The Basic Rules of Resources
The growth in any resource is defined by three things:
- How much of that resource is generated
- How much of that resource is used
- How much of that resource is effectively stored
Politics Interferes with Clear Thinking About Resources
Thus, even when we understand the basic mechanics of personal financial savings, politicians and power-brokers have every reason in the world to interfere. As a result, the question of personal retirement accounts becomes the "destruction of Social Security" rather than a rational way to increase national savings.
The political incentives remain lively when the question turns to one of the most indispensable of resources: Food. Just as with financial savings, food is produced, consumed, and stored -- though we unfortunately experience a negative interest rate on food storage, due to loss and spoilage.
Food Resources are Increasing
Despite claims to the contrary (mothers' "Finish your plate -- there are kids starving in China!"), world food production has actually risen dramatically along with consumption. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization calls it "a global food security situation that is consistently improving, at both global and developing country levels."
For much of this improvement, we can thank improvements in biotechnology. Dr. Norman Borlaug is credited with saving a billion lives through biotechnology and the Green Revolution. Higher yields help move people away from subsistence farming and into production agriculture, freeing a labor force for other sectors and encouraging greater economic growth (though in Pakistan, for instance, the advances adopted in neighboring India have failed to catch on, leading to a perpetuation of suffering there).
Problems of Hunger Persist Despite Increased Production
But despite improvements in yields and increasing consumption, hunger still affects nearly a billion people. Hunger isn't only a biological problem; it is also a common cause of civil strife and war. Conversely, combatants also regularly use control of food supplies as a weapon of war and corruption, as in the case of Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe starved opposition supporters in 2005.
As a result, it is imperative that debates about food and agriculture look beyond the question of production. It's a lesson the United States learned and applied in World War II. In order to help supply the troops overseas, Americans were asked to do three things:
- Ration food consumption
- Plant Victory Gardens to increase production
- Store and use food well to prevent waste (a cause that was celebrated well into the Atomic Age
Increased Production Begs the Question of Improved Storage
Better food storage and shipment offers several economic benefits:
- Consumption smoothing (allowing increased yields from one year to offset decreased yields in others)
- Improved flexibility in delivery of food aid
- Improved use of comparative advantage (the longer food can be shipped and stored, the better different regions of the world can take advantage of comparative advantage and trade)
- Better insurance against catastrophe
World Food Reserves are Extremely Small
On a global scale, we need to achieve the same thing. More than half of the world's food shortages are attributed to civil strife and upheaval. At present, though, world food reserves are estimated at just a few weeks' worth of normal consumption.
Food Resource Security Needs Better Incentives for Storage and Less Politics
Rather than perpetually bemoaning the influence of biotechnology or making lunatic Luddite claims about agriculture, all parties involved should invest instead in finding better ways to stock the global pantry. We can and should continue to expand our Victory Gardens, but it's imperative that we start applying more and better Saran Wrap® as an insurance policy against real threats.