Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
Thu May 8th, 2008 at 03:54:32 AM EST
More and more interest is shown on ET in food and agriculture, given the tension that has reigned on commodity markets for some time now, and the high food prices that are the result. These are essential questions in any case, as essential as those regarding energy, to which they're profoundly linked. Not long ago ATinNM suggested we try to put together some position papers, using the Debates box to keep the thread in view.
Elsewhere, asdf posted a comment that (following links through) led to an MIT project rather uglily called the Collaboratorium, that plans to pool knowledge and discussion on climate change. They will have sophisticated tools like computer simulation at their disposal, unlike us, but they propose a scheme for discussion I thought we might ado/apt, (or at least try!). As asdf's comment makes clear in a quote:
Dr. Klein's group is designing an "argument tree" in which contributions must fit into one of four categories: issues needing addressing, options for resolving them, information supporting an option and information rebutting one.
I don't think we can reproduce this formally in a discussion thread, but we can attempt to order the discussion by keeping it in mind. We can start with an main issue or question, and I suggest
Can the world feed its population?
which can be defined and discussed -- by saying, for instance, that "world" here may mean the planet Earth, but also the set of institutions and powers that make up what is sometimes called the international community, it being understood that the latter is strictly limited in its ability to pull rabbits out of the former's hat; and that "population" is dynamic. We can see that the question lights up major topics for discussion: demographics, ecology, agronomy, economics, trade and transport policy, agricultural structure and methods, global versus local, policy elaboration and application and institutions ad hoc, etc.
We can immediately offer a binary yes/no response to the question: it can, or it can't. Under those headings (again, I'm not suggesting we tie debate down to strict formal ordering of the thread, but that we try to be aware of where our contributions fit: is this an argument, a proposition, evidence in favour of the negative or the affirmative?), we can offer propositions like Free trade and markets will solve the problems (it can), or Only considerable human mortality will restore the natural balance (it can't). And we can discuss these propositions and adduce evidence for and against. This will probably turn out to be like herding cats, but we can try -- since it may make reaching positions and organising the evidence for those positions somewhat easier.
I'll kick this off by referring to a couple of recent articles, the first by Edgard Pisani, 90-year-old wise man who served as minister (especially of Agriculture) under De Gaulle, Pompidou, and Mitterand, and on several international commissions, demographist, agronomist, who was interviewed last week in Télérama, where he (cleverly ;)) asks a similar question to the one I picked.
|Voilà des années que je lance des cris d'alarme et que je pose la question suivante : le monde peut-il nourrir le monde ? Sans doute pas ! Nous avons, fort heureusement, inventé les moyens de diminuer la mortalité infantile. Mais, ce faisant, nous avons créé une explosion démographique sans précédent. La planète n'est pas faite pour accueillir les neuf milliards d'êtres prévus pour 2050 et leur donner à manger en suffisance. D'autant moins que, pour nourrir ceux qui existent, l'homme a inventé des procédés qui ont déréglé la nature et l'ont rendue moins fertile. Pour installer ce surcroît de population, les villes s'étalent sur les terres les plus fertiles de la planète.||For years I've been putting out warnings and asking this question: can the world feed the world? Doubtless not! Very fortunately, we have invented ways of reducing infant mortality. But in doing so we created an unprecedented population explosion. The planet is not built to accommodate the nine billion beings forecast for 2050 and give them enough to eat. Even less so because, to feed those that are already in existence, man invented processes that have unbalanced nature and made it less fertile. To house this additional population, cities are spreading over the most fertile land on the planet.|
|il est essentiel de se demander de quoi auront besoin neuf milliards d'êtres. En termes d'emploi, de terres, d'eau et d'énergie. Et quelles seront, dans ce contexte, les conséquences de la non-satisfaction des besoins vitaux des hommes. La question alimentaire ne peut se penser que comme l'une des parties d'un ensemble, comme la conséquence de multiples facteurs qui, lui étant étrangers, y contribuent. Il n'existe guère de secteurs qui n'agissent sur l'agriculture et sur lesquels celle-ci soit sans effet.||...it is essential to ask what nine billion beings will need. In terms of employment, land, water and energy. And what will, in that context, be the consequences of the non-satisfaction of vital needs. The food issue can only be thought of as one of the parts of a whole, as the result of multiple factors that, though separate from it, contribute to it. There are few sectors that do not affect agriculture and on which it has no effect in return.|
