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The Last Bite
Is the world’s food system collapsing?

Bee Wilson, New Yorker
… Roberts’s work [“The End of Food”] is part of a second wave of food-politics books, which has taken the genre to a new level of apocalyptic foreboding. The first wave was led by Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” (2001), and focussed on the perils of junk food. … in the new wave, … Roberts’s book is joined by “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” by Raj Patel (Melville House; $19.95); “Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood,” by Taras Grescoe (Bloomsbury; $24.99); and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” by Michael Pollan, the poet of the group (Penguin Press; $21.95).

… Our insatiable appetites are not simply our own; they have, in no small part, been created for us. This explains, to a certain degree, how the world can be “stuffed and starved” at the same time, as Patel has it. The food economy has created a system in which some have no food options at all and some have too many options, albeit of a somewhat spurious kind. In the middle is a bottleneck-a relatively small number of wholesalers and buyers who largely determine what the starving farmers produce and what the stuffed consumers eat. …

It would be futile, therefore, to look to the food system for radical change. The global manufacturers and wholesalers have an interest in continuing to manipulate our desires, feeding our illusions of choice, stoking our colossal hunger. On the other hand, if desires can be manipulated in one direction, why shouldn’t they be manipulated in another, more benign direction? Pollan offers a model of how individual consumers might adjust their appetites: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” As a solution, this is charmingly modest, but it is unlikely to be enough to meet the urgency of the situation. How do you get the whole of America-the whole of the world-to eat more like Michael Pollan?

The good news is that one developing country has, in the past two decades, conducted a national experiment in a more sustainable food system, proving that it is possible to feed a population less destructively. Farmers gave up synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and replaced them with old-fashioned crop rotations and mixed livestock-crop operations. Big industrial farms were split into smaller coöperatives. The bad news is that the country is Cuba, which was forced to make the switch after the fall of the Soviet Union left it without supplies of agrochemicals. Cuba’s experiment depended on its authoritarian state, which commanded the “reallocation” of labor from cities to farms. Even on Cuba’s own terms, the experiment hasn’t been perfect. On May Day, Raúl Castro announced further radical changes to the farm system in order to reduce reliance on imports. Paul Roberts notes that there is no chance that Americans and Europeans will voluntarily adopt a Cuban model of food production. (You don’t say.) He adds, however, that “the real question is no longer what a rich country would do voluntarily but what it might do if its other options were worse.”
(19 May 2008)
Surprising article to appear in The New Yorker. Cuba is one example of a country changing its food system, but there are examples of other countries like the U.S. and Britain making drastic changes during wartime. -BA

In search of a better revolution

William G. Moseley, Minneapolis Star Tribune
… Global leaders are correct in asserting that the agricultural sector in Africa deserves more attention and support. The green-revolution approach, however, is flawed. For starters, many of the inputs required for higher-yielding crops, especially fertilizers, are petroleum-based. The cost of these inputs will only rise in step with the general upward trend in energy costs. Use of imported seeds (hybrid or GMO) and other inputs also concentrates power in the boardrooms of global agrochemical firms rather than in the hands of small farmers.

An approach emphasizing local or national food provision and appropriate technology is more sustainable and empowering for small West African farmers. Agricultural experiments comparing intensive African methods (involving the use of manure and compost as inputs and the intelligent mixing of multiple crops) to conventional Western cropping strategies have repeatedly shown the former to be more efficient in terms of energy consumed per unit of output. These methods have been inhibited by cheap imports and by agricultural agencies that emphasized industrial approaches to crop production.

While some emergency measures will be needed to address the food crisis in the short term, we can do better than another green revolution in the medium to long term. This will involve building on the knowledge of local farmers to develop agricultural approaches that are sustainable and accessible to the poor. It may also mean protecting national and regional food systems from unfair competition.

For years, global and national food policies have had an urban bias in that the provision of cheap food has almost always trumped environmental or social costs in the countryside. The results have been predictable: more underemployed urban residents hailing from rural areas and fewer small farmers. West Africa has some of the best small farmers in the world. We should support, not subvert, their genius.

