Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Are International Food Prices related to Hunger?

Robert Paarlberg, author of a recent article in the International Herald Tribune and a professor at Wellesley College, says they are not. According to Paarlberg, international prices of rice, wheat, and corn have risen sharply setting off urban protests in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, he argues that these food prices are not related to real hunger crises because most of the world's hungry people do not use international food markets, and most of those who use these markets are not hungry. In fact, international food markets are used by those who are more prosperous, not those who face starvation. The biggest importers for corn, for example, are Japan, the European Union, and South Korea, where citizens are generally well-fed despite rising food prices. In contrast, in the poorest developing countries of Asia, imports supply only 4% of total consumption. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 16% of grains are imported, and even these go to more prosperous cities rather than the impoverished countryside, with part arriving in the form of donated food aid rather than commercial purchases at world prices. Instead, Paarlberg argues that Africa's food crisis is the result of the low productivity of the 60 percent of all Africans who plant crops and graze animals for a living. This is because

the average African smallholder farmer is a woman who has no improved seeds, no nitrogen fertilizers, no irrigation and no veterinary medicine for her animals. Her crop yields are only one third as high as in the developing countries of Asia, and her average income is only $1 a day.

Thus, he argues that the long-term solution to such problems is not lower international prices or more food aid, but larger investments in the productivity of farmers in Africa. He then blames the international donor community for their resistance to support agricultural modernization in the developing world. For example, he cites the fact that over the past two decades the U.S. Agency for International Development has cut its support for agricultural science in Africa by 75 percent.

Though I think Paarlberg makes valid points, I am a little wary of his emphasis on increased investment in agriculture in the form of "improved seeds and nitrogen fertilizers." Though it is important to invest in rural farmers, I will be cautious to advocate for increased reliance on biotechnology because of the undue harm that can be caused to the environment. Paarlberg himself even states that "because of the added burden of climate change, the number of undernourished people in Africa is now expected to triple by 2080, whatever the level of prices on the world market." Researchers have shown that many aspects of modernized agriculture, including GM crops can actually be very harmful to the environment, leading to the creation of superpests, superweeds, and reducing biodiversity. Such harm to the environment will ultimately hurt the plight of the small farmer even more since his very livelihood depends on the environment. Vandana Shiva has also made the connection between biotechnology and biopiracy. It can be very problematic if small farmers in developing countries begin buying "improved seeds" from major corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto has argued that farmers should not be allowed to save their seeds because GM seeds have been patented and thus the property of Monsanto. If this happens, farmers will need to buy new seeds from Monsanto every year, which they may not even be able to afford. This will ultimately lead to greater poverty and hunger. I also wonder if higher prices for imported foods might actually benefit small farmers who have been struggling to compete with these prices that have been too low for years. My point is, that though increased productivity for rural farmers is important, there is no easy quick-fix solution. The causes and effects of any policy change must first be examined carefully to make sure that no undue harm occurs and that we understand how best to address hunger before making hasty policy decisions.


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