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How Bad Is the Global Food Crisis Going to Get?

By David Wallace Wells

"And yet the story of even the last 15 years is not at all smooth sailing when it comes to food and hunger. In a provocative new book, “Price Wars,” the anthropologist and filmmaker Rupert Russell traces the story through the commodity markets, noting, among other things, that at no point during those years was there anything like a real calorie shortfall — as Barrett says, in fact, global food production grew, year over year, every single year. And yet there were at several points dramatic food price crises — 2008, 2011 and now over the last several years — each the result, he suggests, of a dramatic rise in financial speculation in the commodity markets. And while those studying the price of food offer competing explanations — an inelastic demand curve, which can turn small disruptions in supply into big price spikes, or the fact that declining global poverty means a demand boom sufficient to keep the system precarious — financial speculation helps explain, Russell says, how natural disruptions to the market (local climate impacts or conflict, say) can be amplified into much larger and more global problems, such as traders racing one another to respond to small changes in the “real” market.

“Price Wars” has had a somewhat predictable mixed reception — reviewed dismissively in The Wall Street Journal by Roger Lowenstein but praised by Tim Sahay in The American Prospect and called “one of the most important books of our time” by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. But it arrives at quite an appropriate moment, culturally speaking, with many people emerging from the depths of the pandemic wondering whether what was long billed as a core strength of globalization, its flexibility, had been revealed through supply-chain shocks and other disruptions to be a bit of a broken promise or even an excuse for market fragility.

This is not the only plausible reading of the last few years, of course: As many with more establishment sympathies have argued, even acknowledging much of its brutality, the pandemic was perhaps less disruptive than it might have been, with supply-chain issues, though significant, considerably more muted than most feared at the outset. And those who trust the power of markets to efficiently allocate resources might look at the same longer set of data that Russell does and say that some price spikes and even the occasional crisis may be the periodic cost of a dynamic system responding to local disruptions. Russell does not share that trust, and his read is considerably more pointed: that financialization has introduced into a time of “natural” abundance needless volatility that periodically puts many of the world’s most vulnerable on the knife’s edge. “Is it a food crisis in the sense that there isn’t enough food?” he asks. “Or is it a market crisis in the sense that the market isn’t able to price the food correctly?”

And while the price crisis today is not a pure invention of markets — Russell describes it to me as “the return of the real,” since it does reflect the impact of the war, among other factors — it also tells us something about the proverb so often attributed to Sen: that a food crisis punctuated by an autocrat’s arbitrary decision to launch a destructive military adventure after two years of global pandemic disarray, with many of the world’s most important agricultural regions separately quite disrupted by anthropogenic climate change and hundreds of millions already suffering the pain of volatile food prices, is all a reminder that, however preferable it may be to the alternative, the proposition that famine is primarily now a human creation is, well, not quite as reassuring a proposition as it might once have seemed."


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