Is There a Current or Imminent Global Food Shortage?

Nope

I don’t think there is a food shortage at all. There is food inequity, but no shortage.

Despite many looming problems, I think there is little prospect of global famine in this century driven by lack of food supplies. Malnutrition and even starvation still exist entirely because of economic and social factors, not because of production limits. In fact, income inequality writ large is the core issue.

The people discussing sustainability in the large, people like Jeffrey Sachs or Jon Foley, are far too politic to identify the core issue. Fortunately for you (perhaps unfortunately for me) I have no such constraint.

The problem is not that supply doesn’t meet need. It’s that in an unconstrained free market for food, poor people starve because rich people can afford and want enormous quantities of animal protein.

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Some Politic Back-Pedaling

I am sure this article will bother some people, so let me start with some caveats.

Let me state without any personal doubt that there are real sustainability issues with food production. There’s soil depletion. There’s the reliance on the Haber process, in turn dependent on a natural gas supply, for fertilizer, though in that case I imagine that there are substitutes. There’s nitrogen runoff. There’s the various problems with agribusiness, including the mismatched and emblematic battle between Monsanto and the Monarch butterflies, which gets stunningly little attention in the public discourse, or what passes for discourse these days.

Essentially, the traditions of agriculture are of isolated properties and minor fenceline skirmishes, not of regional and global impacts. The farmer’s idea, be they small landholders or vast agribusinesses, remains that their business is between themselves, their suppliers, and their customers. This is empty-planet thinking and is delusional and damaging in the crowded-planet state. There is plenty to worry about.

Let me state also that there is little doubt that agriculture in some vulnerable regions, including my own region of Central Texas, is already being impacted by climate change, specifically by the expansion of the dry subtropics. Also, other anthropogenic forcings (soil loss, ground-level ozone, water management policies) can certainly have effects far beyond the individual landholding and into regional and national food access in some places.

But we are not in danger of an inadequate global food supply. The issue remains one of how resources are distributed, not of how much food is available.

Nor, as regular readers will know, am I arguing that we don’t have a very serious problem with CO2 accumulation – heat stress, increasing flood and storm damage, rising sea level, ecological disruption due to climate shifts and ocean acidification, all of these are enormous and real. To be sure, local economic damage in some places will be huge.

Finally, in the very long run, if remain stupid about climate and other sustainability issues, it’s possible that food production will fail to meet demand for calories.

My point is that this is a long way off. The issues we are facing now are about distribution and equity, not about supply. Starvation and malnutrition have economic causes more than environmental ones.

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The Ironic Problem
Indeed I believe and will try to explain that our whole problem is, in a sense, too much food, not too little. In a way, the food deficits we still see in corners of the world are an ironic consequence of improvements in the human condition.

Thus, in a sense, here is another case where our problems are “good problems”, problems arising from success in dealing with other problems.

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Food for the Animals that Some People Eat, Not Food for the People
Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 11.47.57 AMWhen you look for pictures of farms, the typical result will be fields of corn or soybeans. When you drive past the vast stretches of agricultural land in America as I have been doing in recent weeks, you are rarely seeing plants that are used in food production. The vast majority of the agricultural land in America is dedicated to feed crops for feedlot animals. This state of affairs is fundamentally bizarre.

The point of livestock earlier in human development was to generate calories from marginal land, leaving agricultural land for growing edible crops. This at least is conceptually frugal. But now the situation is turned on its head, and the best lands around are used almost exclusively to feed livestock. We eventually have reached the bizarre situation where even in summer, a hamburger is cheaper than a salad.

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The Market Says That My Barbecue is Worth More than Your Children
This all starts, of course, with pandering to appetites. Essentially we have all been infantilized by the power of manipulative communication (the form of propaganda known as advertising) which encourages us to submit our larger goals to our urges. Now the ideology of the market libertarians says that this is our ‘revealed preference”, an expression of our freedom, but of course it isn’t in anybody’s interest to advertise restraint, is it?

