When the articles in the new Foreign Policy “Food Issue” first hit my RSS feed about a week back, I snidely Tweeted: "Doesn't look like FP's food issue will stack up to Wired's food issue...from 3 yrs ago http://bit.ly/f7dLvK" That Wired issue was great. But I didn't give FP a fair chance until it arrived on my desk and I read through the entire issue. Now, I say, it's definitely worth making the Summer Reading List
President of the Earth Policy Institute Lester Brown provides the main article, “The New Geopolitics of Food.” At first, this piece reads as a little bit deterministic about trends, and makes some static assumptions based on population growth and other factors. I see this problem often with analysis on natural resource scarcity presuming linear patterns of production and consumption. Yet I get the sense that with this piece, Brown is more so highlighting what challenges our business-as-usual policies will create. Trends will change, but likewise our policies for managing resources must change to prevent shortages in commodities like food from turning into political turmoil and outright security risks. Indeed, this is where Brown ends: by identifying the major components of international food policy that need to change to ensure that the envisioned future of geopolitical tension and even conflict over food scarcity doesn’t manifest.
Brown points out that water stress is creating food bubbles in “some 18 countries,” and that the buffer food production capabilities from countries like the United States are far less reliable as they were decades ago given the amount of arable land dedicated to food-crop feedstocks for biofuel production. We can expect that grain production will continue to drop in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, China and India. From export restrictions to leasing foreign territory to shady contracts, this article does a sound job of identifying all of the food-related measures countries are resorting to that security and foreign policy types need to be aware of (and as FP has a broader readership than this blog, I’m happy that this special issue will deliver this info to people who perhaps don’t know this stuff yet).
One line in particular struck me the most if any security-minded readers aren’t yet convinced why they should care about natural resources: “In this era of tightening world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage” (emphasis mine). This exact concern appears in the opening paragraph of my new minerals report (to be released shortly). For the U.S. to be effective in navigating the global strategic environment, we have to account for all the cards that countries hold. On the leverage to be gained through trade in resources, we have largely failed to get ahead of this trend just as other countries are increasingly wielding commodities as geopolitical tools.
In another piece, “More Than 1 Billion People Are Hungry in the World; But what if the experts are wrong?” authors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab display deep research in examining hunger and poverty. They show that the now-polarized public debate on foreign aid misses most of the nuance that should be informing policy. It’s a must-read in full.
The FP food edition includes additional useful features such as “Food, Fill in the Blanks” on the last page, with quips on the Green Revolution and food fads. Author Anna Badkhen weaves together cultural, social and political threads related to food with a particular focus on the Arab Spring in “The Baguettes of War,” which should earn some kind of prize for amazing headlines. Two related online pieces, “How Goldman Sachs Created the Food Crisis” and “Don't Blame Goldman Sachs for the Food Crisis” are worth your time as well.
This will conclude our Summer Reading List for this week. Be sure to include some Ray Bradbury, Twilight, In Touch Weekly and comics in your beach bags as well to even out the intellectual load. We’ll follow up with more cool reads as the lazy days of summer go by.
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user "reallyboring."