Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Farmers Are Not to Blame for the Food Problem

A new Oxfam report, Growing a Better Future, warns correctly of a risk of hunger in the next decade because of shortages and high prices. Its analysis of the situation, though, is bizarre and inexplicable. Within the last decade, Oxfam has gone from supporting the world’s struggling farmers to the opposite position, essentially blaming farmers for failing to solve all the world’s problems.

At first glance, Oxfam’s blame-the-farmer message is an extreme position, with phrases like “a powerful minority” and “self-serving elites” dismissing the entire food sector at once. Some of the recommendations are nearly this extreme when you look deeper into the report. It is understandable that Oxfam is looking for lower prices that more people will be able to pay, but its suggested policy changes would so lower farm earnings that millions of farmers would be reduced to subsistence farming on a much smaller scale than currently, or would be forced to look for other work. It almost seems as if the phrase “self-serving” is better applied to Oxfam than to the struggling farmers it is so eager to blame.

The problems in food production are fundamentally those of energy, and that is a larger issue that cannot be addressed in isolation in agricultural policy. Water is a looming crisis also, but the equipment to purify and deliver water is well understood and could be provided if the energy were available to operate it. If farmers are being squeezed in recent years, it is because of high energy prices. This is a problem put onto the food sector from outside. Yes, some crops go to produce fuel, but without the income from those cash crops and others, how would farmers collectively pay for the fuel they need, and where would the fuel come from? It may be helpful to note that, as much fuel as crops produce, the food sector uses more fuel than that just to cultivate and transport crops.

Of course we would like to see more food produced at lower prices even though production costs are going up, and without driving farmers into poverty in the process, but this is just the kind of suggestion that prompts economists to answer that there is no free lunch. Historically, food prices have been lowered only by reducing the relative number of farmers, and in the near future, with energy prices increasing, that connection will surely continue to hold. The solution to hunger will not be found by artificially lowering food prices, but by increasing the incomes of the poorest consumers.

Indeed, as important as it is to improve the way food is produced, the larger issues with food have to do with the way it is consumed. This side of the food issue really has to be addressed first. The picture here is really quite stark: every day, more grains and more agricultural products in total are fed to farm animals than to humans. This is unavoidable as long as there are so many farm animals. Currently, the global population of large farm mammals is at least as large as that of humans. It hard to imagine the number of small farm animals, but it is obviously a much larger number. In the short run, if we want to feed all the people, we would only have to find a way to cut our global meat and dairy consumption by about 2 percent, then give a small fraction of the money we save to food charities. The solution is perhaps more simple and direct than we would like to acknowledge.

I cannot talk about meat consumption without talking about overeating, now that we know how closely related they are. To be fair, the Oxfam report does mention the problem of obesity and overeating as something more than an ironic contrast, but it fails to highlight the scale of this problem, which has been sneaking up on us for some time. We have reached the point where half of the world’s people eat more than is healthy. Whole countries, not just the United States, eat 20 percent more food than nutritionally they should. Solutions for this problem, solutions more effective than the naive answers of self-control and surgery, will have to be found. Even a partial solution would take a lot of the pressure off the world food supply. The problem of overeating looms larger than that of starvation. In the short run, the hunger problem could be solved by finding a way for people who overeat to eat less, while distributing some of the food crops that are saved to those who are eating too little. In the long run, it will be a Pyrrhic victory if we solve the problem of starvation only to have twice as many people die of the diseases of obesity. We need to solve the hunger problem now, of course, but the obesity problem cannot wait either.

If the world’s farmers have been unable to solve the world’s problems, the blame lies not so much with the farmers but with the rest of us. If farmers cannot solve every problem, we may be mistaken in asking them to do so much.