The fact is simple – a population which has the means to do so can extract a great deal of meat from the landscape. All well and good, you may say, but what of it? You may disapprove on one basis or another, but what has this got to do with starvation?

Our goal for generations has been to eliminate poverty globally, and there has been much progress of late, but this cannot be done or at least hasn’t been done uniformly.

These people have appetites for meat as well.

Keep in mind that a calorie of meat requires five to ten calories of feed. So as meat demand increases and as the number of people with the means to bid on this luxury increases, world meat production hits a ceiling and meat demand exceeds supply, driving prices up.

Now if you are a poor person in a poor country, you are bidding on a given amount of low quality grain against a valuable cow. In a sense, you have less money than the cow. And the market libertarian says this is perfectly okay. If it is the revealed preference of the market that you not starve, somebody will give you money for food.

And to some extent, we do. We budget a certain number of dollars or euros for foreign aid. But in these suspicious and hostile times, these are hard-won dollars, and have trouble keeping up with food price volatility.

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A Disrupted Climate Adds Volatility to a Tight Market
Now add climate disruption to the mix – year-over-year production becomes increasingly unpredictable. In years with widespread crop failures, the amazing bounty of the American supermarket doesn’t go away. The prices go up a bit on this or that, but somehow everything is still there. People who can’t throw a party without limes have limes at triple the expected price; people who like a little lime in their lemonade go without. But people who have nothing in the bank and little income are faced with a struggle. And people in poor countries are suddenly faced with their food aid being halved. The impact is proportionally far larger on the low end of the scale. In tough times, rich people skip their vacations in Tuscany or hold on to their old Lexus an extra year, but they still get the best cuts of meat. And in doing so, they pull land out of production for humans, causing starvation.

In principle, the solution is simple. Add a proportional tax on meat, to go to food aid for non-animal-based food, foreign and domestic. In practice, I don’t expect my phone to ring from politicians eager to implement the Tobis Tax.

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The Ethics of a Suddenly Global Community
The ethical considerations of animal rights in feedlot production aside (the animals are clearly living lives of unremitting misery) the economics of the situation are fundamentally such that, in a world of rich countries and poor countries, where tradeoffs are entirely individual, human suffering ensues.

The appetites of the rich are at odds with the necessities of the poor. The greater the progress of the emerging economies, the more dire the situation of those living in the economies left behind.

The appetites of the poor are not without blame; specifically that the world is uncomfortable with starvation but also uncomfortable with enforced birth control. Consequently there are places, Egypt being a salient example, that are wholly overpopulated; lacking significant export capacities or sufficient local food production.

How to deal with that is beyond the purposes of this essay, not to mention my imagination. But the fact remains that globally, we are far from overpopulated. We are merely overindulged.

Again, I’m not by any means saying there are no problems on a regional basis. But global food production is currently at an enormous surplus. In a free market, most of it is fed to cows, pigs, and chickens. If prices become volatile, the cows and pigs and chickens can outbid the poorest people. If we fix that somehow, nobody will starve.

I do think nobody should starve. But my “revealed preference” is otherwise from day to day, especially when I do my civic duty and smugly take my visitor out for a famous Texas barbecue experience.

Comments:

  1. Wonder where you eat that a salad costs more than a burger. I can buy a pound of hamburger at the store for around $3.25. At the same store I can get apples, tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, onions, cut peeled and washed baby carrots all for .99 per pound. Roma tomatoes and whole carrots .79 lb. Ten lbs potatoes $2.49. Lettuce .70 a head. Fresh mushrooms $2.80 lb. Ear corn .33 each. Makes one wonder about the claims of the other stuff you have written.

  2. Mike,
    I agree that inequity explains both poverty and famine, both of which could (in principle) be wiped out right now by a general redistribution of wealth/food. In a sense, it is defined by it, at the extremes. But I take issue with the statement that poor people starve because rich people want meat - this is too simplistic.

