The Rich Under Attack I: "Food Democracy"

Posted on by

Gideon Rachman in “We cannot go on eating like this” in the Financial Times, points out the increasing heated discussion between advanced and emerging economies over resource issues, particularly food.

The positions of the two camps are fairly easy to set forth: the West says, “You can’t have what we have, it’ll ruin the planet,” while developing countries argue, “Our people deserve the same lifestyle.”

The article does a good job of highlighting some of the issues without going into the charged area of solutions (mainly because the author doesn’t see any obvious ways out). However, there are some oversights. The first is that the planet is facing a number of resource constraints, and food, water, and energy are interlinked. Look how the hasty adoption of corn-based ethanol as a fuel has created havoc in grain prices (note that Brazilian sugar-based ethanol, by contrast, is not problematic from a food markets standpoint). Similarly, some economists have argued that the food crisis can be easily remedied, since 60-70% of the land currently under cultivation is not up to the productivity levels of modern agriculture. Ah, but that sort of high-out farming is more energy and equipment intensive. So these issues need to be addressed jointly, but that does not appear to be the way these discussions are headed.

Second, the ugly third rail issue (somehow verboten) is population. The planet has too many people, period. The main reason for the increase in global population is not higher birth rates but higher survival rates. And birth rates in first world economies haven’t fallen fast enough to compensate for declining child mortality rates (and more or less static birth rates) in developing countries. But to talk about the need for, ahem, family planning is a charged issue in the US (and that’s before you get to the Bush administration fealty to dubious methods like abstinence) which guarantees we won’t bring it up as a collective issue. As biologist E.O. Wilson said in a 1993 essay, “Is Humanity Suicidal“:

Now in the midst of a population explosion, the human species has doubled to 5.5 billion during the past 50 years. It is scheduled to double again in the next 50 years. No other single species in evolutionary history has even remotely approached the sheer mass in protoplasm generated by humanity.

Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. It was a misfortune for the living world in particular, many scientists believe, that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough. Our species retains hereditary traits that add greatly to our destructive impact. We are tribal and aggressively territorial, intent on private space beyond minimal requirements and oriented by selfish sexual and reproductive drives. Cooperation beyond the family and tribal levels comes hard.

Worse, our liking for meat causes us to use the sun’s energy at low efficiency. It is a general rule of ecology that (very roughly) only about 10 percent of the sun’s energy captured by photosynthesis to produce plant tissue is converted into energy in the tissue of herbivores, the animals that eat the plants. Of that amount, 10 percent reaches the tissue of the carnivores feeding on the herbivores. Similarly, only 10 percent is transferred to carnivores that eat carnivores. And so on for another step or two.

In a wetlands chain that runs from marsh grass to grasshopper to warbler to hawk, the energy captured during green production shrinks a thousandfold. In other words, it takes a great deal of grass to support a hawk. Human beings, like hawks, are top carnivores, at the end of the food chain whenever they eat meat, two or more links removed from the plants; if chicken, for example, two links, and if tuna, four links.

Even with most societies confined today to a mostly vegetarian diet, humanity is gobbling up a large part of the rest of the living world. We appropriate between 20 and 40 percent of the sun’s energy that would otherwise be fixed into the tissue of natural vegetation, principally by our consumption of crops and timber, construction of buildings and roadways and the creation of wastelands. In the relentless search for more food, we have reduced animal life in lakes, rivers and now, increasingly, the open ocean.

But even recognizing that the problem is fundamentally one of population, merely stopping the growth rate is like halting a supertanker; reversing it would take even longer and raises intergenearational challenges (how do you take care of an overhang of old people?) and paranoid suspicions that restraints on birth rates are really attempts at genocide.

With that as prelude comes three, sacrifice. The only way first world countries can moderate the demands of rapidly growing third world nations is to demonstrate willingness to make real lifestyle cutbacks. Cynically, that is making a virtue of necessity, because the West and the developing world simply continue on their resource collision course, we’ll all be considerably less well off. But again, such idealism flies in the face of how America works. Suggest, for instance, that people eat less beef and pork and enrage the agricultural lobby (and not to mention hamburger chains). Oh, we dare not do that, no matter how great the stakes. So we’ll have to wait until rationing, whether formal or de facto though vastly higher prices, is forced upon us. Or worse.

