A dirty little secret of free markets is that you can have free trade or food security, not both. In a perfect world, food security might not be a concern. This world is far from perfect, and given recent scares about food supply in many countries, it is highly possible that fears over food security – or actual food shortages – will bring a very sudden end to so-called “free trade” agreements and globalisation. Nothing will bring a government down faster than hungry people, and even the most corrupt government will be very reluctant to honour a trade agreement that leaves its people starving – and rioting.¹
There has been much hullabaloo about the developed countries (especially the United States and Canada) losing manufacturing capability to developing countries like China, but this is nothing compared to the loss of food security. Free trade theory holds that it is more efficient for each nation to specialise in producing certain goods (including food) that it then trades with other nations, and all benefit. The idea is that specialisation produces a comparative advantage.
It may be true that comparative advantage is more efficient, but it is less secure. (I would even dispute the efficiency in some cases, because transportation costs must be included. How can it be more efficient to produce cheese in France and fly it to the United States, than for the U.S. to produce cheese locally? I smell a subsidy.) Less secure means that any disruptions can lead to shortages, and food shortages are never a good thing.
Food Shortages and Panic
And in recent years there have been some food shortage scares. The first link in this article is to a chilling summary of worldwide food production declines in 2009, many due to droughts likely exacerbated by global warming. Australia, China – even the United States is in trouble.
I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen…. We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going, either.
– Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Feb. 4, 2009, LA Times
Several countries imposed food export restrictions in 2008. It has often been said that there is plenty of food to go around, that the problem is one of distribution. This may or may not be true, but that is cold comfort to starving people. They won’t care about the wonders of free trade – they will want food, now. It will be very easy for a panic to start, and then food protectionism will occur virtually everywhere overnight.
This is frightening, or should be. For example, I live on Vancouver Island, where we once produced ~85% of our food locally. This is a secure food supply situation. Now over 90% of our food is imported. That is a scary-as-hell situation. Here’s the thing about food: you can’t do without it, even for a short time, and you also can’t magically make more when you need it. Crops grow during certain seasons and they take months to be ready. If a food panic sets in this fall, then you could be living on scraps until next summer. Or not living.
Market Fundamentalism versus Reality
The dominant political-economic ideology today is Market Fundamentalism, which includes the need for completely unrestricted trade between nations. Adhering religiously to any ideology, economic or otherwise, in the face of contradictory reality is dangerous. Trade is without question beneficial. Unrestricted trade is not, for several reasons, but when it comes to the necessities of life it is downright dangerous. Look at the danger the United States has put itself in by becoming dependent upon foreign oil; it necessitates a strong military presence in the Middle East, including a war in Iraq, to ensure that the oil keeps flowing. If someone bombed the Saudi oil fields, the United States would be plunged into crisis almost overnight.
Energy is a necessity, and our modern civilisation is utterly dependent upon it. Food is an even more immediate necessity, and ‘outsourcing’ food production to other nations puts a country in a very precarious – and dependent – position.
A far more sensible approach to trade would have been trade agreements for luxuries only. If trade is interrupted for any reason – due to protectionism, shortages, oil price increases, war, acts of God, etc – people can live without a new big screen TV for awhile. They cannot and will not live without the necessities of life like food and energy. All necessities should be produced in the home country, even if it is less efficient in the short-term, because a secure food supply is more important than efficiency.
As the Canadian, American, and British governments are dominated by market fundamentalists, you would be wise to start seeking out local sources of food, including growing your own if possible. The boys at the top are not going to roll back trade agreements willingly; free trade is a point of faith with them, and will only be overthrown by undeniable reality. And you can bet they will not suffer from food shortages.
Food Security and Oil
A final word on oil: food production and imports are entirely dependent upon it. Most pesticides and fertilizers are based on fossil fuels, and all tractors and transportation are oil-fueled. If (when) the price of oil goes up, so will the price of food. If oil shortages return, food shortages will also occur.
We must choose between unrestricted free trade and food security.
We cannot have both. Personally, I choose a secure food supply, and would advise readers to do the same. Perhaps my thinking is influenced by living on an island that now produces ~7% of the food requirements of its inhabitants. People living in the U.S. Sunbelt should also be very concerned. In reality, most of us in the developed world get our food from places far away and would be wise to look into closer alternatives now – before there are shortages or price hikes.
Let the market fundamentalists go hungry if and when food shortages occur. There is no need for you to.
¹The only way a government can stand when its people are starving is if totalitarian control is exercised and the government is willing to brutally let large portions of the population starve. Stalin did this to Ukraine; the federal government took the harvest and left millions of Ukrainians to starve to death. Anyone who protested went to a gulag, which was often a death sentence. It is very doubtful most governments could get away with this today.
Useful Resources for Readers
The first two books (from left to right) are about growing and preserving your own food and are highly rated. The third book is by the author of The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age and the website The Archdruid Report. He has written extensively and well about peak oil and the decline of industrial civilisation as a result. The final book looks at lessons from Cuba, and contrary to popular belief, the author found that Cubans do not grow all their food in organic urban gardens. Much food is grown in rural areas and requires significant fossil fuel inputs; Cuba has encountered challenges in going all organic and small-scale that we would be well-advised to learn from.