The crescendo of the biofuels/food interaction

Lynne Kiesling

We’ve been talking about the interaction of biofuels subsidies and food markets here at KP for at least the past year. The interaction is reaching a crescendo, as seen in the increased media coverage of the increased food prices, riots in poor communities, and impending increased hunger and starvation. See, for example, the lead in this week’s Economist. Their recommendation: stop the policy distortions.

In general, governments ought to liberalise markets, not intervene in them further. Food is riddled with state intervention at every turn, from subsidies to millers for cheap bread to bribes for farmers to leave land fallow. The upshot of such quotas, subsidies and controls is to dump all the imbalances that in another business might be smoothed out through small adjustments onto the one unregulated part of the food chain: the international market.

For decades, this produced low world prices and disincentives to poor farmers. Now, the opposite is happening. As a result of yet another government distortion–this time subsidies to biofuels in the rich world–prices have gone through the roof. Governments have further exaggerated the problem by imposing export quotas and trade restrictions, raising prices again. In the past, the main argument for liberalising farming was that it would raise food prices and boost returns to farmers. Now that prices have massively overshot, the argument stands for the opposite reason: liberalisation would reduce prices, while leaving farmers with a decent living.

There is an occasional exception to the rule that governments should keep out of agriculture. They can provide basic technology: executing capital-intensive irrigation projects too large for poor individual farmers to undertake, or paying for basic science that helps produce higher-yielding seeds. But be careful. Too often–as in Europe, where superstitious distrust of genetic modification is slowing take-up of the technology–governments hinder rather than help such advances. Since the way to feed the world is not to bring more land under cultivation, but to increase yields, science is crucial.