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An economist's questions on food ...

By Bill Richmond - posted Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Concern has been expressed that “the world is now consuming more food than it produces” and the question asked “can man’s ingenuity continue to feed us all?”

An economist regards such a proposition and question with some uneasiness.

What does the proposition actually mean? That there is simply not enough in aggregate to go round, to physically sustain everyone in the world?


That is certainly the case in respect of some - almost all would agree too many - individuals.

In a large number of cases this circumstance can be attributed to natural disasters which have meant that even the best efforts of those seeking to help have been inadequate to ensure that the physical needs of many affected can be met.

Almost as obvious are reasons that can broadly be categorised as “political”.

These may combine with the former factor. The situation in Myanmar is a case in point where, almost unbelievably to many observers, those wielding political power have prevented food being delivered to those rendered in need of it.

And the plight of many on the African continent could be eased considerably if a larger percentage of the population spent less of their time fighting each other and more in agricultural pursuits.

In a similar, if slightly less dramatic, way the people of North Korea - many of whom are reported to have suffered from malnutrition, and even death from starvation - would almost certainly have fared better if the Dear Leader and his associates had permitted free interaction with the rest of the world.


Here, “economic” questions become entangled with the “political” as indeed they inevitably do, more or less subtly, when the question of the adequacy of the world’s food supply is discussed.

And so to a grand proposition. It may be challenged and tested in a variety of ways, and exceptions effectively argued. But until it’s refuted in a comprehensive way let’s run with it.

Here it is: barring the essentially short-term effects of natural disasters (which for some people these are undeniably catastrophic and no attempt is made here to in any sense dismiss them) there would be no problem of food inadequacy if political and economic barriers to the free interchange of goods - indeed the geographic movement of people themselves - were eliminated.

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About the Author

Dr Bill Richmond lectures in Economics at the University of Queensland.

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