Six astonishing words: “The global food system is broken.”
This radical claim, asserted in Oxfam’s latest report, takes for granted the impressive fact that farmers make it possible for billions of people to eat nutritious food every day. Over the last six decades, farmers have tripled the yield of the world’s most important staple crops–rice, wheat, and corn–without plowing a single net extra acre. US farmers, for example, have doubled corn production since 1980 but are using 4% LESS fertilizer inputs to get it done! Applied technology is the reason.
Can’t we at least get a pat on the back?
Oxfam is correct to worry about the world’s hungry people. It’s hardly alone in having this concern. One hungry child is too many–and more challenges lay ahead as the planet’s population swells to an estimated 10 billion by the middle of the 21st century. But condemning the genuine accomplishments of the recent past is a poor way to start a constructive conversation about the hard tests of the near future.
Apparently that’s how Oxfam rolls. Its 73-page report, titled “Growing a Better Future,” provides a long list of complaints about greed, global warming, and so on. When author Robert Bailey gets away from his sky-is-falling rhetoric and tries to strike a positive note, which isn’t often, he succumbs to hopey-dopey sentiments about the need for “an age of cooperation rather than competition.”
Despite these annoyances, Oxfam does point to a legitimate problem: the rising cost of food. More people are spending more money to feed themselves. The world’s poor are struggling to keep up. The poorest simply can’t.
So what is to be done? Oxfam calls for “a new global governance,” by which it means more regulation of “trade, food aid, financial markets, and climate finance.” Matt Ridley, the author and columnist, calls this “effectively the nationalization of the world food system.”
Only aid-group busybodies who attend United Nations conferences for a living would entertain such an idea. How conveniently they forget that mass famine tends to strike countries with too much governance, such as North Korea and Zimbabwe.
A better solution is to unleash the world’s untapped agricultural potential, especially in developing countries. Rather than asking governments to keep food prices down through market interference, we should strive to expand the supply of food so that farmers can keep up with demand. High prices drive higher supplies and there are no economists who disagree with that. Government interference will constrain supply growth, as it always has.
One approach is to encourage agricultural biotechnology, especially for farmers in Africa and the developing world. Unfortunately, Oxfam appears to prefer the European approach of stifling genetically modified crops, even though they represent one of the most promising methods for reducing malnutrition, fighting drought, and increasing yield.
Rather than acknowledging that biotechnology already has boosted the food supply–and promises more advances soon–Oxfam dismisses GM crops as “crude” and “polarized” gimmicks, calling them nothing more than “techno-fixes.” Its refusal to say anything else, in what is supposed to be a comprehensive study, highlights a fundamental lack of seriousness.
So does Oxfam’s unfamiliarity with the basic notion of prices. When prices are high, consumers may grumble. Producers, however, sense an opportunity–and so they respond. In agriculture, this can mean anything from planting more acres of high-priced crops to investing in new seed technologies. The goal is to meet the demands of the marketplace, which is something farmers spend their lives trying to do.
Oxfam seems willfully ignorant of this approach, as British blogger Tim Worstall discovered when he drilled down into the data that lies beneath Oxfam’s report. Here’s what the group admits about the calculations that support its frightening prognostications: “It should be emphasized that the model does not capture potential increases in agricultural productivity that are likely to result from increased research and development incentivized by the price increases for agricultural output.”
In other words, when Oxfam claims that current trends won’t allow the world to keep up with the global demand for food, it assumes that people in agriculture aren’t going to change any of their habits.
If something’s broken, it’s not “the global food system” but rather Oxfam’s approach to food security. Now is the time for open-minded seriousness toward solving known challenges. Oxfam should not marginalize its voice with less objective reports.
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org).