How to Solve the Food Crisis: Cut trade barriers and start a Green Revolution in Africa, says Jeffrey Sachs
by Eva Sohlman
- Sweden -
Shortages of food and sky-high food prices, which have doubled in a few months, are here to stay. This is a dire prospect, especially for the world’s poor who suffer from chronic hunger and could soon amount to one billion people, says Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University and one of the most influential and controversial thinkers in development economics.
In Haiti people eat cakes baked with mud for lack of flour. In Bangladesh, Indonesia and across Africa, riots are spreading among the hungry. And in the world’s richest country, the United States, the breadlines are growing.
“I think that higher prices are here for a foreseeable future,” he predicts during an interview in his director's office at the Earth Institute - an institution at Columbia that seeks to connect academic research with policy-making.
Sachs’ knowledge and advice are much sought after; he is special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. His ever-beeping and ringing mobile phone, along with an office wall covered in photos of Sachs with world leaders, are testaments to his influence.
His new book, Common Wealth – Economics for a Crowded Planet, discusses how we can obtain peace and sustainable development on an increasingly crowded planet where the battle over its natural resources is getting tougher each day. The food crisis has highlighted these problems and boosted interest in Sachs’ ideas: at the UN food crisis meeting held during June in Rome, Sachs’ proposal for an action plan was adopted.
Though the attending world leaders could not agree on the underlying causes for the food crisis, Sachs is sure: “This crisis is fundamentally about supply and demand.”
He admits that the severity of shortages and price increases are a shock even for those who have followed global food production closely and seen how global demand has grown while food reserves have shrunk due to limited production capacity.
“This is definitely unprepared and was caused by a series of surprises such as several climate shocks which led to poorer harvests,” he explains. In addition, the increased use of food for biofuel production – predominantly corn and sugar – has further shrunk the access to food. Data from the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute show that 30 percent of the price hike can be attributed to the ethanol production. The price of oil, which rose 40 percent this year, has also fueled the inflation as it pushed up the cost for transport and fertilizers.
The Bush administration has been accused of bearing much of the responsibility for the food and energy crises because of its focus on ethanol production and the invasion of Iraq, which is a main driver of high oil prices.
“Ethanol has definitely contributed to the crisis, but I don’t think the Bush administration is to blame. The ethanol policy in the U.S. is a bipartisan policy. There are strong regional interests, which lie behind it rather than the White House,” he says, adding that both the United States and the European Union should cut their ethanol and biofuel policies sharply or erase them. “Biofuels could play a role in the future on land that doesn’t compete with food, but with the technologies we have, it is not viable. It is precious land.”
Hedge funds have also been cast as major contributors to the food crisis, but Sachs does not agree with that picture. “The funds play a very small part as the crisis is fundamentally about supply and demand. One factor of fundamental importance is the large amount of countries, which have blocked their exports. That has definitely amplified the crisis.”
So what could help pull down the prices? “A better harvest this year and an easing of the trade barriers, ” says Sachs, adding that he thinks there is some prospect of better harvests.
In order to solve the crisis in the short-term (within one to five years), we must secure the acute aid to the most exposed countries, he continues. Therefore, the UN World Food Programme has asked for an additional $775 million dollars, only to help cover the doubled costs for already existing aid projects.
“Within this time frame we must also secure the food supplies to the poor by more efficient farming,” says Sachs, who has long argued for agricultural reforms in the developing world where he says better grains, fertilizers and small-scale irrigation could help triple crop yields. In 2004 Sachs started a campaign for a green revolution in Africa together with former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan. The idea was to copy the successful green revolution in India in the 1960s, but the response was tepid.
“The only silver lining in this (crisis) is – I even hate the idea of using that – is that it has made more people aware of the things that can be done, like the green revolution. I am not a believer in waiting for crises to get things done. I think it’s an absolutely ridiculous part of our character, but when we do have the crisis, at least it’s true that there is more discussion about agriculture the last months than there was in eight years!”
As a consequence of the high food prices we can already see a sharp increase in hunger around the world, Sachs continues, but he does not anticipate large-scale famines like the ones seen in Ethiopia in the 1980s when one million people starved to death. “What we’ll see is infectious diseases which are life-threatening because of malnourishment, especially in children. What we’ll see is more children die from diarrhea, infectious lung diseases and influenza. Diseases which otherwise wouldn’t be lethal.”
World Bank Chief Robert Zoellick has said the food crisis could mean seven lost years in the battle against poverty. The UN Millennium goals to halve extreme poverty among those living on less than $1 a day between 1990 and 2015 seem even more Sisyphean. Even before the food crisis, The Millennium Project, which was lead by Sachs from 2002-2006, was criticized for not meeting targets on time.
“The goals were not met because the world’s richest countries didn’t honor their promises. This is our biggest challenge,” he sighs. The youthful and dynamic Sachs suddenly looks very tired.
The world’s eight major economies, G8, promised in 2002 to double their aid to Africa by 2010, but Sachs points out they still haven’t paid the $50 billion dollars per year that they committed to. The countries were harshly criticized at the crisis meeting in Rome and then renewed their promises.
When it comes to Sachs’ own project, the Millennium Villages – a large-scale experiment to reduce poverty in some 70 villages in Africa – he admits the crisis has made it tougher to meet targets. To dampen the price shock, particularly the tripled prices for fertilizers, farmers in the villages now receive micro-credit loans. This is relatively unexplored due to the high risks involved in investing in farming, but Sachs anticipates the method could be used more commonly with the higher food prices.
Sachs’ model for the Millennium Villages, which focuses on health, education and farming, has been criticized as naïve and simplistic, but also for not including humans’ irrational behavior regarding their personal economic choices. This is a critique Sachs has heard before.
“The idea that I’m naïve is not convincing. Many times I have been told it couldn’t happen and then it did happened and I always believed it would happen,” he says, referring to the Global Fund he started in 2001 to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The initiative was initially met with resistance, but has managed to get some of the world’s richest countries to support cheaper AIDS medicines to poor countries. “I’m not very much impressed by standards of what is judged to be politically possible. I find most of this very short-sighted.”
In addition, he continues, he does work in the real world and meets politicians on a daily basis and so is well aware of lobbying, corruption and lies. “But I am not interested in discussing all the obstacles. What I try to do is to describe what we could achieve, rather than focus on why we will fail.”
- This article originally appeared in Swedish for the publication, Fokus. - Ed.
About the Author
Eva Sohlman is a Swedish journalist and writer with credentials in print, radio and TV. She was formerly the editor of The World in Focus ("Världen i Fokus"), a Swedish TV program which she produced that reports world news and in-depth studio interviews. The show follows Eva's international career reporting for Reuters and publications in The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Having lived, studied and worked in Sweden, Britain and France, Eva is fluent in each of those country's languages. Her book, Arabia Felix [Happy Arabia] in the Time of Terror – Journeys in Yemen ("Arabia Felix i Terrorns tid – Resor i Jemen" ) was published in Swedish in January 2007. It is based on her reporting for Reuters and the Economist. Three chapters translated into English by her Swedish publisher, Wahlström & Widstrand can be found here.
She is the former News Editor for The WIP.