How not to read a report, brought to you by Geoffrey Lean


A lovely example of how to propagandise rather than actually report from our Geoffrey Lean over at the Telegraph. Things are terrible and only going to get worse, of course:

Ours is the first generation than can largely take plentiful, cheap food for granted. Now, report after report is suggesting it may also be the last.

Two days ago, a Ministry of Defence study of “global strategic trends” raised the spectre of global demand outstripping supply over the next 30 years. And two days earlier, a Commons committee warned that Britain’s own food security is imperilled.

Prices have been rising twice as fast as general inflation and appear to be accelerating. The MoD report suggests that they could eventually settle at twice their present level.

That's not, quite, what the report actually says. What it does say is this:

By 2045, food production is predicted to have increased by nearly 70%, to feed a larger and more demanding population13 – and it is possible that demand could outstrip supply. Some types of consumption are likely to grow particularly strongly. As affluence grows in the developing world, the demand for more protein-rich diets is also likely to increase. China, for example, has seen meat consumption increase by 63% between 1985 and 2009, and this trend seems likely to continue.14 Pollution and soil erosion are likely to adversely affect agricultural land – some estimates assess that, globally, as much as 25% of agricultural land is already degraded.15 Climate change will almost certainly have adverse effects on some agriculture, but may open up new areas for cultivation, with positive impacts on particular crops in certain regions. On balance, even though the quality of some areas is likely to have been degraded by 2045, the global arable land area is projected to remain relatively constant (estimates range from a 10% decrease to a 25% increase),16 with some potential increases in crop productivity in the high latitudes, and decreases across the tropical regions.17 Furthermore, warming, acidification and overfishing also threaten to reduce the amount of food that can be harvested from the oceans. Estimates of future food prices are highly varied and may be more volatile, although most projections indicate a general increase.18 Analysis by the International Food Policy Research Institute suggests that average prices of many staple grains could rise by 30% even in the most optimistic scenario.19 Disruption, and possibly congestion, of global trade routes may lead to sharp increases in food prices – particularly in those countries dependent on food imports. When the effects of climate change are taken into account, the price increase above present levels could be as much as 100%.

And when we go and look at that source report we find something very interesting.

If climate change is bad and population growth is high then the price of maize "might" rise by 100% in real terms (ie, after the effects of general inflation). Note, not "food" but "maize". The price, even in this worst scenario, of wheat might move by 30%.

However, note also one of the drivers of that food price rise: that people are getting richer and thus are able to have (ie, there is effective demand for) a richer and more varied diet. And whether food is "cheap" or not rather depends upon both the price of food and also the incomes of those trying to purchase said food. And even in that worst case scenario the incomes of the poor of the world (obviously, the people we're actually concerned about here, the change in the price of maize is going to make near no difference at all to rich world people like ourselves. Tuppence on a pack of cornflakes is too trivial to worry about for us.) rise faster than the price even of maize over the 2000 to 2050 time period being studied.

That is, yes, food rises in price but it also becomes cheaper, more affordable.

It makes sense that the MoD found this, that the original report found this, for it is also the same result Oxfam has found. Precisely because it is not a "shortage" of food, nor climate change, that is the major driver of future food price increases. Rather, it's that the poor will be getting rich and be gaining access to that petit bourgeois pleasure of three squares a day, some of them even with a little meat in them.

This is a problem, if you want to describe it as a problem, of the great success of the neoliberal, globalised, world economic order. Finally, for the first time since the invention of agriculture, the poor are able to eat well. This pushes up food prices, sure, but only and exactly because food is becoming more affordable for all.

We find it very difficult indeed to describe this as something we ought to worry about. More an occasion to get out the bunting and the flags really, time perhaps for Breughel-like scenes of the yeomanry feasting and drinking as we celebrate the good fortune of billions of our fellows.