The sharp increase in the world price of staple foods is an inconvenience for consumers in the rich world, but for consumers in the poorest countries, especially in Africa, it is a catastrophe. Despite the predominance of peasant agriculture, most African countries are net food importers and food accounts for over half of the budget of low-income households. This is the result of decades of agricultural stagnation combined with growing populations. Although many of the net purchasers are rural, evidently the problem is at its most intense in the urban slums. These slums are political powder kegs and so rising food prices have already triggered riots. Indeed, they sow the seeds of an ugly and destructive populist politics.
Why have food prices rocketed? Paradoxically, this squeeze on the poorest has come about as a result of the success of globalization in reducing world poverty. As China develops, helped by its massive exports to our markets, millions of Chinese households have started to eat better. Better means not just more food but more meat, the new luxury. But to produce a kilo of meat takes six kilos of grain. Livestock reared for meat to be consumed in Asia are now eating the grain that would previously have been eaten by the African poor. So what is the remedy?
...The remedy to high food prices is to increase food supply, something that is entirely feasible. The most realistic way to raise global supply is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies supplying for the world market. To give one remarkable example, the time between harvesting one crop and planting the next, in effect the downtime for land, has been reduced an astounding thirty minutes. There are still many areas of the world that have good land which could be used far more productively if it was properly managed by large companies. For example, almost 90% of Mozambique’s land, an enormous area, is idle.
...In Africa, which cannot afford them, development agencies have oriented their entire efforts on agricultural development to peasant style production. As a result, Africa has less large-scale commercial agriculture than it had fifty years ago. Unfortunately, peasant farming is generally not well-suited to innovation and investment: the result has been that African agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing productivity frontier of the globalized commercial model. Indeed, during the present phase of high prices the FAO is worried that African peasants are likely to reduce their production because they cannot finance the increased cost of fertilizer inputs. While there are partial solutions to this problem through subsidies and credit schemes, large scale commercial agriculture simply does not face this problem: if output prices rise by more than input prices, production will be expanded because credit lines are well-established.
...Around a third of American grain production has rapidly been diverted into energy production. This switch demonstrates both the superb responsiveness of the market to price signals, and the shameful power of subsidy-hunting lobby groups.
...The ban on both the production and import of genetically modified crops has obviously retarded productivity growth in European agriculture: again, the best that can be said of it is that we are rich enough to afford such folly. But Europe is a major agricultural producer, so the cumulative consequence of this reduction in the growth of productivity has most surely rebounded onto world food markets. Further, and most cruelly, as an unintended side-effect the ban has terrified African governments into themselves banning genetic modification in case by growing modified crops they would permanently be shut out of selling to European markets. Africa definitely cannot afford this self-denial.