Questions in the Observer we can answer

Of course we don\’t want to eat bugs. But can we afford not to?

Yes.

Next question?

In more detail Jay Rayner is once again making a fool of himself.

But protein from insects will eventually become a part of our diet.

As ever the key driver will be economics;

Oh dear, this isn\’t going to be pretty, is it? Economics as filtered through the understanding of a lefty food writer.

Meat is becoming increasingly expensive, beef especially so. This isn\’t some blip. The future is only for more of the same, as a rising global population puts a premium on cereals and grains, too much of which are fed to livestock.

At the same time grazing land will become scarcer and tensions over water will intensify. By the middle of the century as much as half the planet could be \”water insecure\”; letting cows and sheep drink what\’s left will seem obscene. Many experts believe that, to deal with the environmental impact of livestock, we will have to cut our fresh meat consumption by half.

Err, no. A Few scaremongers bleat that we\’ll have to reduce meat consumption. No one else very much does.

The driver of greater meat consumption is that the poor are getting rich. For which Hurrah! of course. As people do indeed get rich they do indeed like to get more of their protein from rich and juicy meat rather than having to stuff themselves with yet another bowl of maize porridge. We would do the same: indeed, our forefathers did do the same in the 19th century as bread became less the staff of life and meat became a regular part of even working class diets. Hurrah! again.

But here\’s the bit that always gets lost in these discussions. The poor getting rich, how does this happen? Well, by the poor becoming more productive. And what does more productive mean for farming? Well, specifically, here, it means that each farmer produces more output: the productivity of labour rises. But in more general terms it means that farming itself becomes more productive. That\’s the only way that poor farmers become rich farmers: by productivity increasing. And what actually do we mean by productivity increasing? Well, more food being grown actually. So if more food is being grown then there\’s unlikely to be a shortage of food is there?

Another way of putting this is that currently poor farmers will become rich farmers when they start using the same productivity boosting methods that currently rich farmers use. They might use different methods, this is true (what works for rice might be different from what works for barley for example) but by definition, productivity levels must equalise if incomes are to. And if the world\’s poor farmers were as productive in output of foodstuffs as currently rich farmers are then what food shortages are we going to have?

This is the thing you see. The two are intimately linked. The \”shortage\” of meat is going to come because the world\’s two billion destitute peasants will be getting rich and demanding bacon sarnies for their breakfast. For which Hurrah! of course. But the very method by which 2 billion destitute farmers get rich has to be, can only be, by current peasant farming methods reaching the productivity of current rich farmers\’ methods. It\’s this very increase in productivity that creates the wealth that allows the greater consumption of meat, see? And if the world\’s destitute farmers all become as productive as the rich ones then what fucking shortage of meat or food are we going to have?

And if farming doesn\’t become more productive then there won\’t be the extra demand for meat either.

Yes, of course, it is true that the increase in supply might not quite match the increase in demand. Could go either way actually: supply could increase more than demand, less than, making food either more or less expensive. Given historical evidence we\’d rather think that supply would grow more than demand making food ever cheaper. As has been happening since the Neolithic in fact.

But it is still true that what Rayner and the like are missing is that poor farmers will only become rich farmers if productivity improves. And improved productivity is indeed increased production from the same resources. We cannot just look at current output and say that the poor getting rich will increase prices: we must take into account that the very process of the poor getting rich will increase output.

24 thoughts on “Questions in the Observer we can answer”

  1. Is this bloke f**king barking? Water s not a one use consumable. It s in a cycle. Doesn t matter if you keep it in a reservoir, a bucket or a cow.

    And what s with the insects? They don t run on clockwork. There s no essential difference between the insides of an ant or an elephant. It s a mechanism for turning x amount of carbo hy into y amount of protein using z amount of mechanism. Simply a difference in size of the processing units.

  2. the very method by which 2 billion destitute farmers get rich has to be, can only be, by current peasant farming methods reaching the productivity of current rich farmers

  3. Am I missing something?

    Couldn’t poor farmers become rich non-farmers?

    If productivity per capita rises, but not productivity per acre, then there is the same amount of food (because no-one is making land) but fewer (and therefore richer) farmers.

    The poor farmers become factory workers or shop assistants or builders or plumbers or whatever and have much more money than subsistence farmers.

    The likely effect there would be to drive food prices through the roof.

    Of course, productivity per acre could be rising as well – but poor farmers can get rich without an increase in per-acre land productivity, and thus without an increase in overall food production.

    We’d need to look at the actual evidence to decide which one of these scenarios is actually playing out, rather than just pontificating.

  4. Yes, there’s productivity per farmer (one farmer with a tractor farming the land that previously 6 did) and prodictivity per acre (more food off the same land).

    The first doesn’t necessarily mean a rise in overall food production.

    Now I would guess that as the first increases, so does the second, as the larger scale allows better farming methods. But that needs to be shown; richer farmers can just mean fewer farmers producing the same aggregate amount of food.

  5. Most Aussies want to eat Moreton Bay Bugs but may not be able to afford to. They are the best main course shellfish ever, scallops to start, bugs for main.

  6. The Meissen Bison

    A Few scaremongers bleat that we’ll have to reduce meat consumption

    Hey – if they bleat, there’s part of the solution right there!

  7. Well… Of course the poor getting richer does imply an increase in food-type productivity, it doesn’t imply that specific areas of food-technology will see such an increase in productivity. I mean, it’s possible that genetic technology will yield square stackable cows or whatever, but it might be that productivity gains in cow-yielding sectors raises less than in other farming sectors. Hence raising the relative price of animal-based proteins, and reducing the ability of a representative consumer to consume such.

    Or, more briefly, while you are totally right to pooh-pooh talk of raising wages leading to general food shortages, there is no reason that they might not lead to shortages of specific food-stuffs.

  8. and by shortages I mean higher relative prices reducing the frequency of consumption from present day levels, for someone of a comparable income. I’m not suggesting markets will stop clearing effectively.

  9. Richards at #7 & #9 – yes, entirely logically correct.

    But the way it happens in practice (and, remember, we’ve done this in a number of countries) is that you get a massive increase in productivity per farmer due to mechanisation and a lesser but still startling increase in productivity per acre due to the “Green Revolution”.

    Of course, this makes some farmers extremely rich – something that it takes the entire dead-weight of the EU to begin to reverse.

  10. And this will be achieved, if at all, by cramming million upon million of creatures into cages and pens; pumping them full of drugs and slaughtering them in a process that has as much interest in their sentience as Liz B

  11. Of course, people could use contraceptives and thus reduce the pressures to produce – oh, I forgot – the Pope, the Koran and libertarians don’t approve of smaller families.

  12. @DocBud: Aussie-s can-t afford ANYTHING with the dollar at this level, the energy price rises, and rampant inflation.

    And I say this looking over Sydney harbour.

  13. I’m pretty happy with Australia’s 2.2% inflation rate (the fact that I have a 1930s flat without AC rather than a climate-controlled McMansion probably helps in terms of energy prices, admittedly).

    And the high dollar makes things *more* affordable, not less: the dollar price of electronics and similar imported goods has plunged in the three years I’ve been here.

    Wow, that was off-topic and then some 🙂

  14. @MellorSJ

    I’d be sat looking at the Whitsundays if it wasn’t absolutley pissing down at the moment.

    Although the dollar has dropped a little it is still historically high which should help with the purchase of imports. Energy prices are indeed high and certainly impacting on household budgets but inflation is hardly rampant at 2.2% (December 2012 quarter) and mortgage interest rates are historically low.

    If things are a little tight, don’t have the scallops.

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