back to article Oxfam's 'Grow' world hunger plan: More peasants

Oxfam's latest campaign, "Grow", seems so lovely and cuddly that to criticise it is almost like torturing puppies. What could be wrong with trying to feed the hungry and thus make the world a better place? Alas, if wishes were kings we could all be monarchs for the day and what's wrong with the campaign is not the initial wish …


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  1. evilbob thebob

    To be completely cynical...

    Isn't it in Oxfam's best interests that there are still peasants? Without peasants, why would we need such a charity?

    1. tas

      Now *that* is cynical!

      There are actually very good economic arguments to consider rich countries as "Bad Samaritans", especially through their use of the financial conduits, sometimes known as the Unholy Trinity of the IMF, World Bank and WTO.

      But to stretch that to purely humanitarian registered charities is ... well, let's just say you've got one hell of a rubber band there!

      On the whole, I think Worstall covers most of the points well.

      1. However, while he does not say it explicitly, there seems to be an assumption that the market is almost completely sufficient to solve this long-standing problem. I would counter that the role of a developing country's government is critical, especially since Worstall rejects the idea of long term peasantry. For example: import of more advanced farming technology, education/retraining of subsistence farmers, infrastructure development (roads and irrigation, in particular), local/national seed banks, local agricultural methods and knowledge repositories, geographical map creation, careful land management to balance agricultural use vs and industrial and residential use (including energy plants such as natural gas and oil drilling), ecological management (including minimizing de-forestation which has a direct impact on soils and flooding).

      2. Futures/forward/option trading can add to price volatility. The whole point of a financial market is to price in information as soon as its available. Unfortunately, that can mean that the market moves well ahead of the underlying commodity (known as the cash market), especially since speculators do not have to hold until physical delivery to make a profit. This issue is aggravated when the cash market is under-developed because there is a large disconnect between the information, knowledge and education of the producers (lets call them the "peasants") versus the speculators/arbitrageurs and hedgers. It also forces one national price for the same physical good, even if different costs accrue regionally. All these characteristics are perfect to eliminate inefficiencies in well-developed cash markets or geo-politically sensitive/controllable goods (e.g. oil) and likely do reduce price volatility in that situation. But they are far from likely to produce the same medium-term/long-term benefits for a developing country's "infant industries", if introduced too early, since the total costs and inefficiencies are so high.

      3. Yes, Oxfam are right. Food and crop prices will go up - a LOT in the coming decades. In a sense its already started, corn futures have already hit $7 a bushel, up from $2 a bushel five years ago. In that same period, soybean futures climbed from $6 a bushel to $14 a bushel, and cattle and hog futures hit all-time highs. Consider, the United States is by far the world’s largest grain exporter. It exports about 90 million tons of grain annually, though China requires 80 million tons of grain each year to meet just *one-fifth* of its needs. Consider, for example, more than 90% of the China's population is rural, yet the country's growth continues to set real per-capita growth records year-on-year. Not only will +1 billion people want more food, but they'll want more meat which consumes more grains and much more water. In addition, with all the factors I gave above and more, balancing agriculture and industry in any country is tough, just look at EU CAP policy, but try doing that for +1 billion souls desperate for a better life...!

  2. Andy ORourke

    I was going.......

    to plug my fundraising website:

    I'm walking 100K in 24 hours to raise money for Oxfam & the Gurkha foundation but I guess everyone reading these comments is now going to be against Oxfam so probably won't want to make any donations (no matter how small) to these charitable causes

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Andy ORourke

      Dammit, you beat me to it.

      Of course, if you read Andy ORourke's comment and thought, "I'm not giving money to Oxfam." but have, this far down the comments, mellowed and thought, "Well, at least they're trying." you could donate here instead:

      PS: _My link_ includes a free blog post with a story about zombies.

      PPS: Every pound helps.

      PPPS: It's a cut throat business this fund raising malarkey.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Middle class hypocrisy.

    These idiots sit around in their centrally heated houses sipping their latest fad wine at dinner party’s and witter on about how these people shouldn't be allowed the luxuries they could not live without.

    These people disgust me, they have even less shame than they have intelligence.

    1. Tim Parker

      Re : Middle class hypocrisy

      "These idiots sit around in their centrally heated houses sipping their latest fad wine at dinner party’s and witter on about how these people shouldn't be allowed the luxuries they could not live without.