    This is not to ignore the fact that it takes 26 times the amount of energy to produce beef as is returned by the process, or that inequity is driven in part by market forces.

    At least part of the global food inequity problem is a consequence of the imbalance between local or regional productivity and population - in other words, there are too many people in the wrong places. Note also that population growth is also out of balance, with impoverished populations increasing faster than wealthy ones.

    Another issue deriving from this is the means of redistribution, both physically and economically. Where the land/resources are not adequate locally to support the level of population, it requires political will to adjust the imbalances, so that more people rise beyond subsistence/extreme vulnerability to a 'more comfortable' state. This is achievable (for example, see China), where the mechanisms of state have the power to enact large scale changes over extended time frames. The productivity of rice fields in China has increased five fold in the last decades, a fundamental improvement to the growth of that economy.

    In contrast, where the state is scrabbling to generate income/capital to pay off loans which reflect the resource imbalance, the problem of hunger is exacerbated by the demand to produce exportable/profitable crops rather than food. Then, the inequity is exaggerated by the distribution of wealth arising from exports, which does not trickle down very far - those with the means reserve more than they redistribute (see, for example, Piketty).

    So, in response to your statement about meat, I would argue that in fact poor people starve because, firstly, rich people hoard more than they share, at a local level and secondly, the market is not actually 'free' - it is bounded by trade and tariff agreements which favour the wealthier nation over the poorer ones, thus making things worse. The 'free market' myth helps sustain this behaviour pattern because it rewards the selfish.

    And we haven't even begun to get into the matter of waste - relative resource efficiency - which is a signal of inequity and a symptom of the presence of excess.

    Just some thoughts...

  3. > the market is not actually 'free'

    Agreed

    > - it is bounded by trade and tariff agreements which favour the wealthier nation over the poorer ones

    At least partly true. But its very far short of all the problems. Countries like India ban companies like Walmart. Walmart could supply cheaper food to people, but their govt won't allow it. You can't blame the market, or the West, for that.

    Most famines are due to poor governance, not to the free market. He said freely, without a trace of reference to back up his assertion.

  4. '...Most famines are due to poor governance, not to the free market...'

    Agree completely. Re. the market, I was thinking of the example of African producers of good quality export crops which do not quite meet the grading standards of the large retail chains and so are largely left to rot. In part this is because the governance/management internally may be choosing the wrong export crops, but it is also in part because trade agreements tend to profit the richer partner slightly more than they do the poorer one.

    OTOH, if there was less pressure to produce economically valuable crops and more emphasis on producing locally useable, sustainable crops, then there would be greater equity, but by definition, less for the landowners/investor.

    And agree, this is only one part of a complex of drivers of inequity. But it ain't just about meat - meat is a symptom of the problems, as much as a cause, IMO.

    To the practicalities - how does one reduce food inequity? I would argue that whilst global issues impact on local conditions, to reduce local inequity requires local (and suitable) solutions. This implies changing the habits of managing local land and resources to maximise profits, to managing it to answer local needs first, then focus on the excess or residue for export/profit.

    Doesn't mean I think it's going to happen...

  5. re Walmart, it's hard to let that pass, as it appears to me to demonstrate a lack of knowledge about how the corporation operates from across the pond. It squeezes out other businesses, pays less than a living wage while rewarding its owners at a level that makes them billionaires and suggests those same workers subsist on government benefits, and otherwise demonstrates a culture-altering model that disables the working poor.

    I've butted heads with you before on this, and wonder if you are isolated from what I call the "working poor". Some simple arithmetic about household expenses at $10/hour (which is high) might help (even at low rent, that means 50-75% of income on less than optimal housing). I acknowledge some of your other points but continue to observe a loss of escape routes from grinding poverty. Junk food is one result, because it's cheaper and easier access for those who have to work 80 hours a week to get by. Of course, we could ask for absolute wisdom in finances, avoiding the "treat" of a commercial coffee for the working, the bag of crisps or equivalent, but that comes with the territory; people are as they are (yes, a fatuous statement).
    --
    As to starvation, there are vast swathes of the globe that are rapidly deteriorating as climate continues to polarize (sorry, unfortunate word); deserts becoming less productive, trees disappearing as dirty fuel for the desperate. California is a good example at the moment, though one might observe that their methods of water distribution and irrigation could easily be optimized and politics gets in the way there.

