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Farmers can feed the world, if they are allowed to

I have the following op-ed in today’s Times:

Oxfam’s chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, claimed this week in a BBC interview that there will “absolutely not be enough food” to feed the world’s population in a few decades’ time.

Such certainty about the future is remarkable, so I downloaded Oxfam’s new “report” with interest. Once I got past the fundraising banners, I found a series of assertions that there is a food crisis caused by failures of government “to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest, which means that companies, interest groups and elites are able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge, and food”. Oxfam is calling for “a new global governance” – effectively the nationalisation of the world food system.

In the short term, yes, food prices have shot up. Why? The biggest reason – which Oxfam acknowledges in passing – is the lunatic policy of taking 5 per cent of the entire world’s grain crop and turning it into motor fuel. In a year of poor harvests such as 2010 that was enough to tip millions into malnutrition and poverty. Add in the pernicious tariff barriers we Europeans raise against African food and, yes, it is the fault of government, but doing too much regulating, correcting and protecting, not too little.

In the long run, even after this year’s price spike, according to data compiled by Daniel Sumner, of the University of California Davis, maize and wheat prices are in real terms only about half what they were in the 1940s and 25 per cent below what they averaged in the 1960s. Relative to wages, they have fallen even farther. By far the most significant reason for this long-term decline in food prices is that those beastly plundering capitalists have been inventing things like fertilisers, tractors, pesticides and new varieties to increase yields and cut costs.

The truth is that over the past 60 years the world’s farmers have trebled the yield of the big three cereals (rice, wheat and maize), which provide 60 per cent of human calories, without ploughing a single net extra acre. (Incidentally, yields are probably 10 per cent higher simply because of increased carbon dioxide in the air.) In some places, food prices have been so low that land has come out of agriculture and back into forest. Malnutrition and hunger persist, yes, but mass famine now happens chiefly in countries with too much government, such as North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Recently, yield improvements have been slowing, partly thanks to the Luddites who fight new technologies. But population growth has been slowing even more. So although it will not be easy to feed nine billion people in 2050, it most definitely is not “absolutely” impossible. Those with long enough memories will know that breathless reports of Malthusian doom, such as Oxfam’s, recur whenever food prices spike upwards.

In 1968 the celebrity ecologist Paul Ehrlich promised that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” (The world death rate fell in the 1970s.) The environmentalist Lester Brown has made a career out of calling the top of the food-supply market every time there is a price spike: in 1974, he said “farmers can no longer keep up with rising demand”; in 1981, “global food insecurity is increasing”; in 1989, “population growth is exceeding farmers’ ability to keep up”; in 1994, “seldom has the world faced an unfolding emergency whose dimensions are as clear as the growing imbalance between food and people”.

The truth is that even as the human population has doubled since the 1960s, calories per person have increased by about one third. Of course, those calories are not all in the right place, and Oxfam is right that it is a scandal that obesity and hunger coexist on the same planet, but the solution is plain: get fertiliser to poor African farmers and get their goods to market so both they and their customers can afford to eat. If Oxfam were really serious about malnutrition, it would stop writing reports about corporate greed, climate change and the need for world governance and start trucking nitrates.

That’s roughly what others have done. The Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus identified vitamin-A deficiency as one of the biggest causes of childhood disability and death, so he invented – free – “golden rice” with genes from daffodils in it. Fifteen years later it is still tied up in red tape, thanks to disgraceful lobbying from environmental pressure groups. Bill Gates identified childhood diarrhoea as a top priority and set out to tackle it via the Gates Foundation.

Speaking of which, the diarrhoea epidemic that has afflicted 1,000 Germans and killed 16, wherever it originated, is a timely reminder of how life used to be when we relied on manure and human “night soil” to fertilise our crops. There was a reason your Victorian ancestors ate less salad than you do: recycling even cattle manure, let alone human sewage, carries risks. With modern, high-tech precautions, organic farming can produce safe and tasty food for the rich in the West, but it is nothing like so safe elsewhere.

Nor can it feed the world’s current population, let alone the nine billion of 2050. Because organic farmers have to grow their nitrogen fertiliser rather than fixing it directly from the air, they require a lot more land. If the world were to try to generate as many calories as it does without artificial fertiliser, it would need an extra five billion cattle grazing 20 billion acres of extra pasture. As an Indian biologist, C. S. Prakash, said to me once: “Sure, organic agriculture is sustainable; it sustains poverty and malnutrition.”

Tim Worstall also has trenchant things to say on the Oxfam report, including this:

And finally finally, there’s a moral error at the heart of their reasoning.

They consider, then explicitly reject, the large farm method for Africa. They plump instead for “smallholders”. They talk about efficiency, of course, but miss the most important part of that. Yes, productivity of land is important, so too is productivity of inputs. But the most important part of productivity, the one that actually determines life as it is lived, is productivity of labour. And they go for that “smallholder”, meaning “peasant” form of farming. The one where while, in places and at times, the productivity of land and inputs can indeed be high, the productivity of labour is by definition low.

For that’s exactly what this type of farming does, substitutes labour for those other inputs, land, fertiliser, tractors and so on. And what does low productivity of labour mean? Yup, that’s right, low wages for those providing the labour.

And that’s appalling. Morally detestable. For the real problem with peasant farming is that it means that the farmers have to live as peasants. With the income of peasants.

None of us pinkish people in Europe are willing to go back to being peasants so quite why Oxfam thinks 500 million black Africans will be happy to remain peasants I’m not sure. Other than vague accusations of racism, that the grinning picanninies are happy to sing while scraping the fields with a stick: something we happily gave up centuries ago, I can’t actually think of a coherent explanation.

But in the end, that is the real problem I have with this report. Oxfam are trying to design a system whereby 500 million Africans get to be peasants for evermore.

Tell me, how did they ever get described as “progressive”


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  general  rational-optimist  the-times