      These people disgust me, they have even less shame than they have intelligence."

      Steady on - I may disagree with a couple of Mr Worstalls points, but that a bit rough on him and the rest of the journalists at El Reg...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Norfolk 'n' Goode

      Hmmm, you have an interesting view of the middle classes.

      Charities were pretty much created by the upper classes and this days most of the support and money comes from the middle classes.

      The working classes, of course, being too concerned about getting food on the table to really worry about people outside their immediate sphere.

      These days, most Brits who self-identify as "working class" sit around with their wide screen TVs and mortgages just like every other idiot. It's unlikely that you're any different. Well done, you're as much of a hypocrite as the ones you just invented.

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Meanwhile, at D. Party's suburban home ...


  4. Anonymous Coward

    One issue with the article....

    "Can't make a profit ........ We say this to car makers"


    Have you seen how many bailouts / goverment "loans" car makers get?

    Most would of gone bust decades ago if it wasn't for goverment help....

    1. E 2


      Most of the car makers would have gone bust in fall 2008 or winter 2009 if not for gov't bailouts.

      1. Naughtyhorse

        true, true


        2 letters




        1 years worth of that makes all bailouts t all companies (banks excepted) pale into insignificance.

        that said, losing chrysler (in the uk) in the 70's was no big deal (seeing as i didnt work for them)

        losing spuds, say, to a hostile takeover from tofu would be a catastrophe1

        (whaddya mean it cant count as one of 5 a day? you'll be saying the tomatos in my ketchup and beans in my coffee dont count next! - it's political correctness gone mad i tell you)

      2. YARR

        We can't put off buying essential food, unlike new cars.

        True but that was due to a short term collapse in consumption rather the car industry not being profitable in the long term (at least for larger manufacturers). Perhaps if there was a futures market for cars this could have been avoided?

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    When it comes to food production, I'd also like to see a worldwide ban on the ruinous business practices employed by Monsanto with regards neighbouring farmers to those using Monsanto patented GM seeds. Basically, they threaten the fuck out of said farmers when their seed stock becomes naturally cross pollinated with their neighbours GM stock resulting in the farmer either losing most of his own seeds and going bust or being forced into paying for Monsanto seeds he/she didn't want in the first place.

    This kinda bullying is utterly disgusting and is my major gripe with GM crops (of which could help to dramatically raise productivity levels).

    Odd they don't mention it in their report.

    1. nyelvmark

      GM crops

      ...are the spawn of the devil, anyway, so why should they care? I heard about this guy who ate a pizza with GM flour, and he grew an extra head. No, honestly.

      1. Mephistro

        @ nyelvmark

        "GM crops...are the spawn of the devil"

        In a few years more, when the loss of genetic diversity -brought by GM crops and Monsanto's "aggressive marketing" -comes back to bite our asses, people will say this a lot. But they won't be smiling.

        1. Veldan
          Thumb Up


          Then a few years after the genetic diversity policy removes GM crops people won't be saying much. Too busy starving as their crops are no longer drought, flood, plague or disease resistant.

          Ah well, at lest they're diverse right?

          1. Mephistro
            Thumb Down

            @ Veldan

            Let's assume for a moment that you understand the implications of loss of crops's genetic diversity. Let's assume that you know that in that diversity there are already genes able to cope with draught, floods and specific plagues. Let's assume that you understand the implications of sowing exclusively clones -that is, genetically identical plants- everywhere, and the implications in plant epidemiology...

            Nah, that's assuming too much. Forget about it.

            Furthermore, your post seems to hint that Monsanto seeds are resistant to all those factors, which is clearly not the case. The up side of the actual situation is that it provides great business oportunities. For Monsanto, not for the farmers or the consumers.

    2. Marvin the Martian

      Devilspawn seed?

      I would mostly take Greenpeace, the organic movement and similar charities/lobbyers to task over the "GM controversy".

      The rubbish health worries ("grow extra heads") have been sold to the always-worrying middle class with a good helping of science fear and hyperbole --- so that you either reject the GM outright or reject the worries outright and use it out of context (like the "grow extra heads" comment above) to dismiss whatever displeases you.

