Governments can no longer ignore the hungry

In the developing world, concern is moving away from farmers, whose interests often predominate in times of plenty, and toward angry and desperate city dwellers who cannot afford food in times of shortage. The shift is overdue, writes Alan Beattie.

A hungry man is not a free man: one of the better aphorisms of Adlai Stevenson, a great president that the United States never had.

Except during war or famine, outright hunger was a problem the world thought it was solving. Higher farm yields and falls in extreme poverty have reduced the incidence of malnourishment or starvation.

But with food prices rocketing, that optimism now looks like complacency. Around the developing world, governments are discovering the overwhelming imperative of stopping people going to bed hungry. Concern is shifting from the farmers whose interests often predominate at times of plenty to the angry and desperate urbanites, particularly those living within rioting distance of the presidential palace, who cannot afford food at times of shortage.

That shift is overdue. The politics of food has been dominated for too long by producer interests. The aim of farm policy should not be to enrich farmers: it should be to feed the world. In some countries, these conflicts mean returning to battle lines between consumer and producer drawn long ago. Argentina’s swingeing taxes on soy exports, an attempt to keep more food at home, are bang in the middle of the Peronist tradition of backing the cities over the countryside (and demagogically demonising the landowners along the way) that dates back to the 1930s.

Now, the way in which many of these governments – Egypt, India, Argentina – are going about this task is not a clever one. Rather than softening the blow by giving cash transfers to poor households, they are trying to rig the agricultural market by banning food exports. As Argentina is discovering, this often merely provokes farmers to protest, smuggle and hoard. It is also a policy with a severe collective action problem. If every country in the world is blocking exports, there will be shortages on international markets, and water- or land-poor countries such as Egypt that rely heavily on food imports will be badly hit.

Still, the motive of ensuring a plentiful and cheap supply of food is the right one. Too much attention has been paid in recent years to the interests of farmers, with global trade talks dominated by an obsession with the effect of the rich world’s agricultural subsidies. American and European subsidies and trade protection that distort markets are largely a waste of money, to be sure. But most of the beneficiaries of their abolition would be affluent urbanite taxpayers and consumers, not beleaguered African farmers.

The reality is that most of the real distributional conflicts over food take place within the same country between rural and urban dwellers (or, indeed, between cash-crop farmers and others within the countryside), not between rich nations and poor ones. Exhibit one is the cause célèbre of the rice farmers of Ghana, whose protective import tariffs have been cut, exposing them to international competition. The likes of Oxfam have for years led a succession of pliable celebrities and journalists by the nose round the markets of Accra and invited them to be outraged by the sacks of cheap, subsidised American rice stacked floor to the ceiling.

But if they look carefully, they also will see sacks of largely unsubsidised rice from Vietnam and Thailand, both of which provide the urban poor of Accra with cheaper staple food than can domestic producers. Tariff protection for Ghanaian rice is not global trade justice. It is a transfer from everyone else in Ghana, particularly city-dwellers trying to feed their families, to the rice-growers.

To date, the hungry voices from the slums often have been tuned out, partly because the familiar distorting politics of special interests applies as much in developing countries as it does in rich ones. Small, well-organised farm lobbies, where the benefits of a government intervention are tightly concentrated, can often outpunch larger groups of consumers where the costs are widely dispersed.

But food prices are shooting higher and the world’s urban population is swelling. This year, the United Nations reckons, the earth will finally become an urban planet, with more than half its population living in towns and cities.

There is, no doubt, an element of speculative bubble in some of the big recent leaps in commodity prices but some of the underlying trends look more permanent. A combination of a larger and richer world population, the threats to agricultural production from climate change and rising subsidised demand for biofuel – the latter another example of producer interests capturing government policy – suggest the food crisis is more than a blip. Supply can expand in the medium term, by bringing new land into cultivation or improving farming techniques, but by how much remains unclear. In the meantime, the voices of the non-farming poor are becoming too strident to ignore.

It often takes a mounting sense of crisis to get politicians to focus on allowing markets to deliver cheaper food. The ancestor of modern cheap food policies, the repeal of the Corn Laws in Britain in 1846, was spurred by growing unrest within the swelling cities of an industrialising economy. In 1848 that unrest burst out into a series of revolutions across western Europe – though not in Britain.

Governments across the world need to plan to deliver cheap food – not to please truculent farmers – and to let free markets deliver it as far as is prudent. The world’s poor need to be freed from the hunger that threatens once more to entrap them.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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