UN study says starve the poor

At a time when food prices are beyond what many can afford, it is unconscionable to consider policies that would make food scarcer and drive prices even higher. Yet that is exactly what is advocated in a UN-backed report published last week.

At a time when food prices are beyond what many can afford, it is unconscionable to consider policies that would make food scarcer and drive prices even higher. Yet that is exactly what is advocated in a UN-backed report published last week.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) published its confused and inconsistent recommendations for more sustainable agriculture on 15 April. Repeated throughout the report is the message that, despite increases in food production, the benefits of modern agriculture "have come at an increasingly intolerable price, paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural communities and the environment."

But the average inflation-adjusted price of agricultural products, indexed to wages, fell by about 75 percent between 1950 and 1990, benefitting the poorest the most.

Yet the IAASTD portrays the intensification of agriculture during and since the Green Revolution in the mid-60s as a failure, claiming that "increases in intensive, export-orientated agriculture had serious social and environmental implications."

In fact, it is the very governments that the IAASTD wants to "empower" that are responsible for such economic and environmental damage.

In spite of the current spike in food prices, mankind has done reasonably well combatting hunger in recent decades. As population boomed, food production consistently rose faster than demand, and the number of undernourished people has fallen steadily since the late 1960s, from 35% of the total population of the developing world to 17%.

Much of this progress came from the dramatic yield growth that the Green Revolution brought to Asia after the mid-1960s. High-yield seeds, fertilizers, other chemical inputs and irrigation systems meant that hundreds of millions of people were saved from starvation.

And we grow more food on less land. This has allowed us to conserve forests and wild habitats that would otherwise have been turned into fields. Economist Indur Goklany calculates that, if technology and agricultural yields had been frozen at their 1961 levels, we would need to farm more than twice the amount of land we do today to obtain the same amount of food.

It is disingenuous to claim that agricultural technology and free trade have only benefited corporations and ruling cliques. In many cases, small farmers gained the most from the Asian Green Revolution, adopting better seed varieties and techniques just as quickly as larger growers.

Poor farmers have benefited the most from agricultural technologies such as machinery and chemicals, which have reduced back-breaking manual labour. Small producers have become more competitive and food has become cheaper.

The IAASTD, however, argues that "business as usual" in agriculture cannot continue. But what policies "to alleviate poverty and improve food security" does it recommend instead? Agro-ecological approaches and organic farming. But phasing out chemical fertilizers would massively decrease yields, driving up prices still further. It would also increase the amount of land needed to support the world’s food demands, resulting in a huge loss of forest and other pristine land.

The report further claims that "the poorest developing countries are net losers under most trade liberalization scenarios,"--but fails to recognize that most of the world’s poor have never had access to free markets.

High import tariffs on agricultural goods--averaging 33.6% between Sub-Saharan countries--mean that consumers are paying more than the market price of food. Government meddling in food markets has also made agriculture unprofitable for many producers, preventing them from selling on global markets. In Africa, for example, government intervention in the form of heavy taxes, quotas and marketing boards saw per capita food production fall 35% between 1960 and 1985.

If the vast majority of the world’s 850 million hungry people are to be adequately nourished, their earnings will have to rise and food will have to become cheaper. For many of these people, the best solution is to raise agricultural productivity. For this to happen, governments need to remove the economic barriers that currently make it more expensive for people to buy food and for farmers to buy fertilizers, seeds and machinery. Free trade in food would see producers responding efficiently to rising demand and would allow food to reach those in need quickly.

Before issuing unrealistic recommendations on agriculture, the IAASTD report’s authors should have considered where people’s priorities lie. While rich Westerners may be able to spend money on feel-good, but pointless, gestures like organic food and "fair trade," most people need cheaper food, and fast. Bureaucracies don’t create food--people do: governments can improve food security mainly by getting out of the way of free-trading farmers.

Douglas Southgate is Professor of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics at Ohio State University and author of The World Food Economy (Blackwell Publishing, 2007)

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