      The big problem with GM is the licensing and customer lock-in of epic, even beyond-Microsoft, scale: you have to buy sterile monsanto seeds every year (instead of keeping a fraction of your harvest each year, to continue the cycle), as it's the only one available to work with the necessary glysophate weedkiller. If prices fall, it's not a matter of having a monotonous diet anymore (you can only eat your own produce, until selling becomes worthwile again) --- it's a matter of losing everything as you cannot replant next year; leading to local food shortage OR profit for a transport company instead of a grower.

  6. TrishaD

    Farm or?


    The point that's being missed here, surely, is that with Africa lacking much in the way of an industrial base, the alternatives available to people outside the cities is to farm or do nothing very much. So the alternatives at present would seem to consist of a large proportion of the population engaging in subsistance farming or a rather smaller (but more affluent) proportion of the population engaging in more efficient farming while the rest starve because they cant afford to buy the food that's being shipped off so that western right-wing rugged individualists can buy food out of season.

    Radio 4 recently interviewed Nicola Horlick who's leading a drive for western speculators to buy agricultural land in South America so that they can make a tidy profit from 'modernising' farming over there. When specifically asked what would happen to the surplus rural population, she airily replied that they could move to the cities and get 'jobs' (nature unspecified) there. What jobs would they be, perchance?

    Oxfam's proposals may appear simplistic. But right now they're probably achievable.

    All this 'throw it to the market' stuff isnt. What's essentially being proposed is 'trickle down' and 'trickle down' doesnt work.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Er, maybe the surplus labour could be used to build industrial capacity, as was the case in the developed world?

      If we are serious about increasing food production, that means increasing farming productivity. There is nothing magical here.

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Trickledown can work

      If you have richer farmers, because they're using land and growing crops more efficiently, then they'll be richer. That's rather the point. Richer people buy goods and services. Subsistence farmers eat most of what they grow, and don't have much, if any, money.

      People buying goods and services means businesses and jobs. People who've stopped subsistence farming can run those businesses or take those jobs. Depending on how land ownership is managed, they might even avoid getting screwed in the process.

      This can be incredibly painful, as enclosure and industrialisation were in Britain in the 18th/19th Centuries. It doesn't necessarily have to be. Although any structural economic change is going to have winners and losers, however well managed.

      But subsistence farming isn't the perfect rural idyll. Sustainable economic and political development requires a population who aren't all growing food, and it takes a working economy to support education and healthcare. The change from one to the other entails hardship, but as I said subsistence farming isn't a rural idyll, especially without healthcare, which subsistence farmers can't afford.

      Like democracy, capitalism is the worst system in the world. Except for all the others.

      1. Pete 2 Silver badge

        It's a balancing act

        > Subsistence farmers eat most of what they grow, and don't have much, if any, money.

        ISTM the basic problem that Oxfam has is managing their donors. On the one hand they rely on the chattering classes to put their hands in their pockets to bail out the "poor hungry farmers" in dusty countries. On the other hand, if they turn these PHFs into productive, industrial workers the chatterers will worry that they're contributing to global warming with all their "new" CO2 emissions. [It's not lost on me that it's usually the 4x4 brigade who are so worried about other countries getting up to _their_ standard of living and "destroying the planet" with _their_ emissions]. Just as they now "tut" about the Chinese having the temerity to want electricity in their houses, and meat an' stuff.

        Therefore to keep the donations flowing, and as has been pointed out: themselves in business, the PHFs mustn't starve to death, but mustn't get too consumerist either.

        Luckily for Oxfam, that's very unlikely to happen as the dusty country's long-term problems are less about food and more about drought, war and corruption: all of which cause each other. Until someone cures those fundamental barriers to investment and growth, the PHFs and their families are pretty much doomed to a subsistence lifestyle - no matter how earnest Oxfam and their followers get.

      2. strum
        Thumb Down

        Subsistence is efficient

        >If you have richer farmers, because they're using land and growing crops more efficiently, then they'll be richer. That's rather the point. Richer people buy goods and services. Subsistence farmers eat most of what they grow, and don't have much, if any, money.

        Which is extraordinarily efficient - they are producing (roughly) X output for X input.

        Modern 'efficient' farming can't achieve anything like that - with various inputs of fertiliser, energy and transport, an 'efficient' farm would be lucky to produce X from an input of 2X.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Globalisation gets in the way

    We have the situation now where farms have closed in areas because there is not enough money to keep them running. People Starve.

