How not to feed the poor

The actual article itself is just the usual wishy washy drivel. We don\’t like those neoliberals so we shouldn\’t have neoliberalism in global food production.

The policies that the hunger summit endorsed will not eradicate hunger – and they might well make it worse. They are based on the same principle that guides all of the government\’s development thinking – namely the idea that \”the market knows best\”. That\’s why African farmers\’ movements rejected a major component of the hunger summit – the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. This alliance was launched at the last G8 and promises to increase investment in agriculture through \”partnerships\” with food giants such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill and Unilever.

It really is the usual stupidity. We know very well that 50% of the crops in these poor countries rot before they have a chance to be eaten. Deal with that and there just wouldn\’t be food shortages. And how is that dealt with? Well, companies like Cargill do in fact deal with it. It\’s the whole agricultural infrastructure of grain elevators, railroad cars (or trucks). Or warehouses and shipping ports. That\’s what the commodity giants do: and that\’s exactly the system that these countries need.

It\’s quite true that the commodity giants don\’t have to own these systems, don\’t have to be the people who build them. Governments can give it their usual cack-handed try if they prefer. But it is still true that this industrialised and efficient gathering, processing and shipping system is what is needed. All that\’s being argued about is whether it should be done by people who know what they\’re doing or not.

But a peek at the comments shows some seriously disturbed people:

@Nicopotamus – Mao\’s farming model DID work.

Historically, China has never been able to feed itself. The famine during the Great Leap Forward was due to 50% of all farmland being unusable due to floods and droughts. Rationing reduced the impact of the food shortage and gains during that period in irrigation (etc) ensured that there hasn\’t been another significant Chinese famine since.

Mao solved China\’s food shortages, he didn\’t cause them.


The Green Revolution was a disaster. That people in the West still laud it as some sort of miracle is a testament to western corporate propaganda.


Excess cereals could be fortified and sold cheaply, subsidized, to the parts of the world suffering from hunger. The very opposite of the free market.

Thereby putting every small scale farmer out of business in those countries.

Neoliberalism has put more people into poverty than at any time in human history.

That poverty has been reduced and is reducing would seem to argue against that idea.

What hope is there when the voters believe such things?

32 thoughts on “How not to feed the poor”

  1. Post-Mao agricultural reform (which consisted of is the one thing the Chinese unequivocally got right. Almost everything else they have achieved since is riding on the back of this. This reform consisted pretty much entirely of deregulating, reintroducing markets and property rights. It is hard to imagine that a starker lesson of the benefits of free markets in agriculture could possibly exist. Anyone who doesn’t get this is truly a moron.

  2. ‘Anyone who doesn’t get this is truly a moron.’

    Welcome to the Guardian, the paper of choice for public sector ‘workers’.

  3. The more removed people are from hunger and working on the land, the more prone to lunacy they are.

    Give them a couple of months of starvation in a State run food system and they would soon change their minds.

  4. Makes one begin to wonder about the merits of disenfranchisement.

    Oh alright, No!

    But, good grief, some world views really take the biscuit.

    Or was he/she really somebody like me with a warped sense of humour and a penchant for winding people up?

  5. Rob – I’d tweak that slightly. The more removed people are from types of employment where their livelihood is based on results, the more Marxian nonsense they are likely to indulge in. Thus, socialism is a lot less popular with plumbers, salesmen and engineers than it is with social science lecturers, the BBC, and local government diversity outreach co-ordinators.

    Not coincidentally, Karl Marx himself was a parasite.

  6. With regard to the first one, is this a variation on holocaust denial? At the very least, I don’t think anyone suggesting that Jews, gypsies and teh gayers were dying unavoidably would be treated with a modicum of respect.

  7. So Much For Subtlety

    Historically, China has never been able to feed itself.

    I wonder where China imported all that food from then, you know, before 1949 when the Communists took over. Or before 1911 when the Manchu dynasty fell. Japan perhaps?

    The famine during the Great Leap Forward was due to 50 [percent] of all farmland being unusable due to floods and droughts.

