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Food security: woolly thinking and self defeating solutions

As Jack Thurston has well exposed in his recent entry, the “food security” argument seems to be the new rally call for those trying to justify continuation of untargetted payments to farmers, or even a return to production support (albeit disguised as “risk management”, “income insurance” and the like). At a recent debate I was struck by the fact that the “food security” threat, and hence the need to support further agriculture intensification was almost universally endorsed, including by “CAP reformers”. While Jack has given a powerful argument for refuting the neo-Malthusian scaremongering about looming food shortage, you don’t actually need to believe in a future of plenty to call the bluff on this line of reasoning.
A question of time scale
Much of the woolly thinking around food security stems from a failure to put the issue into a proper time scale. When we start looking at the time scale of the food security issue, it seems to me that at list three different problems are being lumped under the “same banner. And they all call for different solutions.
On the shortest term, let’s say one or two years, food markets can be affected by price shocks. A bad drought in Australia synchronized with robust growth in demand from China can send cereal prices through the roof. This kind of price fluctuation is inevitably quickly rebalanced, but you might still worry about it. Given the modest and declining share of European’s income spent on food, and the very small part basic commodities play in final food prices, one might keep cool. But if you think the problem is serious, what you should be looking for is creating a strategic food reserve that can be quickly released on the market in time of penury. This is a tool that goes back at list to Ancient Egypt. In fact, according to the Bible, the introduction of such a scheme has done wonders to a young Joseph’s career in the Pharaoh’s civil service (though the long term indirect consequences, for both Jews and Egyptians, have been arguably quite tragic). The fact that Europe is not investing in such a strategic reserve for oil and gas at a time where Vladimir Putin can shut down much of Europe’s heating systems at any time suggests that there is not much appetite for such measures, even when the risks are much higher.
On a longer term, one or two decades for the sake of the argument, we certainly could be heading toward a food squeeze. If India and China keep growing rich and shifting to meet based diet and large scale crop failure become more common under the influence of climate change, food pries could start going up structurally. There is however no scenario where this would be translated into food shortage in Europe. The people who would feel the pressure are the poor in the developing world. There will still be plenty of food around, but more people will not be able to afford it. Certainly ensuring their food security should be pursued through development policies delivering faster and more evenly distributed economic growth and a more fair distribution of income.
Only on the long term, probably at list 50 years from now, are there any realistic scenarios of a global collapse in our capacity to feed ourselves. On that time scale, even the most horribly Malthusian doomsday scenarios cannot be excluded. Even average climate change scenarios have quite frightening implications. To tackle that risk, the first response should be of course a much more aggressive emission reduction policy (including in agriculture!). A second meaningful response is to secure the long term capacity of our land to produce food. And that means safeguarding ecosystem functions, water resources and soil fertility, rather than boosting current productivity.
There is no logic mechanism by which increasing current EU agriculture production would help us prevent a food crises a few decades from now. On the contrary, current agriculture intensification policies are increasing the risk by driving soil erosion and degradation, the salination of water tables, disappearance of pollinating insects etc. Once damaged, these natural resources take a very long time to recover. And then there’s the issue of the land itself. If the EU cares about still being able to produce lots of food when a real global food shortage comes, the obvious place to start with is a serious land planning policy aiming to halt the wave of concrete that is paving EU farmland at a rate of over a million ha per decade. Preventing land abandonment is a mantra of EU agriculture policy. There are several good reasons to want to maintain agriculture activities threatened by abandonment, but food security is not one of them. A quick look at central-western Brazil suggests that it only take a couple of years to turn a virgin forest into a soy field and only a decade or so to transform a vast wilderness into one of the world’s breadbaskets. On the other hand, demolishing towns, motorways and shopping malls in order to restore them into productive farmland is something that, agronomically, economically and socially, verges on the impossible.
Wrong question, wrong answers
Whether the world is heading towards a Malthusian crunch or not, using taxpayers’ money to pay European farmers to grow food, or even to stay in farming, is a wrong answer to a misplaced question. On the other hand, politicians who are convinced that food security is a real issue should be on the front line of reform, asking for CAP money to be shifted toward environmental payments that can deliver solutions to current problems (such as biodiversity loss) and also help prevent future ones (for example by conserving soils and water resources). They should also be calling for strong legislation on resource protection (the soil Directive spring to mind). And they should certainly junk their unthinking endorsement of the biofuels target, a pretty absurd policy even if you don’t believe we are running out of food, but a positively suicidal one if you do.

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