Profit Over Food: The Root Causes of the Global Food Crisis

The efforts against temporary phenomena have eventually succeeded in feeding some of the hungry. But there is no prospect for ending world hunger for the simple reason that doing so isn’t a goal of prevailing world food policy.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology recently concluded an exhaustive three-year study. It reinforced what thoughtful analysts had already concluded: agriculture is dominated by multinational companies and governed by unfair trade policies. Specifically, agribusiness and its related industries are out to make profits and not to feed the hungry; governments, notably the U.S. and many in Europe, adopt policies that often make less food available to those who need it. The struggle to end world hunger can never be successful until doing so becomes the fundamental goal of international food policy.

In the current food crisis, sharply increased grain prices have in turn promoted greater hunger, deadly food riots in many countries, and restriction of grain exports from some (driving prices even higher). Significantly, the causes of this crisis are completely different from the temporary spiking of prices in the past. During the six decades since World War II, grain prices have risen precipitously from time to time because of transient events that, although it may take a painfully long time, are eventually corrected. Lester Brown gives as an example the weather-related 1972 Soviet crop failure. The world price of wheat, rice, and corn doubled before ultimately dropping back.

The sharp increase in grain prices today is trend-driven, to use Brown’s phrase. These trends, unlike the causes of volatility in grain prices of the recent past, are not temporary. All of them operate either to increase the demand for food or to decrease the supply, and some of them interact to reinforce each other.

Population, for example, is now growing at the rate of about 70 million people annually. This means that there are 70 million more mouths to feed each year, and although the numbers may change somewhat in the future, the growth will continue. Looked at most simply this is an increase in demand. There are other effects, however. A growing population increases the need for resources, such as land and water, which tends to reduce the food supply. It’s true, as thoughtful analysts have argued, that some of the added population might be used to increase production of food, but there’s little opportunity to do that in the present agricultural system where the emphasis is on reducing labor intensity.

Another trend sharply increasing demand is the rising consumption of grain-intensive livestock products. World meat production climbed from 44 million tons in 1950 to 233 tons in 2000. This fivefold increase was roughly double the increase in the population. While the increased consumption of protein may be beneficial, there are a plethora of negatives in its production. One is antibiotic overuse in factory farms that comes back to harm human beings in the form of drug-resistant microbes. Another is the mountains of waste that factory farming generates that foul air and water, disrupting ecosystems and sickening communities.

An especially irrational increase in demand is because of the diversion of corn to production of ethanol for fuel. Some politicians and the automobile companies have been trumpeting corn-derived ethanol as a solution to U.S. dependence on foreign oil and the struggle against climate change. That’s the hype but the reality is quite different. In addition to increasing the price of corn needed for food, the ethanol doesn’t replace much oil and some studies indicate that corn-derived ethanol will have little net effect on lowering the emission of greenhouse gases. While some biofuels could be beneficial, ethanol from corn is not the way to go.

As for the supply side, crops need land and water and both are increasingly scarce. The productivity of land available for crops is actually declining because of misuse, while availability of new land is extremely limited.

A society’s food supply is critically dependent on its topsoil. When earlier societies lost much of their topsoil from mismanagement and erosion, their food supply shrank and the societies crashed. A well-known more recent example of disastrous topsoil loss was the infamous Dust Bowl in the U.S. in the 1930s. One contemporary example is the over-plowing in northwest China today, directed at maintaining grain self-sufficiency in the face of loss of cropland because of construction of factories, roads, and expanding cities. The over-plowing is creating a dust bowl reminiscent of that in the U.S. in the 1930s, only much larger. Globally it’s now estimated that more than one-third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil at a rate that is undermining productivity.

The prospect of using new land for agriculture is equally gloomy. Clearing land in rainforests, notably those in the Amazon and parts of Indonesia, has been a prime target for decades. Unfortunately, this loss of forest cover brings with it severe economic and environmental problems. Countries that have lost the supply of forest products that they once exported have also lost jobs and income that their forests industries produced.

One of the well-known "services" provided by forests is preventing flooding. Brown has described recent severe flooding after forest clearing in the Yangtze River and the Limpopo basins, flooding that took a large number of lives and destroyed crops on an unprecedented scale. More generally, forests serve a broad range of services in addition to flood control that include soil conservation, water cycling, nutrient storage and recycling, climate regulation, and recreation.       

In many major food-producing regions irrigation is threatened as over-pumping causes the water table to drop. This increases the cost of bringing water to the surface and accelerates depletion of the aquifer. Water tables are falling in some of the major food producing regions: under the North China Plain, which produces 25 percent of China’s grain harvest; under the Indian Punjab, the breadbasket of India; and under the southern Great Plains of the United States. The only way to compensate for this loss of irrigation water is by a huge increase in water productivity.

The effects of climate change on grain production are more difficult to assess. There will be more crop-destroying heat waves and droughts, loss of productive land due to rising sea level and saltwater intrusion, and disappearance of the Asian glaciers that keep the region’s rivers flowing during the dry season. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that changes in climate could halve crop yields in some African countries by 2020. There will be some positive effects too, such as a longer growing season in some places that will partially-but only partially-offset the negative.

The world’s grain stocks are now at their lowest on record. Unless current trends are reversed that decline will continue, an increasing fraction of the world’s population will face severe hunger, and social and political instability will continue to grow. The likelihood that the trends can be reversed quickly is dismayingly small. Stabilizing population, for example, requires not only extension of family planning and related health care services, but also a successful effort to eliminate extreme poverty. There have been some heroic efforts in that direction, but poverty certainly hasn’t been ended.

Climate change provides a second example. Warnings about how severe this threat might be, to the food supply and to many other aspects of life, seem to have finally gotten through. Yet really effective action against climate change still hasn’t happened, as indicated by the fact that both global and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing

Despite our inadequate effort to do so, we know how to extend family planning and how to significantly reduce poverty. And although the window of opportunity is closing, we can still prevent many of the worst consequences of global climate change. Similarly, we know how to make biofuels without using the grain needed to feed people, and there are some promising prospects for increasing water productivity.

The challenge is to use available solutions to ward off catastrophic hunger and widespread instability. If we can meet that challenge, we can then work toward structuring an international food system whose goal is feeding people rather than corporate profit-making.


Photo by Giuseppe Bizzarri, UN World Food Programm.