The politics of world food shortages

Note: The comprehensive Digests are on hiatus for the foreseeable future. While we figure how to make them less onerous, we plan to post more news-related short(ish) snippets in addition to our regular feature-length posts.

In today’s New York Times, Andy Martin reports from Rome on an emergency summit called by the United Nations to address food shortages, climate change, and energy. Alas, rather than constructively addressing, as a group, how we will feed one billion hungry people, the assembled world agriculture leaders “complained about other people’s protectionism — and defended their own.” The money quote comes from Ecuador’s ag minister, Walter Poveda Ricaurte: “We believe the problem is much more political than everything else. We have to differentiate between the countries who are really affected by the food crisis and those who are seeing it as an economic opportunity.”

A recent New Yorker essay masquerading as a three-book review, “The Last Bite,” makes the same point, by putting the food crisis in context of Thomas Malthus’s famous predictions that population growth would be curbed by famine. Writing about Paul Roberts’s new book, “The End of Food,” Bee Wilson presents one of the most cogent and persuasive arguments I have seen that current food shortages are primarily the product of protectionist politics and economic opportunism; tariffs, biofuels, and genetically modified crops as merely the tools used to carry them out.

Our current food predicament resembles a Malthusian scenario—misery and famine—but one largely created by overproduction rather than underproduction. Our ability to produce vastly too many calories for our basic needs has skewed the concept of demand, and generated a wildly dysfunctional market.

Only fools — and corporations and governments with power to gain — would trust this “market” to self-correct, Wilson says. And judging from Martin’s report of the Rome summit, it looks like that’s exactly who’s calling the shots. Not encouraging.

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