New Internationalist

We Care Too…

Issue 418

A Modest Proposal from Ag-Inc

In the interests of fairness we can no longer keep silent. Hence this advertorial, to put us on the record. Corporations like us here at Ag-Inc have been unfairly blamed for being unfeeling in the face of world hunger and escalating food prices. Our leftist critics have got it exactly the wrong way round. We are not the problem, we are the answer! Here are a few of the principles on which we can base a realistic solution to world hunger.

Better living through chemistry
When the Green Revolution happened in the 1970s there was much scepticism. But yields increased dramatically and countries like India escaped widespread hunger for the first time. Small, inefficient farmers gave way to fewer, more efficient farmers who could afford the chemicals and irrigation our Green Revolution package demanded. Sure, the revolution ran out of steam eventually, but that simply means we must invest in new waves of technology, fertilizers and pesticides.

Get big or get out
The peasant smallholder, the family farm, the corner food store, the little market stall, the organic this or that – it’s all history. Nostalgia for the small is a roadblock in the way of progress – a throwback to another era. We have developed an efficient food system based on bigger is better: you can depend on Cargill and ADM for your wheat and soy; Walmart and Tesco will provide the groceries, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, the fast cheap meals. Whether you are in Caracas or Manila, your chicken and pork chops are likely to come from Tyson Foods. And of course the Ag-Inc team will continue to be a major player. Big companies are cheap and dependable providers of your groceries, and that’s not going to change – get used to it!

Science will find a way
The eco-critics would have it that depending on fossil fuels to grow food is not sustainable, using up soil and water is not sustainable, transporting food around the world is not sustainable. But Ag-Inc knows its history – scientific research and development is the only way to deal with such problems. The genetic engineering of plants and seeds will allow us to cut down on agro-chemicals, biofuels will reduce dependency on fossil fuels. Who knows, some day Ag-Inc may be able to provide you with all the nourishment you need in a little blue pill.

Trade, trade, trade
The way forward in the food economy is to have an international regime of ‘comparative advantage’. A rational division of food production allows the most efficient producers in a particular place to do what they do best: US (grains and meat), Brazil (soy), Thailand and Vietnam (rice), France (wine and dairy products), New Zealand (lamb). Worries about food dependency are overblown and currently fashionable notions of ‘food sovereignty’ are simply a pipedream. If you think food price inflation is bad now, wait until inefficient producers in the Sahel try growing bananas. Expensive ‘food miles’ will just have to be added on to prices in supermarket aisles.

No way forward but the market
There is a lot of alarm today about escalating food prices. There has been unfair finger-pointing at the futures market in food commodities. OK, so it has jumped from $5 to $175 billion a year in the last seven years. But what we are seeing is a period of market adjustment to shake out inefficiencies – higher prices today will result in more crops in the field tomorrow. Small, inefficient farmers simply need to find other ways of making a livelihood. Any attempt to tinker with the market will be counterproductive in the end. If there is a market for growing palm, soy and grain as biofuels, then so be it. Land must be allotted for that purpose. The only hope for the poor is to bring them into the market, maybe at first as micro-traders or casual labour. Survival depends on the ability to participate in the market.

Quantity not quality
There is a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of industrial food. But at a time when some 2.6 billion people around the world lack adequate food, this is all a bit precious. Those movements for organic, slow, vegan and free-range are all very well. But the hungry of the world can’t be so particular. Not that we can’t provide what these niche markets want – you want fair trade, we’ll give ye fair trade. But to deliver food in the quantity needed to feed the hungry, we just can’t be so picky. There is no alternative to industrial methods for producing large quantities of food. After all, if our food is so unhealthy, how come life expectancy is the longest in human history?

Population control, not price control
Companies like Ag-Inc are unfairly blamed because poor people don’t get enough to eat. Our critics then propose various schemes to regulate, control, find alternatives to, even nationalize big agribusiness. But is this fair? We can only respond when there are profitable investment opportunities to take. Otherwise those who hold Ag-Inc stock would simply put their money elsewhere. Isn’t the problem really that there are just too damn many of these poor people? Some firm family planning measures are the way to address the global food shortage. Try as we might, we just can’t find a way to make a decent profit from all these poor people.

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