From the Financial Times:

It is all very awkward. China and India are getting richer. And it appears their new middle classes want all the things we want: cars, washing machines, even meat. Here in the west, we have to restrain ourselves from saying: “Stop. You can’t live like us. The planet can’t stand it. And our wallets can’t stand it. Have you seen the price of petrol?”

Global equity is the awkward issue lying behind the world food crisis. In the long run, it will also prove fundamental to discussions on energy and global warming.

But, for the moment, this difficult, abstract issue is largely obscured by the urgency of finding practical solutions to rising food prices.

Everywhere I have travelled over the past six months, the cost of food has dominated political discussion. In Pakistan I was told that, while foreigners might worry about terrorism or President Pervez Musharraf, ordinary Pakistanis were much more concerned by the soaring price of wheat. In the Middle East, the political impact of rising food prices is discussed with more urgency than Iran or the Palestinians. But food-price inflation is an issue not just in poor countries. In France, aides to President Nicolas Sarkozy point to the rising cost of food and fuel as the key to his slump in the polls. In Britain and the US, unpopular governments tell a similar story…

There is a strong risk that rising food prices will lead to global political friction. Look at the reaction in India to some fairly anodyne comments by President George W. Bush. He said that rising prosperity in the developing world led to people “demanding better nutrition and better food” and so “demand is higher and that causes prices to go up”.

The reaction in India was furious. Commentators railed about how much more Americans eat than Indians – chucking in a few nasty asides about fat Yanks and liposuction.

On one level, this reaction was ridiculous. Most impartial analysts, including the World Bank, agree that rising prosperity in the developing world is an important underlying cause of rising food prices.

But the emotional Indian reaction is also understandable. Any hint that the good life is available only to westerners is unacceptable. Europeans and Americans do eat much more per head than the Chinese or Indians. While rising food prices strain household budgets in the west, they risk famines in Africa and Asia.

The west is also making its own contribution to the food crisis – through subsidies for biofuels….The moral dilemmas thrown up by calculating per capita consumption are not confined to food. They apply just as acutely to global warming.

The US points out that China is now the world’s biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions. No global agreement on greenhouse gases will be worthwhile unless it includes China, India and other rising powers.

The Chinese respond by pointing out that the average American still has a far larger carbon footprint than the average Chinese….The moral quandary is made all the more tricky by the fact that the stock of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – the source of today’s global warming – is overwhelmingly the product of two centuries of western industrialisation. But now that it is the developing world’s turn, the west says it is time to stop….

Western politicians struggle to find a convincing response to these developing-world complaints. But they will struggle just as hard to persuade their voters to cut back, to accommodate the rise of a richer Asia.

So – with food, as with climate change – we shall have to hope that technology rides to the rescue. It has happened before. At the beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of nitrogen-based chemical fertilisers massively expanded world food supplies – just as experts were fretting that the world’s booming population would lead to famine. In the 1960s, the “green revolution” allowed for a further leap in agricultural production.

The trouble is that the new technological fixes are elusive. Wider tolerance of genetically modified crops might help with food. But many of the technologies touted to cut global warming – such as solar power and carbon capture – are far from fruition.

Politicians can help the process by providing incentives for behaviour changes and investment in new technologies. However, there will be a very difficult transition as the world adjusts to higher food and energy prices and waits for new technologies to emerge and flourish.

But what is the alternative? Any solution that is based on asking India and China to stay poor is politically and morally unsustainable.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Anonymous

    “So we’ll have to wait until rationing, whether formal or de facto though vastly higher prices, is forced upon us”

    Bring on the vastly higher prices! That is much preferable to Yves Smith dictating it.

  2. Jojo

    Thank you for mentioning population.

    “Our people deserve the same lifestyle.” say developing countries. Well, cut back on your population growth and I am confident that you will have much more food and resources to go around. If they don’t have the ability/desire to do this, then I say “Let them eat cake”.

    Since it is unlikely that any country will have the guts to effectively restrict population growth in the near term, I agree with FT that food/water availability could be a “friction” point. Countries with excess population but poor natural resources and agricultural prospects, might consider attacking other countries that have better prospects.

    Of course, if you are really hungry for more meat, you might consider trying cannibalism. Tastes just like chicken or pork, I hear. Also reduces the population nicely. And if you dine on the poor, aged and/or illiterate, you’ll be left with a more productive and better educated society. Now that’s real motivation – work hard or be eaten!

