Food Scarcity: The Cost of Failure

April 25, 2013
This is the first in a series of articles that will examine the cost of failure when strong farm policy is not enacted.
Food scarcity: it is not something we often think about. We are, after all, the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind.
Not free of want — but certainly a land of plenty …  flowing in milk and honey.
Could this change for us?  Could we actually know food scarcity as a nation?  These are fundamental questions for any government that admittedly seem far removed from our daily lives.  But the reality of it may be closer than you think.
We were reminded of this in an April 11 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Key Issue to Venezuelan Vote: Food.”  It documents the public outcry over bare supermarket shelves, but also highlights the prospect that it could get much worse.
“Why is this oil rich nation of nearly 29 million having trouble feeding itself?” the article begins.  While the existing government was busy blaming the well-to-do as hoarders, the real culprit is clearly identified as years of government policies that have shackled the individual farmers and the agricultural enterprise generally with vastly reduced yields being the result.
“The reason is that Venezuela’s once plentiful agriculture has been crippled by years of price controls, a lack of fertilizers, pesticides and equipment, and the threat of farmland seizures by the government, say farmers and economists,” according to the article.  The result: from 2004 to 2012, corn production fell by 25 percent, rice by 34 percent and cattle by 27 percent.
And the perhaps bigger issues with agriculture — you cannot solve problems, or make up for years of neglect, overnight. Once a country has lost the infrastructure and knowhow it is difficult to get it back.
Thus the point, “it is a high-risk situation” that “could haunt Venezuela for years to come.” The current situation is not a crisis, but it could quickly become one. “The country relies on its oil dollars to buy 70 percent of its food from abroad, generating worry among economists and agriculture experts that if oil prices fall, the country will face a severe food shortage.”
This potentially tragic situation is regrettable, but it is also avoidable.
In the U.S., we have policies built around private property rights that encourage our farmers to invest in the land that they will pass down. We also encourage the use of technology and inputs that have allowed our farmers to be the most productive in the world.
Food security does not happen by accident. It is a blessing that is fostered by smart policy.
Over the next 40 years, as the world population grows from 7 billion to 9 billion and demand for agricultural commodities doubles, we need such policies that encourage investment and constant improvement.  If done right, more nations and peoples will continue to know the happiness of a safe and reliable and affordable food supply.
The cost of failure would be grim.