Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Food security fears mount

Fears of unrest are increasing in developing countries as shortages develop of staple foods or prices increase substantially. Governments have cut import tariffs to cope with the problem, but hoarding to take advantage of future price rises has exacerbated the difficulties being encountered.

Some of the most serious problems have arisen in relation to rice where prices have risen by 50 per cent in two weeks. Leading exporting countries including Vietnm, India, China and Egypt have banned foreign sales.

Another policy response is to resort to export taxes, a strategy being followed in Argentina, although raising revenue appears to be as much of a motive of ensuring domestic supply. Indeed, the strategy has backfired as farmers have gone on strike and mounted road blocks, emptying cattle markets so that Argentinians cannot get their steaks. President Cristina Fernandez has resorted to the classic Peronist trick of trying to rouse the 'masses' against an alleged privileged group, in this case the farmers.

Given the importance of Argentina as an agricultural exporter, increasing soyabean taxes from 35 per cent to 40 per cent affects world supplies. Grain exports have also been disrupted.

All this is grist to the mill of those who have been calling for self-sufficiency targets in Europe, backed up by the continuation of blanket subsidies. As we have suggested in earlier postings, this rhetoric has had a substantial influence on decision makers. There is a danger of a reversion to a simple minded productionist paradigm, already being celebrated with an element of triumphalism by some farming spokespersons.

A leading exponent of this position is Norfolk farmer and Farmers Weekly columnist David Richardson who has played his cards on this issue well. His paper on the issue suggests that 'it would not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that within the forseeable future it will be necessary to deal with the production of food as during the war.' In the UK it was, of course, the experience of wartime production which led to the 1947 Agriculture Act, creating privileged access to government for the National Farmers' Union and substantial subsidies for its members. Could these halcyon days return?

You can read David Richardson's full paper on line at Richardson . It's a concise statement of an increasingly influential viewpoint.

However, we must avoid a retreat into neo-Malthusian gloom. The gains available from new technology and better agronomic techniques must not be overlooked. Where there has been a policy error is in running down research on improving food production. The privatisation of the state extension service, something that was not done in the United States or, for example, Denmark, was also a mistake which means that there is no neutral body disseminating knowledge to farmers.

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