  3. Lune

    No other single species in evolutionary history has even remotely approached the sheer mass in protoplasm generated by humanity.

    That’s quite an overstatement. The reality is that the amount of biomass of 6 billion people is much, much less than the biomass of the trees on the planet, or even the insects. And all of the animal and plant kingdom combined is less than a rounding error compared to the biomass of bacteria, who have ruled this world since the start of life, and will be there when it ends.

    The problem of food shortages and global equity are serious, but I think we need to tamp down the hysteria somewhat. There are solutions that don’t involve malthusian doomsday scenarios.

    The most important is that we have to realize that globally agriculture is incredibly inefficient because most agriculture policy is designed to subsidize farmers (who have a sentimental hold on almost every culture) and inhibit efficient production of food in order to create artificial scarcity that props up prices. The problem for farmers is that rapid advances in technology produced too much food, resulting in the conversion of arable land to other uses (hello suburbia), the intentional destruction of surplus food (think France’s wine lakes), and the use of food for purposes other than feeding people (ethanol, the use of corn to fatten cows and pigs, etc.)

    Agriculture policy takes years if not longer to see results (since farmers have to convert lands to new crops, etc.) What we are seeing currently is a rapid increase in demand while the world’s governments are still oriented to solving the problem of excess supply. When governments re-align to deal with food scarcity, I think you’ll see a remarkable increase in the efficiency of our food chain. Heck, just getting rid of the ethanol subsidy and forcing farm animals to be fattened on grass rather than corn would go a long away. And there are other low-hanging fruit to be picked…

  4. Yves Smith


    With all due respect, E.O. Wilson is a biologist and his statement is accurate. “Insects” are not a species. There are about 900000 known insect species Similarly, there are quite a few tree genera, and species are lower in the hierarchy. Having any one species be as dominant in an ecosystem as we are is very destabilizing.

    With the best arable land already under cultivation and the world’s population continuing to rise, we can get a one off bump from changing agricultural policies, but unless we have a major technological breakthrough, the future isn’t pretty. And the resource we run out of first is water. That is expected to hit crisis point shortly before 2050 unless we have major changes in behavior. Those don’t appear to be underway.

  5. Fabian Gonzales

    It’s fair for the Chinese and Indians to attempt to achieve Western standards of living, but will they be able to achieve it given their enormous population densities?

    If the United States had to limit itself to the resources found within it’s borders and oceans, we’d probably be doing OK after some very painful restructuring.

    Can the same be said of China, with 5x the population density, or India, at more than 10x?

    I don’t see why the rest of the world is to blame for other countries’ massive overpopulation problems.

    Granted, controlling population growth is hard, but once you reach densities like India’s it’s hard to accept doing absolutely nothing.

  6. Yves Smith

    Fabian Gonzales,

    I believe stopping population growth is essential, but even if we were to start today with pretty extreme measures, it would probably take a generation merely to halt growth.

    And a problem in India (and most societies) is what is good for the collective may not be good for the individual. Emerging economies don’t have good safety nets. Old people are cared for by their children. So people have children as their Social Security. And in India, I believe the wife becomes part of her husband’s family. Thus making sure you have a son is particularly important, which leads to even more children being born.

  7. Anonymous

    Funny, I read this blog sometimes, and the comments are usually big on austerity: don’t bail out homeowners, don’t bail out Wall Street, tax the rich.

    But is it that all you guys believe in is other people making sacrifices? If it’s your meat-eating diet versus people in the third world starving, you’ll stand up for your diet (or deny there’s a problem, which is pretty much the same thing).

  8. a

    “If it’s your meat-eating diet versus people in the third world starving, you’ll stand up for your diet (or deny there’s a problem, which is pretty much the same thing).”

    Why do you think that? How do you know who we are or what we think?

