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On Al Jazeera's sofa with David Frost and Carl Lewis

February 9, 2011
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Working for an NGO can be pretty routine sometimes – meetings, papers, teleconferences. And then the press office phones up and asks ‘would you mind going on Al Jazeera to discuss the food price crisis with Sir David Frost and Carl carl_lewis_athlete_realLewis?’ Hell yeah. For those of you who are too young to remember, Carl Lewis won 9 (that’s nine) Olympic gold medals as a US sprinter and long jumper, sported a memorable flat top, and was probably the coolest man on the planet. David Frost did/was none of those things, but he did crack open Richard Nixon over Watergate.

So it’s off to the Al Jazeera office in a swanky part of London, where I am ushered into the waiting room with the other panellists (or rather sofa-ists, given absence of a table), Sir Gordon Conway, former chief scientific adviser at DFID, and Matt Ridley, the token sceptic. Just before we go on air, the TV in the waiting room flicks across to the food riots on the streets of Cairo, a reminder that the topic is deadly serious, however friendly the studio chat. A spot of make-up and then we’re led to the sofa and David Frost, resplendent in pin stripe suit and startling red socks. Meanwhile Carl Lewis, who still looks gorgeous, though a bit greyer, comes over the satellite feed from Philadelphia.

david frostRecording starts. Frost kicks off by asking if we face a dystopian future of riots, hunger and chaos. Carl is clearly the star turn, and Frost turns to him first – he is now ambassador for the FAO, and is clearly sharp and well briefed. Then to Gordon Conway on the science, and then it’s my turn. ‘So Damian’, begins Sir David. Damn, what do I do? Change my name? No, it’s a pre-record, so I correct him. I don’t think he likes me much after that. Not a good start …… But I recover and make a few points (which hopefully they won’t edit out)

I thought the 25 minute conversation was a bit too amicable to make good TV, but judge for yourself here.


  1. Well done, must have been a nerve-wracking experience. Don’t know how you kept your cool with Lord Ridley of Northern Rock next to you – I’d have throttled him.

  2. Duncan.
    I have just listened to the interview. Well done!
    A few suggestions to answer some of the points Matt Ridley made.
    First, it is too simple to say that food prices are low compared to the 1970s. This is true only for the rich (or those who have been getting less poor), not for the 1 billion food insecure / poor. This is because statements of the way we compare real food prices over time, using price or income indices for richer people/ countries. If we use price or income indices more relevant to poor people then you get a very different picture (see http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/11094/ and a presentation available at http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/11098/).
    Second, prices of N are likely to increase as fossil fuel prices increase and as carbon taxes come in. Without higher food prices higher prices of N will lead to reduced use of N. This will put a break on future use of N as well as depress use of N where it is currently used. Of course there are also technological gains (as discussed) that can offset this. It will exacerbate the problem of affordability of N fertilisers (mentioned by Matt and in my view a serious problem).
    Third, climate change impacts of drought and floods are going to offset the (high?) CO2 fertilization gains cited by Matt. My understanding is that increasing temperatures up to around 2oC plus CO2 fertilization gains will raise yields in temperate regions but high temperatures will depress yields in tropical regions, with positive net gain up to around 2oC but falls thereafter. However even at 2oC there will be severe poverty and food insecurity implications from the changes in geographical distribution of food production. (It is also, I think, based on average rainfall and temperature conditions, but increased variability – droughts, floods, heatwaves, etc – with climate change may also reduce yields and production.)
    Fourth, 50% or more of small-scale farmers in Africa and India are net buyers of food, and hence high food prices lead to lower welfare for these farmers and exacerbate capital constraints limiting investment of labour and inputs in farming.
    Fifth, trade barriers are a big problem for non-staple commodities but not for cereals – Africa not being able to export cereals to Europe is something of a red herring. The need to reduce ‘northern’ trade protection on cash crops like cotton and tobacco is clear, but for cereals a simplistic view of the last few years is that removal of unfair agric support in the north has been one cause of higher prices and price instability ….
    Sixth, high oil prices are likely to lead to land use shifts from food production to biofuel production even in the absence of policies promoting biofuel.

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