    Then big companies come along and offer to buy the land. 'Great' say the people 'they can afford to run farms and we wont go hungry'

    Big company buys the land, starts growing flowers because its the best money maker they have from the land. Export them to all the rich countries and make profit. People still starve.

    Not that some of these starving people help themselves. A friend of mine was out there for a few months. The locals don't bother their arse doing things as 'the white man will provide'

    Give a man a fish and he'll be fed for one day.

    Teach him to fish and he'll sit on his backside demanding his free fish.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      I would suggest to you....

      That your friend is lying and you're a fool for believing him.

      ""Give a man a fish and he'll be fed for one day.

      Teach him to fish and he'll sit on his backside demanding his free fish.""

      I've seen some stupid things posted on here but that's got to be one of the dumbest yet.

      1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

        Make a man...

        ...a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.

      2. John 62


        Imran Khan wants the US to stop sending so much aid to Pakistan, not because he wants the Great Satan out of Pakistan's affairs, but because all that money, grain, etc from USAID starts sloshing around and fuels corruption.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        And I would suggest to you...

        ...that you have no anecdote, just well-meaning cognitive bias.

        I was in touch with an old Indian friend a while back, who, in the years since we were last in touch, had been back with her family to try and start a business over there to bring tourists in and so bring money into the economy, and got completely lied to and ripped off at every turn by the very people they were trying to help.

        My Bengali friends also have issues every time they go there, just getting badly treated by people expecting to milk them for whatever they can get.

        I don't know why, but poverty does seem to put a lot of people into the idea that others owe them a living - something the 'everyone's a victim' NuLab bleeding hearts bought into hook, line and sinker, thus corrupting the 'to each according to his needs' bit of their philosophical couplet.

        But never mind anecdote - it's a well established fact the aid has bred a culture of dependence, rather than lift people into a self-sustaining viable way of life. Of course, that could be largely down to their breeding rather than a failure of the provided techniques. (Between the 80's drought and the current one, Ethiopians managed to double their population)

      4. Anonymous Coward

        I wish it was stupid but...

        What I hear from 90% of the people who I know visit Africa (it is a big place and yes one country in it is very different to the next as is one village to the next but) because of decades of handouts people do just expect food to turn up and have taken a fatalist view of the word. We have no food, let us hope the aid workers hear about it soon. All of the people who I have spoken to who went out to dig wells said that they were offering to show people how to dig wells and 90% of the people didn'y want to, that is what charity workers are for.

        Now I also have heard some great stories of Africans who do take pride in their country and their people but they are in the minority. Many will campaign to make the lives of their countrymen better, they will try to educate people to be better farmers, live better lives and so forth but many people will not.

        As far as the Oxfam suggestion that most of Africa should be subsistence farmers I have 3 points I would like to make:

        1. It sounds stupid but remember that industrialised farming is not sustainable; we use huge amounts of fertiliser and fuel to grow crops which equates to many times the calories that the crops themselves provide. If growing 10kCal of sugar beat takes 30kCal of petrol and 10kCal of fertiliser then it is a loss in energy that something has to make up i.e. fossil fuels mostly at present. (I made the numbers up, look up some sustainable farming papers and take a pinch of sault with you but it gives you the idea of the probably problem).

        2. In UK when industrialisation hit we all had food because we were mainly subsistence farmers with a small amount of support industry. This meant that as a factory opened a few people went to work for it and a few farms went short handed but there was still enough food. Then some new farming tools turned up and some farms didnt need so many labourers but that was OK some/most of those were needed in the coal mine or factory in the next town. This was a gradual process but it meant that most of the population stayed at the same level of wealth (no money with food -> little money to buy food -> more money to buy food and simple goods -> more money to buy a few luxuries too). This worked because we did not have some rich economy next door to sell flowers too and it was always a priority that we could buy food (no workers = no work done = no more profit). Gradual change is essential and this might mean 20~30 years of Africa farming in simple ways so that they can then sell there tiny surplus and stat working a the next level of industry.

