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Globalization, Food, and Resilience

May 6, 2008


Anthony Faiola, writing for the Washington Post, discusses why globalization hasn’t fulfilled the hope that it would end world food shortages and the devastation such shortages bring [“Where Every Meal Is a Sacrifice,” 28 April 2008]. He begins his report in Mauritania with a visit to a 39-year-old laborer and her family. The woman had just slaughtered her family goat for food, with the full knowledge that in the long-run it would make her family worse off than before. The goat’s milk had supplied the family with milk each morning. Once the goat meat is gone, they will be left with nothing. Faiola reports that scenes like this are occurring all over the developed world as the poor try to cope with rising food prices. In an earlier post [Rising Food Prices take the World’s Stage], I discussed some of the reasons for the rise in prices (e.g., climate change and increased demand of grain for biofuels). In a later post [Cultivating the Right Biofuel], I added another reason pointed out by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen; namely, globalization’s success means that more people can afford to eat better. While true, it is of little comfort to those yet touched by the benefits of globalization. Faiola writes:

“Like most of the world’s poorest nations, Mauritania is caught in a global food trap, producing only 30 percent of what its people eat and importing most of the rest. As prices skyrocket, those who can least afford it are squeezed the most as the world confronts the worst bout of food inflation since the Soviet grain crisis of the 1970s. Strong global demand and limited supplies are key factors driving up prices, but perhaps just as important is a massive disruption in the free flow of global trade. In recent months, food-producing countries from Argentina to Kazakhstan have begun to slam shut their doors to protect domestic access to the food they grow. Agriculturally challenged countries are left out in the cold.”

Even before food shortages started to worry food-producing nations, globalization had failed in the agricultural area in that developed countries refused to remove agricultural subsidies at home while demanding the removal of tariffs abroad. All of this was supposed to be cleared up with the negotiation of the so-called Doha round of trade talks. Unfortunately, those talks are moribund. In a post about the Doha round of talks [Doha Trade Talks & Globalization’s Future], I wrote that special interests had killed it. Quoting from that post:

“The ‘special interest’ in this case was primarily agriculture. Developing states want tariffs removed from agricultural products imported into developing nations, while farmers in developing states fear that an influx of cheap agricultural products from abroad will ruin the market for domestic products. Emotions always run high whenever domestic food production is discussed. History is filled with tales of famine and death and that specter haunts the collective conscience of most nations. The Economist, however, believes a diminishing commitment to global trade is also at fault. ‘It is not just the narrow business of the Doha round (if narrow is a fit adjective for an ambition to lift millions out of poverty, curb rich countries’ ruinous farm support and open markets for countless goods and services) that is at stake. In the long run, the lack of commitment to multilateral trade that sank the Doha round this week will also start to corrode the trading system as a whole.'”

That is precisely what happened according to Faiola:

“Globalization was supposed to eliminate this kind of recurring disaster. With economists radiating confidence about the new efficiencies of the global market, the need for food self-sufficiency seemed almost archaic. In that new reality, global markets would provide the long-term cornucopia that the arid earth here [in Africa] could not, and at reasonable prices. But it turned out that globalization did not really work for food. Countries, especially rich ones, felt compelled to continue protecting their farmers and their domestic food supply even as they pushed for trade liberalization for manufactured goods. It distorted the market, which didn’t adjust as global demand surged and production flagged.”

In light of the current situation, proponents of protectionism will more than likely trumpet the wisdom of their past actions. There is certainly no argument against the importance of food security, the challenge is how to create food security for those living in areas incapable of producing sufficient food for those who live there and who are too poor to buy it on the open market (even if it were available). Any resilient strategy will include contingency plans for bad times; that is what many African states are currently scrambling to do. Back in September 2006, I wrote a post about how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are teaming with the Rockefeller Foundation to try and create a “green revolution” in Africa [Gates & Rockefeller Foundations Tackle Food Security in Africa] so that countries there are not entirely held captive by the global trading system. Such a revolution takes time, however, and it has yet to bear sufficient fruit to resolve the current crisis. Faiola continues:

“Mauritania knows it must bear more of its own food burden. All around, food-producing countries are barring the doors to foreign trade. Argentina raised soybean and sunflower export taxes to as much as 44 percent. Russia has quadrupled wheat-export taxes to 40 percent. Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest wheat exporters, halted foreign sales altogether. Rice prices shot to a record high after Indonesia stopped its farmers from selling the grain abroad. At the same time, import-dependent countries that can afford the higher prices are hoarding. Wealthy Singapore is stockpiling rice. Malaysia is creating a new government agency to stockpile foodstuffs. Many countries, including Mauritania, have dropped long-standing import taxes to facilitate trade and lower prices at home. But with global supplies running short, the measures have had limited effect in controlling prices here. Importers in Mauritania, for instance, say they have roughly a 45-day supply of key commodities such as wheat.”

Faiola goes on to report that it is not just land-based agriculture that is affecting the food budgets of the poor. Fish stocks around the globe have declined and rising prices for fish means that the best fish are finding their way onto the tables of the rich; once again leaving the poor’s table bare. The crisis creates other rippling challenges as well. Men leave family and farm to find enough work to buy food. Often this means a farm lies fallow during the next planting season — exacerbating the problem. As noted above, those with livestock are selling or eating their future. There are bound to be a lot of lessons learned during this current crisis. Let’s hope they lead to a more resilient food security strategy. Mankind has been trying to eliminate hunger since before recorded history, but we have yet to discover a strategy resilient enough to cover everyone everywhere.

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