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Food, Famine, and Globalization

Over in today’s “Room for Debate” at the New York Times, Raj Patel – whose entry is entitled “So Much for Market Efficiency” – writes that

Over the centuries, societies developed the tools of grain stores, crop diversification and ‘moral economies’ to guarantee the poor access to food in times of crisis.  Global economic liberalization discarded these buffers in favor of lean lines of trade

… an effect that presumably is causing, or at least exacerbating, today’s food crisis.

Patel is wrong.  Until three hundred years ago the poor (and most people were poor) had no “guaranteed” access to food; famine was frequent and routine throughout the world.  This horrible reality was reversed only by economic liberalism and expanding trade.  As Jagdish Bhagwati notes on page 100 of his 2004 book In Defense of Globalization,

medieval famines in Europe were moderated by the increasing opening of trade routes and integration precisely because food moved to famine-stricken high-price areas, dampening prices, moderating the food scarcity and improving its accessibility to the poor.

The people who today are hungry and starving are not those of us living in globalized, liberal economies; it is, rather, the poor souls cursed with the misfortune of living in countries whose governments follow the advice of the likes of Mr. Patel and ‘protect’ their citizens from “global economic liberalization.”

Patel’s entry is marred also by this confusion.  See if you can spot it before you read what I write after the block quote from Patel:

Global economic liberalization discarded these buffers in favor of lean lines of trade. Safety nets and storage became inefficient and redundant – if crops failed in one part of the world, the market would always provide from another.

Climate change turns this thinking on its head. A shock in one corner of the world now ripples to every other. The economic architecture that promised efficiency has instead made us all more vulnerable. Little has changed in this crucial respect since the last food crisis. But this isn’t simply a rerun of 2008.

How does climate change change the fact that a crop failure in one part of the world, by causing prices there to jump, will cause an increase in the volume of crops shipped to that part of the world (assuming trade routes are relatively free) and, hence, cause prices elsewhere also to rise?  How does climate change change the fact that regions suffering crop failures are especially in need of food imports – and will get them if prices are free to rise and if trade is free?  Indeed, if weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable, then all the more reason to have the insurance of being part of a global network of food supplies.

I hope Patel reads this entry by Michael Roberts, also in today’s “Room for Debate.”