A bunch of serious economists have been pointing to this comment by Paul Collier. It is so good that I’m going to reproduce it in full:
The sharp increase in the world price of staple foods is an inconvenience for consumers in the rich world, but for consumers in the poorest countries, especially in Africa, it is a catastrophe. Despite the predominance of peasant agriculture, most African countries are net food importers and food accounts for over half of the budget of low-income households. This is the result of decades of agricultural stagnation combined with growing populations. Although many of the net purchasers are rural, evidently the problem is at its most intense in the urban slums. These slums are political powder kegs and so rising food prices have already triggered riots. Indeed, they sow the seeds of an ugly and destructive populist politics.
Why have food prices rocketed? Paradoxically, this squeeze on the poorest has come about as a result of the success of globalization in reducing world poverty. As China develops, helped by its massive exports to our markets, millions of Chinese households have started to eat better. Better means not just more food but more meat, the new luxury. But to produce a kilo of meat takes six kilos of grain. Livestock reared for meat to be consumed in Asia are now eating the grain that would previously have been eaten by the African poor. So what is the remedy?
The best solution to a problem is often not closely related to its cause (a proposition that that might be recognized in the climate change debate). China’s long march to prosperity is something to celebrate. The remedy to high food prices is to increase food supply, something that is entirely feasible. The most realistic way to raise global supply is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies supplying for the world market. To give one remarkable example, the time between harvesting one crop and planting the next, in effect the downtime for land, has been reduced an astounding thirty minutes. There are still many areas of the world that have good land which could be used far more productively if it was properly managed by large companies. For example, almost 90% of Mozambique’s land, an enormous area, is idle.
Unfortunately, large-scale commercial agriculture is unromantic. We laud the production style of the peasant: environmentally sustainable and human in scale. In respect of manufacturing and services we grew out of this fantasy years ago, but in agriculture it continues to contaminate our policies. In Europe and Japan huge public resources have been devoted to propping up small farms. The best that can be said for these policies is that we can afford them. In Africa, which cannot afford them, development agencies have oriented their entire efforts on agricultural development to peasant style production. As a result, Africa has less large-scale commercial agriculture than it had fifty years ago. Unfortunately, peasant farming is generally not well-suited to innovation and investment: the result has been that African agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing productivity frontier of the globalized commercial model. Indeed, during the present phase of high prices the FAO is worried that African peasants are likely to reduce their production because they cannot finance the increased cost of fertilizer inputs. While there are partial solutions to this problem through subsidies and credit schemes, large scale commercial agriculture simply does not face this problem: if output prices rise by more than input prices, production will be expanded because credit lines are well-established.
Our longstanding agricultural romanticism has been compounded by our new-found environmental romanticism. In the United States fears of climate change have been manipulated by shrewd interests to produce grotesquely inefficient subsidies for bio-fuel. Around a third of American grain production has rapidly been diverted into energy production. This switch demonstrates both the superb responsiveness of the market to price signals, and the shameful power of subsidy-hunting lobby groups. Given the depth of anti-Americanism in Europe it is, of course, fashionable to criticize the American folly with bio-fuels. But Europe has its equivalent follies.
First, the European Commission is now imitating the American bio-fuels policy. At present the programme is small enough to be unimportant, but we need to pull it back before it does real damage. We have surely learnt enough about European agriculture to realize how important it is to kill this incipient scam before we are engulfed by it. But the true European equivalent of America’s folly with bio-fuels is the ban on GM. Europe’s distinctive and deep-seated fears of science have been manipulated by the agricultural lobby into yet another form of protectionism. The ban on both the production and import of genetically modified crops has obviously retarded productivity growth in European agriculture: again, the best that can be said of it is that we are rich enough to afford such folly. But Europe is a major agricultural producer, so the cumulative consequence of this reduction in the growth of productivity has most surely rebounded onto world food markets. Further, and most cruelly, as an unintended side-effect the ban has terrified African governments into themselves banning genetic modification in case by growing modified crops they would permanently be shut out of selling to European markets. Africa definitely cannot afford this self-denial. It needs all the help it can possibly get from genetic modification. Not only is Africa currently being hit by rising food prices, over the longer term it will face climatic deterioration in the context of a rapidly growing population.
While the policies needed for the long term have been befuddled by romanticism, the short term global response has been pure beggar-thy-neighbour. It is easier for urban slum dwellers to riot than for farmers: riots need streets, not fields. And so, in the internal tussles between the interests of poor consumers and poor producers, the interests of consumers have prevailed. Governments in grain-exporting countries have swung prices in favour of their consumers and against their farmers by banning exports. These responses further politicize and fragment an already confused global food market. They increase the risks of investing in commercial-scale food production and drive up prices further in the food-importing countries. Unfortunately, trade in agriculture has been the main economic activity to have resisted being subject to global rules. We need stronger and fairer globalization, not less of it.
What can I say? Just this: Amen.