  9. Anonymous

    There are a few questionable comments or assumptions in the article I think.
    Two of them are related and are in regards to Corn.
    The first is about how inefficient it is to produce meat.
    That is a fatuous comment really, because it ONLY relates to raising beef (or whatever) on grain feed-stocks.
    Actually a lot of places and countries DONT feed grains to livestock, and quite frankly why would you???
    Personally I think it is a stupid idea. Cattle eat grass, and if you dont have grass, what the hell are you doing raising cattle?
    Raise livestock on land and vegetation that is not suitable or used for plants that people consume. Duh!
    At which point the whole efficiency issue goes away.
    However each to their own and if you want to and can make a living at grain feed cattle, who am I, or anyone, to tell you otherwise.
    Which leads into the next point.
    America does feed a significant percentage of livestock on grains, it also uses an awful lot of grain in the (subsidised – another stupid idea) production of Methanol.
    But hey, it is American grain they are using, it is theirs to do what they want with.
    What’s the problem?
    No country is under any obligation to supply grain, or anything, to any other country.
    If Americans want to pay for grain feed cattle and grain brewed methanol, then good luck to them.
    Bitching that somehow this drives up the world price of grains and leads to starvation is disingenuous.
    I suggest those countries have a few more problems of their own, other than what America may be doing with its grain.
    What is actually being complained about is that America isn’t exporting enough CHEAP grain to hold down world prices to a level they are happy with.
    Well Boo Hoo. Set your own house in order first.
    If America has some messed up priorities, by no stretch of the imagination are they the only ones.
    The corners of the world complaining the loudest also have some of the more bizarre economic/political/agricultural policies.
    It is interesting how often “Food” problems are really actually “Political” problems.

  10. tz

    You didn’t bring up China’s methods. They basically kill off girls (120-150 boys per girls born) – it happens in India too – ultrasounds had to be banned but I think they continue. And in the recent earthquake we have a large number of sterile couples having lost their one child.

    Mother Theresa’s order teaches Natural Family Planning in India, and it is as effective as the pill (except for profits to Big Pharma).

    Speaking of Insects, a lot of this sounds like “White man’s burden” – you know, these people of color can’t control themselves and CAN’T CHANGE BEHAVIOR so smart people have to come in and sterilize them or do something similar. A kinder, gentler eugenics.

    Or perhaps just let loose a plague or war or whatever to reduce the population? You seem not to mind it as long as the Baby is in the womb – and yes, in China there are 3rd trimester forced abortions. Why draw the line at the uterine wall where we can kill human beings en masse? We need to save the world don’t we?

    If you already reduce human beings to cattle to be herded and managed, you can’t then treat them as if they had dignity. But if they have dignity, then they should be respected including that they could change their behavior no more or less easily than we can.

    So to go back to the Catholic position, it is to teach people that they are responsible for their actions (both in the first and third worlds), and to teach them to act responsibly because they can do so.

  11. Peripheral Visionary

    I’ve seen some indestructible theories, but there is nothing quite like Malthusianism; you can pump round after round of statistics and logic into it, and it just keeps on coming.

    At one level, it’s ridiculous. Blaming the world’s problems on “people”, and then asserting the solution is to reduce the number of “people”, is like blaming financial problems on money and asserting that the solution is to get rid of it. Well of course the problems are caused by people–but getting rid of people (either on the birth end or on the death end) has never been an acceptable solution, more or less due to its association with the sort of unpleasant types (who very much bought into the Malthusian mentality) who caused a certain amount of trouble in the first half of the 20th Century.

    ” . . . and paranoid suspicions that restraints on birth rates are really attempts at genocide.”

    Probably because, well, they are. Ever read Exodus? Murder can be so ugly and messy, it’s just that much easier to control the birth rate of “undesirables.” I strongly suspect that much of the alarmism over “overpopulation” has a lot to do with the populations in question, or rather with the skin color, languages, and culture of the populations in question.

    Hollywood celebrities are having babies at a remarkable rate, and where is the outrage? I suspect that if it were blond-haired blue-eyed English-speaking women who were having baby after baby, we would be celebrating our incredible luck. More blond-haired blue-eyed English-speaking beauties? No worries, plenty of room for all!

    But to address the fundamental point, Malthus was wrong because he only saw the front side of the curve. Populations boom as they transition from subsistence agriculture to industrialization–and then peak, and then begin to drop off after they transition to modernization. The world is approaching that peak much more rapidly than previously anticipated, as birth rates are dropping quickly worldwide, even in the “developing” world.

    While there are problems on the way up that curve, there are serious problems on the way down. Neo-Malthusian fearmongering (with a tinge of racism) will only distract from finding real solutions to the eventual demographic implosion.

