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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Feeding 7, 8, 10 Billion People 

Absurdity or not, rather than abolish the CAP, the best course might be to modify it to preserve its best features and to use it to achieve a more efficient food production and distribution around the world. A solution to the food problem might lead, somewhat paradoxically, to a solution to the population problem – which is likely to preoccupy us more and more as the years pass.
For the huge and rapidly expanding global population we will inevitably have in the next few decades, we will need to produce as much food as we can as efficiently as we can with what will almost certainly be a declining area of arable land. Urbanisation and desert creep may be expected continuously to reduce the area of reasonably fertile land – an area that is already utilised to the full. In those circumstances, we do not want to reduce the production or productive potential in Europe – and North America – provided always of course that we can achieve that without damaging farmers in the poorer countries or the reasonably fair distribution of food to needy communities around the planet.
With all its faults, the CAP has stabilised farming and farmers’ income in Western Europe for the last forty years and can now, with some careful reform, extend similar stability to the whole of the continent. Not only was there this economic stability but the CAP also constituted a unifying social and political factor when other aspects of European integration were causing tension and conflict. It is not going too far to say that the advantages that the CAP gave to farmers and farming communities were a factor in making it easier for the Europeans to pursue European political union and to work together under the security shield of NATO.
In the future, the CAP – and similar arrangements, suitably reformed, in North America – can be used to ensure food security, economic, social and political cohesion and efficient use of what will become increasingly the scarce natural resource of arable land. At the same time, it can be used to lift living standards around the world. It is not by dramatic cuts in European and North American farm production that we will meet our food-supply needs or indeed resolve our population and environmental dilemmas, but by arranging our production and distribution more fairly and efficiently around the world.
In general terms, this can be done by ensuring that the production and distribution of European and North American supplies are directed, not as at present to damage and inhibit production in the developing countries, but to give robust, practical support to farming in the developing world and to build up the infrastructure that is essential to a better life and better marketing to those farming communities.
In this connection, let us revert to proposals that were made twenty years ago. A background point needs to be made to start with:
“One of the shibboleths that we should resist is that it is always virtuous to cut public expenditure and always vicious, lax and sloppy to increase it. Leaving aside humanitarian, welfare and security considerations – which may require increased public outlays from time to time – government expenditures can be highly beneficial from a strictly economic point of view. We should not regard all government expenditure as homogeneous; quite patently it is not. We need to consider the nature, the purposes and the effects of particular public expenditures. Only then will we be able to assess whether those expenditures are ‘good’ in the current economic circumstances, or ‘bad’ in the sense that they maintain or intensify economic conditions that call for remedy.” 3
One situation that does call for remedy is that in which perhaps half the present global population – that is, some 3 billion people – are chronically malnourished, hungry or starving. Without some drastically new arrangements, the number will increase dramatically in the years immediately ahead, if only because of the shortage of fertile land. Already 40% of our planet is being used for either growing crops or grazing livestock. In 1700, the percentage was only seven. Intensive farming practices have reduced cropland areas slightly in the United States and Europe. However, the land is being gobbled up by urbanisation, so that there is now little room for agricultural expansion. "Except for Latin America and Africa, all the places in the world where we could grow crops are already being cultivated. The remaining places are either too cold or too dry to grow crops," said Dr Navin Ramankutty, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It seems imperative therefore that we maintain food production in Europe and North America while we try to feed a rapidly growing global population in the future by developing efficient food production in Africa and Latin America. "The real question is, how can we continue to produce [enough food from the land to keep up with the world's burgeoning population] while preventing negative environmental consequences such as deforestation, water pollution and soil erosion?" said Dr Ramankutty.
We can meet – or partly meet – present and future needs through emergency programs which will never solve the basic problem or we can devise longer term arrangements to enable the needy to meet their own needs – for this generation and those to come. To take up the second option, a “Food Discount Plan” was proposed just twenty years ago:
“For the least-developed countries, the donors should give substantial food – and possibly other consumer – aid, perhaps under some ‘Food Discount Plan’ that would allow provision of cheap supplies against guaranteed increased consumption. However much we might regret it, we have to acknowledge that many of the poorest countries – mostly in Africa and Asia – are just not going to develop significantly in the next couple of decades and are going to need food aid to prevent starvation and keep nutrition at even barely tolerable levels. The International Wheat Council has recently (1984) estimated that grain consumption by the poorest countries will almost double by the end of the century – from 262 million tonnes in 1980 to 500 million tonnes in 2000. (The IWC estimates that world grain trade will increase only from 209 to 265 million tonnes between 1980 and 2000.) Even the doubling of consumption by the poorest countries will not be enough to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in those countries; and they will not be able to produce or buy all their basic food needs themselves. The volume of cereals food aid fell in the 1970s. From now on – especially with increasing populations – it will have to increase considerably if even the most urgent needs of the poorest countries are to be met. If malnutrition is to be eliminated and reasonable nutritional standards achieved, a new approach to the provision of food aid, at much higher levels, and with much greater effectiveness in getting food to hungry people, will be needed.
“We must take it that all the capital equipment and technical assistance in the world is not going to achieve much for undernourished and starving in the poorest countries before the turn of the century – at the earliest. We must therefore plan, on a large and well-organised scale, to meet their most urgent food needs until the time comes when they can look after themselves. With the objective of ultimate self-care in mind, we should organise our food aid in such a way that it will contribute to their being able to feed themselves by supplying their own food from their own farms as soon as possible – perhaps long before any other substantial economic development may be possible.
