As leader of a global organization that strives to eliminate hunger, I want to put the food crisis in perspective and observe how a number of disparate but ultimately interrelated factors combined to create the crisis. Similarly, no single intervention will solve this global dilemma. At Freedom from Hunger, we put tools into the hands of chronically hungry poor people so that they can prevail against such upheavals.
A Growing World Population Demands More
I was an undergraduate at Cornell in 1968 when I first encountered Paul Ehrlich. He had just authored The Population Bomb and was touring campuses to promote his book and his prediction that the 1970s would see hundreds of millions of people die of starvation. Then the Green Revolution started to kick in, and growth of world food supplies soon outstripped population growth and drove down food prices for three decades.
As I was training to be an ecologist, I knew Ehrlich was applying sound principles of population ecology in his doomsday forecast. I was also studying sociology and anthropology and suspected Ehrlich was not appreciating the confounding effects of human adaptability, foresight, and ingenuity. But I took no satisfaction as Ehrlich’s prediction proved wrong.
I believe he was fundamentally right to doubt the Earth’s ability to support unrelenting growth of the food supply. Demand for food by a growing human population would eventually drive food prices up to the point of causing a global reaction.
“Even those of us who have been waiting for the food supply to fall behind global demand are wondering what has happened to create such a “sudden” surge in food prices. There are many factors at work – some expected, some unprecedented.”
The relation between population growth and food supply and prices, however, is not direct and simple. It is muddled in a perversely complex world system. In the past three decades of low food prices, public policy in most major countries turned its attention away from agricultural research aimed at improving soil conservation and crop yields. Less research and less extension of its results to farmers means less innovative energy to create genetic varieties and farming methods to sustain the momentum of the Green Revolution and spread its magic to new crops and livestock and areas of the world, notably Africa, that have yet to benefit. We can no longer rely on putting more land under cultivation to expand food production.
The key is to increase the productivity of the land already in use, which requires continual commitment to research and extension of its results. This commitment has faltered, with the result is that growth in crop yields has fallen behind global population growth. This by itself ought to have pushed food prices upward some time ago. But, as just mentioned, the world system is perversely complex.
The Era of Cheap Food Ends
Consider another agricultural policy in North America and Europe – public subsidy not for agricultural research but directly to support the incomes of farmers. The original rationale was to keep farmers farming rather than migrating to the city, maintaining food production for the nation, and in Europe particularly, maintaining the villages and landscapes so entwined with the nation’s image of itself.
The original ideals have been compromised, as corporate farming has displaced the family farm and as costly domestic agriculture has to be protected from cheaper food and fiber imported from developing countries. Still, the public subsidies continue to command strong political support and cost the average taxpayer a bundle of money, not only for the taxes to support subsidies to corporate farming but also for the higher cost of food and fiber protected from import competition.
For decades, subsidized agriculture in North America and Europe has produced more food than these nations need for themselves or their better customers in other nations. Supply greater than demand means, of course, lower prices. To keep prices for domestic farmers from falling below their costs of production, thereby driving up the need for further subsidy to keep farmers in business, Europe and North America “dump” surplus production into overseas markets.
The pernicious effect is depression of prices that developing country farmers can get for their production, driving many out of business and into the cities. With food prices so low in developing countries, net consumers of food (especially urban dwellers) benefit, but the incentive to invest in agriculture is undercut, development of rural communities is stifled, imported food replaces domestically grown food, and the rural areas become impoverished.
It is tempting to think the price of keeping farming alive and well in North America and Europe is deep poverty in the rural areas of developing countries. This is only half true. The real world is oh-so-much more complicated.