Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Amartya Sen on food shortages

Amartya Sen argues that droughts such as that being experienced in Australia, high economic growth in some developing countries as well as the diversion of grains into biofuelds servicing the needs of the wealthy has created a surge in the demand for foods that has driven up food prices and endangered the world's poor.

Its a sensible argument - in my own household I have felt the increase in food prices clearly in terms of its impact of our household budget - it is a real impact but as a household we spend less much less than one third of the budget on food. At most I might have to cancel that mid-winter holiday and forgo that new set of golf clubs! For families already spending most of their low incomes on food the issue is of life-threatening seriousness - particular since high food prices are seen as likely for at least another decade. In South America alone 71 million extremely poor people face hunger as a consequence of rising food prices. Globally 850 million people suffer from hunger caused by poverty.

Global economic development has been a success story in recent decades. This should not induce complacency. While levels of absolute poverty have fallen dramatically it is important not to forget those 1 in 10 people of the world's population who are left behind and who suffer the adverse effects of economic growth on such things as food prices.


conrad said...

I guess the other (not neccesarly conflicting) possibility that is worrying is that we are basically at peak food production, excluding major technological advances. One way to look at this is that even if we got rid of bio-fuels and made places like Russia productive again (etc.), how much food is that accounting for anyway -- a few hundred million people ? This is nothing in terms of population growth.

If that's correct, then all biofuels and these sorts of things have done is got us to the peak slightly faster, so people are really going to have to think about ways to cap world population before it caps itself.

pedro said...

We are no where near peak food production and heaps of land went out of production in recent decades because of food surpluses. That land will come into production pretty quickly I bet.

I hate it when I read the claim that the poor are being left behind, it makes the "leavers" seem bad. Wealth increases because of increasing productivity and it is not the fault of those with increasing wealth that others are mired in poverty. Most of that poverty could be fixed with a 3 step program:

1 a few cruise missiles to get rid of their revolting governments;
2 introduction of the rule of law and protection of private property;
3 stand back and let them get on with it.

hc said...

Pedro, The issue is not one of fault but of maintaining a sense of proportion and compassion. Food prices are forecast to remain high for a decade - I hope these forecasts are wrong and that you are correct.

You 3 part program is foolish - it is not easy to get rid of poverty in Africa. Killing leaders would not help and conflicts with your remaining objectives.

conrad said...

"We are no where near peak food production and heaps of land went out of production in recent decades because of food surpluses."

The main argument I hear for this is that places like Russia could be further utilized. When people say this, I'd like to know what percentage of land they are talking about. If it is 10%, that means another 600 million people or so could be fed by that. We can then estimate the speed at which we will be at peak production based on current population growth scenarios, even with this missing land.

Pedro said...

The important element of my tongue-in-cheek program is the introduction of the basis for a free market. Why is that foolish? Do you think that Africans are intrinsically incapable of the economic development enjoyed in other formerly poor places?

Clearly Statism has not worked.

Jack Lacton said...

Having spent 3 years in Africa and 3 years in Asia I can say with authority that all they want is a chance to make their own way and solve their own problems. They don't see Western aid as being the solution though they appreciate infrastructure projects that we help with.

Unfortunately, they are the victims of corrupt governments. Pure and simple. While those governments persist there will be no improvement.

As an example simply look at what Botswana has achieved in only a short period compared to its neighbours. It is an example of disciplined government over rank tribalism.

csning said...


What proportion of poor countries are net food producers? Surely this will help this particular group.

sexy said...