An Ode to Farming
A Kashmiri farmer tills a saffron field in Pampore, a town south of Srinagar. Images of agriculture around the world. A slideshow. 27 beautiful images here. Lest we forget where our food comes from.
Attention Whole Foods Shoppers – Stop obsessing about arugula. Your “sustainable” mantra — organic, local, and slow — is no recipe for saving the world’s hungry millions.
By Robert Paarlberg
Robert is B.F. Johnson professor of political science at Wellesley College, an associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.
From Whole Foods recyclable cloth bags to Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden, modern eco-foodies are full of good intentions. We want to save the planet. Help local farmers. Fight climate change — and childhood obesity, too. But though it’s certainly a good thing to be thinking about global welfare while chopping our certified organic onions, the hope that we can help others by changing our shopping and eating habits is being wildly oversold to Western consumers. Food has become an elite preoccupation in the West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have fallen out of fashion.
Helping the world’s poor feed themselves is no longer the rallying cry it once was. Food may be today’s cause célèbre, but in the pampered West, that means trendy causes like making food “sustainable” — in other words, organic, local, and slow. Appealing as that might sound, it is the wrong recipe for helping those who need it the most. Even our understanding of the global food problem is wrong these days, driven too much by the single issue of international prices. In April 2008, when the cost of rice for export had tripled in just six months and wheat reached its highest price in 28 years, a New York Times editorial branded this a “World Food Crisis.” World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that high food prices would be particularly damaging in poor countries, where “there is no margin for survival.” Now that international rice prices are down 40 percent from their peak and wheat prices have fallen by more than half, we too quickly conclude that the crisis is over. Yet 850 million people in poor countries were chronically undernourished before the 2008 price spike, and the number is even larger now, thanks in part to last year’s global recession. This is the real food crisis we face.
It turns out that food prices on the world market tell us very little about global hunger. International markets for food, like most other international markets, are used most heavily by the well-to-do, who are far from hungry. The majority of truly undernourished people — 62 percent, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization — live in either Africa or South Asia, and most are small farmers or rural landless laborers living in the countryside of Africa and South Asia. They are significantly shielded from global price fluctuations both by the trade policies of their own governments and by poor roads and infrastructure. In Africa, more than 70 percent of rural households are cut off from the closest urban markets because, for instance, they live more than a 30-minute walk from the nearest all-weather road.
Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers’ labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse. The number of “food insecure” people in Africa (those consuming less than 2,100 calories a day) will increase 30 percent over the next decade without significant reforms, to 645 million, the U.S. Agriculture Department projects.
What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.