Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.
In the developed world, the current economic downturn has taken the place of the rise on food prices, but in the developing world, where half of the family income is devoted to food, the crisis is just beginning. Even in places like rich Ontario (Canada), children are dying of malnutrition and welfare-related illness (The Toronto Star, February 23, 2009). Two years of malnutrition in a child have irreversible effects in both physical and mental growth.
There are mainly two causes for this price rise: the use of corn to make ethanol, and the change of the diet of Asians, who demand less carbohydrates and more protein. I wrote about the former in A Real Alternative to Ethanol? I and A Real Alternative to Ethanol? II. For the latter, the situation is even more complicated.
Paul Collier (The Politics of Hunger, Foreign Affars, Nov/Dec 2008) estimates that for the demand of food, the income elasticity is around 0.5, while the price elasticity is around 0.1; this means that if income increases by ten, the food consumption increases by five, while if prices increases by ten, the food consumption only decreases by one. As Asians are increasing their income and demanding less rice and more meat, they are putting an enormous pressure on the price of food: If supply is not increased, just 10% increase in the demand of food requires a 100% price increase to balance. There is no way around this but to increase food supply, and there are three ways proposed by Paul Collier to increase food supply: Commercial agriculture, allow genetically modified crops in the EU, and end the subsidy to corn-based ethanol.
The three measures are opposed by populism and for what I call neo hippies, that is, successful city-dwellers that bike everywhere, have no children, and can afford to live an attractive lifestyle nobody else can.
PROMOTE COMMERCIAL AGRICULTURE
Dr. David Suzuki has stated:
Many organic practices simply make sense, regardless of what overall agricultural system is used. Far from being a quaint throwback to an earlier time, organic agriculture is proving to be a serious contender in modern farming and a more environmentally sustainable system over the long term.
I will never think of David Suzuki as an romantic populist. I highly respect his environment stances and I am a follower of most of his work. I am also aware that not everybody is right all the time, and as many people, Dr. Suzuki may be falling in the siren-chants or organic food.
Organic food may taste good and may be crafty, but is inefficient: Organic farms requires more resources in land and time than commercial agriculture. Two centuries ago all farm was organic, but two centuries ago the world had a population of one billion and a life expectancy of 41 years (David Cutler, Angus Deaton, and Adriana Lleras-Muney, Determinants of Mortality, January 2006). City dwellers look at peasant way of life as a romantic, simple lifestyle in communion with nature; there is nothing romantic when you are a peasant in rural Africa with an extreme low income, living in a shack, and trying to avoid the next locust plague. Organic food have a place in niche markets, but they are a luxury staple that poor people cannot afford (unless they somehow can grow it themselves).
Agriculture requires access to credit, investment in machinery, and technology innovation that can only be acomplished in economies of scale. Commercial agriculture (which is NOT a sinonimum for huge global corporations, as the radicals want to make us believe) is an efficient way to fill the poor’s table. Brazil advancements in this matter are an example to follow. There is valid criticism about Brazil companies levelling forest to practise agriculture, but when you apply the same techniques to the mostly badly farmed lands in Africa, the results may be an amazing increase in food per Ha.
GENETIC MODIFIED CROPS
GM Crops are grown in about 10% of the farms inthe world, but the European Union declared a BAN in GM crops. Almost all african countries followed, fearing to lose access to the EU market. One of the concerns is that sellers like Monsanto are producing seeds that will yield a sterile crop, that is, the plants produced will have sterile seeds and the peasants will need to buy all the seeds again. These are called “terminator seeds”. The true is that Monsanto commited in 1999 to “not to commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops“. The European press have called Frankenfoods to the GE foods (already badly named) and they have being reciving bad rap from the press in general.
The worst effect on the EU Ban is its effects in African crops; Africa cannot afford delusion about romantic organic foods when its population is dying of hunger. African productivity has remain the same for 40 years, so for increasing food supply the farmers need to increase the land they farm, taking down primal forest and jungle (a fact notable ausent when city “intelectuals” praise organic foods). African population keep growing, so the problem is just going to get worse. GM seeds are more resistant to plagues and have a lesser impact on the soil; they are point technology in the battle against hunger.
STOP SUBSIDES TO ETHANOL FUEL IN THE UNITED STATES
The romantic populism states that the United States can escape dependence on Arab oil by growing its own fuel making ethanol from corn.I have written about the possibility of growing fuel from organic materials, like Brazilian sugar cane (with a better energy conversion ratio), but right now, a third of US grain is being converted into energy. If the USA end its subside to corn-based ethanol, there will be an impact on prices in two fronts: The supply of grain for food would increase, and the speculation in the markets would change dynamics.
None of these three measures will resonate well with the most radical leftist, and they are not romantic ideals of peasant life, but unlike ideals, they actually will put food on the table of the poor.