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Malthus wrong again says OECD

11 July 2014
by Patrick Love

Agriculture Outlook 2014-2023Even if you know nothing about the French Revolution, you’ve probably heard of Marie-Antoinette’s reaction on being told the people had no bread: “Let them eat cake”. In fact, the infamous catch phrase was probably invented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who attributes it to an unnamed princess in his Confessions, written before the 14 year-old Austrian princess even married the future Louis XVI. As far as the course of events went, it doesn’t matter whether she said it or not, since the people believed that it was the kind of thing she would say. The doomed monarchs could have learned a few lessons in the art of good government from the founder of the Bourbon dynasty. One goal of the reforms instigated by Henri IV, King of France from 1589 to 1610, was a chicken in every pot, on a Sunday at least. This slogan was to reappear in the United States in the 20th century, with “a car in every garage” tacked on to some versions.

Food riots are thing of the past in most OECD countries, but in 2007-08, various places around the world would see people taking to the streets as food prices rose suddenly in response to the interactions among a number of factors, including high oil prices forcing up production costs, drought in major producing areas, diversion of land to biofuels, and a very low level of stocks.

The food price crisis in 2008, the renewed price hikes in 2010, and depressingly regular reports since of people facing famine (the latest in South Sudan) have raised questions about whether agri-food markets could be relied on in future to deliver sufficient quantities of food at affordable prices. And not just in sensationalist media with their love of explosions in food prices and population growth. In 2009, Sir John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientist, warned of “Food, energy, water and the climate: a perfect storm of global events?

As we pointed out in this article, there have been predictions that the world will face mass starvation ever since Malthus published his famous essays on demography. As Malthus himself put it in An Essay on the principle of population: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

And yet it hasn’t happened. The UK’s population for example doubled over 1750-1800 (the year in which Malthus published The present high price of provisions), and tripled over the next century. This demographic surge couldn’t have happened without the interaction of a number of elements. We often talk about the agricultural “revolution”, suggesting sudden overthrow of the old systems. But even in Britain, the initial changes to agricultural techniques and practices such as enclosing common land and introducing crop rotation were spread over centuries, and what accelerated the pace of change was interaction with the industrial revolution. Improved communications and storage and preservation techniques allowed producers to serve markets far from home. A well-functioning financial system provided capital. And a feedback loop was created whereby improved food supplies supported a bigger population that in turn provided labour for emerging industries and markets for farmers.

Likewise, when looking at the prospects for food production and consumption today, we have to look at the whole picture. The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2014-2023 doesn’t expect a Malthusian crisis to materialise. The report argues that the world’s farmers and fishers will be able to satisfy demand over the next 10 years. Rising incomes, urbanisation and new eating habits will reinforce the transition to diets richer in protein, fats and sugar. . In real terms, prices are expected to fall (slightly) but remain higher than the historical lows seen in the early 2000s.

This year’s report has a special focus on India, the world’s second most populous country with the largest number of farmers and also the largest number of “food-insecure” people. The Outlook proposes a relatively optimistic scenario for India, with the expansion in the production and consumption of food both projected to continue, led in particular by higher value added sectors, even for staples, for instance consumers preferring basmati rice rather than inferior varieties.

At least two major issues still need to be addressed though.

First, any rise in food prices can affect the food security of the poor. An OECD working paper shows that developing countries with very different levels of economic development, population size and geographical location have succeeded in reducing poverty and improving nutrition. Despite the significant differences among them, they share some characteristics. During the period when they had the greatest success in reducing poverty, the macroeconomic context became progressively more favourable. Their own governments were lowering export taxes, reducing overvalued exchange rates and dismantling inefficient state interventions in agricultural markets. Meanwhile, the governments of rich country trading partners were reducing the kinds of support to their farmers that distorted production and trade the most.

Second, as argued by the OECD in Climate Change, Water and Agriculture that we featured last month, climate change poses challenges on a different scale from the variations that can affect crops and livestock during the course of a season or even a year or two. Future changes in the climate could have significant impacts on land use, commodity production, and where different activities are viable; and the implications of expanding food production for the natural resource base and climate change.

Useful links

OECD work on agriculture and fisheries

 

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