  6. I think we're in some danger of getting sidetracked, my fault for raising a side point. The main point, I *think* is that Fergus and I both agree that mt's "entirely because of economic and social factors, not because of production limits. In fact, income inequality writ large is the core issue" is wrong. The principal cause of *famine* (we assert) is poor governance (and I don't think governance is plausibly included amongst the usual meanings of "economic and social factors", you'd write "political, economic and social factors" if you meant that). Once you clear famine you're into decent nutrition and so on, but I don't think mt is talking about that. I could be wrong.

    You have a completely different view, because of your "As to starvation, there are vast swathes of the globe that are rapidly deteriorating as climate...". mt explicitly dismisses that as wrong, and so do I. I've got a blog post with numbers and graphs and all somewhere.

    As to Walmart, I don't believe you (side question: are we talking about starvation or poverty?). But as you say, we've argued this before so I'm disinclined to do it again. Am I isolated from the working poor? I believe so.

  7. I am very skeptical about the validity of numbers thrown about when discussing meat production. I found this article to be pretty provocative on the topic:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/87

  8. I also find it difficult to be so sanguine about continued increases in food production. The western U.S. is draining its fossil aquifers as well as its rainwater-refreshed aquifers. The temperature and drought forecasts from 2050 and on look awfully bleak to these eyes and seem to cast enormous doubt that our breadbasket will be able to merely match current outputs, let alone increase by 50-75%, which appears to be needed to accommodate population increases.

    Your position seems to me to be contrarian, which would call for quite a bit of documentation, don't you think?

  9. Looks to me like there are two related but different issues being discussed here. One is the inequity existing within 'developed' economies/societies, the other the inequity which is evident in less 'developed' places, where the bottom end of the human ladder is beneath even subsistence - it's just desparate, moment-to-moment need, not being answered. Grinding poverty is real and probably global, but even poverty has scales of difference. None of them are less than inequitable.

    MT is right to point out that, on a Global Scale, enough nutrition is produced already to provide sufficient for every person on the planet. It is also important to point to the relationship between the demands of the larger market and the potential for local suffering deriving from this.

    The more time I spend on such issues, the more I think that the first thing to fix has to be physical security - freedom from the risk of death or abuse at the hands of soldiers, gangs, criminals - and corruption, which diverts good intentions and good works for personal gain by those who have the means and the power to do it.

    This is what I mean, in part, by governance. It is the difference between stable, socially responsible and developing countries, and unstable, corrupt and divided countries. There is more suffering where there is no security than where there is. There is also more resilience where there is some stable infrastructure.

    Back to the first question, though, it should be pointed out that India, for example, may produce 25% less rice than it needs this year, because of a late, weak monsoon season -this is what is being predicted. The consequences of this will be felt across the country and the economy, because it is so fundamental in that country. And one of the consequences is that the poorest/weakest/most vulnerable will slide closer to starvation, and the country's growth as a whole will decline. In this case, good governance and preparedness will help alleviate the worst effects, but it's hard to see far beyond the climate as the basic cause...

  10. Congratulations on an outstanding article. The thesis is not novel but it's very well stated. And I am totally into promoting the "Tobis Tax"!

    Most of the related commentary misses the point - the article is not about famine, its about the viability of the food production system with a population that will peak over 9 billion. He's simply articulating that there is no food shortage, just a distribution problem. It is a problem of politics, economics and governance, which are so closely related as to be almost useless to distinguish.

