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March 1, 2011

Genetics and food doesn't have to be just about GM: genetic markers

March 1, 2011

Feeding the 9 billion: where to agree/disagree with the Economist?

March 1, 2011
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[Update: The author, John Parker’s, response to this post is here]

This week’s Economist has a timely special report (accompanying editorial here) on the ‘Future of Food’, which economist food special reportdefinitely merits a couple of posts. I (along with hundreds of colleagues) have been developing the content for Oxfam’s forthcoming campaign on ‘food justice in a resource-constrained world’, so reading something like this is very helpful – where do we agree with the Economist, where do we disagree, and (always the hardest question), what’s missing from its analysis?

Like most mainstream analyses of ‘feeding the nine billion’, the report is strongest on ‘the production challenge’, fluently setting out the likely trends in demand from growing, more affluent populations, and going into some fascinating detail on the new techniques and technologies that will help feed the world. More on that tomorrow. 

It’s also good on the growing ecological challenge – how to produce more food within the kinds of environmental and resource boundaries (climate change, water etc) that are becoming ever more constraining on human activity. Within that, the waste of 30-50% of all food produced also gets some clear attention. The Economist, like Oxfam, thinks biofuels are particularly bonkers, quoting Nestle’s chairman, Peter Brabeck, saying that government biofuel targets are ‘the craziest thing we’re doing’, diverting huge amounts of food into fuel tanks, often with negligible environmental benefits.

So top marks on biology, botany, chemistry, ecology and the other natural sciences. The big gaps (as always) concern what you might call ‘humanities’ – people, power and politics. The Economist seems to prefer technological solutions to political ones.

First distribution/equity: there’s nothing on gender (just giving women farmers, who produce most of the food in many countries, equal access to credit, seeds etc would massively increase output, as well as respecting their rights). Nothing on the case for massively scaling up investment in smallscale agriculture (in fact, very little at all on the heated debates on small v large production models). No recognition that if small producers (whether peasants or labourers) constitute most of the world’s poor people, then a response that ignores them is unlikely to tackle hunger – nutritional trickle-down is far less likely to succeed than including small producers in growing the food in the first place, rather than just consuming stuff churned out on high tech, low job large farms (when they have enough cash to buy it).

If a fairer distribution (of assets, opportunities and power itself) is to happen, then discussions like this have to grapple with messy political issues: producer organization to improve poor people’s bargaining power (leading to better prices, higher income, and less hunger); tackling the lobbies of vested interests, north and south, that skew government decision-making; what to do about corporate control of value chains that suck out the wealth, and leave producers fighting over the scraps.

A notable throwaway line on India encapsulates the weaknesses: ‘for reasons no one understands, Indians of all income levels now eat less food, and of a lower quality, than they used to, and than you would expect.’ Eh? No one understands why hunger persists in India despite high levels of growth? Who did they ask? The bottom line for the Economist is that all that tricky power and politics stuff is just too difficult: ‘Pushing up supplies may be easier than solving the distributional problem.’ Let’s just skip it and get back to sorting out vitamin A deficiency. How convenient.

Finally, the report has little on how to boost resilience, whether to food price spikes or other forms of volatility such as climate change. Being charitable, issues such as reforming the chaotic food aid system or using social protection to smooth over such shocks may simply have been beyond the remit of the piece. That may also explain the odd absence of any discussion of how bad trade rules can contribute to hunger – trade reform is usually a stock part of Economist recommendations on any issue, however tangential.

Here’s a table summarizing overlaps and differences – please correct any oversights, or add other issues. I urge any Oxfam staff or supporters reading this blog to try and read the Economist piece in full, not least as intellectual preparation for the next four years of campaigning.

Oxfam v Economist

Economist v Oxfam slide


  1. A very thoughtful critique. Thank you Duncan. I’m the author of the report and have posted some thoughts inspired by the post on The Economist’s website, here:
    By the way, on hunger in India, I’m not sure anyone does really understand why it persists despite growth. Explanations include the low status of women, the problems of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, bad administration by the food distribution system, the supposed nutritional deficiencies of Indian diets, and poor agricultural performance. But I don’t think there’s a consensus view. And when you have that many varied explanations, the chances are that people don’t have a good handle on it.

  2. The power and politics argument is most poignant for Zimbabwe. In a very short space of time Zimbabwe shifted from being a food exporting country to importing most of the food that is consumed in the country. Admitteddly, there are extraneous factors that contributed to this. The main cause, however, have to do with questionable government policies that include:
    1. the chaotic land reform programme, which has been condemned by the SADC Tribunal;
    2. an archaic and centralised system of marketing grain, which is controlled by the parastatal, Grain Marketing Board (GMB). Zimbabwean law proscribes trading of grain between individuals. All grain has to be traded through the GMB. The GMB sets the prices, which in most instances are unattractive. The small farmers, who traditionally produced most of the food in Zimbabwe shun growing maize, the staple crop and opt for high value crops like tobacco. Consequently, Zimbabweans have to import food, which in many instances is of poor quality and at very high prices. As with many things in Zimbabwe the system of marketing agricultural produce has also become a theatre for political afrays among the political parties in the interim government. The recent creation of the Zimbabwe Commodity Exchange under the watch of an MDC government minister has set it on a collision course with the Agricultural Marketing Authority, which was set up under a Zanu (PF) government minister. Unless such problems are resolved the prices of food in Zimbabwe will remain beyond the reach of the majority of the population, which lives beyond the poverty line.

  3. A very interesting article, both from the Economist and Oxfam.

    From what I could read in the Economist before I was timed out there was an assumption that animal husbandry and meat eating would inevitably rise as economically developing countries followed the increasing meat eating of western consumers.

    If there is an assumption that there are certain ‘norms’ in consumption across the world then only technology to produce more will save the planet and produce more food. Consumption, and type of consumption also needs to be looked at.

    If we look at the way certain ‘norms’ have changed in every country in the last 50 years why would any ‘norm’ in consumption be taken for granted?

    The need or normality to eat more meat from factory farming, not caring about the health of the animal or quality of the meat, is very political, as is the affect this has on the environment and effective use of food grown.

    It seems relevant to Oxfam’s research into Food poverty, and the impact of different types of food. How much are people encouraged through corporate advertising and government legislation to eat in specific ways? I know Oxfam has collaborated in a few UK campaigns about food consumption and I am interested to hear more.
    Thank you.

  4. Good response Duncan. Just on the trade barrier argument – although its not mentioned in the report itself, it is mentioned in the leaders section of the same issue of the economist.

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