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Doug Saunders

The dangers of treating food as a strategic asset Add to ...

Inside a secure compound at Canadian Security Intelligence Service headquarters this week, I had the rather odd experience of talking to spies about farming.

The spooks at CSIS, like their counterparts in other countries, have recently become obsessed with such loamy topics as marginal crop yields, soil salinity, Indonesian rice futures and dairy-supply bottlenecks. This week, they played host to scores of agrarians, crop economists, agricultural-threat analysts and farm specialists from a dozen countries in an urgent summit on food security, a meeting in which crop-irrigation ratios were treated with the sort of gravity that, a few years ago, would have been reserved for jetliner flight-training facilities in Florida.

And little wonder. As the intelligence officials listened to analyses of Indian irrigation policies and some rather silly talk about Islamist “agroterrorism threats,” the world outside was blowing up over food.

The uprising inflaming Egypt on Friday began, let us not forget, with crowds marching in Cairo on Tuesday to chants of “Bread and freedom!” The Tunisian revolution began in December as a bread-price protest. Neither event was ultimately about food, but its increasing share of the household budget became a catalyst for larger tensions.

Food prices have spiked this year, far less than they did in 2008, but ominously. This time, weather-driven crop failures caused by the Pacific La Nina current are playing a big part. But the underlying trend is one of insufficient supply: The world is now producing less than enough food when demand is rising.

Unfortunately, too many governments look at this situation of inadequate market supply and apply the label “food security.” This is dangerous: To treat food as a “strategic asset,” as something to be hoarded or kept from export, is to gravely misunderstand the nature of food. An increase in food production, anywhere in the world, increases the supply and lowers the prices everywhere. The challenge is not to provide your own country’s food needs from within; it’s to ensure that everyone in the world is growing plenty of food, so the question of domestic versus imported food is irrelevant.

When food consumers outnumber producers, high prices are dangerous. But a temporary spike in prices, as Nick Cullather suggested in The Globe this week, should have the considerable advantage of attracting large-scale investment in agriculture. And make no mistake: This food crisis is caused by underinvestment.

The world has a huge surplus of farmland that is either unused or underfarmed.

Consider sub-Saharan Africa, which, according to a new study by Harvard’s Calestous Juma and his team of researchers and colleagues, could easily be one of the world’s largest food exporters, producing more food than all Africans consume within a generation. The necessary investments are obvious: Only 4 per cent of African cropland is irrigated. Fertilizers, pesticides and high-quality seeds and machinery are unavailable. Bad roads make food spoil before it gets to market. Another new study, by the World Bank, finds that, in rice farming alone, Africa could outproduce Southeast Asia but for such impediments.

India, with the world’s second-largest supply of arable land, is capable of making up for all the world’s current food shortages. But it falls far short. Just to sustain the food needs of its own people, India’s food supply needs to grow by 4 per cent a year; it’s now growing little more than 1 per cent. There is huge potential: Indian wheat farms, for example, produce less than 3.5 tonnes of wheat a hectare in good years, whereas European and North American farms produce seven tonnes or more. India’s output could at least double with simple, cheap investments, but the barriers are all political.

The potential breadbaskets of Africa, India, South America and the former Soviet countries could bring the world back to a food-surplus position in a few years, with minimal investments. This is a strictly temporary and unnecessary crisis. Countries resist outside investments (or “land grabs,” as they’re falsely called), seeing them as security threats. They view “food self-sufficiency” as a noble goal, when, in fact, it’s destructive.

If you make a farm productive, it makes food cheaper and more plentiful. To make the world peaceful, we need to make bread more plentiful. It’s the stuff of life, not a strategic asset.

 

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