Yesterday and today saw me at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture in the lovely Biblioteque Solvay in Brussels. The main event was Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman.
Krugman spoke at some length about the current financial crisis and how he believes it is masking a growing food shortage around the world. He feels that the price spikes in 2006/7 reflected real shortages and that the current downturn has dampened prices simply because nothing is selling in any sector. It seems hard to disagree.
He argues that current prices in many foodstuffs, whilst depressed now, are still above the prices at which they started this decade. This, he states, is a long-term upwards trend and not and a ‘spike’ as many suggest.
He also spoke about the impact of rising food prices caused by shortages. Though it is an obvious statement, it is one that is not often expressed - especially by us in the ‘rich world’ - that the people that suffer the most from higher food prices are the poor. More specifically, they are the poor in poor countries. For most of these people, there is very little that they, their governments or aid agencies can do to help. As food crisis start, they will likely be unable to pay the higher prices required to import for their basic requirements and the nation as a whole will likely suffer. Such a scenario needs much greater coordination in prevention and aid.
He also had some interesting points about the global economic crisis. Firstly, and most notably, he believes that we will ’emerge’ from this - but who knows when? When it comes to timing, he suggests that it could easily be three or four years. This is in contrast to the politicians and news media that tend to suggest that by 2010 everything will be fine and the recession will be finished. One view sounds more realistic than the others…
Your author was lucky enough to be working at the event and participating in an interview with Mr Krugman. In fact, I was able to set the questions!
Whilst it ought to be said that food security is not an issue that generally raises pulses around the world, the conference was attended by a number of influential and intelligent people. They were animated and clearly concerned about the situation of world foodstocks. There must be something in this issue that exceites them other than the free wine at receptions such as this.
Firstly, the population of the world is growing by some 70 million new souls each year. This means that food needs to be available in constantly increasing supplies. There is also the amount of water required to grow everything. It is something of an unspoken topic in the world at large, but drinking water is a finite resource and we consume and waste far too much of it.
Then there is the carbon footprint generated by transporting everything around the world to shops local to the consumer. In a world in which the COP 15 negotiations in Copenhagen will need to agree swingeing emissions and energy cuts, it seems difficult to justify moving fruit and vegetables around the world when they could be grown much more locally.
And after all of this, there is still crop failure which happens on an all too frequent basis.
It must be remembered that food is not like other products. If we have a world shortage of steel, for example, it will cause problems, but the building of things will simply slow. However, a food shortage could result in millions of people starving.
The economic impacts of this would be massive. Happlily, I have not had to experience mass starvation of a population, but as we can see from the news in Zimbabwe, the entire economic activity of a nation can and probably will collapse. This is one of a number of scenarios that could cause what software developers would call a single point of failure - an event or occurance which can cause everything else in a system to fail.
A point raised again and again at this event has been that so far people from Africa (mostly) have been trying to smuggle themselves into the EU to find work and a better lifestyle. If there becomes a genuine global food shortage, millions of people might try and smuggle themselves into Europe simply because there is better access to food. This better access to food could cause an immigration explosion.
These potential problems, as unpleasant as they could be, are hardly a good legacy to leave to future generations.
As it must be obvious, this is a topic with multiple stakeholders (Brussels speak for interested parties), that encompasses GMO, farming, transport, ethical investment, land owners, government and environmental agencies - to name but a few. This will be a big topic in time.