Wave of food inflation: The global hunger crisis

Haiti, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Cameroon, CÇïte d'Ivoire, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uzbekistan, Senegal, the Philippines, Yemen, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Italy, Bolivia, India, Pakistan.

What do all these countries have in common? Violent riots over rising food prices have broken out in each one at some point in the past year.

Since January, the price of rice has shot up 141 percent, according to The Economist magazine. Wheat prices rose 77 percent in 2007, soy prices are up 87 percent and the cost of corn is also on an upward tear. Now this wave of food inflation is rippling through the developing world - and the international community is finally realizing that they've got a legitimate crisis on their hands.

On Tuesday, a U.N. panel called for wealthy nations to review their agricultural policies. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, is on an urgent hunt for an extra $500 million for the World Food Program. Even the White House is on board - in an unusual display of compassion, President Bush ordered $200 million in emergency food aid donated to ease the surprise starvation this week.

These are all good gestures towards ending a serious disaster. But unless policymakers focus on relieving hunger and poverty first, rather than meddling with ancillary ideas like population control, climate change and the environment, they have the potential to make things even worse.

Unfortunately, they're already on the wrong track. A representative of the U.N. panel overseeing the crisis claimed that ""modern agriculture will have to change radically if the international community wants to cope with growing populations and climate change, while avoiding social fragmentation and irreversible deterioration of the environment"" - a statement that manifests the backwards thinking that has long doomed millions to misery.

In his famous 1798 ""Essay on the Principle of Population,"" English political economist Thomas Malthus outlined a frightening theory on population and food supplies: ""Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio."" He concluded that ""this implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence"" - that human population will, at some point be constrained by its food supply.

The natural future results? Unchecked famine, environmental disaster and war over food supplies. No wonder economics is called the ""dismal science.""

But humanity has managed to kick it for two centuries since Malthus first made his foreboding prediction, burning carbon, eating beef and tearing down rainforests the whole while. What gives?

Malthus' fatal flaw was a failure to recognize the human capacity for innovation and ingenuity. Although his theories are spot on in the natural world, and proved to be important influences on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, they fail when applied to human society. In fact, fertility tends to be negatively correlated with food availability - it's rich nations like the United States and western Europe that share both the greatest access to food and the lowest fertility rates on Earth.

Environmentalists and sustainability advocates suggest that food crises are simply a problem of too many mouths to feed, and too many humans strangling a struggling Earth. Indeed, the very term ""sustainability"" is a bone thrown to the Malthusian assumption that human achievement is bound by a finite carrying capacity. But although Malthus offers a simple solution, he offers a false one, and policymakers shouldn't be seduced.

Biofuels have also taken blame for the food crisis - and for good reason. Voracious appetites for alternative fuels in the West have diverted massive amounts of food from hungry mouths into hungry gas tanks. The numbers involved are truly staggering: Last year's energy bill is expected to drive U.S. ethanol production to 36 billion gallons by 2020, with the federal government sopping up a full third of this year's corn harvest. Plus, heavily subsidized all-American corn is one of the worst, most wasteful crops from which to synthesize ethanol.

This week one U.N. official equated growing food for fuel to ""a crime against humanity."" Don't expect bureaucrats hauling off Iowans to the Hague any time soon, but the guy has a point: Rising food prices have a devastating effect on the world's poor. In fact, the World Bank has estimated that a 20 percent rise in food prices has the potential to push 100 million people beneath the $1-a-day benchmark for absolute poverty.

But ethanol's not the only problem - and those who have made biofuels a scapegoat for larger problems in the world's food economy over the past few weeks are the real criminals.

Rising oil prices, integral in the use of farm machinery and fertilizer worldwide, have a role to play in food shortages. The rising demand for meat, which requires as much as seven times as much grain as vegetarian diets, in India and China, two nations rapidly pulling themselves out of poverty, has put pressure on grain demand as well. But most important is the sorry state of the global marketplace for food - one riddled with government intervention, protectionist barriers and price controls.

Humanity will escape this ""Malthusian trap"" the same way it always has: through innovation and technology. First, humans can innovate by ending pernicious policies: The price supports and market distortions that pay farmers not to grow in rich nations and retard growth in the poorest. The wealthy world can abolish the trade barriers that prevent a secure global marketplace for food. And bureaucrats everywhere can stop focusing on pet projects like organic farming and eco-friendly farms and embrace the technology that has made the Western world the most productive breadbasket in the world - things like big, gas guzzling tractors and genetically altered food.

The world can - and will - prove Malthus wrong again. But until we give up our obsessive focus on problems beyond poverty, you might want to start stockpiling cans while you have the chance.

Connor Mendenhall is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies and the opinions editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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