    Or as Mao put it, it does not matter if the population dies as the other half would be fed well and would be able to build socialism.

  8. A good with to deal with food spoilage is irradiation. Sometimes I wonder whether it would also be a good way to deal with these Leftits.

    P.S. I rather like my neologism.

  9. Tim: agree with your main point, but:
    Thereby putting every small scale farmer out of business in those countries.
    is the kind of bollocks you normally destroy rather than spout – the logic is *exactly* the same as anti-dumping duties.

  10. Why assume they vote?

    And – in the unlikely event they do – it’ll be for a party with no chance of ever leading the country, like the Greens…

  11. @john b

    A good retort! But I think Tim’s subpoint still stands actually – he doesn’t say that it would be welfare-negative, just that it would happen. I read his implication as that it would be an unintended consequence of such a policy, which is surely a correct observation. The proponents of this scheme are neither rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of cutting agricultural jobs, nor delighted that by increasing leisure time their policy would be welfare-increasing. They simply want to feed people.

  12. @john b

    Thinking about this, to what extent does your analogy hold? The logic is *exactly* the same as for anti-dumping duty stupidity but the conditions are *not* the same.

    Tim’s usual point about how we should respond to people dumping on us is (a) accept the free gift heartily, (b) specialise in something else, seek gains from trade elsewhere. We’d get a net utility improvement although some people clearly lose out if their employer lays them off.

    For a subsistence farmer the sudden availability of free food solves their #1 problem in life. Presumably they could just chill out for a while and a take a break from the toil. The leisure would be good for welfare, but the subsequent deskilling, loss of resilience, perhaps loss of deep-rooted quasi-spiritual “connection” with ancestral land, not so good.

    For a more commercially-minded farmer the sudden availability of free food is not so great, since they can no longer trade the food they produce for the other goods and services they are accustomed to. While the more enterprising subsistence farmer may take advantage of this brave new dawn as an opportunity to take a chance on something new (with the previous risk of starvation eliminated), a commercial farmer is compelled to do so if they wish to maintain their quality of life.

    One difference with the UK is that we’d be talking about a much larger chunk of the population being affected than is standard in “dumping” situations. The British economy is sufficiently diversified that it would require simultaneous dumping in several sectors to be comparable. If the French insisted on pouring quality wine as cheap as tapwater down our gullets, while the Italians festooned us with giveaway Ferraris, which the Saudis tanked up with dirt-free petrol, then I for one would have no problem living like a king for the duration. But there’s still that respecialisation thing to worry about.

    Isn’t there strong evidence in the West that people laid off from contracting industries still suffer substantially depressed incomes even 10 years later? That’s despite the fact we have relatively well-developed education and training systems, labour flexibility, and a diversified economy in which usually some sectors are expanding to make up for those that are contracting.

    A very large number of unemployed farmers, with relatively few non-agricultural skills due to poor educational infrastructure, in a country with few facilities for retraining, and with relatively few alternative sectors to absorb extra labour, would appear to present a massive loss of welfare. Free food for all seems to be an even more massive gain in welfare, but I doubt it nets out to utopia.

  13. Good points all.

    Partly depends on the country.

    Some have massive mineral potential, at which point *in theory* enough dollars to create a functional state that included functional and law-bound companies that extracted the resources in the way that happens in Australia and Brazil (but not PNG or Equatorial Guinea) would be handy. This transition from poverty to mineral wealth has been made successfully, as my lifestyle confirms.

    Some have pissant fuck all. I think if you’re starting with pissant fuck all then probably being wiped out first like Japan or South Korea is your best bet. Nobody seems to have gone from pissant fuck all to lots without a massive INTERVENTION of one kind or another.

  14. MBE>

    If you were to take a country where a hundred million are engaged in subsistence farming and give them enough free food for them to stop subsistence farming, it would seem to be an excellent place to set up some factories. If the government doesn’t get in the way, of course.