        3. I kind of made this point in 2 but there is more to it. Industrial farming currently uses too much energy. If we want crops for fuel they must take less energy to grow, harvest, process and transport than we can USE from them. I used sugar beat above because I know it is one thing that could make ethanol. In Brazil sugar cane is grown, harvested and processed in small areas so that the energy balance works. By making the ethernot near to the fields you concentrate the energy so that you are not carrying heavy crops many miles. This is not a very profitable way to make money but it is very profitable in terms of energy. We have two choices in the future; we need to either pay a fair price for all the energy we use or we need to make it in a very very cheap way. It may well be that Industrial farming needs to become less productive per acre; this be done by putting less energy into it (in fertilizers etc) it will also mean that developing countries which could not (economically) afford fertilizers will become more competitive. To balance the scales we may need to take some of the load from one side and move it to the other rather than just try to add more and more to one side while the other grows.

        Economics is a very complicated thing and clearly something has not gone right for Africa. I hope that we can find the answer to keep people fed very where but there are so many factors it will never be a simple fix and will always require constant monitoring and changes to the plans. The important thing is to have people who will make the effort and then try our best to work out how that effort should be applied.

      5. David Neil


        We have generations of people in this country who have no intention of holding down a job as the state will provide, what makes you think a similar percentage of people elsewhere are any less likely to have worked out a similar outlook on life?

      6. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Norfolk 'n' Goode

        Just because someone has seen something that doesn't match your view of the world, doesn't make them a liar.

  8. mark 63 Silver badge


    Farming does need to be more localised , all that road transport , ports, shipping etc just ensures that we've spent about 1000 calories on each calorie we actually eat.

    I agree about farmers subsidies - if you cant make a living producing something as essential to life as food , somethings going wrong.

  9. normanp

    Why is Oxfam racist?

    They are not racists, but rather believe that pre-industrial age way of life is superior to life tainted by capitalism. Just think what legions of leftists are doing to the Indians of the Amazon...

    Anyway, this piece is an example of what I really like in The Register!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Richard IV

    Statistics and associated mistruths

    I think the thing that annoyed me more than anything about the reporting on Oxfam's report was the headlining of the estimated food price rise over 20 years. Flipping heck, it's going to more than double! It's the end of the world as we know it!

    I swear, stuff like this makes me want to go round every journalist's house with a cricket bat and bash some knowledge of geometric series into them. OK, so "Food Prices will rise by 3.5-5.5% per year for the next couple of decades" isn't a sexy headline, but to not even mention that in the article body is somewhere close to criminal. I suppose Tim over-reducing the "Double in 20 years" to "rise a bit" at least offers a bit of balance.

    Which isn't to say that the implicit contradiction between abandoning subsidies and the saviour role of companies that seem to exist solely to maximise subsidy-based income makes any sense. Those infrastructures that should be used to save the world, in the midwest and Argentina have only been developed thanks to subsidies and tax breaks. The assumption that what works for the rich part of the world will work for the poor seems to be like the assumption that the subprime mortgage market would work. I don't quite remember how that one worked out... Some aspects will undoubtedly work - who knows which ones? - but a wholesale export seems to be plain nuts, what Marx didn't call the idiocy of city life.

  11. Gareth Gouldstone

    Yet more deflection from the real problem

    The real problem, that no-one is publicly prepared to admit, is over-population.

    Global population is due to pass 7 billion later this year, and headed for 10 billion by 2050. Consider that after WW2, the population was only 2.5 billion, and we can see that shortages of everything are going to occur much sooner than we like to think.

    Most of the world is not capable of sustaining the current large population, never mind producing more food, which will allow more reproduction which ....

    Large areas of the world (including Europe) are, or will soon be, suffering water stress. Not enough fresh water for living, never mind for more intensive agriculture.

    Current intensive farming using fertilisers is just stripping the existing land of nutrients. Once this land is exhausted, then a famine like nothing we have seen in history will occur.

    So maybe it will all balance out in the end, and the population will return to a more sustainable level.

    1. Thomas 18
      Big Brother


      Desalination and Plant Gel. Man can synthesise all the soil nutrients we need, we no longer require mother natures decrepit hand.

    2. Chris Miller

      Gareth - you've fallen for

      the UN Populations Division sudden revision of their estimate last month. Previously they were predicting that global population would peak at 9 billion around 2050. Suddenly - despite all the evidence being that we're actually undershooting that trend, with reproduction rates having halved in the last 50 years - they have decided to boost their figures, no doubt for political reasons. The way to get reproduction rates down, as history demonstrates, is greater development. More here:

      1. Gareth Gouldstone

        People have been suggesting a peak of 10 billion for a long time ...

        if anything it was revised down to between 7.5 and 9 billion, which was plainly unrealistic.

