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Global Grain Reserves Are Key to Food Security

It's high time we recognize that the wisdom about food security we've learned over millennia will serve us better than economic theories that weigh the value of food against immediate profit instead of against potential eventual starvation.
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There's a lot of discussion these days about food security amid predictions of rampant population growth and anxious memories of 2008 food riots in the developing world. Much of this talk comes in the form of boosterism for high-yielding GMO seeds, but before we launch ourselves into a most-likely-misguided quest for a silver bullet to solve this problem, it's worth looking at history's lessons.

In Empires of Food, authors Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas discuss how the establishment of strategic grain reserves has been the key to food security since Joseph advised Pharaoh on the meaning of his dream. "The first rule of a successful food empire is to keep the larder stocked," the authors write. "Without a secure food supply, even the stoutest ring of fortifications won't protect a society from being overrun by Huns."

While Huns aren't exactly the most vexing concern for U.S. eaters at the moment, the lesson holds true today. And unfortunately, we have neglected this age-old rule and laid ourselves bare to disaster. "Reserves are bottoming out," write Fraser and Rimas. "Even without a climate trigger, the ledger shows some unpleasant mathematics."

Indeed, as National Family Farm Coalition and Grassroots International stated in an open letter to Congress in 2008, "We are just one drought away from possibly seeing $10/bushel corn or $20/bushel wheat with absolutely no plan in place to deal with such a calamity."

Fraser and Rimas offer an insightful analysis of how we've come to such a precipice. The key pieces of that puzzle, as is so often the case when we manage to shoot ourselves in the foot, are greed and political dysfunction. In the 1970s, they write, a rise in food prices inspired the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization to establish a strategic grain reserve designed to protect the globe from famine. The plan was for UN-supplied grain to be stored in silos around the world, especially in Africa, until the need to tamp down prices spurred its release onto the market.

The grain was put in place, but didn't stay for long. Corrupt local officials, much more interested in their own present fortunes than the eventual need for strategic food stocks, made quick work of profiting from the bounty under their control. When the grain was finally needed, there was none to be had. "By the end of the 1980s, all that was left was the ink on a ledger sheet," write Fraser and Rimas.

What's a hungry world to do? The monumental failure of the UN plan combined with a distaste for heavy-handed government intervention produced a new way of looking at things, a cop-out called the "Washington Consensus," which holds that the free market will somehow (How? It's unclear...) guarantee food security for the people of the globe. Food, the logic goes, doesn't earn interest like money does, so of course the best thing to do is turn the food into money and worry about what you're going to eat later. This is, as Fraser and Rimas point out, "the opposite of Joseph's advice to Pharaoh." Even so, global economic arbiters like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been waving this dubious banner for years.

It's high time we recognize that the wisdom about food security we've learned over millennia will serve us better than economic theories that weigh the value of food against potential immediate profit instead of against potential eventual starvation. We shouldn't even begin arguing the relative merits of GMO seeds or other miraculous "solutions" to our food insecurity until we have done what human societies have done to survive for ages -- hidden a giant pile of food away for the inevitable rainy day.

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