Farm Futures
By Mike Wilson
May 20, 2009

‘Oxford Professor says lower biofuel subsidies, greater GM acceptance and less ‘peasant agriculture’ would help feed growing number of malnourished’

Lower U.S. biofuel subsidies, acceptance of GM food in Europe and the adoption of large-scale, commercial agricultural practices in developing countries would go a long way to reduce the number of hungry in the world, which has grown to an alarming 1 billion people.

That is the conclusion of author and Oxford University Economics Professor Paul Collier, who spoke this week at the World Agricultural Forum held in St. Louis. "In Africa and other places around the world, people experienced up to 80% increases in their food costs over the last three years," he says. "The urban poor were spending half their budget on food. As a result we had food riots around the world and toppled governments in places like Haiti."

Beyond political costs, the nutritional cost of a malnourished child is often irreversible, says Collier. "They are often already on the margin of nutritional adequacy, but if you push them below that margin for more than two years you get stunting, and that is irreversible."

World agriculture has done a good job keeping up with world population growth, but in the future it must do an even better job. But the real problem, argues Collier, is politics and global policies, which tend to be well-meaning but empty gestures.

The solution to world hunger lies in three areas:

* First, get rid of the ban on genetically modified crops in Europe. "It’s unfortunate that Europe shot itself in the foot on GM, but it was disastrous for Africa," he says. "By shooting itself in the foot, Europe shot Africa in the heart." Climate deterioration is already a reality in Africa, one reason why the continent needs all the technology help it can get. "GM crops are not the magic bullet but they will speed up the pace of crop adaptation," Collier says. "It’s very fortunate that GM has been discovered and its potential needs to be harnessed as rapidly as possible."

* Second, get rid of U.S. subsidies on biofuels. Collier believes Americans have an unrealistic "illusion" that by subsidizing a budding biofuel industry, the country can break its dependence on Mid East oil. "I read that if the entire U.S. grain crop was devoted to biofuels it would only meet 8% of U.S. fuel needs," says Collier. "Realistically, it would meet 100% of the U.S. fuel needs because you would all be starving to death. This is not the solution to America’s energy problems."

Instead, the U.S. should institute policies that force consumers to become more efficient in using energy. "Europe manages to use only half as much energy per person as Americans, and they live a prosperous life," Collier says. "You don’t have to increase taxation to do this – just tax work less and energy consumption more, and you’re done."

In some context biofuels make sense, Collier adds. For example, consuming biofuel made from Iowa corn in Iowa makes sense because transport costs are minimal. What doesn’t make sense is to produce biofuels in Iowa and ship that product thousands of miles away while simultaneously paying transport costs to ship foreign oil into Iowa. Collier sees a solution to both issues if Europe and America can compromise – Europe opens markets to GM crops and U.S. reduces subsidies to the biofuel industry. And the chances of that happening are better now due to restrictions on budgets as a result of recession.

* Third, stop promoting the concept of organic peasant farming as a solution to hunger. The kind of ‘romantic populism’ that Prince Charles advocates cannot supply the world’s food needs, argues Collier. "The development agencies and behind them the NGOs (Non Government Organizations) have had an attachment to this peasant agriculture mentality, and that has been very dysfunctional," he says. "For ag production, scale and modern organization matters. The marketing and logistics chain of modern Ag is intensive and it makes peasant farming less and less viable.

"There’s a big effort with micro credit to connect peasant agriculture with finance, but its tremendously difficult," Collier reasons. "Modern agriculture is all about marketing, capital, technology and innovation. Around the world, peasant agriculture is bad at all of that."

Collier says the best solution is to take the Brazilian model of large-scale agriculture and try to apply it in Africa. "It needs to be a parallel development alongside efforts to improve peasant agriculture," he says. "In parts of Africa there are huge lots of land radically under used. African governments are just now waking up to using those areas for modern agriculture."