    In the absence of outside investment, there’s no actual requirement to shift out of agriculture, just no need to eat the product. Even if each formerly-subsistence farmer makes just a few dollars a year from exporting their (now different) produce, that’s a few dollars a year they didn’t have before.

  15. @ #16 johnb
    ” Nobody seems to have gone from pissant fuck all to lots without a massive INTERVENTION of one kind or another.”
    Now let’s see:
    First dynasty Egypt, the Chaldeans, first dynasty China, pre-written-history India, Troy, Crete, Attica, the Etruscans, David and Solomon, the Moors in Spain, France and its surrounds under Charlemagne, England under the Tudors, Pennsylvania Dutch, half the successes of the Industrial Revolution and Victorian England likes Simon Marks (and on a much smaller scale two of my great-grandfathers) …

  16. @Dave

    I don’t think it would be all that easy for farmers to switch produce or to export. Changing crops requires technical knowledge that only permeates very slowly in much of Africa; exporting agricultural produce – in fact even just transporting it around inside a country – requires infrastructure that may be lacking. Food waste in India is legendary, for instance – imagine how much worse it would be if the Zwergwirtschaft started shipping stuff around too. In fact I think the whole “just give everybody free superfood idea” would fall down on the logistics – the storage and transit requirements would be daunting, even before you consider corruption and theft. It’d be hard enough getting all the imported food in, particularly to the more inaccessible corners, let alone getting exports out.

    Also if it would be a good place to build a factory – good enough to be viable while paying wages above starvation levels, which is hardly asking very much – then it was already a good place to build a factory when there were subsistence farmers.

    And just because there are unemployed people doesn’t mean it is a good place to stick a factory – labour costs are only one consideration, infrastructure and rule of law (so you can be sure your investment won’t be appropriated) matter too. The latter two don’t just require the government to “not get in the way”, they require the government to proactively and reliably deliver something. Unfortunately governance isn’t much of the developing world’s strong point…

  17. @john77

    I think Tudor England is a good example of john b’s point that it’s better to start with something than nothing. Wool was doing a roaring trade – if I recall correctly, Norwich was the biggest source of government revenue outside London.

  18. So poor hungry people are getting fed but more importantly someone is making a profit out of doing so. Which is why it is evil and should be stopped. At all costs.

    Honestly Tim, your failure to appreciate this basic, nay universal, tenet of correct postmodern critical thought really does truly amaze me at times.

  19. It occurs that this encapsulates neopuritanism.

    With apologies to Mencken, old-fashioned puritanism was the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy, therefore we must put a stop to it. Neopuritanism is the haunting fear that someone somewhere is making a profit, therefore we must put a stop to it.

  20. 😉

    Sorry, I don’t know an emoticon to announce that sarcasm and/or satire is coming …

    Tim: you just don’t get it. You’re argument is wrong because you mentioned Cargill. That’s a privately held company. Case closed.

  21. MyBurningEars ,

    > the more enterprising subsistence farmer may take advantage of this brave new dawn as an opportunity to take a chance on something new (with the previous risk of starvation eliminated)

    No, this only works for the extremely limited case of growing something new, which may not be possible, depending on soil type and available machinery and so on. For every other kind of doing something new, the subsistence farmers really need to be able to use the value of their property in some way, ideally even capitalise on it. If their land has only ever been used for growing food and all their other property consists of food-growing tools, and food is now abundant and cheap, their property has just been rendered completely worthless to almost all the people who might previously have been willing to pay something for it.

    These sort of economic arguments are all very well when we’re talking about people in developed nations facing the threat of losing their jobs — they may end up better off if they’re forced into a different line of work and they may not, but we’re not going to keep 80% of the British population working in agriculture just because change is frightening — but, if we don’t want to condemn people to misery and death by the million, they must presume a certain level of development as a starting point. Africa needs its farmers to pull themselves up out of the subsistence business so they can start building the kind of stable environment in which people can easily move from one job to another. They can most easily achieve that by making what they already do profitable. Putting them all out of business won’t help.

