May. 27th, 2008

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Beginning with an article I whole-heartedly endorse.

This article talks about the food crisis that we're facing today, the real extent of which I hadn't even realized. One of the things that struck me was when it discussed the migration of farmers to cities. An excerpt:

One of the major factors pushing this mass and continuing migration to the cities—in addition to being landless or forced off land—is the difficulty to make a living as a small farmer. This has been made especially difficult, as countries have implemented the “neoliberal” policies recommended or mandated by the IMF, the World Bank, and even some of the western NGOs working in the poor countries of the third world. The neoliberal ideology holds that the so-called free market should be allowed to work its magic. Through the benign sanctions of the “invisible hand,” it is said, the economy will function most efficiently and will be highly productive. But in order for the market to be “free” governments must stop interfering.

This is just one in a long list of examples that can be cited of how international organizations have messed up when it comes to third-world countries, waving the banner of free-market capitalism to advocate short-sighted and harmful policies. It makes me rather cynical, especially when I read about economists like Jeffrey Sachs (whose advocation of shock-therapy privatization led to such harm in Russia, not to mention prolonging the East Asian crisis). In the case of Sachs, he'd been advocating his flawed policies for decades, and that it took him this long to realize that perhaps there was something wrong with his theory, that most other economists like him still haven't realized this, is rather sobering. What makes the situation unintentionally ironic is that, in this article, (the new! reformed!) Sachs is using Malawi as the support for one of his arguments, when the only way Malawi was able to make such drastic improvements was by ignoring everything that experts like him, from atop their Ivory Towers and their positions in the World Bank and the IMF, were advocating. Not to mention, some of the policies he now advocates are just as, ahem, reality-challenged as those he used to, just in a different Bono-endorsed way. And this seems to be an endemic failing of many economists, how convinced they are of the rightness of their simplistic Friedman-style models, that yes, do work sometimes, but only in limited real-world situations, and failing to acknowledge these limitations can result in wide-scale damage.

Now, to address what Professor Bhagwati says in the same article, about what's required to deal with the food crisis:
"For the long term, the measures to moderate the prices of foodgrains will require attention to at least three policies where we will have to rethink matters: (1) a moderation of the planned reliance on biofuels and turning to nuclear energy instead; (2) the acceptance of genetically modified foods which promise to continue the green revolution in the modern age; and (3) the shift in governmental investment priorities to agriculture."

I don't exactly disagree with (1), in that I do think planned reliance on biofuels is a mistake, but I think he's missing the larger picture here. He's doing what politicians and economists generally do, assuming that the problem is the type of energy we consume, when the real problem is the amount, that what we have to do is find ways to cut back.

As to (2) - ohboy, where to start? The assumption that the "Green Revolution" (I hate this name) was a great thing, which is problematic for some of the reasons I talked about here, but most importantly this. Using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is probably the linchpin of the green revolution, the reason that it became so successful, for such fertilizers were able to dramatically increase yields. Now, forget for a moment that their use reduces the nutritional value of the foods, results in long-term degradation of the soil, and that their runoff bleeds into rivers and creates dead zones. Even without this, the statement that Bhagwati made would still be tremendously dumb, because synthetic fertilizers require fossil fuels to make. So when someone so unthinkingly promotes the policies of the Green Revolution, what they are promoting is the substitution of fossil fuel energy for solar energy, a renewable resource that we don't have to worry about for at least a few million (billion?) years, and just looking at the sky-high oil prices today reveals the folly of doing so.

And um. Genetically modified foods are going to be the magic bullet that solves everything? Because we all know how safe such foods are and how solid the science underlying them is? Because they're magically going to create farmlands out of desert or ocean or land depleted by Green Revolution farming methods or perhaps yield a beanstalk so high that we can climb it into the land of never-ending Cargill-endorsed fertility?

Also, (3), while I can't speak for India or other countries, the government in the US already invests billions of dollars into agriculture. It's just investing in the wrong things, providing incentives not for sustainable small-scale farms but the chemical-rich pesticide-rich large-scale farms that've brought us to the impasse that we're in today.

Andd, I'm running out of time. More on this issue later.



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