Friday, June 17, 2011

On wheat prices, heat waves and political economy

It's the (political) economy, stupid!

By Marcia Ishii-Eiteman 

A New York Times Environment reporter has been pumping out a series of attention-getting blogs on agriculture, climate change and the environment. So far, so good. But, while glad to see serious attention given to this intersection, I was disappointed by the author’s apparent infatuation with the promise of technological miracle cures to increase yields, evident in his near-reverential regard for the international research institutes responsible for the first Green Revolution and for the naive techno-optimism of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

One would hope to find the Time's editors a bit more astute about the politics of world hunger. The food price crises of recent years, while sparked in some cases by droughts associated with climate change, have had more to do with commodity speculation by grain traders, trade rules that dismantle small-scale farming in developing countries, and the abandonment of grain reserves and other measures to manage price volatility. And this perfect storm of bad policies has everything to do with the historically unprecedented power and influence of large multinational agribusinesses, a handful of whom now control the global food supply chain.

Logic lesson

One flawed line of reasoning I frequently see (including in this NYT blog series) goes something like this: “Heat waves in Russia destroyed their wheat crop, which caused food riots in Mozambique. Therefore we need Monsanto and the Gates Foundation to finance the development of heat-tolerant GE wheat.”

Correction: heat waves contributed to forest fires, yes. But their devastating impact was due to Russia’s privatization of its forests and the consequent attrition of its fire-fighting force. Soon after the fires, multinational grain traders, speculating on a profitable spike in wheat prices, urged Russia to place a ban on its wheat exports, which it promptly did, provoking the desired surge in prices, with repercussions felt in the streets of Mozambique and around the world.

Conclusion: We need to control commodity speculation and restore food democracy to our global food system, not engineer a new wheat seed to be controlled by another giant agribusiness.

Climate change, environment and agriculture are inextricably linked, and decisive action to reverse global warming trends is urgently needed — the Times blogger got that much right. But shallow, decontextualized analyses of cause and effect serve no one, least of all the world's poor. I'm sure that with a bit more effort (and public pressure), the Times can get the job done right.

1 comment:

  1. The problem is as you rightly say, systemic and linked fully to a capitalist economy founded on maximising financial returns on resource exploitation. But the problem is also that the mass media effectively functions as the mouthpiece of its owners, whose fingers are stuck deep into the market economy and so prefer to postulate about quick techno-fixes rather than address the real issue.