Here’s a lazy journalistic trope: o·pin·ion / əˈpinyən/ n. a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. I know of no other way to approach an “Opinion” by someone called Doug Saunders at The Globe and Mail in Canada. Saunders writes breathlessly about having talked to spies at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about food security. His opinion is that food is not a strategic asset, and that “this food crisis is caused by underinvestment”. In a world of peace love and understanding maybe food would not be a strategic asset. While we wait, how about that underinvestment? Here is Saunders’ take on that.
The world has a huge surplus of farmland that is either unused or underfarmed.
Only 4 per cent of African cropland is irrigated. Fertilizers, pesticides and high-quality seeds and machinery are unavailable. Bad roads make food spoil before it gets to market. Another new study, by the World Bank, finds that, in rice farming alone, Africa could outproduce Southeast Asia but for such impediments.
India, with the world’s second-largest supply of arable land, is capable of making up for all the world’s current food shortages. But it falls far short. Just to sustain the food needs of its own people, India’s food supply needs to grow by 4 per cent a year; it’s now growing little more than 1 per cent. There is huge potential: Indian wheat farms, for example, produce less than 3.5 tonnes of wheat a hectare in good years, whereas European and North American farms produce seven tonnes or more. India’s output could at least double with simple, cheap investments, but the barriers are all political.
Riiiiight. Um, where is the water to irrigate Africa's farmland to come from? And the energy to make, and money to buy, fertilizers? High-quality seeds? Bred by whom, where, and at what cost? The high yields that Saunders thinks can be attained just by “investment” have been bought at a terrible price. And his figures are deeply suspect. Canada’s wheat yields average below three tonnes per hectare across most of the country. The US is no better. Maybe North America should take a leaf out of India's book.
I’m not saying agriculture does not need more investment. It does, particularly in infrastructure such as roads and bridges that would help other sectors of the economy too. But irrigation, fertilizers and high-quality seeds are not the solution to high food prices or the strategic mismanagement of food.