      2. Gareth Gouldstone

        Anyway, growth is the economists answer.

        Realistically, how can you keep expanding and 'grow' your way out of over-population?

        It's like suggesting that to deal with the pensions time-bomb we need to produce more babies to support the ageing population.

        Admittedly, one day population growth will slow, but we will have long-ago exhausted the carrying capacity of the Earth, or more likely, been wiped out by disease or famine.

        Or been demolished to make way for a by-pass ...

    3. Anonymous Coward


      It seems to me that there are several aspects of overpopulation, some of which can be unpleasant to consider. This is the reason I am posting this anonymously, because some people may really not like what I am saying.

      I am not an economist or a sociologist, or someone who studies cultures, but I believe strongly that we need an enlightenment of the population of all countries with a rising population due to birthrate that can only be provided through education.

      I'm fairly certain that if we looked, we would see situations in poorer countries that are improving where the population is rising rapidly as a result of better availability of food, better sanitation, and increased access to modern medicines. The reason for this hinges around these countries previously having had a high mortality rate, which required families to have many children to achieve something like a stable population.

      As soon as the mortality rate starts falling, these people must learn to have fewer children. But try explaining that to them when they still have the mindset that values many children! If western organisations start education programmes to attempt to change this mindset, they are accused of preaching, meddling or in some cases trying to destroy the local culture.

      It is at this point that I become contentious. I feel that the Aid agencies are making this worse, by providing resources and medical help that allows more people to survive to the point where they then need to be fed (and indeed are able to procreate). And the argument about teaching people how to support themselves is a spurious one unless backed up by this knowledge that they need to limit the size of their families.

      Without this, the countries will always end up in food or water poverty, because the population will just grow to consume the available resources.

      What would I do about the problem? Tell the Aid agencies to stop? Let people starve? Enforce population control?

      I really don't know, and fortunately for me, it is not my place to come up with a solution. I am cowardly ducking the problem.

      I also know that I can be called a hypocrite, because here I am in a western country that has gone through this already to achieve a stable(ish) population (with the UK birthrate at 1.84 per woman, the population should be falling, but immigration keeps it growing), but the lessons of history will show that this was not without pain. I would like to spare improving countries this pain, but I believe that it cannot be done. We will just push the global population to the point where the planet cannot provide, regardless of how efficient farming becomes. Making food production better merely delays the crunch.

      I fear that even without the problems of climate change, things can only get worse. If I look at it selfishly, I am glad that I have entered my second half-century, and will probably not live to witness the inevitable.

      1. Grumpy Old Fart

        Shoot the Pope then

        Following the trend of most reports on any of these subjects, I'm going to pull some numbers out of my arse and prove to you that the entire overpopulation problem in the world is caused by catholics: over 80% of the developing world is religious, and over 75% of all aid is provided through religious-based NGO's that also provide 'education' (read: brainwashing) that intentionally discourages contraceptive use.

        Either the plan is to infect an entire continent with HIV and harvest the ensuing HIV-proof genetic material to save rich AIDS victims in a stunning plan of medical genocide, or we need to line the good fathers up against the wall and divert a substantial percentage of the world's rubber production to Africa.

        Of course, not something Oxfam could get behind for fear of upsetting all those trendy muppets who have suddenly rediscovered their Christianity as a way of livening dinner party debate with followers of The Great Dawkins.

        Damn, I appear to have soiled myself with incoherent rage. Coat please!

    4. Chris 263

      The problem that loads of people publicaly admit.

      "The real problem, that no-one is publicly prepared to admit, is over-population."

      If no one is publicly prepared to admit this problem, how come this point is made several times on any discussion about anything even slightly to do with the environment?

      1. Gareth Gouldstone

        Publicly admit

        Because they they go on to try and solve a different problem, like global warming as a deflection from the REAL problem.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    commodity speculation.

    well done El Reg. Another excellent incisive piece.

    I too don't understand the demonisation of commodity speculators, OK they are bankers, but not the same ones as owe us a trillion.

    The existence of a futures and options market does seem to restrict abuses of position by the big customers, supermarkets lets say, who might offer a derisory price for a farms total output on a take-it-or-starve basis.

