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Oxfam's 'Grow' world hunger plan: More peasants

Hippie-crats correct on axing farm subsidies, tho

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Comment Oxfam's latest campaign, "Grow", seems so lovely and cuddly that to criticise it is almost like torturing puppies. What could be wrong with trying to feed the hungry and thus make the world a better place? Alas, if wishes were kings we could all be monarchs for the day and what's wrong with the campaign is not the initial wish but the list of damn fool things it intends to do.

Praise first: Oxfam is quite right that there are several entirely stupid things that are being done about food currently. The first and most obvious is the biofuels nonsense: food should go into people, or at least animals we can eat, not into cars. But the European Union has insisted that 10 per cent (to rise to 15 per cent) of all petrol/diesel must be made from plants instead. Oxfam seems to think that this will reduce emissions: despite every scientist worthy of his slide rule pointing out that growing and processing the plants emits more than the oil being replaced.

Another policy we should stop yesterday is the subsidy of the rich world's farmers. Can't make a profit growing what people want to eat? Then stop and do something else. We say this to car makers, to buggy whip makers and there's nothing about wading in cow shit that makes farming any different. New Zealand did it and farming profits went up.

After those two pieces of piercing analytical logic, the report unfortunately goes downhill. There are the usual factual quibbles: Oxfam says that 90 per cent of food commodity trading is in the hands of just three companies, something that just isn't true. It seems to have been bamboozled by some very bad research into ignoring large numbers of companies that engage in such. Similarly, it give us the factoid that fossil fuels are subsidised to the tune of $330bn-ish while renewables to only $50bn-odd: entirely ignoring that the subsidies are in different parts of the world and for different things. The renewables subsidies are all being paid out by the likes of the UK, Germany and Spain, in order (however ineffectually) to give the new technologies a leg up. The fossil fuel subsidies are all being paid out by more or less repressive regimes like China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to subsidise the consumption of petrol and the like. They're simply not comparable: it really isn't the UK subsidising both at all, which is the impression they give.

A third is that Oxfam says the price of food is going to rise. Well, yeeesss, except that its analysis deliberately excludes anything people might do in terms of research, breeding or changing farming (or even consumption) habits as a result of changing prices. Excluding everything that we know people do when prices change when looking at what will happen when prices change is a tad odd.

Further, despite what some commentators seem to be taking as the lesson from the report, Oxfam doesn't say that household spending on food is going to rise. The organisation actually expects it, as a portion of such incomes, to fall in most countries. For its real argument that food prices will rise is that the poor are getting richer. Demand for food will rise as diets change, as everyone gets the taste for three squares a day: this might indeed be a problem but it's a nice problem to have. One of affluence, not of poverty.

However, these are quibbles: what horrifies is the ghastly error at the heart of Oxfam's argument. The aim, the intention, is to both feed the world and to do so more equitably. Excellent: it is a harsh man who is happy with the fact that we currently grow enough calories to feed everyone yet there are still people who are going hungry.

The organisation is also able to identify the basic things that need to be changed in order to sort these things out. The farmers who don't currently have access to the best seeds, and to the best inputs, need to gain such access. Transport networks and storage and processing facilities need to be developed in areas that don't have them, so that less of the crop rots on the way to market.

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