“Under a ‘Food Discount Plan’, donor countries would make food available at below-market prices. An umbrella multilateral agreement – negotiated within the United Nations or some other suitable international body – would lay down the broad principles of the Plan, to be administered, let us say, by the United Nations or by the Food and Agriculture Organisation or perhaps by the two in collaboration. Under this umbrella, individual agreements would be concluded by donors with each individual recipient country. (Not every country would necessarily conclude an agreement for specific supply with each eligible recipient country, but the multilateral umbrella agreement would, inter alia, lay down rules which would ensure that the needs of each eligible recipient t were fairly met.) Each recipient country would negotiate a level of additional food imports at which it would receive those additional food imports completely free. In other words, at that level, the additional imports would be provided wholly as grant aid. If that negotiated level were not reached, a price would be charged pro rata for the percentage shortfall. If no additional food at all were imported – that is, if food imports were to continue at no more than the level of an agreed base period – then normal world prices would – as before – be paid by the otherwise eligible developing country for its food imports. As imports mounted above the level of the base period, discount prices would begin to apply, until, at the agreed level for additional imports, prices would be discounted to nil. If imports were to continue to mount still higher so that they were above the level of agreed additional imports, these further imports might also be supplied free but that would depend on the specific agreements – together with any supplementary understandings – concluded by donors with each developing country.
“The additional imports having been supplied at discount prices, the crucial questions would then be how food should be distributed within the recipient country and what should be done with any proceeds from its sale. The recipient government could distribute the additional food free to its people on the basis of need or could sell it at a discount price taking account of the low or nil prices it had paid for it. In any event, the additional food would have to be sold at a price lower than the world price and sufficiently low to enable the poorer sections of the population to raise their nutritional levels by consuming the additional food.
“The revenue accruing to the recipient government from sales of the additional food should be used for budget support (including social-welfare programmes), for development programmes and especially to encourage and support domestic food production. The principles for use of revenues would be laid down in the umbrella multilateral agreement; the details of practice would be established in the bilateral agreements between donors and recipients.
“Thus, within the principles laid down in the multilateral umbrella agreement, the precise terms for supply of food under the Discount Plan would be tailored to the particular needs of each recipient country, through the bilateral agreements concluded between the donors and the eligible recipient countries. Where a country or a region had a famine or near-starvation situation, food would be provided free and direct to the needy, on a carefully-supervised basis, in which the recipient government would collaborate with (say) representatives of the United Nations and/or the FAO in the actual distribution of the food. Where there was a chronic low-nutritional situation, food would be sold at a price which would increase the purchasing power of those at the bottom of the income-scale. In all cases, the financial arrangements would have to be such as not to create disincentives for local farmers. On the contrary, the sales and revenue arrangements would need to ensure additional incentives to local farmers to provide more food more cheaply for local low-income consumers. Apart from joint supervision of distribution of food in famine and near-starvation situations, recipient governments would agree to collaborate more generally with supervisory United Nations and/or FAO personnel to ensure that the principles of the multilateral umbrella agreement were carried into effect in the actual programmes.
“Such a Plan should, in theory and – with good management – in practice, raise nutritional standards in the least-developed food-deficit countries, eliminate surpluses in the over-production countries and bring supply of, and demand for, food more into harmony with genuine need throughout the world. If we are to get through the next couple of decades – and probably longer – with a minimum of humane attention to those people in the poorest countries with too little food to survive decently, or even to survive at all, we will need to formulate some such plan and implement it with vigour, determination and enlightened generosity. At the same time, we must do what we can to set these least-developed countries on the road to self-generating economic development – but, as we have already said, that is almost certainly a generation and probably much, much longer away. A ‘Food Discount Plan’ would at least buy some time; it would provide essential food to the world’s poorest people until the longer-term development programmes can have some effect.
“This consumer aid will, therefore, need to be supplemented with infrastructure aid and such aid for longer-term development as the relatively primitive economies can absorb. Most aid should be grant aid, with relatively little aid subject to repayment on commercial or quasi-commercial terms.” 4
The shortages of food foreseen in 1985 did in fact occur. Many more millions of people are hungry and malnourished now than twenty years ago. Populations are now so much greater and set to move way above the present six billion mark. Many more now starve to death whether because of emergencies of climate or war or simply from chronic food shortages – arising from the inability of the land to support their present populations - that afflict such countries as Mali and others in Sub-Saharan Africa. The need for what may be called a Global Food Plan was urgent twenty years ago. It is much more desperately needed now.
Here we must interpolate that, if we were to implement such a plan, it would be of advantage to the highly-developed countries themselves who now face macro instabilities of unprecedented dimensions. If the economic and financial circumstances of the 1930s - or worse – should emerge again, we will see with terrible clarity how necessary it is, not just to engage in patronising rhetoric or futile pledges to the least-developed countries, but to rescue ourselves by rescuing others - our neighbours or those who are far away, those who are like us and those who are not, those whom we used to regard as poor and who now, perhaps, might be no poorer than we will have become ourselves. The economic and social tsunami may, by then, have overwhelmed us all. The imperative then will be to work together and plan together to resolve our common problems for our common survival. It will not be a matter of one country or group imposing a "plan" on others or being “charitable” to others, but of all of us designing the way ahead through common effort, initiative and inspiration.
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