Asked what has brought about the present situation, Pisani says:
| Une multitude de facteurs se sont croisés. L'augmentation de la demande, avec 28,5 millions de bouches supplémentaires à nourrir chaque année. La flambée du pétrole, qui rend les agro-carburants plus séduisants que jamais et qui pousse les exploitants des grandes plaines à déforester des dizaines de milliers d'hectares, en Amazonie par exemple. La multiplication des dommages climatiques, qui fait que les stocks n'ont jamais été aussi bas depuis trente ans. Les politiques internationales de la Banque mondiale, du Fonds monétaire international, qui ont incité les pays du Sud à tout miser sur les cultures d'exportation au détriment de leurs cultures vivrières. La liberté du commerce, qui est souvent fatale aux agricultures les moins favorisées par la nature. Ou encore le déséquilibre des marchés et l'absence de stocks qui ont amené les spéculateurs à faire flamber les prix des denrées alimentaires.||A crowd of different factors. Increased demand, with 28.5 million additional mouths to feed each year. Surging oil prices, which make agro-fuels more attractive than ever, and incite the farmers of the great plains to deforest tens of thousands of hectares, in Amazonia, for example. The growth of climate damage, which results in stocks lower than for perhaps thirty years. The international policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, which pressured the South into gambling on export crops to the detriment of their food crops. Free trade, which is often fatal to less naturally-favoured agricultures. Or the imbalance of markets and the absence of stocks that have led speculators to set a fire under food prices.|
|Parler de la crise alimentaire, c'est prendre en considération les dizaines de milliers d'hectares de terres fertiles grignotées par les villes et les océans, année après année. C'est savoir que la Californie vit déjà une compétition dramatique entre la consommation d'eau urbaine et agricole. Que l'agriculture ultraproductiviste est extrêmement vorace en énergie. C'est aussi prêter attention à l'évolution de nos régimes alimentaires : l'augmentation de la consommation de viandes est redoutable pour l'avenir, puisqu'elle a fait exploser la demande de céréales fourragères. La Chine en fait l'expérience. D'ores et déjà les animaux consomment 45 % des céréales mondiales.|
Alors il est grand temps de se poser cette question essentielle, non pas en termes de marché mais de subsistance : de quelles agricultures avons-nous besoin et à quelles conditions pourront-elles répondre aux besoins?
|Talking about the food crisis means taking account of the tens of thousands of hectares of fertile land nibbled away by cities and oceans, year after year. It means understanding that California is already undergoing dramatic competition between urban and agricultural water needs. That ultra-productivist farming devours energy. It also means paying attention to our diet: growing meat consumption is fearsome for the future, because it creates explosive demand for feed grain. China is finding out about this. Already animals consume 45% of world grain production. |
So it is high time to ask this fundamental question, not in market terms but in terms of subsistence: what kinds of agriculture do we need and what are the conditions under which they will be able to meet future needs?
Asked why the question is not being addressed, Pisani says that the ideology and interests of "dominant groups" are opposed to the kind of governance that would be necessary. And he takes a shot at the WTO:
| La politique de l'OMC est absurde : vous ne pouvez pas réguler par le marché mondial une denrée aussi essentielle à la vie que la nourriture, et dont les coûts varient du simple au triple suivant les régions du monde. Au contraire, il faudrait que les gouvernements puissent fixer des prix intérieurs favorables à la production et abordables pour le consommateur. Il faut aider les agricultures des pays pauvres en leur apportant les moyens de produire plutôt que les décourager par l'aide alimentaire.||The policy of the WTO is absurd: you can't use the global market to regulate a commodity as essential to life as food, of which costs range from simple to triple from one region of the world to another. On the contrary, governments need to be able to set domestic prices that favour production while being affordable for consumers. We must help farmers in poor countries by providing them with the means to produce rather than discourage them with food aid.|
Pisani's answer to the question Can the world feed its population? seems to be No, if population goes on rising at this rate and if we go on running agriculture in the same way. Martin Wolf in the FT sees some of the problems and offers his solutions in Food crisis is a chance to reform global agriculture:
... aggregate production of maize, rice and soyabeans stagnated in 2006 and 2007. This was partly the result of drought. Also important, however, have been higher prices of oil, since modern farming is so energy-intensive. With weak growth of supply and strong increases in demand, cereal stocks have fallen to their lowest levels since the early 1980s. Declining stocks undermine the widely shared belief that speculation has driven the rising prices, since stocks would be rising, not falling, if prices were above market-clearing levels.