  22. Squander>

    I’m rather mystified as to how well-fed people with nothing are worse off than people with nothing who also have to work all the hours there are just to scrape a poor living.

  23. @SquanderTwo

    By “something new” I meant “something different to agriculture”. I think if superior quality produce is available for free, then agricultural options are distinctly limited (as you said, even if the soil is right to plant something new, it may require different tools or practical knowledge) and Dave’s idea that they would just keep farming and sell the produce they didn’t need was unrealistic on several levels.

    It’s clearly important not to overlook the potential of the current agricultural workforce as a labour pool for industrialisation, but if there were a catastrophic shock to agriculture, as it stands would there be alternative jobs to go to? There’s an interesting argument in Zimbabwe about whether the unemployment rate is 70%-85%, or, as the government claims, 9%, but that so many head to South Africa isn’t suggestive of plentiful work there. I am sure the picture is rosier in other developing economies.

    There definitely is potential in the release of the agricultural workforce. It was a big part of the European Golden Age too – as late as 1950 the agricultural employment share was 32.3% in Austria, 25.1% in Denmark, 46.0% in Finland, 31.5% in France, 48.2% in Greece, 39.6% in Ireland, 42.2% in Italy, 25.9% in Norway, 48.5% in Portugal and 48.4% in Spain. Some of the better-off, more industrialised, countries had lower shares, with 5.3% in the UK, 12.2% Belgium, 17.8% Netherlands, and 23.2% (still high enough to surprise me) in Germany.

    By 1970 these numbers were well down: 13.0% (-19.3% points) in Austria, 9.6% (-15.5%) in Denmark, 16.3% (-29.7%!!) in Finland, 10.6% (-20.9%) in France, 36% (-12.2%) in Greece, 22.8% (-16.8%) in Ireland, 17.5% (-24.7%!!) in Italy, 10.6% (-15.3%) in Norway, 34.9% (-13.6%) in Portugal and 23.2% (-25.2%!!) in Spain. In the countries with less room for improvement, there was still movement of labour out of the agricultural sector: down to 2.8% (-2.5%) in the UK, 3.8% (-8.4%) Belgium, 5.7% (-12.1%) Netherlands, and 7.0% (-16.2%) (still a pretty hefty change) in Germany. These are huge changes to take place in one generation and certainly contributed to the post-war European “miracle” (not just Tim’s regular point of extra post-apocalyptic investment opportunities). Similar changes in the developing world as it urbanises are likely to be A Good Thing, but abolishing the developing world’s agricultural sector does not seem an optimal way of achieving it.

    (Data from Crafts and Toniolo in the Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe, in case anyone’s interested.)

  24. Michael Jennings

    “It is hard to imagine that a starker lesson of the benefits of free markets in agriculture could possibly exist. Anyone who doesn

  25. MyBurningEars,

    Yes, we’re basically in agreement here.

    For the European post-war shift from agriculture to industry and services, it was vital not only that labourers moved from one job to another but also that owners were able to sell their capital and reinvest. The point I was making was that you can’t capitalise on your farm in an economy in which farms have just been rendered useless. The problem with dumping loads of dirt-cheap food into an economy in which most people have not yet started to capitalise on their farms is not merely that it puts people out of food-growing jobs but that it makes it harder for people to create non-food-growing jobs.

  26. @ #20 MyBurningEars
    Wool was doing a roaring trade at the *late-middle/end* of the Tudor period. Under the *second* Tudor monarch Thomas More complained about landowners replacing tenant farmers with sheep. That was a generation after Bosworth. Henry VII couldn’t raise enough in taxes from his impoverished realm after the end of the War of the Roses so he needed to “borrow” money under duress from the few wealthy merchants.

  27. Worstall supports mega-big agribusinesses: there’s a surprise. Stand by for heartrending calls for them to be exempted tax followed by petty point scoring off Richard Murphy who stands for the opposite. You don’t really expect to get straight business public relations on the Net : the bad language is a pretty thin disguise for corporate/ western government policy.

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