May 3, 2008

More on Food?

I think it is fair to say that if, over the past ten years, we had spent even a fraction of the time we've spent in the last month in serious conversation talking about where our food comes from and how it is grown we might be in a slightly better place than we currently find ourselves.  One of the elements that has been snaking itself through much of the commentary is the confession that the current global food crisis shouldn't have surprised anyone - here's to history not repeating itself.

I'm really hoping these discussions begin to move more quickly from descriptive to prescriptive so I was glad to see Martin Wolf's piece in the Financial Times' Economist's forum entitled "Food crisis is a chance to reform global agriculture."  Its a helpful piece that summarizes much of what might be beneficial in rectifying the global picture going forward - my one major quibble would be the same one raised by Dani Rodrik - that many are painting with too broad a brush in the rush to raise the alarm:

The fact is that millions of very poor growers of rice and other food products are much better off as a result. The poor that are affected the worst are the urban poor, not the rural poor.

A point I buried at the bottom of an earlier post as well.  (Rodrick also points to this paper on household poverty impacts from the recent changes in food prices.)  

The Wolf piece is also helpful because it elicited a comment from Paul Collier who basically rehashes his earlier comments published in the Times - ie, we need to ramp up large-scale global agricultural production.  I've already expressed my skepticism of viewing this "harder, better, faster, stronger" approach to conventional agriculture as a silver bullet for the global food crisis because it is incumbent upon a number of other externalities that I believe we would be foolish to continue trusting so uncritically.  Helpfully, Alex Cobham, policy manager for Christian Aid, pushes the conversation forward by commenting on the post and raises many of the questions that I was thinking:

Paul Collier argues that romanticism about agriculture and the environment has clouded the judgment of policymakers. That may be true. But romanticism about the role of the market, and the potential for large-scale agriculture, has also some blame to take. Ultimately, there is no scope for, nor likelihood of, the latter making a great change to the production and consumption possibilities of the poorest people on the planet. Staple food yields will instead be improved by providing a little more security to marginal producers, by replacing and improving institutions that were rashly abandoned, and by giving these producer-consumers some prospect of food security.

Hopefully, Wolf and Collier will continue to push the discussion forward.

Slightly inside baseball:  for those who like to read drama between the blog-lines, you may recall that Collier took Christian Aid to task in The Bottom Billion for what I believe was characterized as "commissioning dubious Marxist research on free trade."      

No comments:

Blog Archive