Phoney Food Fears Ignore Nimble Market Solutions

Nothing brings out the hyperbole like ”food security”. Paul R. Ehrlich – of The Population Bomb fame – appeared on ABC radio in October to declare that ”civilisation is going to collapse” because we are farming land our ancestors were unable to, and we are no longer drinking our water ”right out of the rivers”.

The fear of the moment is that population growth might outstrip food supply. The United Nations says the planet met its 7 billionth inhabitant in November. And the past few years have seen a surprising uptick in food prices. The 20th century saw a decline in the price of food basics, but we’ve had price spikes in 2008 and 2011.

This new food crisis has something for everyone. Tim Flannery’s Climate Change Commission blames climate change. Population panickers blame too many people. Oxfam’s latest campaign attributes higher food prices to ”speculation”, following the ”when in doubt, blame Gordon Gekko” rule.

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus argued population grows at a faster rate than food production. Malthus was wrong then. And his followers are wrong now.

Certainly, high food prices are bad, particularly for those on subsistence income. But our data here is extremely patchy.

Those headline figures trotted out by activists about the millions of people going to bed hungry are so ad hoc as to be quite meaningless.

There is no reason to believe we’re about to enter an era of global hunger. Markets balance themselves. High prices attract new producers into the market, seeking the profits on offer. Those prices also make marginal land more viable. The result? Production goes up, prices go down.

In between their June and November food market report this year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation revised its production forecasts significantly up. Wheat prices have plummeted. Analysts now talk of a wheat glut. We can thank Oxfam’s hated ”speculators” for that. Of course, in 2004, before the price spikes, the UN was fretting food prices were too low and farmers weren’t making money.

On climate change, too, the future is far more complex than the doomsayers would have us believe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself says increasing carbon dioxide levels can have a positive effect on agricultural productivity. The 2007 report concluded up to 3 degrees of warming will increase crop yields.

Certainly, higher than 3 degrees and yields could decline. But if we factor in inevitable but unpredictable advances in agricultural technologies, then the outlook for food from climate change is good.

If temperatures and carbon dioxide have been rising throughout the 20th century, as the IPCC’s report emphatically stated, then so too have agricultural efficiency and crop yields. And quietly, away from the terrible prophecies we read in the press, agricultural innovation is happening.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative announced in June that scientists were close to developing ”super varieties” of wheat which would boost crop yields by 15 per cent.

A landmark study by the American National Research Council found last year farmers who adopted genetically modified crops increased their productivity. We’ve been manipulating plants since the dawn of agriculture. Genetic modification is just the most recent.

The real threat to the future of food isn’t population or climate change or stock traders. It’s ideology. Greenpeace claims to be worried about food production. But they are unrelentingly hostile to GM crops. Greenpeace activists destroyed a CSIRO crop of experimental GM wheat this year.

No wonder Greenpeace thinks food is going to be a problem in the future. They’re trying to stop the technological solutions designed to fix it. We’ll need scientific progress to feed 7 billion people.

Resistance to that progress is the biggest menace to future food security. And what about once-fashionable green policies about things such as biofuels, which convert food such as corn or sugar cane into fuel to replace petrol? Al Gore admits biofuels are a catastrophe. Americans are now burning one-sixth of the world’s food in their cars.

Yet short-term price instability and spikes are only a problem if you are poor. In the Third World, food insecurity is a symptom of economic underdevelopment. In the First World, the food problem is not scarcity but abundance.

It’s perhaps understandable ideologues are using the recent food price spikes to push their agendas – against globalisation, against population growth, against consumer capitalism. Yet it’s truly amazing that 177 years after Malthus died, we’re still falling for the old food scarcity myth.