OECD Forum 2011: The new IMF is the street

Press briefing on food price volatility with OECD’s Ken Ash – head of the Trade and Agriculture Directorate and Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University, author of The Bottom Billion.

Ken Ash argues that speculation can’t explain the volatility we’ve seen recently, and neither can any other single factor. Growing demand; conversion of land used to grow food crops to biofuel crop production;  currency fluctuations, notably as the dollar rises and falls; extreme weather events like droughts and floods; rising oil prices – meaning petroleum-based inputs such as fuel and fertilizer are costlier; and government policy, including export restrictions and hoarding all play a role.

There’s also the fact that only a relatively small share of global food supplies is traded, so increases and decreases of food commodities available for export can have a big impact on the markets.

Such a complex set of factors means that the policy response has to be sophisticated. The focus has to shift towards helping poor consumers via a combination of social safety nets, humanitarian aid, risk management tools, financial instruments to cope with currency fluctuations, and means to improve the capacity of poorer countries to produce food or buy it.

The poor suffer most from volatility and are the most vulnerable to food insecurity. In fact, hunger – to give lack of food security its starker name – is not a problem of global food supply. The obesity epidemic and mountains of food waste are two indications that there’s more than enough for everybody. The problem is, the poor can’t afford to buy enough food.

There are more hungry people now that  food prices have risen, but as Ken Ash points out, the majority of them were also hungry when prices were low. The answer has to come from economic growth and n economy-wide improvement in living standards.

Paul Collier agrees. One of the cruel paradoxes is that many of the hungry are farmers. There are too many people trying to make a living from inefficient agriculture in developing countries, and they can’t even feed themselves and their families. That said, for Collier, the main victims are the urban poor, who may spend half their money on food.

As prices rise, some people eat less. “Some people” often means children. This has long-term as well as immediate effects. Children who suffer from malnutrition for two years are likely to suffer from stunted physical and mental growth, and to pass on this handicap to their own children.

The solution may not be linked to the cause. If growing demand from increasingly wealthy Asian consumers is one of the reasons for price increases, the answer isn’t to plunge Asians back into poverty, it is, as Ken Ash argued, to improve incomes elsewhere.

Collier and Ash also agree that trade bans are a particularly dysfunctional response. If big producers can’t export surplus production when prices rise, they’ll have no reason to invest in boosting productivity.

Collier identifies three “follies” in the food situation.

The European folly was to ban the production of GM crops in 1996. Africa copied this, without analysing the benefits GM crops could bring to a continent that needed to adapt quickly to climate change and the need to exploit less favourable soils.

The US folly was to imagine it could grow its way out of an energy crisis by encouraging biofuels. Even if the whole of US crop production went to biofuels, it would still only provide 8% ;of national energy needs. Rich consumers don’t mind paying more for food to boost energy supplies – food is a relatively less important budget item for them than fuel. The opposite is the case for the poor.

Africa’s folly, encouraged by many NGOs and development agencies, was to resist commercial agriculture, and concentrate on inefficient, small-scale producers (and at the other and of the scale, accept land-grabs from export-oriented international investors).

When asked to forecast food prices, Ken Ash went for a gradual decline in real terms, but from a higher plateau, although weather extremes and oil price uncertainties could derail this.

For Paul Collier, volatility is the most likely forecast, and countries have to be prepared. For poor countries, this means hedging against volatility in their budgets by setting aside sums in case prices rise significantly (aid could help establish such funds).

Events in the Arab world show what can happen when the poor can no longer afford to eat. Food riots preceded the present calls for democracy and political reforms, and governments have to be aware that they’re answerable to their people and not just to national elites and international financiers.

When I spoke to him after the briefing, Collier summed up his view of the Arab Spring by saying that “The new IMF is the street!”.

GE crops: good for farmers, good for the planet?

What was the 18th century French historian Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d’Aussy talking about when he said : “The pasty taste, the natural insipidity, the unhealthy quality, which is flatulent and indigestible, has caused it to be rejected from refined households and returned to the people, whose coarse palates and stronger stomachs are satisfied with anything capable of appeasing hunger.”

Well done if you recognised the potato, newly introduced into France at the time.

Comments like Legrand d’Aussy’s raise a smile today, but in fact we’re far more conservative about food now than in previous generations (when was the last time you knowingly ate a crow?). For example, over the years, most of the 7000 or so edible plants farmers have cultivated have been marginalised, and a few major crops and animals assure most food supplies.

The big difference is in the variety of ways ingredients are processed by the food industry, and, more recently, in new ways of producing food.

The most controversial of these is genetic engineering, GE. Supporters see it as continuing a long line of technical innovations that have boosted agricultural productivity and contributed to improved food security. Opponents argue that we don’t know enough about the consequences of GE crops and it’s foolish to push ahead, especially when so many other solutions to food security are underused. 

The National Research Council of the National Academies has just published a report on the economic and environmental impacts of GE crops looking at the impacts of GE in the US. (In other OECD countries, notably in Europe, consumer hostility means that GE crops are less widespread than in the US.)

According to the NRC, there are significant environmental benefits.

Insecticide use has declined since GE crops were introduced, and farmers who grow GE crops use fewer insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. In addition, farmers who grow herbicide-resistant crops till less often to control weeds and are more likely to practice conservation tillage, which improves soil quality and water filtration and reduces erosion.

There are economic benefits too. In many cases, farmers who have adopted GE crops have either lower production costs or higher yields, or sometimes both, due to more cost-effective weed and insect control and fewer losses from insect damage.

It sounds great, but the report also issues a number of warnings.

Gains aren’t guaranteed. For instance, insect or weed resistance could render genetically engineered crops ineffective and force farmers to resume using more toxic chemicals. The NRC says that more needs to be done to slow the evolution of resistant weeds, such as spraying more than one kind of chemical.

Although farmers have gained economic benefits, more research is needed on the extent to which these advantages will change as pests adapt to GE crops, other countries adopt genetic engineering technology, and more GE traits are incorporated into existing and new crops.

Industry mergers and the dominance of a few players might stifle competition, an issue the Department of Justice is examining.

What do you think?

Useful links

OECD report on Biotechnologies in agriculture and natural resources to 2015

OECD Agriculture homepage

FAO on biotechnology in food and agriculture

20 questions about GM food answered by WHO

Greenpeace says no to genetic engineering

ISAAA says share the benefits of crop biotechnology

Avaaz would like more research, and a ban until it’s done