  11. Global, schmobal...

    Food shortages happen locally, mostly due to local overpopulation, and local mismanagement. That's what is was in Syria, and now the mess is locked in forever by civil war plus climate disruption.

    What to do with those hungry millions? Put them in feedlots and feed them stuff transported from around the planet? Cows and soy was yesterday. Now it's bet changing to humans and soylent green.

    Methinks, making the food problem a global one borders to economist oversimplification. Food abstraction (disconnect from its source) has been the prime mover of collapse and war ever since hominids moved into feedlots (cities).

  12. Hi Paul, great to see you here...

    I think we do get the point, which seems to be that skewing the food resource supply chain towards the tastes of the market - for meat - contributes to the inequity experienced where demand is not being met, and that if this addressed, then global demand can be satisfied. the implication being that a part of the problem experienced at local levels could be alleviated if the demand for meat was less.

    I think both William and I would object to this somewhat, since it doesn't allow for the fact that governance which focuses on revenue in preference to local human need, and trade which contributes to creating this imbalance, is the real problem. If demand changes, then practices will change, but not necessarily to the advantage of the poor in such countries. The crop will change, but not the internal supply dynamics.

    The underlying point, IMO, is that it is clear that some agricultural product is relatively resource-inefficient, and other product is thus inherently more sustainable. Beef is the most wasteful product in this sense. But it is also one of the best for creating added value, thus profit, because the resource cost (in land, for example) is not factored in to the market cost, since it is not paid for by the producer, but by the locally disenfranchised. A familiar pattern.

    Adding to your point about viability, I would add that the key resource here, and the limiting factor, may not be land use and ownership, but water. I suspect that this is the biggest problem we are creating - that the market demand for water-consuming products such as beef is not sustainable because of this.

  13. One of my concerns about agricultural output is US Corn. It is very thirsty. It is also a fundamental element of the commodities market. A lot is now produced for methanol or for feedstock.
    For a lot of reasons, not least the aquifers, corn is probably a bad crop to grow. But it is profitable, if you don't have to pay for the water, and don't factor in other environmental problems it causes.
    Like you, I have concern about projections of indefinite future food security, but I don't think this is the point MT is making.

  14. This would not be the first time I have missed the point completely. But William did say this, which I think is germane and overly optimistic:

    "I think there is little prospect of global famine in this century driven by lack of food supplies. "

    Studies like this one are pessimistic about food production as soon as 2050:
    http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/climate-change-air-pollution-will-combine-curb-food-supplies-0727

    NCAR drought maps predict dustbowl conditions in the world's breadbaskets well before the end of the century even in moderate [CO2] scenarios:
    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/04/13/207885/bolivia-where-adaptation-equals-abandonment/

  15. ... The author did not say "a pound of hamburger from a supermarket is more expensive per pound than various selected fruits and vegetables." He said: "...even in summer, a hamburger is cheaper than a salad." It takes no effort or imagination - none at all - to look at a menu from oh, say, McDonald's and see hamburgers (i.e, the sandwich style foodstuff with a ground beef patty placed between two pieces of bread, specifically a sliced bun) priced lower than a salad (i.e, various chopped vegetables placed together in a container, commonly served with a flavor condiment known as dressing).

    ... [Counter-insults elided. Thanks for the defense Steven but escalation never helps -mt]

  16. The global perspective is to some extent inherent to recent traditions of agriculture (Mesopotamia ff.), which are determined by the demands of the city.
    But it wasn't as total as today.
    Back then, when civilizations failed due to natural resource depletion (to avoid blaming overpopulation), there was still some safety net in the form of a matrix of informal gardening and animal husbandry plus hunting
    and gathering. (E.g. in Soviet times, the dachas, where people privately grew their best food.)

    As long as we treat food supply from a total global perspective, it will stay part of the existential problem we got with the carbon cycle.
    But it could be part of the solution (ergo, it ought - for any serious morality informed by natural philosophy).
    Methinks we need to re-animate the small family farm of old and grandma's garden. (E.g. see the book Nature's Matrix). Plus, biochar, for additional carbon sequestration.
    There's the jobs and the food for the "poor"! Where else?

