Let Them Eat Cake
Why food inflation has skyrocketed out of control
“Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull for life to go in the common way.”
Alice in Wonderland
Since world war II, some might say society has been on a steady march upward. Poverty has declined by orders of magnitude, healthcare – despite its Kafkaesque implementation – has become nearly ubiquitous, and farmers in Burkina Faso have more computing power in their shoddy shacks today than the entire world had in 1950. That sounds excellent, right?
Well, that’s one version; the other is less glamorous. In this world, the rise of the technocrat after the second world war led to a valorization of statistics über alle – even at the expense of the people’s wellbeing. And, in the government’s interest, anything that couldn’t be measured, didn’t matter: we can’t precisely measure life satisfaction, but we can quantify GDP per capita, which as we know can be easily faked.
So, these technocrats replaced self-sufficiency – national sovereignty and personal independence – with efficiency, and regulatory capture coupled with nefarious financialization ensured that the same bureaucrats would get wealthy over and over again. They were truly men for all markets.
But, the average member of the working class couldn’t complain. They should have been ecstatic with their cheap electronic devices and limitless supply of mass-media; if they weren’t, something was surely wrong with them. What they couldn’t have known, and now only have realized, is that the invisible hand of inflation was bankrupting them faster than ever before at a faster and faster pace. They were sprinting only to remain in the same place. We already see inflation in housing, education, and healthcare; but we haven’t really seen it in food until recently.
Last week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said that its global food price index hit its highest point in nearly a decade. What follows next is revolution; after the global rice crisis of 2008, where the price of rice exploded from $300 to $1200 suddenly, revolts happened everywhere from Haiti to West Africa. And this time isn’t different; in fact, it appears the table is set for a global famine of biblical proportions.
Food doesn’t grow on trees
Inflation isn’t observable in technological fields – anything attached to the internet becomes deflationary over time through Moore’s law. Yet, inflation’s nightmarish effects exist and its worrisome presence is seen in commodities, namely through the price of food. Even though agricultural technology has reshaped the way farms work, the nominal price of food has exploded at a machine-gun clip, making subsistence living soon-impossible for much the world.
Furthermore, when food becomes overpriced, we see a dramatic impact on future generations – a child’s IQ and every measure of personal development is dependent on their access to a stable life in the early years of their life. There is no better way to ruin a generation than by choking their supply of nutrition. Without food or shelter early on, a child’s chances of a successful, happy life in later years markedly drops, whether through hereditary gene alteration from their parents or from opportunity cost of missed opportunities.
An upwards explosion in the price of food is, of course, correlated with civil unrest. Usually, famines don’t happen at the same time globally. But what if a solid chunk of the world’s countries experience a global famine at the same time? Could we survive such a calamity?
This isn’t a black swan risk, it’s slowly happening unbeknownst to many. Perhaps the key to understanding food inflation lies in understanding how it became so expensive and scarce in the first place – and why new biotech developments to aid this issue have been strangled in the first place.
The issue of food security can be compressed with an event from recent times. One ought to wonder how a single ship managed to block the Suez Canal, one of the most important trade routes in the world. A single mistake by an unwary captain led to an utter breakdown in global trade, paralyzing ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
This isn’t a new occurrence, mini-block of trading routes happen constantly; what the event illustrated, however, is that it takes a minor slip for supply chains everywhere to collapse. The actuarial risk consultants couldn’t plan for a blockage of one of the world’s largest canals by a single ship.
And, during the past year, supply chain breakdowns with serendipitous currency devaluations saw a significant decrease in food supply and consumption. Because these countries didn’t have the state capacity to control their currencies, inflation skyrocketed out of control, and violence arose leading to mass starvation at an epic scale.
For instance, hunger “hotspots” like Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Haiti are engulfed with:
Highly variable weather patterns
The issue of food security is, in fact, a secular trend only exacerbated by the past year. The FAO estimated that the number of undernourished individuals blew up from 624 million people in 2014 to 688 million in 2019. This isn’t a problem that computers can solve, it requires a strong government to coordinate competing factions. Putting it another way, in emerging markets, food shortages are often a general lagging indicator of government corruption – they’re effectively man-made. Now, it appears the same story will happen in developed countries.