  12. Anonymous

    Nitrogen fertilizers were NOT the reason for increased crop yields. It was mechanization and hybrid seeds. The chemical companies have been beating this drum for so long it’s has become a de facto truth. Soluble nitrogen is like a drug, it has a good effect when you first use it but then it takes more and more N to make a crop since the side effect is a decrease in soil fertility. Which also leads to a higher use of chemical pesticides which further degrades the environment? Recent studies have shown that organically farmed crops have the same if not higher yields that chemically raised crops.

    The Green Revolution was also a huge failure. It relied on shipping chemicals across the oceans to developing countries which had to borrow $ for the purchases. In very short order the Green Revolution became a massive debt problem for the developing world but a great bargain for Monsanto. I happened to be meeting with the Ag Minister of a developing country at the same time the chemical salesmen where waiting for their meeting later that morning. I asked the Minister how they could afford then chemicals and was told matter-of-factly that the US Ag support funding was just released so they had the funds to buy the chemicals. So US aid was just corporate welfare for the US chemical companies.

    It is the failures of chemical farming that has brought about the current food crisis. Low prices from overproduction of grains in the US led to the ethanol scheme which as led to the removal of billions of tons of grain from the open market, which has led to the current situation. The US will not stop the ethanol program since it would hurt ADM, Cargill etc. It’s not about economics it’s about greed.

    George Kalogridis

  13. Anonymous

    I find it remarkable that birth control and family planning are being equated with murder. Even hear of a condom? And they have the side benefit of reducing the incidence of STDs.

    This discussion shows why we can’t have any rational debate. The FT says the planet can’t support 6 billion people having a first world lifestyle. With the technology we have now and will probably have in the next 50 years, that seems like a pretty safe forecast.

    But no one wants to reduce population and no one wants to be denied a first world lifestyle. Instead we get hysteria when birth control comes up and catcalls about Malthus. I suppose you are all old enough that the results, like wars over resources, increased suffering among the poor, and a deterioration of the quality of life across the board, will be visited on your descendants, so why should you worry?

  14. Anonymous

    Isn’t it kind of obvious that if you help these countries develop economically, the family planning problem will take care of itself just as it did in the US and Europe?

  15. Anonymous

    Great post…… However, environmentalists have already defined the Rich as the culprits…

    “Ecologists, he adds, have not often conducted an inquiry into the “ecological misery” that parks the poor next to industrial neighborhoods, polluted and at risk, next to highways or noisy activities, in the most insalubrious houses and in sectors generally the least well-served by public services, including public transportation. It is wrong, he says, to act as though the economic system must grow more to bring these people out of poverty or to allow more poor people to attain greater wealth. The economic system works in the other direction, by monopolizing wealth and power at the expense of those who have the least, and of the middle classes that dream – ever more vainly – of hoisting themselves into the cocoon of the present financial oligarchy, Kempf maintains.”

    Best regards,


  16. Anonymous

    No one knows the future. Therefore, there is no reason to panic prematurely. Unfortunately, new diseases, famines, wars, economic restrains and even asteroids hitting Earth tend to abate the overpopulation. Choose for yourself how often to procreate and leave to the others the freedom of making the same choice.

  17. Jojo

    In this story featured in the NY Times today, U.N. Issues Warning on Food Crisis, here [In this story in the NY Times today, U.N. Issues Warning on Food Crisis, here [] I was taken by the following summary statement:

    “There was little disagreement about how to resolve the spiraling costs of food and its impact on the world’s poor: more food aid to feed the world’s hungry, additional seeds and fertilizer for poor farmers, fewer export bans and tariffs that restrict the flow of trade, and more research to improve crop yields. The problem now is convincing wealthy nations to pay for it, estimated to cost as much as $30 billion a year.”

    I notice that nowhere in this story was there any mention of population control!

    As to some of the posters above evoking racism by us whitey’s in calling for population control, I say BS. Population control is needed almost everywhere in the world, including developed countries such as the USA and regardless of skin color. This should have been recognized, particularly by developing countries, many years ago, as the crisis of hunger is not something that has occurred in the last couple of years.

  18. Anonymous

    “It was a misfortune for the living world in particular, many scientists believe, that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough.”

    Very likely. But it’s not clear that the breakthrough to the evolution of the brain that is necessary for intelligence could have happened without the greater access to protein enjoyed by carnivores.

    Perhaps an intelligent species from the families felidae or canidae would have done a better job managing the planet than the intelligent primate has. I’m not sure, though, since members of those species are also guilty of territorialism and limited cooperation.

Comments are closed.