Hunger

This week’s theme in my food policy seminar is hunger — hunger in the developing world, but also hunger historically in the US — which is a huge topic to cover in roughly 60 minutes of lecturing and 90 minutes of class discussion.

Fortuitously, the last week has been very fertile in terms of (discussions of) hunger online. A coalition of about 100 British charities has launched the If campaign, whose theme is “Enough Food for Everyone If” and is arranged around the four themes of foreign aid, corporate taxes, land grabs, and transparency.

A major point in favor of the If campaign is that it recognizes that the world produces enough food, but that not everyone has enough food because of distributional issues. In other words, the If campaign has taken Sen seriously by not suggesting that the world should produce more food as a solution to the hunger problem.

And then came the inevitable knee-jerk reactions. The World Development Movement’s Deborah Doane, in The Guardian:

[T]o end hunger and poverty, we need to go much further and tackle their root causes. This means tackling the power of the finance sector and its role in not only pushing up food prices but prioritising investment in crops that make a huge profit, like maize, over those that may be more sustainable and locally appropriate, like millet.

Ah, yes… That old bogeyman of the left when it comes to food policy, those evil commodity speculators! Except Derek Headey and Shenggen Fan — not exactly slouches when it comes to food prices — wrote back in 2008 that

Another factor we are less than convinced by [as a cause of rising food prices] is speculation in financial markets, an explanation widely discussed but poorly understood and only superficially researched. … [S]peculation may be more a symptom of underlying volatility than a cause of that volatility.

And the University of Illinois’ Scott Irwin and his coauthors have since then written a number of peer-reviewed articles and working papers showing that there is little to no evidence that speculation has increased commodity prices. When people like Deborah Doane can point to credible (i.e., academic, peer-reviewed research) research showing that commodity speculation has had causal impacts on food prices, maybe that explanation can be taken seriously.

Doane goes on:

And while If rightly highlights the undue power of agribusiness, it fails to mention that sector’s role in the latest push for GM crops. GM may increase output in the short term, but it increases dependency on fossil fuel-based fertiliser in the long term, while pushing farmers in developing countries into heavy debt as they can no longer save their own seeds.

Another bogeyman: Those scary “Frankenfoods”! First off, by targeting GM crops, Doane mistakes the problem of hunger with one of there being not enough food. And once again, there is little to no evidence linking GM foods to illness, and the one study that purported to find a causal link between GM foods (i.e., GM corn) and illness (in rats) has been widely discredited (see here for a link to an article in the not-exactly-right-wing New York Times).

And let me pose this question: Even if GM foods did lead to long-term illness, is it better to live a long, productive life and die of cancer in your 60s, or live a significantly shorter and much less productive life beset by all sorts of chronic health problems because of malnutrition?

We can make progress in feeding today’s hungry only if we realize that we are facing distributional issues. And we will be able to make progress in feeding tomorrow’s hungry only if, to recycle Sir Wilfrid Laurier‘s famous quip, we base policy off of credible, evidence-based opinions rather than emotions.

No related content found.

2 comments

  1. Martin

    I think that the Guardian article you mention champions the idea is that food is not a commodity like any other. While perhaps not extensively researched, the fact that billions are being made by speculating in food markets while 1 in 8 goes hungry does raise question as to what end we allow this speculation for and what its true impact is.

    As for GM crops, more than direct health issues, its opponents like myself are more concerned about: 1) the patenting of life and the monopoly of seeds and their fertilisers/pesticides by a handful of corporations; 2) Cross contamination with unknown consequences ( there are some interesting studies in mexico about the effects of GMO maize on local varieties ); 3) the fact that GMO, according to latest studies, have failed to significantly raise yields and lead to increased use of fossil based farming inputs. Surely you will concur that a fossil based agriculture will probably not be the most resilient?

    Finally, the report mentioned in this article :http://www.irinnews.org/Report/97278/In-Brief-staples-not-export-crops-key-to-tackling-Africa-s-poverty-report

    is quite interesting and makes a point for staple crops reducing poverty more than export crops.

  2. Gabriel Power

    @Martin: While there is a case to be made that making profit on transactions related to human misery is immoral, it is a difficult one to make. (E.g., medicine.)

    As for the link between speculation in financial markets and food prices (and thus hunger), no convincing evidence has been presented yet. Consider two simple reasons why we should not expect a causal relation to exist:

    - Financial market participants in futures markets profit when they correctly anticipate price changes; it does not matter whether prices go up or down, only whether they took the correct market position (long or short). Thus, traders have no more desire to see prices rise than fall.

    - Prices have increased for some commodities for which there are no futures markets, and prices have not increased for some commodities for which there are futures markets.