Food Shortages: Oil, Globalization, Mechanization

Food Shortages are real, dramatically affecting poor nations from Haiti, across the belt of Africa, through the Middle East, and on up to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Zoellick has asked the U.N. to exempt export restriction (i.e., hoarding) and taxation from the World Food Program .

While the recent crisis in poor nations may well put over 100 million people into extreme poverty, the poor in all nations are at risk, from Indonesia to the those in the U.S. dependent on the food stamp program.

The causes are real; some are intractable; others, not: the high price of oil, weather, the shift to bio-fuels, and, I would claim, the patterns of trade agreements as globalization favors ever greater efficiency and larger and larger farms. As I noted in Local or Global, destruction of local food subsidies in poor nations has placed many of these nations at risk.

Zoellick asserts that the problem is man-made; therefore, it can be fixed. I take a more pessimistic view. Some of the problem is man-made; some is not.

High Price of Oil: Oil affects the price of fertilizer, the costs of transportation, and, surprisingly enough, the dependence on large machinery to make cultivation more “efficient.” This last is clearly debatable. But I would suggest that redirecting millions away from farms and to the cities may not be as wise as once thought. Clearly, it adds the cost of transportation to the food. Where once these workers were at the source of food production, now they are removed. If demand for oil is approaching available supplies, driving the price higher, then there is no short-term fix for this aspect of the food problem.

Shift to bio-fuels: Using crops and land–often subsidized–for the production of bio-fuels only exacerbates food shortages. In short, we need a crash program to develop alternate sources of power, especially clean and renewable sources, solar and wind and water–now, not some time in the future. Again, some will debate relative costs–oil vs solar or wind. I would argue that in the long run, we will have little option–even if results cannot be immediate enough to solve the present problem.

Weather: Think floods, i.e., our Midwest, and droughts–Africa. As global warming takes hold and extreme weather events become more prominent, then difficulties now will pale before difficulties later.

Meat: In some instances, using land to raise cattle may be inefficient, especially when feed requires crops that people can eat.

Patterns of Globalization: No country should ever surrender its food production to another. Local subsidies for food production should not be abandoned as part of trade agreements. (Think Mexico and NAFTA, as an example.) Nor should any country surrender all or part of its arable land to a large multinational that will seek only the highest price on the world market. (I was amused the other day at an argument over ANWR. Robert Kennedy Jr. pointedly asked an oil exec if ANWR oil would be for the U.S. alone. He could not answer directly.) Nor should any multinational control seed production, forcing farmers to buy its seeds. While globalization is important, how it is done is more important than just pandering to the to interests of powerful players whose only concern is their bottom line. Free markets that following only the path of greed will not work. All must benefit, not just the lucky few.

Collectively–and I mean all of us, rich and poor–must think clearly through all the issues.

Zoellick is right when he says the world is entering a danger zone.

Hoarding has already begun, as some countries place restrictions on food exports. Some countries are eyeing the arable land in other countries, hoping to use it as a source of food for their own people. Poor people are on the move everywhere.

Ironically, as we try to deal with this problem immediately, we may well drive up the cost of food, as food is re-directed to those most in need. But that is the price we must pay…you, I, and everyone else. Too feed those in desperate need, we will have to tighten our own belts.

Of all issues, food is central. If we fight over oil, imagine what we will do over food. Any and all of the successes of globalization (there are many) will vanish in the twinkling of an eye if we do not meet this problem directly and honestly.