By Robert Paarlberg, B.F. Johnson professor of politica science at Wellesley College, an associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.
From Whole Foods recyclable cloth bags to Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden, modern eco-foodies are full of good intentions. We want to save the planet. Help local farmers. Fight climate change — and childhood obesity, too. But though it’s certainly a good thing to be thinking about global welfare while chopping our certified organic onions, the hope that we can help others by changing our shopping and eating habits is being wildly oversold to Western consumers. Food has become an elite preoccupation in the West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have fallen out of fashion.
Helping the world’s poor feed themselves is no longer the rallying cry it once was. Food may be today’s cause célèbre, but in the pampered West, that means trendy causes like making food “sustainable” — in other words, organic, local, and slow. Appealing as that might sound, it is the wrong recipe for helping those who need it the most. Even our understanding of the global food problem is wrong these days, driven too much by the single issue of international prices. In April 2008, when the cost of rice for export had tripled in just six months and wheat reached its highest price in 28 years, a New York Times
editorial branded this a “World Food Crisis
.” World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned
that high food prices would be particularly damaging in poor countries, where “there is no margin for survival.” Now that international rice prices are down 40 percent from their peak and wheat prices have fallen by more than half, we too quickly conclude that the crisis is over. Yet 850 million people in poor countries were chronically undernourished before the 2008 price spike, and the number is even larger now
, thanks in part to last year’s global recession. This is the real food crisis we face.