  17. I was aware when I posted that I was going off topic and had some reservations about doing so; my apologies (also the delayed response: life intervenes). We will have to agree to disagree; I wish and hope you are right I will continue to assert that climate does play a part, the continuing desertification of Africa is one example, the burnover of the Amazon basin another, and the replacement of jungles with palm oil plantations a scandal.

    I respect you a lot, and in general think neither of us is wrong, just looking from different viewpoints, and of course your technical knowledge so far outstrips mine that it is presumptuous of me to weigh in. But I do think you go astray about US information from your distance and elevation above the fray. You seem unaware of the pitched battle in the US with Walmart et al., which Benson picks up in his brief comment.

    The problem with letting big box stores take over, is that they are solely interested in profit, and can do that on a much smaller margin than smaller local sources. Once they have wiped the competition off the map, they leave the whole community dependent and impoverished. I shop there myself and am aware of the hypocrisy of taking advantage of the convenience and ignoring the rest.

    Here's another sideways approach to my issue which might clarify (or not). Some years ago I was reading about rice modifications in a scientific journal. I don't share the "left's" distaste for gmo products, but the power hungry manipulations of Monsanto and their ilk (they started out as good guys) have impoverished the world, and some of their monomania with control has resulted in major problems in the neighborhood. The idea that farmers must buy seed every season is unhelpful at best. The control of their products that allows them to cripple farmers whom they claim are infringing, claiming ownership of livestock and produce by executive fiat and the exercise of power, is scandalous.

    The idea of flood- and/or drought-proof rice is excellent. Over the years, I kept an eye out, and there was information that long-term seed banks had products that were equally or more effective for the problem, but the suppression of local culture by big ag is ongoing. A startling example is the effort to patent age-old curatives in India and forbid the common sharing of effective remedies by taking possession for profit.

    I don't think top-down management by profit-focused multinationals is in the best interests of populations. It may be more work, but there are ways to reverse the damage and the overuse and proliferation of big farming techniques. Using toxic materials and razing the landscape are not necessarily the best way to ensure sustainable farming.

  18. I like this reply very much, but I am not sure whether I agree with it entirely.

    It seems to me that the key question raised is whether the same phenomenon would occur in a world with equal dominance by commerce but less national sovereignty. It seems an awfully hypothetical ("academic" in the worst sense) question to me.

    It is definitely the case that we have a world where the only sovereignties are those of the individual and those of the nation. That the people of the present construed globally, the people of the future, and the present and future natural nonhuman life of the planet should have some representation in decision making is utterly ignored. The historical reasons for this were once very sound and it was for a time a successful adaptation, but that time is ending.

  19. The lack of the razor-thin marginal advantage of the culture-disrupting efficiencies of WalMart is not remotely the problem.

    William, please pick up the book Debt, The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. It is time someone challenged your economism.

  20. I followed the link and accordingly I'm thinking of degrading this posting to the shadow thread immediately.

    It's just pretentious argument by assertion, pretty much debate-team posturing. It's not exactly stupid, but it shows no sign of honest discourse. It takes no account of counterarguments except to dismiss them or mock them. It is fundamentally rude and insulting to the sorts of argument we are making, while stubbornly staying at the shallowest level, failing utterly to account for the logic and evidence behind the position they are seeking to obliterate.

    Therefore, I think the article linked above fits into the category of denial. As the old story goes, this isn't an argument, it's just contradiction.

  21. Corn is not typically an irrigated crop.

    Places, like the Texas Panhandle, which grow crops on water from ancient, slowly recharged aquifers are essentially involved in an extractive industry and know it.

    The California Central Valley is another story, and it's hard to summarize Cadillac Desert, highly recommended on that subject.

