Friday, April 18, 2014

The FAO and the other “Rome Consensus”

Publicity and acclaim have accompanied the release of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty. Irrespective of the details of Piketty’s argument, there is broad agreement that inequality has risen - at least in the Anglosphere - since the ascendancy of marketism (neoliberalism), under the influence of the economist Friedman, US President Reagan and others at the end of the 1970s, when norms inhibiting the flaunting of wealth since the Great Depression weakened.

Reviewing Piketty’s book, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman ruminated that the US political class may be actively working to restore a hereditary gilded age. Discussion of Piketty’s book does not mention global inequality, but while the trend of this is similar to that in Western countries, it is much higher in absolute terms
A manifestation and cause of this global inequality is extreme deprivation, including of access to food and adequate nutrition, which is essential for brain development, health, and the capacity to work. These attributes are needed not only to escape poverty through labour and education, but to agitate and organize for political reform. However, just as most dominant economists ignore (or even celebrate) inequality (following the “Washington Consensus proclaimed, by its influential supporters including the Bretton Woods institutions, as ostensibly, the easiest path to economic growth and progress), so too, most agricultural economists support what I am calling (at least for the moment) the other “Rome consensus”. (There are other versions of the Rome Consensus which have nothing to do with food security).

The influence of market forces on academic careers and related publication bias is very strong; thus "g
roup think" also extends to downplaying the risk from climate change and, more broadly,  civilization’s collapse. I suggest it infects a good fraction of academics, including the Rome Consensus. Paul Ehrlich argues similarly.
Central to the Rome consensus is the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, (FAO), headquartered in Rome. The FAO, from its inception, has (albeit probably always leavened by some people who are more concerned with reducing root causes) been opposed to policies that prioritise the redistribution of either food or the economic and political power identified by Amartya Sen and others as ultimately determining hunger. Indeed, nascent neoliberalism ensured that the FAO's first director general, Dr Boyd Orr, was appointed for only two years. Orr was regarded by the US government and its supporters as an excessively strong advocate for the poor.
The FAO often lament that at least 800 million of the global population (over 7.2 billion in 2014) are macronutrient deficient (ie short of energy (calories) and/or protein (essential amino acids). In this, the FAO has numerous supporters, both in agri-business and among academics, including most agricultural economists.
But, how sincere are the claims made by the Rome Consensus? When I first wrote this draft I suggested the Rome consensus has become accustomed to the idea that the current number of hungry people in the world (however defined) is not that bad, and that the policies it supports (including substantial use of fossil fuels) are the best way to gradually reduce hunger and poverty. Two years later (April 2015) I am a less adamant; perhaps forces for reform are becoming dominant. My paper on this topic has just been published in the journal Global Food Security. However, one reviewer of it  wrote that all traces of criticism of the FAO must be expunged - making me wonder if the FAO is really seen as perfect, as some see the other great Roman institution, the Vatican.

Here are eight examples of FAO-supported policies and practices which concerned me in 2013:

1.   Its persistent focus on food production rather than genuine support for the redistribution of the determinants of food entitlement. This is tacit support for the Pareto Principle,[ii] (developed by Mussolini’s favourite economist). This might be changing?
2.   Implicit denial of limits to growth, whether from climate change, rising energy costs, the opportunity costs of biofuels from edible plants, the emerging scarcity of phosphorus, or the flattening of crop yield growth.
3.  Ignorance and even suppression of discussion of the determinants of population growth, including ignorance or dismissal of the economic harm of rapid population growth in low-income settings.

4.  Collective dismissal (or at least oversight) of the science behind the World Scientist’s Warning to Humanity (WSWH) (1992) which led to its wildly optimistic World Food Summit hunger target set in 1996 at the lavish World Food Summit meeting. Note that Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug (“father” of the Green Revolution), who favoured family planning was a signatory of the WSWH.

5.  FAO’s delay, suggestive of complacency, to consider climate change and food security as important until 2003, when the literature raised this as serious since at least 1994.

6.  In SOFI 2012 the FAO re-defined the MDG target associated with hunger. This reflects poor scholarship and oversight, rather than ideology, as the error is extremely embarrassing (or should be!) In SOFI 2013, the FAO reverted to the original (correct) MDG definition, without explanation, admission of error, nor apology.

7. Changing the way the FAO measures hunger in ways to make the MDG target look less out of reach. However -- perhaps -- the new method is an improvement.
8. Support for agricultural intensification as a partial solution, with insufficient recognition of its numerous hazards (not to mention the cruelty of CAFOs).

If a theatre is in fire the observer has a duty to raise the alarm. The world today already has 700-900 million people undernourished in macronutrient terms, with the well-being of billions more at threat. Agreeing with the Rome Consensus will not help those people; loud complaining might yet do some good.

[i] Defined by WHO as policies the US government and international financial institutions based in Washington DC believed countries should follow to increase economic growth (as conventionally defined) 
[ii] Essentially, that redistribution should always be avoided by growth, so that a bigger pie is shared, so that the poor are assisted without reducing the wealth of the rich.