There has been no shortage of media coverage of various scenarios accusing governments and even capitalism itself as culprits in exacerbating the global shortages of food, rising costs and periodic famine. But a new report from Oxfam, the London-based social justice NGO, might be the harshest critique yet.

Dame Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s CEO, claimed last week on a BBC interview that there will “absolutely not be enough food” to feed the world’s population just a few decades from now.

“The global food system works only for the few—for most of us it is broken,” she said in discussing her organization’s new report titled, Growing a Better Future. “There are billions of people who lack sufficient knowledge about what we buy and eat, [while] the majority of small food producers are disempowered and unable to fulfill their productive potential.”

The source of that failure, according to Stocking, flows from failure of governments “to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest,” which mean that food companies, interest groups and elites are able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge and food.

Why, in a world that produces more than enough food to feed everybody, do so many—one in seven of us—go hungry? the report’s introduction asks.

Indeed, Oxfam captures in agonizing detail the food price spikes, oil price hikes, devastating weather events and financial meltdowns that have characterized the last decade—all of which is occurring against a backdrop of climate change, growing economic inequality, chronic hunger and the depletion of critical energy and other resources.

That’s why, they assert, that as the 21st century unfolds, nearly a billion people around the world spend each day fighting off hunger and food shortages. It’s a level of desperation that most Westerners can’t even comprehend.

And it’s only going to get worse, Oxfam insists. New research forecasts grain prices to rise as much as 180% within the next 20 years, as pressures on resources, such as arable land and water, continue to mount and climate change begins to impact productivity.

Turn down the volume on their over-the-top rhetoric, and even the staunchest supporters of the status quo have to admit that there are elements of truth in Oxfam’s litany of structural complications built into the system of food production and distribution responsible for aggravating—if not causing—the global hunger crisis:

  • Agricultural lobbies in the developed world, hooked on handouts that tip the terms of trade against farmers in the developing world and force consumers to pay higher taxes and food prices
  • Self-serving elites who amass resources at the expense of impoverished rural populations
  • Powerful investors who play commodities markets like casinos
  • Enormous agribusiness companies hidden from public view that function as global oligopolies accountable to no one

Ouch.

Are the root causes of global food inequity solely the fault of greedy capitalists? Hardly.

In an enlightening op-ed column in London’s Times newspaper titled, “Get the Fertiliser Out. We Can Feed the World,” investigative journalist Matt Ridley argued that the single biggest factor aggravating food shortages is what he called “the lunatic policy of taking 5% of the entire world’s grain crop and turning it into motor fuel.”

Whenever there is a poor harvest of key cereal crops, such as in 2010, [biofuel production] is enough to tip millions into malnutrition and poverty, Ridley wrote. “Add in the pernicious tariff barriers we Europeans raise against African food and, yes, it is the fault of government—but doing too much regulating, correcting and protecting, not too little.”

Ridley cited research conducted by Prof. Daniel Sumner, Director of the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California-Davis, showing that corn and wheat prices in real terms are only about half what they were in the 1940s and 25% below the average for the 1960s. Relative to wages, grain prices have fallen even further. “By far the most significant reason for this long-term decline in food prices is that those beastly plundering capitalists have been inventing things like fertilizers, tractors, pesticides and new varieties to increase yields and cut costs,” Ridley wrote.

Over the past three generations the world’s farmers have tripled yield of rice, wheat and corn—which provides about two-thirds of all human calories, Ridley noted—without plowing a single additional acre. Malnutrition and hunger persist, but mass famine now occurs chiefly in countries with “too much government,” such as North Korea and Zimbabwe, he asserted.

Predictions are greatly exaggerated

The doom and gloom is not unprecedented. “Those with long enough memories know that breathless reports of Malthusian doom, such as Oxfam’s, recur whenever food prices spike upwards,” Ridley wrote.

For example: Ecologist Paul Ehrlich prophesized in 1968 that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” by the end of the 20th century. Environmentalist Lester Brown said in 1974 that “farmers can no longer keep up with rising demand.” In 1981 he claimed that “global food insecurity is increasing.” In 1989 he wrote that “population growth is exceeding farmers’ ability to keep up.” And in 1994, he asserted that “seldom has the world faced an unfolding emergency whose dimensions are as clear as the growing imbalance between food and people.”

The truth is that even as world population has doubled since the 1960s, calories per person have increased by about one-third. Given that those calories are not distributed equitably, Oxfam is right in saying it’s a scandal that obesity and hunger coexist. However, the solution lies in a single word: fertilizer.

“We need to get fertilizer to poor African farmers and get their goods to market so both they and their customers can afford to eat,” Ridley wrote. “If Oxfam were serious about malnutrition, it would stop writing about corporate greed, climate change and the need for world governance and start trucking nitrates.”

As UK commentator Tim Worstall observed, “What [Oxfam] is saying is that as people get richer, diets change, then food prices rise because people are richer and their diets have changed. This [report] is less about the iniquities of the international food system and the perils of climate change than about what happens to food prices as we abolish absolute poverty and destitution.

“You know, a good problem to have, not a bad one.”

Too bad Dame Stocking can’t grasp that fact. □

For more on the Oxfam report, log onto www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/papers/growing-better-future.html. For more on Matt Ridley’s research, log onto http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/get-fertiliser-out-we-can-feed-world.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator