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Policy Brief 11-12

Markets vs. Malthus: Food Security and the Global Economy

by Cullen S. Hendrix, Peterson Institute for International Economics

July 2011


In the past four years, rising world food prices and the global economic downturn increased the ranks of the world’s food insecure from 848 million to 925 million by September 2010, reversing decades of slow yet steady progress in reducing hunger. While the human costs have been considerable, the political consequences have been significant as well, fueling concerns of two skeptical groups, Neo-Malthusians and food sovereignty advocates. Hendrix assesses the claims of both. On the Neo-Malthusian position, he finds that while population growth and economic development contribute somewhat to price increases, there are few structural, resource-based impediments to increasing aggregate agricultural production. The biggest near-term threats to food security are not dwindling agricultural inputs and agricultural trade, but rather the familiar problems of poverty and political barriers to market access—in particular, the distortions created by agricultural policy in the United States and European Union. A robust trading system is the best way to address current food security problems. In light of forecast changes in global patterns of agricultural productivity, a robust trading system will become even more important to ensuring that a world undergoing climate change will be able to feed itself.

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