Agriculture / Biotechnology / Consumption / Food Security / Research

As ‘slow food’ becomes the preoccupation of the rich, food of any kind remains the preoccupation of the poor

In the May/June 2010 issue of Foreign Policy, agricultural policy analyst Robert Paarlberg argues that the trendy food causes of rich countries, whose sustainable mantra is ‘organic, local and slow’, ‘is no recipe for saving the world’s hungry millions’.

‘Too much food production is already organic, local and slow in the developing world,’ he says.

‘Poverty,’ Paarberg writes,’ — 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.

‘If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

‘. . . Foreign assistance to farming has been a high-payoff investment everywhere, including Africa. The World Bank has documented average rates of return on investments in agricultural research in Africa of 35 percent a year, accompanied by significant reductions in poverty. Some research investments in African agriculture have brought rates of return estimated at 68 percent. Blind to these realities, the United States cut its assistance to agricultural research in Africa 77 percent between 1980 and 2006.

‘When it comes to Africa’s growing hunger, governments in rich countries face a stark choice: They can decide to support a steady new infusion of financial and technical assistance to help local governments and farmers become more productive, or they can take a “worry later” approach and be forced to address hunger problems with increasingly expensive shipments of food aid. Development skeptics and farm modernization critics keep pushing us toward this unappealing second path. It’s time for leaders with vision and political courage to push back.’

Robert Paarlberg is a professor of political science at Wellesley College. His principal research interests are international agricultural and environmental policy. His latest book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press, March 2008), explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought.

He also has published books on the use of food as a weapon (Food Trade and Foreign Policy, Cornell University Press), on international agricultural trade negotiations (Fixing Farm Trade, Council on Foreign Relations), on environmentally sustainable farming in developing countries (Countrysides at Risk, Overseas Development Council), on U.S. foreign economic policy (Leadership Abroad Begins at Home, Brookings), on the reform of U.S. agricultural policy (Policy Reform in American Agriculture, Chicago University Press, with David Orden and Terry Roe), and on the regulation of biotechnology in developing countries (The Politics of Precaution, Johns Hopkins).

Paarlberg’s most recent research focus has been on the regulation of modern technology, including biotechnology.

Read more . . . (Foreign Policy, May/June 2010)

Watch a video interview of Paarlberg talking about his latest book, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

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