The drought-induced run-up in corn prices is a reminder that we are nowhere near solving the problem of feeding the world. The price surge, the third major international food price spike in the past five years, casts more doubt on the assumption that widespread economic development leads to corresponding gains in agriculture.
The green revolution has slowed since the early 1990s, and it has become harder to bolster crop yields, as I have discussed in my book, An Economist Gets Lunch. Recent research by Dani Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at Harvard, indicates that agricultural productivity improvements are among the hardest to transmit from one nation to another.
For all its importance to human well-being, agriculture seems to be one of the lagging economic sectors of the past two decades. That means the problem of hunger is flaring up again, as the World Bank and several UN agencies have recently warned.
Consider Africa, which is often considered to have turned a corner and to be headed toward steady growth. The expansion of the African middle class and the decline in child mortality rates are both quite real, but the advances have not been balanced — and agriculture lags behind.
In a recent address, Michael Lipton, an economist and research professor at Sussex University in Britain, offered a sobering look at Africa’s agricultural productivity. He suggests that Rwanda and Ghana are gaining, but that most of the continent is not. Production and calorie intake per capita do not seem to be higher today than they were in the early 1960s. It remains an issue how Africa’s growing population will be fed.
One huge problem is that the price of fertilizer in Africa is often two to four times the world price. Yet African soil and rainfall make much of the continent subpar for growing food. In other words, the region that probably needs fertilizer the most also has to pay the most for it, and much of Africa does not have the prosperity to make this an easy stretch. The high prices result in large part from infrastructure and trade networks that are not developed enough to create a low-cost and competitive market. And the problem could worsen if economic troubles in China distract it from its beneficial investments in African roads and harbors.
On top of all that, many African nations have unhelpful policies toward agriculture. Malawi, for instance, subjects corn to periodic export and import restrictions as well as to price controls, all of which thwart development of a well-functioning market. When market speculators save corn in anticipation of greater scarcity, they may be punished by law. These restrictions of market incentives exacerbate the basic supply problems.
Such bottlenecks are a challenge for the future of the African economies. For comparison, the rapid expansions of economic growth in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea were all preceded by significant progress in agricultural productivity. In these countries, higher yields created a domestic surplus for savings and investment, encouraged small-scale entrepreneurship, fostered a sense of economic security and helped the middle class expand.
In contrast, much of Africa’s growth has come from resource wealth — such as oil, diamonds, gold and strategic minerals — and, unfortunately, resource prices are notoriously volatile. Resource wealth is less well-suited to supporting sustainable democracies, because it tends to be connected with state-backed privileges and other legally entrenched entities. The Norwegian government manages its oil wealth just fine, for example, but autocracies and fledgling democracies are more likely to be corrupted.