Is famine coming?


Today’s question: Many experts believe we’re heading for a major global food shortage this year. Are we? If so, what’s the solution? Paul Roberts and Jacob Grier debate the new food economy. Previously, they discussed food panics and the role of the FDA. Later this week, they’ll cover organic production and other topics.

This is not just a repeat of past crises
Point: Paul Roberts

We’re not “headed” for a major global food shortage this year -- it’s already here. Because of a perfect storm of drought, booming demand from Asia and ill-considered energy policy, global grain reserves have fallen to their lowest level in half a century. The real question is whether today’s crisis is short-term and, if not, what action needs to be taken.

Conventional wisdom holds that these are both temporary and self-correcting: High prices will encourage the farm sector to bring on new supplies -- by planting more acres and by boosting per-acre yields with new technologies. That’s how we’ve solved previous shortages -- as when we used Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers to avert famine in East Asia and Africa -- and, say optimists, that’s what we’ll do again, this time with a hot new stable of genetically modified, or GM, crops.


However, a growing number of skeptics, including myself, worry that the factors driving today’s crisis make it much harder to solve.

Demand, for example, is much stronger than before. Not only is population soaring, but many of the newcomers are wealthy enough to eat meat, our most resource-intensive food -- it takes an average of eight pounds of grain to make a pound of meat. All told, we’ll need to boost total grain output by 50% by 2030, and no one knows how, or even if, all that extra grain can be grown.

Farm land is increasingly scarce -- most of the readily arable land is already under cultivation, and much of what remains is in forest. Further, many of the inputs of industrial farming are much more expensive today than they were even a decade ago. Oil, the lifeblood of modern agriculture, costs more than 10 times as much as it did during the Green Revolution. Synthetically manufactured nitrogen fertilizers, which are responsible for 40% of the calories produced worldwide, have tripled in price in the last year. Water is increasingly scarce: One sixth of the populations of India and China, for example, are now fed using irrigation systems that are draining underground water systems.

And overlaying this is climate change, which is already reducing grain output not only in destitute Africa but in grain powerhouses like the United States. The “100-year” floods that are currently erasing the Midwest grain crops (and derailing the market’s attempts to “correct” this crisis on its own) are precisely the kind of natural disaster that, under many climate forecasts, will become routine a few decades from now. In short, just as basket cases like sub-Saharan Africa, their populations swollen by earlier Green Revolution success, are in desperate need for our famous grain surpluses, we may not have as much to send them.

What can be done? In the near term, the U.S. and the European Union must step up relief efforts to afflicted regions while reducing subsidies for biofuels, which are draining off critical food supplies. Longer term, we’ll need to commit serious money to developing alternative forms of agriculture that need less energy, water and fertilizers, and which can tolerate a changing climate. (And don’t expect a GM silver bullet any time soon: Boosting yields “trans-genically” is much harder than most GM proponents will admit.)

Lastly, we must start a global conversation about meat. One needn’t be a vegetarian (and I’m not) to realize that the current trend in global meat consumption simply cannot be sustained and that if we’re to achieve a global per capita intake that is sustainable and equitable, countries like the United States will have to reduce their intake, which is currently 230 pounds a year.

None of these steps will be easy or appealing. Spending more on alternative farming will be politically challenging -- as will urging Americans, the world’s top carnivores, to eat less meat. But sooner or later (and probably sooner, given how badly flooding is likely to hurt this year’s grain crop), we’ll need to face the fact that the current crisis isn’t just a repeat of past crises and that to solve it, we will need new ways of making, and thinking about, food.



Paul Roberts writes about the economics and politics of food, energy and other key “inputs.” His most recent book, “The End of Food,” has just been published by Houghton Mifflin.

Blame subsidies and trade restrictions for the food shortage
Counterpoint: Jacob Grier

There are many factors contributing to the world’s food crisis, but the tragic thing about it is that the sudden rise in prices has not been driven by real shortages of food. It is very much a product of our own making.

Biofuel subsidies, once beloved by environmentalists, have quickly lost their shine. Doubts have arisen about biofuels’ ability to lower net CO2 emissions, and the diversion of crops to biofuels has contributed to higher food prices. In the United States, 20% of our corn now goes into highly subsidized ethanol production. Yet despite these widely apparent inefficiencies, ending subsidies will require overcoming significant political hurdles.

Biofuel is just a small part of the story, however. Paul, notably absent from your list of recommendations for dealing with the food shortage is freeing trade. This is understandable, given the emphasis of your book, but liberalizing trade remains one of the best hopes for dealing with the crisis. Export restrictions are a big part of the problem, and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has urgently called on nations to drop them.

As George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen has noted, even in the face of increasing rice output and higher prices, the amount of rice traded across borders is expected to decline by 3% this year thanks to export restrictions in India, China, Vietnam and other rice-producing countries. While these nations’ policies might seem sensible in the short-term, they prevent rice from being traded to where it is most needed. Along with measures against hoarding, they prevent farmers from getting the price signals that would increase production and reward anticipation of future shortfalls.

These restrictions threaten to keep food prices artificially high instead of encouraging low-cost producers to ramp up production for export. And if you are correct that climate change will increase destructive weather events at the regional level, having a responsive global market will be more vital than ever.

Speculation about the longer term is fraught with peril, and Malthusian doomsayers have racked up a long history of being wrong. That doesn’t mean they’re mistaken this time, but there’s reason for optimism.


Transgenic crops and improved agricultural techniques of the type you mention may yet usher in a second Green Revolution. You may be right that we will need to cut back on our carnivorous tendencies that require such an inefficient transformation of grain into beef. On the other hand, vat-grown meat may end up providing a bounty of inexpensive meat that doesn’t waste all those resources on bone and cartilage that real livestock needs to hang its cuts on.

But we don’t need to pin our hopes on technological silver bullets.

Our first priority should be to liberalize trade, both at home and abroad, and to improve the institutions in developing countries that prevent them from reaching their full productive potential.

Jacob Grier is a bartender and think tank PR manager. He writes about food and regulation at

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