues I raise above have been in play since independence.  The typical African country is dealing with a set of pressures that make straightforward economic decision-making nearly impossible – from state-building to market-building, these countries cannot just make economic decisions, they must make political-economic decisions that reflect the immediate reality around them.  Government is easy…until you actually have to govern.

 

 

*This is not to absolve all poor people of all responsibility for their situations. The global poor, like everyone else, are human – they are subject to emotions, biases, prejudices, etc. that sometimes do cause major problems for their well-being.  However, it has been my experience that this is not a dominant cause of the problems of poverty…mainly because if these problems were exacerbated more than they were helped by the efforts of the global poor, we’d have a lot fewer poor people because they would mostly have died. The global poor make fantastically difficult decisions about the allocation of scarce resources every day with a shocking degree of success…something we overlook at our peril.

 

While I appreciate the overall sentiment behind “World Hunger, the Problem Left Behind”, Tyler Cowen’s op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this week, in trying to put forth an important message he reinforces really problematic understandings of hunger. Cowen, like so many others, continues to frame food security and hunger issues as a crisis of production and productivity.  Citing Michael Lipton, Cowen writes:

Rwanda and Ghana are gaining, but…most of the continent is not. Production and calorie intake per capita don’t seem to be higher today than they were in the early 1960s. It remains an issue how Africa’s growing population will be fed.

First, production and caloric intake per capita are not necessarily directly linked.  As I have observed elsewhere on this blog (and as Hans Herren and I argued at the New America Foundation/Slate event Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks), there is a massive loss problem in most food systems that more than accounts for most food shortages in the world today.  Considering the absolutely remarkable explosion of the African population since 1960, when it held about 300 million people and today, when it holds 870 million, holding the line on per-capita production means that people effectively tripled the agricultural output of the continent.  But when you lose 40% of that production between the farm gate and market, you are going to get a disjoint between production and caloric intake that has nothing at all to do with the skills of the farmers or their on-farm circumstances.  Are there ways to augment production and improve it?  Probably, but this is not the central problem at the moment, nor is it the low-hanging fruit.  Don’t reengineer the ecosystem, just fix the road!

It would be good to see some serious discussion of food insecurity that did not center on agricultural productivity.  It seems that the urge is to start from the hardest end of the process to fix, perhaps because it is in the fields that food goes from abstract to concrete. It is hard to argue that the biggest problem is loss in the supply chain, because that is harder for people to see.  We need more posters of rotting loads of food on the back of trucks, and less pictures of dusty fields with stunted crops.  Maybe that would start to shift the narrative?