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Dial M for Malthus

The current crisis has seen the resurgence of fears that the world’s food production will not keep pace with its growing population, writes N Chandra Mohan.
Hindustan Times | By N. Chandra Mohan
UPDATED ON APR 06, 2008 11:10 PM IST

While the developing world catches pneumonia from the chilly recessionary blasts from the US economy, another spectre haunts its prospects: a full-blown global food crisis. Already, this has seen prices of rice, wheat and other essentials spiral upwards. Higher prices have triggered food riots in Egypt and threaten social unrest in Indonesia and the Philippines. Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Senegal in Africa have already experienced it. As many as 33 countries face this problem, says the World Bank. So how susceptible are we?

India faces rising food inflation — wholesale rice prices were up by 8.3 per cent on March 22 since last year — and this a major problem for everyone including the UPA government. To augment domestic supplies, the government scrapped tariffs on edible oil and maize and banned exports of rice except the high-value basmati variety on April 1. From a position of self-sufficiency in food, shortages and higher prices force it to keep the costly import option open. China, Egypt and Vietnam have also restricted their exports.

Such actions only result in global rice prices, just to take one example, spiking upwards as stocks are at their lowest levels since 1976. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, global rice prices have seen a steep increase of about 20 per cent since January 2008. Paddy production rose by 1 per cent in 2007, making it the second consecutive year in which output growth fell short of population growth. This state of affairs may well persist this year while global production is forecasted to rise by only 1.8 per cent.

The current crisis has seen the resurgence of fears that the world’s food production will not keep pace with its growing population. This means a serious threat of starvation, hunger, premature death and other ‘natural checks’ to bring the ‘food-population’ ratio in balance. These grim forebodings, contained in an essay written way back in 1798 by English demographer and political scientist Thomas Robert Malthus, keep surfacing whenever there is a difficult situation on the global food front with supply falling much short of demand, triggering substantial price increases.

“This is not the first time in modern economic history that the Malthusian spectre of global food shortages has stalked the world economy,” states Mark Thirwell, Director of the International Economy Programme at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. “Surges in food prices in the 1970s and then again in the mid-1990s both prompted warnings that agricultural capacity was failing to keep pace with a growing world population. Each time the prices jumped, it proved to be temporary as supply responded.”

Although the ongoing global food crisis may be similarly resolved, those who invoke the Malthusian ‘fear factor’ feel that matters are not going to be easy this time round. There are doubts whether the growth in food production will actually more than double to match the growth in the world’s population from 6.6 billion today to 9.2 billion in 2050. Although food prices are high, the supply response in the form of higher production may take a lot more time than before due to various factors, including climate and environmental degradation.

India exemplifies these concerns, although it is far removed from any Malthusian catastrophe. What made a big difference to its ability to feed a growing population was the Green Revolution of the late 1960s initiated by the likes of Norman Borlaug and M.S. Swaminathan. The Green Revolution revolutionised wheat yields in the geographically contiguous regions of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. And India attained a position of relative self-sufficiency in food production for decades thereafter.

But that halcyon state of affairs doesn’t hold anymore since the 1990s. Thanks to policy neglect of agriculture, the rate of growth of foodgrains production has, in fact, decelerated to 1.2 per cent while India’s population has continued to grow by 1.9 per cent. This has resulted in a decline in per head availability of cereals and pulses. This worrisome development has forced India to import wheat and other staples — an option that is far from feasible as global stocks are low, while food prices have skyrocketed.

At the late night UPA government meeting on April 1 that decided to ban food exports, the Union Agriculture Minister was reportedly asked why wheat imports had been delayed. The minister responded that if wheat was imported at upwards of $ 500 (Rs 20,000) per quintal at a time when domestic farmers were being paid Rs 1,000 per quintal of wheat, it could become a serious political embarrassment. But there could be no alternative to imports if the procurement of wheat is not adequate for the public distribution system.

Obviously, there are no short-term fixes to emerge unscathed from the global food crisis. To get back to the earlier situation of self-sufficiency, the only way forward is to reverse the policy neglect of agriculture. Here again, the challenges are daunting as the country is rapidly urbanising and agricultural land is fast diminishing. The area under the foodgrains production over a 16-year period has witnessed a decline of 0.3 per cent per annum from 1989-90 to 2005-06. This decline has accelerated thereafter.

“Production of food, fodder, fuel and drinking water will have to be... done with less land, because land is a shrinking resource for agriculture,” wrote M.S. Swaminathan in an article on Malthus and population growth. “The wheat fields where I had led national demonstrations of wheat in the 60s have been diverted for the construction of houses and factories. Land is thus a shrinking resource for agriculture and in the future have to produce more and more food, fuel, fodder and other farm products from less and less land.”

The absence of technological breakthroughs in terms of higher yields from new varieties of paddy, wheat and maize since the Green Revolution also complicates matters. As if all of this weren’t bad enough, India’s policymakers will have to deal with the reality of climate change on a war footing. A couple of years ago, higher temperatures (due to global warming) during the key months of January and February drastically affected the rabi or winter crop yields of wheat in the countryside.

Against the backdrop of a changing climate, scientists of the Bengaluru-based Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation have found that India’s southwest monsoon was shrinking in terms of its spatial spread between 1951 and 2003. This has serious implications for raising foodgrain production as the affected regions become unviable for cultivating certain crops. If the rains are not normal this year, the Manmohan Singh-led government’s elbow-room for manoeuvre in defusing the spurt of rising food prices will indeed be sharply narrowed. Indian agriculture clearly needs to be made less dependent on the monsoon through public investment in irrigation facilities and innovations in seed technology.

The upshot is that the supply-side responses to ensure that food production grows faster than our population growth are bound to take much longer than before. Nevertheless, the lesson to derive from the global food crisis is to fix the long-festering problems of India’s agricultural sector on a priority basis. Unless that is done, there will be no respite from perennial shortages, high food prices and — who knows? — social unrest like the 33 countries of the developing world are facing today.
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