Wolf and Pisani agree about a number of things there, with the exception of Wolf's final point about speculation, which doesn't seem convincing: essential foodstuffs are commodities it's not easy for "real" buyers to pass up on even at prices that speculation may have played a part in pushing upwards. Wolf doesn't ignore demand and supply problems:
Vastly more worrying than speculation is the weak medium-term growth of supply. The rapid increases in yields of the 1970s and 1980s, at the time of the “green revolution”, have slowed. Given the stresses on water supplies, longer-term supply prospects would look poor even if diversion of land for production of biofuels were not adding to the pressure.
Are prices going to remain high? Two opposing forces are at work. The first is the market, which will tend to bring prices back down as supplies expand and demand shrinks. But the latter is also what we want to avoid, at least in the case of the poor, since reducing their consumption is not so much a solution as a failure. The second force is the current intense pressure on the world’s food system. This is true of both demand and costs of supply. Prices are likely to remain relatively elevated, by historical standards, unless (or until) energy prices tumble.
Or until agriculture becomes less energy-intensive? This doesn't appear to be an option in Wolf's book.
This, then, brings us to the big question: what is to be done? The answers fall into three broad categories: humanitarian; trade and other policy interventions; and longer-term productivity and production.
Humanitarian is quickly dispatched: food aid with mechanisms to make sure it only goes to the deserving poor. Next comes the main point:
Now turn to the policy interventions. Protection, subsidies and other such follies distort agriculture more than any other sector. Alas, the opportunity to eliminate protection against imports offered by exceptionally high world prices is not being taken. A host of countries are imposing export taxes instead, thereby fragmenting the world market still more, reducing incentives for increased output and penalising poor net-importing countries. Meanwhile, rich countries are encouraging, or even forcing, their farmers to grow fuel instead of food.
The present crisis is a golden opportunity to eliminate this plethora of damaging interventions. The political focus of the Doha round on lowering high levels of protection is largely irrelevant. The focus should, instead, be on shifting the farm sector towards the market, while cushioning the impact of high prices on the poor.
So, no subsidies or tariffs, one global market, do not fragment as Pisani says is necessary. The WTO in the Doha round is wrong because it is not going far enough. We need to do something undefined for the poor.
Finally, far greater resources need to be devoted to expanding long-run supply. Increased spending on research will be essential, especially into farming in dry-land conditions. The move towards genetically modified food in developing countries is as inevitable as that of the high-income countries towards nuclear power. At least as important will be more efficient use of water, via pricing and additional investment. People will oppose some of these policies. But mass starvation is not a tolerable option.
There's a strange mix here of belief in pure market ideology, and a kind of militant humanism (or is it hypocrisy?) that sweeps aside opposition in the name of saving lives. Wolf ends on the same note:
We must choose between fragmenting world markets still further and integrating them, between helping the poor and letting even more starve and between investing in improving supply and allowing food deficiencies to grow. The right choices are evident. The time to make them is now.
Letting even more starve... The implication is clear. The present system is not working, and it's not working because there's not enough market.
There are similarities and dissimilarities between these two accounts of the current crisis, but the propositions for the future could not be more radically opposed. The intellectual approach too: Pisani questions what is possible, Wolf is filled with top-down certainty. But the two touch on most of the important points, and so may serve to sketch the lie of the land.
In discussing this, as I suggest above, let's try (without formal constraints) to fit our thinking into a pattern of issue, proposition, evidence for or against a proposition. But have at Pisani and Wolf too, if you like :-)
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