William G. Moseley is an associate professor of geography at Macalester College in St. Paul. His most recent book is “Hanging by a Thread: Cotton, Globalization and Poverty in Africa.”
(13 May 2008)

Raj Patel’s ‘Starved’ offers food for thought

Heidi Benson, San Francisco Chronicle
When the price of rice spiked, Raj Patel himself became a valuable commodity.

The author of a timely new book, “Stuffed & Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” and a visiting scholar at the Center for African Studies at UC Berkeley, Patel is in demand for comment on the global food crisis.

The alarm sounded in earnest last month, when the executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Program announced that soaring global food prices could unleash “a silent tsunami” that could plunge 100 million people into hunger and poverty.

Food riots had already erupted in many nations in response to price hikes and shortages that some experts call the unintended consequences of globalization.

Patel, 35, believes the crisis is the result of “simultaneous calamities.” He lists them crisply: “Oil is high. There’s an increased demand for meat. Biofuels are a problem. Climate change and bad harvests have something to do with it.”

While Patel fields requests for interviews from CNN, Newsweek, BBC World and other news outlets, his publisher, Melville House, is readying a second printing of the book

… Patel was born in 1972 in London. “I am a product of globalization,” he says. His parents, who met in Britain, were both born in British colonial outposts, his mother in Kenya, his father in Fiji.

“In the swinging ’60s, they had a convenience store,” he says. “I spent my childhood growing up in a stockroom surrounded by bad food and cigarettes and magazines.”

Like many immigrant families, he notes, his parents took education seriously. His brother, now a property developer in Britain, went to UCLA; he went to Oxford, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics, going on to the London School of Economics for a master’s degree and earning his doctorate from Cornell University’s department of development sociology .

“At home, we had nutritious food, mostly Indian food,” he says. But soon, long working hours and busy schedules made convenience foods appealing. “Sometimes we ate in the car,” he admits.
(10 May 2008)
Interesting biographical sketch on a foods researcher and activist. For some reason, people with a hybrid cultural background seem especially good at analyzing current changes. For example, I always learn something new from EB contributors, Dmitry Orlov and Amanda Kovattana. -BA

What happened to global food prices?

Ajay Shah, blog
… Hypothesis: As the world gets richer, price volatility of non-storable agricultural products gets bigger

Here’s one phenomenon which could play a role in deciphering what happened. Suppose, for a moment, that a commodity is not storable. And, we know that given the lags between sowing and harvest, in the short term, a price innovation can induce no supply response. When an imbalance between supply and demand arises, prices move to clear the imbalance. How far do prices have to move? Prices have to move as much as is needed for demand to get crimped, so as to equalise supply and demand.

Now consider a product such as wheat. When there is an upward shock to the price of wheat, rich people just do not reduce their consumption. A naan or a baguette that weighs 0.1 kg has an embedded cost of wheat of USD 0.04 or Rs.1.6 (assuming wheat is at $400/MT). When an affluent person buys or makes a baguette or a naan, a very large change in the price of wheat generates no change in consumption. A 50% change in the price of wheat sounds like a lot: but it drives up the embedded wheat cost in the baguette/naan by USD 0.02 or Rs.0.8 – this would be insignificant for affluent people. Their demand is inelastic.

When demand is bigger than supply for a nonstorable commodity with zero short-term supply elasticity, prices would rise as much as is needed to close the gap. Demand can only shrink when some people get pinched and ease up on consumption. These are the poor. Poor people are the shock absorber that stabilise prices for non-storable agricultural commodities.

… GDP growth yields fewer poor people who respond to higher wheat prices by purchasing less meat or wheat, i.e. we have less of a shock absorber. That generates a reduced elasticity of demand of wheat. So prices have to rise by more in order to clear a supply-demand imbalance than was required in the past when there were more poor people who would adjust.

In the bad old days, people in China and India supplied the world with a large shock absorber, a large mass of poor people who tightened their belts when prices rose. This gave higher global demand elasticity and reduced price volatility. From the late 1970s, economic reforms in China and India have given greater affluence and thus diminished this shock absorber.
(11 May 2008)
Ajay Shah is an independent scholar in India. EB contributor Dylan writes:
Interesting article suggesting a possible hypothesis for why food prices have jumped so high: perhaps it’s because there’s no longer the huge buffer of poor people in China and India that reduce consumption with mild price rises.