Food Politics. Interview with Robert Paarlberg

It was never quite accurate, to label the high prices in export markets (seen in 2007-8) a 'global' food crisis, since many large developing countries (including China and India) do not depend on international markets for staple food supplies.

Interview with Robert Paarlberg, author of 'Food Politics: What everyone needs to know' 

Q: Today is the world food day. What are the key messages the world needs to hear today? 

RP: The notion of a 'world food day' is interesting, since different parts of the world face such different food circumstances. In much of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, people do not get enough nutrition due to pervasive poverty. One out of three Africans is undernourished. These poor and hungry people find it hard to send 'messages' to the rest of us, because of most of them live in the remote countryside and many are smallholder women farmers, caring for young children. They typically lack much formal education and they are often socially marginalized, and denied a political voice. What most of these chronically undernourished people usually need most is not food aid, but instead an opportunity to make their labour as farmers more productive, so they can increase their income and gain access to more food (and education, and health) for themselves and their families. The urban elites that exercise political control in their countries, and the development assistance institutions in rich countries (where an increasing number of people today are over-fed, not under-fed) need to ponder these unmet needs, and act.

Q: Many countries in South Asia and Africa are recipients of food aid. To what extent does food aid distort local food markets? What needs to be done differently to promote local farmers and production self-sufficiency?

RP: Most food aid delivered today does not distort local markets, since the methods of food aid delivery have been improved. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) targets and times its food deliveries with care, and whenever possible it provides locally appropriate foods purchased from local farmers, close to the emergency. These are all important procedures to follow, to avoid distorting markets by either introducing exotic foods that will alter local diets or by dumping too much externally purchased food on a local market, harming the income of local farmers. Unfortunately the largest food aid donor, the United States, is still restricted (by Congress) to food sourced from the U.S. market, and then shipped in mostly U.S. ships to the recipient country. This is an approach that costs too much for American taxpayers. And particularly when this U.S. food is then given to NGOs and sold into local markets without any targeting (a technique known as monetization), the income of local farmers can be undercut. This practice persists in part because some of the American NGOs handling the food rely on proceeds from the sales to fund their other local development projects. A number of leading American NGOs including CARE, Catholic Relief Services, and Save the Children have recently signed a declaration, along with British, French, and Canadian groups, calling this practice into question.

Q: Is the global food crisis really over? Or has it merely slipped down the political priority agenda? How can we maintain attention to these issues in both rich and poor countries? What needs to change?

RP: The high export prices for food (especially rice) seen in 2007-08 have now come down considerably, although wheat and maize prices remain well above historical trends. It was never quite accurate, however, to label these high prices in export markets a 'global' food crisis, since many large developing countries (including China and India) do not depend on international markets for staple food supplies. The high prices did significant damage to nutrition outcomes only in a minority of poor countries that had allowed themselves to become heavily dependent on imports, mostly smaller countries in West Africa and the Caribbean. High prices on the world market in 2008 may have added, at most, only about 10 percent more to the much larger crisis of persistent under-nutrition that has been afflicting more than 800 million people a year in the developing world, year in and year out no matter whether prices on the world market are high or low. This larger crisis is centered in rural areas in Africa and South Asia and it is caused primarily by poverty resulting from the low productivity of human labour in farming. The high prices on the world market in 2008 are not the source of this larger crisis, but they did help focus political attention on the underlying problem of low farm labour productivity in Africa in particular. In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis the G8 countries pledged $22 billion over the next three years in assistance to address underlying farm productivity problems, and the World Bank promised to double its lending to Africa for agricultural development. It will be a political challenge, as the memory of the high prices of 2008 fades, to ensure that these pledges are fulfilled.

Q: Current food production seems to be one of the least sustainable (and cost effective) items of our global society from a social, environmental, agricultural, and economic point of view. Which are the main challenges to tackle this situation?

RP: Food production practices in today's industrial countries do have a history of causing environmental damage and costing taxpayers and consumers too much due to subsidy and protection policies. If the subsidy and protection policies could be reformed, the environmental damage, especially from excessive chemical use, would go down. In fact, in recent years both the United States and Europe have moved toward a system of providing more protection to farmers in ways that do not trigger excessive chemical use. As a result, according to the OECD, between 1990 and 2004, herbicide and insecticide spraying on farms in the OECD region decreased by 5 percent, and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use declined by 17 percent. This, even as total production among these countries was increasing by 5 percent. Consider also that some of the alternatives to modern food production practices can cause even greater damage to the environment. If today's wealthy industrial states were to return to a pre-industrial 'organic' method of growing food, without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use at all, it would be necessary to use much more land for farming (and grazing the animals needed to provide the manure for fertilizing the land). By one calculation, if Europe tried to feed itself with a 100 percent organic system, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all the remaining forest cover of France, Germany, Denmark, and Britain combined.

Q: Food shortages/higher prices was at the heart of the French revolution in the 18th Century. How might we make it a political issue again?
RP: This is a nice illustration of the difference between a political crisis caused by high prices in urban areas (Paris in the 18th Century, or Cairo and Port of Prince today) versus a nutrition crisis caused by poverty due to low farm productivity in the countryside. When food prices increase in urban areas they can trigger a political explosion because of the economic pain they bring, whether or not they have resulted in an actual increase in under-nutrition. There were riots in Cairo in 2008 when wheat prices increased, even though average daily calorie intake among citizens in Cairo is actually higher than in some European countries. Meanwhile in countries with the worst actual nutrition crises, political responses from those who are hungry (mostly women and children in rural areas) are quite rare. None of the food price riots that took place in 2008 occurred in the countries classified by the International Food Policy Research Institute as experiencing 'extremely alarming' nutrition deficits. One reason for the persistence of nutrition crises caused by rural poverty is precisely the fact that the victims usually lack a means to make their grievances heard.
Interview by Angela Zarro


Robert Paarlberg is Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Adjunct Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a researcher and consultant on international food and agricultural policy. His book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa, was published in 2008 by Harvard University Press, with a foreword by Norman Borlaug and Jimmy Carter. In 2009 he was the principal writer of a bipartisan report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty. His latest book, Food Politics: What Everybody Needs to Know, was published in March 2010 by Oxford University Press. He received his B.A. in political science from Carleton College and his PhD in Government from Harvard University.