Saturday, May 17, 2008

Maybe it's a grown-up response, after all...

Greg Vincent drolly compares the Indian response to the food crisis as a sandbox fight between children. To be fair, he enlarges on the simile in the original article in the NYT. However, I would offer a different perspective, trying to see the issue from closer to the point of view of 1.1 billion Indian citizens.

First, as I noted below in the comments, for some bizarre reason, biofuel proponents have seized on the emerging consensus view that diversion of land from food/feed crops to fuel is only ONE of the the reasons for skyrocketing food prices to absolve all blame. Bluntly put, they translate "not the only reason" to read "not a reason at all".

Compounding the confusion, most statements I have read simply stop smugly at that conclusion, implying that multiple causes means we cannot and should not do anything about any of them. I suspect ethanol defenders will even demand equal treatment for causes, in itself reminiscent of childhood: "if you can't lower oil prices, you shouldn't stop shifting acres to biofuels".

And [since the links to the original NYT article don't work] you couldn't read this curious coincidence further down which I found important:
Some economists argue that blaming India’s growth is not only unfair, but makes little sense.

Food prices have not been rising continually as developing nations grew, said Ramgopal Agarwala, a former World Bank economist and senior adviser at RIS, a research institute in New Delhi. “They were static until 2006, then in 2007 and 2008 there was a sudden spark,” he said. But India has been growing for the last decade. This is “not last year’s phenomena,” he said. [More]
Hmmm. What new supply/demand factor could have exploded in 2007-8?

I have watched as a farm community 300+ times larger than ours struggles with their farm bill while we were loading up ours. The big issue: farm debt relief for millions of producers and whether to cap them for big farmers. It sound familiar until you realize the cap is 5 acres and the amount around $130.

India is working as diligently as its famously bloated and inefficient bureaucracy can to narrow the widening gap between educated workers benefiting from globalization and wretchedly poor farmers laboring to make the transition to modern agriculture. While this occurs, and due to our traditional indifference to this particular part of the world, it is easy to characterize Indian voices as the language of a childhood quarrel.

Except that for those of us with Indian doctors, who depend on Indian graduate students to power our biotech research, and or who have done the math on the the economic power of this emerging giant, the child metaphor falls flat.

Not do I think the CEO of one of our largest HFCS customers would find it amusing. Nor the CEO of the largest US bank. Or even one of ethanol's biggest investors.

The cheapest shot was the trivialization of the food crisis as "kink". It may be a kink where wheat is simply AN ingredient, but I bet it looks a whole lot more serious than a kink when wheat is THE ingredient in your diet.
The first would akin to 19th century Ireland, with poor people primarily eating wheat, and we can get odd effects. We could get such behaviour today with the really poor. In 1985, I happened to be an honoured guest at a hamlet in Western Maharashtra. The lunch they served me was: flat bread made of coarse grain. That's it. There was nothing else, just powdered red chili for flavour. [More from a superb article I linked earlier]
A good friend of mine has a son who served in the Peace Corps in a desperately poor country. When he returned home, his son never got over the transition to food in abundance here, and it angered him deeply. My friend tried to understand the enduring resentment his son felt. Most of us simply cannot being to comprehend the effect of profound hunger on lives, and we'd better try to learn.

But my objection does not arise solely from a wishy-washy humanitarian sympathy, although that should suffice. Just as we ignored and condescended to China for decades only to face a future where the Chinese influence touches us often and powerfully, I think India will have a similar effect - and agriculture in the US will not be immune.

Here's a solid example of a reverse "kink" courtesy of those hungry farmers in India: potash prices.
Exports to China by Canpotex and Belarusian Potash will resume in June after a three-month stoppage due to price negotiations. India signed a contract with the two trading companies, which market more than half the world's potash, last month at a record $625 a ton, including freight costs. [More]
And if you think gas prices are high now, wait until Tata's $2500 car hits the streets in India.

Kink that.

If we had a few hundred million citizens who face hunger daily, a farmer suicide problem, and one of the fastest growing populations, we might also be upset when global wheat supplies shrink due to corn displacing wheat acres - regardless of the economic reasoning. And if our traditional supplier told us, "It's your own fault for economic progress," I think I would remember that response for a long time. Even if our biofuel argument were sound (which I dispute), respect for the plight of Indian citizens and refraining from unhelpful metaphors cost us little, even when attacked unjustly (in our opinion).

People are power. I am more convinced of this every day. So despite any economic and social prejudices, I suggest discretion in our language - something we superpower citizens may have to brush up on.


Ol James said...

Well here's MHO right or wrong. Seems to me all those Third World and impoverished countries decades ago have been sitting idly by. Taking in our technology, food and other things just waiting. Now they are putting that information to use to help themselves out and be able to run with the big dogs. I got no problem with that. But when you tell your neighbor to cut his grass and you can barley see him over yours...there's the problem. Maybe that's what we need here..some healthy competition for big business to get worried about. Why pay $4.00/gal for fuel made here, when down the road imported fuel is $3.00/gal. The bottom line is how close are you to the bottom of your wallet??
India is a whole nother kettle of fish on their Ag. From what I have seen on the Internet and TV its run like a don't ask don't tell as far as the regulation of chemicals and processes. Check out some of the travels on VIERA TV. It's something to see. The suicides usually result from a failed crop or not being able to repay loans.
Again another Standing Ovation from me, Mr. John GREAT JOB!!!
(p.s. I got any points built up yet??)

Steve said...

I lived for a year in South Korea. While it has a successful economy, it still pales in comparison to the US economy. There were about 50 of my fellow Americans each going to different countries for a year. It wasn't the Peace Corp or the Morman program. But each of us lived with the local people. Each of us had little contact with each other. What I found to be interesting is that nearly everyone of us experienced the same emotions. Each of us returned to America and felt angry with the amount of waste we found in the US. The emotional reaction to the amount of wealth and waste in America in comparison to much of the rest of the world is common to anyone spending more than six months outside of the US.

Is America wrong to do things the way we have? No. America is the most productive nation on earth. Few nations even want to compete.

As the populations of India, Pakistan, and other countries continues to grow there will be an increasing demand for food. We add about 200,000 people a day tot he earth.

The increasing demand for food causing a huge increase in the demand for fuel and fertilizer.

As that demand pressure increases there will be increasing demands to eliminate waste and to distribute the wealth. As the demand escalates, expect there to be a lot of people wanting America to both provide for their needs while at the same time being angry that it won't be enough.