Bush is Right - but Equally Wrong: The Global Food Debate

Is there anything common between US President George W. Bush and the 18th century British political economist Thomas Malthus? Most unlikely. But Bush's "discovery" that the growing "prosperity" of India has shot up global demand for food brings back the 'Malthusian Catastrophe' to the centre of the global food debate.

The British economist warned the world way back in 1798 that population growth would outpace agricultural production in the future resulting in the "premature death" of the human race.

Many economists would contest the Malthusian fears. But not many would disagree that the current food crisis is a result of the mismatch between surging demand and resource crunch. The UN World Food Programme's Josette Sheeran recently called the food crisis a "silent tsunami".

According to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), wheat and rice prices soared 77 percent and 16 percent respectively last year. This year, the scene was worse with rice prices soaring 141 percent and wheat 25 percent till April. Hunger has triggered food riots in many parts of the world and even sent Haiti's prime minister packing. Countries like Cameroon, Egypt, Bangladesh and Philippines are already under stress.

India has also adopted a slew of measures to counter the soaring prices. According to a report by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science of Environment, low support prices, private players and a drought in wheat exporting countries like Canada, the US and Australia triggered panic in the Indian wheat market. The report added that India would have to import three million tonnes of wheat in the current fiscal to shore up its stocks.

According to the FAO, global grain stockpiles are at their lowest level in 25 years. The world has consumed more than it produced for the last seven years. World Bank President Robert Zoellick has already warned that 100 million people could be pushed deeper into poverty due to the current crisis.

The situation is grave. According to The Economist, around 1 billion people who live on $1-a-day, are cutting back on wheat, vegetables and one or two meals. Those who live on 50-cent-a-day face a total disaster, the magazine warns.

Bush's statement came in such a situation when most of the poor nations were struggling to deal with the crisis. His remarks have come in for sharp criticism from almost all political parties in the country.

However, according to many economists what Bush said was true, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.

According to British environmentalist and writer Mark Lynas, the rapid economic growth in India and China has created a new middle class that demands more food - thereby increasing the quantity of grain required for livestock production. But he emphasise that the global resource war initiated by the advanced industrialised world is the major reason for the crisis.

Similar to the food price jump of 1973, following the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt, today's crisis is also more or less related to energy. The shift towards biofuel is seen as the major factor that pushed up food prices. Both in South and North America, more and more land is being diverted to produce biofuel and maize, widely used as cattle feed in the West and being used for production of ethanol.

As the rich Indian and Chinese middle class, along with their European and Middle Eastern counterparts demand Western style diets high in meat and diary products, demand for such products obviously goes up. The cattle farmers in many countries replace wheat with maize as cattle feed. This eventually shoots up the prices of grains in international markets.

Along with this, economists list out other reasons like drought in North America because of climatic changes, the fertilizer crunch that affects agricultural productivity, the futures trade and the unbridled consumption promoted by the profit-driven market capitalism. All these factors are directly or indirectly related with the economic policies of the US.

China with more than 1 billion people consumes 7.9 million barrels of oil a day. The US with less than one quarter as many people, consumes 20.7 million barrels. This energy greed is now making the world, as Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz warns, an "unviable place".

The US, instead of blaming the developing world, should first admit its faults and come forward to work with other major countries to ease the crisis. Otherwise, Malthusian fears may revisit mankind.

(John Stanly is a research scholar with the Centre for West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be contacted at


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