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.
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.
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.
Food for the Animals that Some People Eat, Not Food for the People
When 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.
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.
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.
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.