The Last Famine
As the chart demonstrates, food shortages during the 20th century were generally man-made, and in their ignorance, socialist governments created famines of biblical proportions. Schoolteachers routinely take out Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao from their intellectual grabbag as lessons of what occurs when polarization becomes extreme, but many have no idea about Holdomor, the great Ukranian famine, from 1932-1933 which wiped out nearly 10 million people – a number larger than that of the Holocaust:
“Some searched for metaphors to describe [Holdomor]. Tetiana Pavlychka remembered that her sister Tamara “had a large, swollen stomach, and her neck was long and thin like a bird’s neck. People didn’t look like people — they were more like starving ghosts.”
Another survivor remembered that his mother “looked like a glass jar, filled with clear spring water. All her body that could be seen . . . was see-through and filled with water, like a plastic bag.” A third remembered his brother lying down, “alive but completely swollen, his body shining as if it were made of glass”.’
Holdomor was mainly a result of Stalinist policies like the rejection of outside aid and even sweeping up food from every household. But, it may be capitalist economies who unwittingly lead to these food shortages today on a more grandiose scale.
As cheap supply chains broke down, it became near impossible to supply food to other countries even if their citizens wanted to. And, the will to do so itself washed up. One can’t imagine giving a slice of government aid to needy countries when their kids are starving. It’s a futile task.
Therein lies the issue: The cartel of western farmers want to export their product as cheaply as possible, which opens them up to all sorts of Black Swan risks. When the music inevitably stops, the countries that were net-importers of these commodities take the hit while these massive cartels, many of whom are subsidized by their governments, can afford to do so and live another day.
But instead of paving over this glaring pothole, the elites are betting their hopes on biotech, namely GMOs, without realizing the pitfalls of this approach. Take, for example, the story of Golden Rice, called golden because of beta carotene, a red-orange substance that’s converted into Vitamin A by the body.
Vitamin A deficiency is unthinkable in America and Europe as we procure it naturally from supplements and the food we consume, but its a life-and-death matter for people everywhere else; a million people annually die from Vitamin A deficiency and more than 500,000 go blind as a direct consequence. Indeed, as shown above, Time Magazine had on its cover in July 2000 that Golden Rice would surely save more than a million kids a year; 20 years later, nothing has happened even though it was ready for use in 2002. Why?
After nine years of very expensive R&D development, the distribution of golden rice was stone-walled by activist groups like Greenpeace lamenting that because Golden Rice was a GMO, it was therefore unsuitable for human consumption at all. This is despite the fact that when it was tried by American and Chinese adults, it was curiously more effective at providing vitamin A than spinach.
That adults would have to eat 20 kgs of Golden Rice to prevent vitamin A decifiency was one of the many lies distributed by Greenpeace and by the end of their crusade, it stirred the creation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a version of the precautionary principle for living modified organisms like GMOs, which was signed by more than 100 countries. The lies magnified until governments unwittingly signed their own death warrants. It would basically become impossible to distribute cheaply engineered GMOs at scale, leading us inside the abyss where we currently reside.
This regulation strangled Golden Rice before it even had the chance to start. It would take “more than two years to transfer, for example, breeding seed from the Philippines to Vietnam, and one year from USA to India, during which time 30 politically loaded questions were asked in the Indian parliament,” the co-founder of Golden Rice, Potrykus, said.
“These Cartagena conditions are enforced, despite common sense suggesting that it is extremely difficult to construct a hypothetical risk from seed transfer between two breeding stations in different countries, especially for Golden Rice.” Long story short, all the technology in the world couldn’t save a million lives a year when the activists entered the scene.
Fundamentally, the story of golden rice is a metaphor for how tech isn’t the be-all-and-end-all for the hunger crisis, the web of bureaucrats, NGOs, and geopolitics is enough to block any sort of disruption into the ecosystem.
And, food inflation, a largely man-made debacle, is yet another instance of why solving political problems – steeped in human affairs – require the rigourous thought and work of those who can straddle the circles of both technology and geopoltics – knowing one or another isn’t enough to map out the idea maze as you’ll become overrun with the perennial struggles of the other side. Therefore, for those who wish to tackle global challenges, it becomes more important than ever to play both sides, so we can move beyond the shortsightedness of the crowd – and finally solve the most important challenges of our time.