Food Fight

The new geopolitics of agriculture aren't new.


Lester R. Brown’s article takes us on a breathless tour across the troubled terrain of global agriculture (“The New Geopolitics of Food,” May/June 2011). At every turn he exaggerates the danger.

He begins with an assertion that last year’s 75 percent increase in international wheat prices implied a similar price increase for the urban poor in India. Not true. India, like many developing countries, has used trade restrictions to insulate its domestic consumers from volatile international prices. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the retail price of wheat in New Delhi today is actually lower than it was in the spring of 2010. In real terms, wheat prices in Delhi have been declining since 2008.

Brown’s second worry is that technology-driven farm productivity gains are beginning to slow. Not true. A 2009 expert report to the FAO shows a yearly productivity growth rate for world agriculture of 1.56 percent in the most recent two decades, roughly twice the 0.79 percent growth rate in the previous two decades. Brown specifically predicts that rice yields in China “may level off soon.” Rice yields in China have actually increased 13 percent since Brown first made this erroneous prediction in 1995.

Brown also worries it will not be possible to increase crop production “with less water.” Not true. A 2008 OECD report on the environmental performance of agriculture shows that between 1990 and 2004, while OECD food production increased by 5 percent, water use on irrigated lands declined by 9 percent. Pesticide use and excess nitrogen use also declined in the OECD region, as did soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions from farming.

Brown asserts, finally, that this year’s street demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were triggered by high food prices. This ignores the testimony of the demonstrators themselves, who said they wanted jobs, personal dignity, and an end to government corruption, not cheaper bread.

Robert Paarlberg
Professor of Political Science
Wellesley College
Wellesley, Mass.

It may be the “New Geopolitics of Food,” but it’s the same old Lester Brown. Since 1960, he has pushed one urgent message: the need to increase production and force down prices. Brown neglects to mention that the disastrous inflation-deflation “supercycle” prevailing since 2008 is largely a consequence of this policy.

The bottom billions suffer when food prices are high, but that’s nothing compared with when they’re low. Most of the world’s poor make a living from agriculture, and national and international policies have for 50 years relentlessly slashed prices at their expense. It should come as no surprise that they respond by abandoning their agricultural livelihoods. Growing slums and fluctuating prices are signs of the collapse in farm earnings.

The United States is responsible for instigating this regime. But Brown, casting Washington as rescuer of a hungry world, focuses on a history more friendly to his thesis: the Indian “famine” of 1966. In November 1965, as a young U.S. Agriculture Department economist, Brown predicted a catastrophe in India the next year, and President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Canada and Europe to join in a “war on hunger” to meet the crisis. No famine occurred, but to conclude that only Johnson’s quick action averted it assumes the forecast was right in the first place.

Indira Gandhi had a different explanation: U.S. officials had promised to ship surplus grain “indefinitely,” and Indian planners foolishly trusted them, shifting wheat acreage to cotton. Stalemated in Vietnam, Johnson needed a “dramatic rescue” to reassert American leadership in Asia, so surplus disposal became famine relief. Brown supplied the analysis that made a famine without any actual starvation deaths seem real.

Brown’s version buttresses a Malthusian interpretation of the past and future of the global food problem. Instead of historical problems facing farmers squeezed by creditors, landlords, and a global trade system rigged against them, he asks us to focus on population explosions, water wars, and other speculative, future dangers. The geopolitics of food isn’t new — it’s old, and it’s time we changed it.

Nick Cullather
Associate Professor
Department of History
Indiana University
Bloomington, Ind.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

DALLAS WEAVER: Environmental activist NGOs oppose both genetic engineering and offshore aquaculture. If the world does end up in a serious food crisis, perhaps we should put the blame where it belongs, on the Luddite environmental activists’ prevention of any technological solutions to the problem.

TFERNSLE: It is telling that Brown offers no solutions, just a grim analysis of a big problem getting worse. But there are many other people who are concerned about this problem and are publicizing practical solutions. The local-food movement encourages people to learn to eat what can be grown in their climate, which supports smaller local sustainable farms and heads off the possibility that any kind of crisis will cut off the food supply. The organic food movement supports a much more sustainable means of food production.

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