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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
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
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
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,
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
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