It’s the poor that starve | Brussels Blog

It’s the poor that starve

posted by on 8th Jan 2012

It’s the poor that starve.

This is not a new idea. The Wikipedia entry on Amartya Sen says:

In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), a book in which he demonstrated that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen also demonstrated that the Bengal famine was caused by an urban economic boom that raised food prices, thereby causing millions of rural workers to starve to death when their wages did not keep up.

If there is a real shortage of food, the rich will be fed before the affluent: The poor will starve.

Inferior foods and luxury foods in an artificial world.

The poor will consume foodstuffs that are what economists call inferior goods:

In consumer theory, an inferior good is a good that decreases in demand when consumer income rises, unlike normal goods. Normal goods are those for which consumers’ demand increases when their income increases. The [inferiority of inferior goods] is an observable fact relating to affordability rather than a statement about the quality of the good.

Without being too prescriptive about the meaning of luxury goods, we can say that as income rises people switch from inferior goods to luxury goods. One problem for the poor comes when luxury goods use inferior goods as the raw material or compete for the resources that used in the production of inferior goods. If the poor have incomes that cannot compete they may not be able to afford even inferior goods.

Consider a world where there are only two types of food: cereal grains (wheat, maize & etc) and beef and a population of seven billion people. And where cereal production is 2300 million tonnes per year or just over 900 grammes per person per day. That provides an average of about 3200 calories per person per day – about enough. But what if half those grains were used to feed cattle for beef. The conversion of grain to beef would loose, say, three quarters or more of the calories in the grain so the average person now has only 1875 calories per day – 1500 calories from grain and 375 calories from beef – not enough.

In a one food economy, where there is enough food-calories, all prices remain relatively stable for rich and poor alike but when there is scarcity because the affluent have taken a liking to beef their superior buying power bids up the price of grains so that the poor go hungry.

In our artificial world we could say “Eat beef and starve the poor”.

The real world

In the real world, the UK Government Office for Science in Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming (2011) says:

Meat: different studies have predicted increases in per capita consumption (kg/capita/annum) from 32 kg today to 52 kg by the middle of the century. In high-income countries, consumption is nearing a plateau. Whether consumption of meat in major economies such as Brazil and China will stabilise at levels similar to countries such as the UK, or whether they will rise further to reach levels more similar to the USA is highly uncertain. However, major increases in the consumption of meat, particularly grain-fed meat, would have serious implications for competition for land, water and other inputs, and will also affect the sustainability of food production.

Beef and lamb are the worst meats in terms of land, water and climate so in a real world crisis the affluent can“Eat beef and starve the poor”. The Foresight report “stresses the importance of crafting food system governance to maximise the benefits of globalisation and to ensure that they are distributed fairly.”. It also says

The food system is globalised and interconnected. This has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, economic disruptions in one geographical region can quickly be transmitted to others, but supply shocks in one region can be compensated for by producers elsewhere. A globalised food system also improves the global efficiency of food production by allowing bread-basket regions to export food to less favoured regions.

But when large world-wide supply shocks happen will the poor will starve? Some went very hungry with the poor harvests and rising prices of 2010 and there are many historic examples of poor-peoples famines. Some where sufficient food was available. The BBC has an article on the Irish Famine :

Thus there was an artificial famine in Ireland for a good portion of the late 1840s as grain imports steeply increased. There existed – after 1847, at least – an absolute sufficiency of food that could have prevented mass starvation, if it had been properly distributed so as to reach the smallholders and labourers of the west and the south of Ireland.

… the wages that the government paid on its vast but short-lived public works in the winter of 1846-47 needed to be much higher if those toiling on the public works were going to be able to afford the greatly inflated price of food.

The poor starved in Ireland when Britian was already part of the globalised economy,  importing Indian corn and maize. In today’s much bigger globalised market it is likely that in times of really large world-wide supply shocks they will starve again while we continue to eat beef.

Too much luxury food is bad for health

The irony is that eating more “economically inferior” vegetables may be healthier than eating too much meat. As the Soil Association points out in Telling Porkies, which is a criticism of those advocating intensive agricultural practices:

[They] appear to be ready to contemplate changes in diet in developing countries that are likely to cause major new epidemics of diet-related ill-health, including heart disease, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes. Many of those misusing the statistics in the FAO paper to argue for massive increases in food production in both UK and globally, appear to be unaware that they are in effect condemning many in developing countries to ill-health and early deaths.

We do need to be cautious: changing climate will affect agriculture possibly very badly but the danger that the Forsight report ignores is that a globalised food system does not ensure that “the benefits are distributed fairly”.

The cycle of dependency

The Foresight Report also encourages science-based, cash-crops: monocultures which are less resilient to climate according to the World Food Programme Malawi’s excellent report, Low Input Food and Nutrition. They also say of cash crops and fertilisers:

To get the money for inputs, people sell their crops and animals – the very items that they spent so much time, money and energy to raise! Each year the soil becomes more unhealthy, so each year the farmer tries to buy even more fertilizer and seed.

They call this a “Cycle of Dependency”.

The poor, who may become dependants to the globalised food industry, will have to hope for better treatment than the British Government gave to the poor of Ireland.


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