    There is definitely a groundwater crisis impending in parts of India and probably other places for similar reasons. But this ties into the point Fergus and I are making. There is no lack of nutrition to supply the people in northern India as their traditional water supplies fail; there is simply not enough financial motivation for anybody to do it.

    To the extent that their countrymen in the big city are importing increasing amounts of meat, the financial incentive goes down even further, and simultaneously the humanitarian cost goes up as well. If anything is novel about what I'm saying, it's that.

  22. William:

    You have a completely different view, because of your "As to starvation, there are vast swathes of the globe that are rapidly deteriorating as climate...". mt explicitly dismisses that as wrong, and so do I. I've got a blog post with numbers and graphs and all somewhere.

    That is incorrect. The subtropical fringe (including Texas) and circumpolar regions are in fact perceptibly undergoing disruptive climate change. "Rapidly?" Well, all I can say about that is, that while "perceptibly" is pretty darn fast, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

  23. Thanks, Paul.

    It is a problem of politics, economics and governance, which are so closely related as to be almost useless to distinguish.

    Yes, of course. Those who buy into economism find this hard to understand, though.

  24. Shipping stuff horizontally is very cheap. We fundamentally disagree on this matter, I'm afraid.

    To the extent that climate becomes more variable and harder to predict, to that extent local food production will become less secure. To advocate localism in the face of rapid climate change is, in my opinion, the opposite of what is needed.

  25. I have argued before that the fact that the amount of GHG emissions is a collective (and Northern dominated) decision, means that we are indeed making responsibility for food security (and, frankly, profitability) a collective global problem. I totally agree with Michael from that perspective. From a "what to produce" perspective, of course, thinking about local needs and how to produce resilient agriculture might be warranted independent of the global mechanisms needed to address uncertain and unequal impacts.

  26. There is no doubt that local (taken rather loosely) governance affects local food availability. But as a practical matter an increasingly large fraction of the population even in the developing world are strictly food consumers rather than producers, and for them, the fact that staple commodities are traded in world markets, and the demand for beef drives up the demand for grain, means that poor urban people spend much more of their income on food than they would have to otherwise.

  27. Forbes often ignores inconvenient facts in the service of its clientele. Here's something that might provide a wider perspective.

    However, India's huge anomalous complexity admits of other points of view. It is my belief that short-term "rescue" on a huge industrial scale is shortsighted and will leave the population worse of in a few decades as it discourages self-sufficiency, local methods, and enables the wrong parties, who have found ways to profit from it.

    Nonetheless, this is as noted straying from the topic.

  28. I didn't think that was what I was aiming for, but anyway...
    You are right to point out that disenfranchisement goes beyond the purely human, but one line of argument goes that we need to see to the people of the present as the first priority (sadly hijacked by Lomborg, but nonetheless), another line that ignoring nonhuman life is perilous already, so cannot be bypassed.
    A third idea is that, since we are defined in part by our environment, then 'Nature' is intrinsic to both our individual and national sovereignties, and must be considered in the same way as wwe would consider other aspects that define is as individuals.
    OTOH, I find it difficult to distinguish morally between ignoring intergenerational equity and out and out slaughter of innocents. If by present action or inaction we are culpable for 100 million premature and unnecessary deaths, where does that place us in the greater scheme of history?

  29. To the extent that climate becomes more variable and harder to predict, to that extent local food production will become less secure. To advocate localism in the face of rapid climate change is, in my opinion, the opposite of what is needed.

    In 2010/11 Russia put a ban on grain exports after drought and fire destroyed some crop. And then, the Arab Spring...

    Which reminds me of the nuclear power vs. wind/solar debate: Nuclear power does not necessarily make a grid more stable. (Switch off a nuke out of schedule and see if your grid is as good as Germany's. Ask nuclear France.) Here nuclear == industrial food system and wind/solar == local informal food system.

