Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Foreign Policy on food: Hire me as a writer!

Foreign Policy magazine recently released an issue dedicated to issues of food and agriculture. I of course welcome this interest in a field that is fascinating to me, and crucial for everyone on the planet. They have wide-ranging articles (though focusing particularly on food's role in the recent protests in the Middle East), and some great photo essays about things like street food. There is a great offering examining some unexpected realities about poverty and hunger, like the fact that a lot of people go hungry in order to buy things like TV sets and satellite dishes.

The writing and analysis is about what you would expect from accomplished international affairs reporters without a solid background in agronomy. There are some slips, like in the blurb on the Svalbard seed storage site, in which the author confuses a food bank (which is a pantry supplying donated canned goods to poor people) with a seed bank, which is a place to store diverse varieties of seeds for experimental use and crop improvement. It's sometimes hard to believe that such brilliant minds as Foreign Policy's contributors are relatively clueless about the food and farming that underlies all human endeavor. But the articles are generally well-written and well-investigated.

I was a bit pissed off at a fill-in-the-blank section in which the magazine proffered some food security terms for supposed experts to comment on. The so-called experts included Paul Collier, free-market demagogue that knows nothing about real food or farming (as I've shown in past blog posts), Hakan Altinay, a Washington think-tank researcher on governance issues, a few mainstream ag professors from big farm-state ag universities, a few economic (but not agrarian) development experts, Hank Cardello, an ex-food industry insider who still talks like he's drunk Kraft's Kool-Aid, Dickson Despommier, a medical ecology professor whose crank ideas on vertical farming I've deconstructed in the past, and an ex-Goldman Sachs bigwig (Mark Tercek). Not one systems or development agronomist among them, as far as I could tell (though I appreciate the international development know-how of Oxfam's Raymond C. Offenheiser). This clueless crew was particularly inane in its comments on "organic". There were no chemical or agronomic explanations, no reference to the recent IAASTD report signalling that organic approaches are among the most viable strategies for feeding the world. All Foreign Policy's supposed experts had to offer were snide, blase quips that seem to confuse organic farming with hippies or Manhattan food snobs.

This lack of informed agronomist and agrarian voices in the Foreign Policy food issue reminds me of a recent NYT article on India's agricultural stagnation. It is written by a non-farmer, non-agronomist economist who obviously knows little about how farming actually works. For instance, he bemoans the prevalence of manual labor in Indian farming, and implicitly prescribes "highly mechanized farms growing thousands of acres of food crops", the assembly of "large land holdings", and "corporations...farming land directly" as a way to improve total food production. If the author knew a bit about farm economy, he'd know that to raise per-acre productivity and hence total food production, the key is to intensify land use. Mechanization and consolidating landholdings does precisely the opposite, lowering per-acre yields and thus total food supply. Granted, mechanization and consolidation improve per-person income by allowing fewer people to farm more land, but this implies taking many farmers off the land. In India, with its scarce land, teeming slums, and lack of gainful non-farming employment opportunities, the goal should clearly be improving productivity to land, as opposed throwing people off the land so a few can expand and mechanize their farms.

Anyway, when I read articles like this, and to a lesser extent the Foreign Policy special issue, I wonder why I or an agronomist or farmer like me isn't getting paid big bucks to write on agrarian issues. Instead these prestigious publications sick uninformed hacks on topics they don't understand, who then churn out banal drivel. If the New York Times and Foreign Policy believe that there aren't literate, thoughtful agronomists out there to write well-researched copy, I'm here to tell them that we do exist. So to any big-name publications that may be reading, I'm here, and I'm willing to work cheap!

I want to close with perhaps the most well-done, pertinent features in the recent Foreign Policy. One was an analysis of world food trends by Lester Brown. He is an environmentalist who is perennially announcing the imminent end of the world. At any rate, he does a good job of discussing the major issues that are defining the future world landscape with regards to food production. He looks at recent years' rise in food prices as a consequence of hard new realities of resource scarcity and consumption, namely rising population, rising living standards, lowered and more erratic yields due to environmental degradation and climate change, and use of food crops for biofuel, among other things.

On the other hand, and somewhat buried in the magazine, comes an opposing analysis from Fred Kaufmann. He blames high food prices on long-position speculative investment from big capital. Essentially banks like Goldman Sachs have created investment products that invest in commodities. But because commodities don't naturally increase in value like stocks of growing companies, the investment product essentially creates a permanent appreciation in commodities by constantly buying, and never selling. This price inflation, and not real scarcity, is responsible for high food prices, according to Kauffman. It creates a bubble of permanent long positions (anticipation that prices will rise further), just as happened in the US's fantasy real-estate market when a plywood-and-drywall shell forty miles from Atlanta might be ascribed a value of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Here's my analysis on Brown vs. Kaufmann. The trends Brown discusses are real, and they will surely drive up food prices in the future. But at least the last years' food bubbles seem to me to be more a result of speculation, as Kaufmann claims. Below is my analysis of whether in 2011 we're really seeing a price hike due to true food scarcity.

One hectare of land can easily produce three tons of wheat. One person eating a kilogram of wheat daily would need about 400 kg of wheat per year, so this hypothetical hectare would support seven people for the year. Using these conservative figures, the world's 1.5 billion hectares of arable land could support a little over 10 billion people, which is about the max that any forecasts see our world population topping out at. This estimate is highly conservative, because wheat is a relatively low-yielding crop, and would yield more than the three tons I'm positing if it were grown on more prime, well-watered land (in France wheat yields about 7.5 tons per hectare). Crops like rice and corn yield more per hectare than wheat, and tubers like potatoes and cassava are head-and-shoulders above grain crops in per-hectare calorie yield. Furthermore, in much of the tropics multiple crop cycles are squeezed into one year, so for instance wheat grown in Colombia's highlands can give three harvests in a year.

So by this calculation, if we were to maintain current production levels, we'd have enough food to feed 1.5 times our current populace. Granted, my calculation is not taking into account the diversion of significant quantities of grain into production of biofuels and meat. In this blog post I'm not trying to argue that everyone should be eating only a kilogram of wheat daily, but merely using wheat yields to illustrate that even with biofuels and increasing meat consumption, high food prices today can't be explained very well by raw resource scarcity. Because of this, I tend to believe Kaufman's thesis that speculation on world food markets is mainly to blame for skyrocketing food prices, at least for now. Certainly the trends that Brown discusses (increasing demand for meat, harvest irregularities, soil and water degradation) are real and menacing, but the scarcity argument clearly does not hold for 2007 and 2008, which the FAO indicates were bumper years for world cereal supply (see below, reproduced from the FAOSTAT service). Trends are similar for coarse grains, which include corn and other animal feed crops.

World cereal supply in metric tons

2.06 billion tons

2.11 billion tons

2.03 billion tons

2.09 billion tons

2.28 billion tons

2.27 billion tons

2.24 billion tons

2.35 billion tons

2.52 billion tons

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