Freer trade could fill the world’s rice bowl

Here is my latest New York Times column.  Here is the conclusion:

Lately, it’s become fashionable to assert that, in this time of financial market turmoil, the market-oriented teachings of Milton Friedman
belong more to the past than to the future. The sadder truth is that
when it comes to food production – arguably the most important of all
human activities – Mr. Friedman’s free-trade ideas still haven’t seen
the light of day.

Here is the most interesting paragraph:

The reality is that many of today’s commodity shortages, including that
for oil, occur because ever more production and trade take place in
relatively inefficient and inflexible countries. We’re accustomed to
the response times of Silicon Valley, but when it comes to commodities
production, many of the relevant institutions abroad have only one foot
in the modern age. In other words, the world’s commodities table is
very far from flat.

Here is the most tragic part of the piece:

Poor rice yields are not the major problem. The United Nations
Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global rice production
increased by 1 percent last year and says that it is expected to
increase 1.8 percent this year. That’s not impressive, but it shouldn’t
cause starvation.

The more telling figure is that over the next
year, international trade in rice is expected to decline more than 3
percent, when it should be expanding. The decline is attributable
mainly to recent restrictions on rice exports in rice-producing
countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Egypt. 

Addendum: Also from today’s NYT, read this supporting article, which covers grain in Argentina.  And from Duke, here is a related piece on Africa.


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