    So, this is not an either/or question:
    We are to quite some extent locked into globalized agriculture. And the small and penniless farmer bears the highest risk - if he wants to play according to this system's rules: Monoculture can fail catastrophically. (Classical example: Poor farmer in India commiting suicide by swallowing the last dose of Monsanto poison after his GM cotton monoculture failed, leaving the family bankrupted.)

    So, the small farming I have in mind needs to rely on a bouquet of different plants and animals. Then it can contribute to stability even in unstable climate. (Tomatoes and beans destroyed by freak hail storm? No worry, we still got potatoes and parsnip and we might eat the pig.)

    I've seen such things in trans-Transylvania (Romania/Moldova) 15 years back: All the yummy stuff they grew everywhere was amazing and humbling even a university botanical garden. The poor grandma's monthly pension was worth half a post stamp - but she enjoyed food of a quality and diversity and taste (incl. home distilled plum spirit) almost unimaginable to the rich westerner. I enjoyed my first real tomato there. Grandma's production, however, was not for the market, but for her family and for some barter.

  30. Martin's point overlaps with mine. I don't know enough about the connection between Russian export bans and the Arab Spring; but if by hypothesis, resulting price increases were causal in the uprisings, that suggests that global insurance that met Russia's supply concerns could have protected price stability elsewhere as well. Similarly, if the Indian farmer had crop insurance like is subsidized for US farmers, the suicide might have been avoided.

    This returns us to Michael's original point, though, which is that if such a scheme is to protect poor people, it has to not only distribute cost incresases evenly, it has to either maintain limits on demand (like the Tobis tax) to keep supply/demand imbalances from driving up prices dramatically, or ensure subsidies to poor consumers.

    Of course, the other way to think about the solution is simply to give poor people enough money to compete in unregulated markets with rich people. In most developed countries, all but the poorest people are not financially constrained from a healthy diet, or even from a diet with unhealthy amounts of meat. But what economists would call the ideal equity solution - "lump sum redistribution of endowments" - is not currently a viable political program. (And if enough purchasing power existed to put meat on everyone's table, we'd still have to deal with limiting the externalities associated with production on that scale.)

    And clearly the local gardening angle is another part of the solution, though it's not clear to me whether Grandma had an unusually large amount of land. Most urban dwellers don't have enough land to grow a substantial fraction of their nutritional requirements. Diversified local production of fruits and vegetables and even meat can help, but reliance on global markets for cereals is hard to avoid.

  31. SkS provides some more information:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/50-percent-more-hungry-2050.html

    Air pollution and climate change could mean 50% more people going hungry by 2050, new study finds

    This is a re-post from Roz Pidcock at Carbon Brief, 8 August 2014

    The combination of rising temperatures and air pollution could substantially damage crop growth in the next 40 years, according to a new paper. And if emissions stay as high as they are now, the number of people who don't get enough food could grow by half by the middle of the century.

    The two effects are closely related as warmer temperatures increase the production of ozone in the atmosphere. (more at link above)

  32. Crop yields from soy, corn, and winter wheat in the U.S. alone would produce enough calories to feed everyone in the world 2000 claories a day for 2.5 years .
    There is certainly no food shortage it is all a distribution issue limited by economics, politics, and society.
    Currently if large numbers of people are starving somewhere in the world it is because someone wants them to starve.


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  1. Full reply with insult read as follows:

    Can you even read? Or are you intentionally distorting what the author said? The author did not say "a pound of hamburger from a supermarket is more expensive per pound than various selected fruits and vegetables." He said: "...even in summer, a hamburger is cheaper than a salad." It takes no effort or imagination - none at all - to look at a menu from oh, say, McDonald's and see hamburgers (i.e, the sandwich style foodstuff with a ground beef patty placed between two pieces of bread, specifically a sliced bun) priced lower than a salad (i.e, various chopped vegetables placed together in a container, commonly served with a flavor condiment known as dressing).

    Makes one wonder about your intelligence, basic reading skills, social/economic awareness, willful ignorance, and/or malevolent intent.

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