The symbolism of the Irish government telling its farmers to grow more because of wartime shortages should not be lost on anyone: it recalls Irish ministers in the 1940s ordering growers to plant more grain during World War II. This time around, the program, designed to replace imports from Russia and Ukraine, relies on money rather than coercion. The rush across the EU to get more crops in the ground goes against the decades-long direction of European agricultural policy and subsidies. The warnings of a global food crisis are not an exercise.

It is not the general Covid-related disruptions to trade that are causing the spike in food prices and shortages. There was a false alarm along these lines at the start of the pandemic, when governments worried about shortages and export restrictions similar to those on personal protective equipment. In fact, supply chains have held up quite well. The current episode is more like the global food crisis of 2007-2008. The shocks did not emanate from the trading system but ended up there, with countries lashing out at export controls to keep produce at home.

Food prices have risen sharply since the middle of last year, pushed up by energy costs – not primarily the diversion of crops to biofuels, but the fossil fuel intensity of agriculture modern, including the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. The war in Ukraine has disrupted production and exports of grain and fertilizer from two of the world’s largest producers. There is a historical irony here: Stalin’s insistence that Ukraine continue to export grain in the early 1930s in order to pay for imports of machinery to industrialize the Soviet Union worsened the Holodomor famine. , during which more than 3 million Ukrainians died of starvation.

The world has had 15 years since the previous food crisis to prepare its emergency response, including agreements to minimize export controls. It didn’t go very well. The Global Trade Alert monitoring service reports that food export restrictions have more or less doubled since the middle of 2021. Currently, there is another story every few days of governments restricting food products. overseas food sales. It’s a global prisoner’s dilemma: it’s in everyone’s interest to keep exports going, but no one wants to be short by being the only country doing it.

During the 2007-2008 crisis, India and other countries panicked and banned rice exports despite no evidence of global shortages, leading to huge price hikes. In response, governments created the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) to promote transparency in production. It’s fine when there’s no shortfall, but that doesn’t guarantee cooperative political reactions if there are any.

Despite discussions at the World Trade Organization, there is no binding agreement between governments to avoid food export restrictions. Export bans are illegal under WTO law, but cases would almost certainly fail under the exception of temporary restrictions “to prevent or alleviate critical shortages of foodstuffs or other products”, a loophole that you could take a fleet of combines across.

Governments can try to boost production in the short term, as Ireland and the EU are doing. The United States will do the same, although it already distributes huge production-distorting donations to compensate farmers for retaliation for Donald Trump’s senseless trade war with China, and American wheat is often already too expensive. to be globally competitive.

One-off support programs to convert idle land back into staple crops are worth trying if they don’t turn into permanent production-distorting subsidies. But they should represent only a temporary reversal of the sensible longer-term direction of encouraging farmers to move up the value chain. (The EU is actually a net exporter of food products, including the sale of wheat abroad, but these are disproportionately high-end products: Brussels could impose export restrictions to keep its food home, but even Europeans can’t live on Gorgonzola and champagne alone. )

In any case, the increase in supply is not likely to be dramatic. It is generally not high quality productive land that farmers have left fallow. And time is running out: Irish farmers had better get busy before the barley sowing season ends in a few weeks. Digging for victory is not a major short-term solution.

It would be more useful to reduce tariffs to ensure that available grain ends up where it is needed, supported by rapid aid disbursements to developing countries to give them more purchasing power. Australia, where the government provides export credits to wheat exporters, has surpluses to sell, as does India.

For both substantive and signal reasons, the EU should quickly push through the preferential trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand once the French presidential election is over and Emmanuel Macron will no longer have to adopt agricultural protectionist poses. In addition to Australian wheat, New Zealand fruits and vegetables, grown during the southern hemisphere summer, will be welcome when the northern winter arrives.

Even during food crises, there’s usually enough to eat in the world as a whole, but it’s in the wrong places. You can try to produce more, or you can move it to the good ones. In the short term, the second of these may be politically more difficult, but it is more likely to be effective.

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