    Commodity trading allows a 3rd party to offer a better price, without needing as a pre-requisite all the infrastructure to deal with the goods. He knows that the supermarket will have to offer a less derisory price once their supplies get a bit short. He can even arbitrage the fixed price he has given to the farmer, to offer options against excessive price rises to the supermarket. Its all a bit complex regarding what futures and options deals can be struck, the essential point is that they are able to be struck without requiring the means to deliver them, the market is then more liquid, which is a key ingredient for fairness.

  13. copsewood

    fossil fuel subsidies massively understated

    "The fossil fuel subsidies are all being paid out by more or less repressive regimes like China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to subsidise the consumption of petrol and the like."

    That is unfortunately only a tiny part of it. Assuming the consensus on climate change correct, to the extent fossil fuel use increases incidences of extreme weather and damage caused, we're all either subsidising this through higher insurance premiums (insurance company actuaries are not driven by scientific opinion on this but by the hard data of claims) or through uninsured losses which don't get charged back to the fossil fuel mining and drilling companies or methane generating landfill operators. This is a similar argument to the costs of chemical industries in the Victorian era when these treated poisoning a fishery downstream as someone else's cost, but in the 20th century had to account for the management costs of cleaning up their act on their own books.

    The externality subsidies of fossil fuel use far exceed the direct subsidies quoted.

  14. Tim Worstal

    Editing glitch

    This "Oxfam seems to think that this will reduce emissions:"

    Should read "the EU seems to think that this will reduce emissions:"

    This is one of the things that Oxfam were right on, that it won't. My fault, sorry.

    Re Nicola Horlick on Today.....I was the back up person to go on if she decided she couldn't do it. As you can tell, I would have been less polite than Ms. Horlick.

    "The point that's being missed here, surely, is that with Africa lacking much in the way of an industrial base, the alternatives available to people outside the cities is to farm or do nothing very much."

    You're the wrong way around there. It's the surplus of labour that leads to us finding new things to do, not the new things to do sucking people off the land.

    1. Lamont Cranston

      High unemployment

      is a good thing, then?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Editing glitch

      Nice to see you get through an entire article without mentioning Adam Smith! On the matter of a "surplus of labour", you get that already in the developing world thanks to a variety of factors including things like Big Agriculture dumping produce and pricing farmers out of their own markets, or much the same people denying farmers access to the big markets.

      What happens next, when those people are forced to find other things to do, is that people migrate, often to places like Europe - a home of Big Agriculture, of course - where politicians will do their most "butch" of voices in promising to deal with the "immigrant problem". In other places, some people are driven to a lot more threatening behaviour, if you take the Horn of Africa (and north-east Africa in general) as an example.

      It's all very well seeing the positive side of people finding new opportunities, but those opportunities have to be there in the first place. It also doesn't help that such newly unemployed farmers would find themselves looking to create such opportunities in some of the most corrupt and badly governed countries on the planet.

    3. TrishaD

      @ Tim W.

      Quote Tim Worstal:

      "You're the wrong way around there. It's the surplus of labour that leads to us finding new things to do, not the new things to do sucking people off the land."

      I'm afraid that it's you who is wrong. You're not thinking this through. In the long-term, you may in fact be correct - eventually that gap may fill. But it wont fill without prior investment in the industrial infrastructure, or in education, of in transport links etc etc. Remember that Britain and the rest of Europe got lucky - as farming got more efficient, the Industrial Revolution was just getting into gear. We already had rail links and canal links and had a pretty small, densely populated country to start with.

      And subsistence farming doesnt have to be poverty-level farming. Farmers who are growing enough food to feed their families can move on - combine as farming cooperatives, invest jointly in machinery, negociate with distributors from a position of strength and generally put themselves into the position of running a relatively strong local economy.

      THEN you can bring in industry

      A lot of people here have banged on about the unintended consequences of Relief. But there are also unintended consequences that go with global organisations sticking their oars into countries that lack the institutions to counterbalance that power shift. In the western world, such global organisations are at least to a degree counterbalanced by democratic institutions and the Rule of Law.

      I have no particular problem with large capitalist institutions making large amounts of money. As long as they function under a modicum of control.

    4. strum

      Oh yes?

      >It's the surplus of labour that leads to us finding new things to do

      When, in human history, did that ever happen?

      The Enclosures didn't generate industry, it created a vagrancy 'problem' (which has echoes into the 21st century) - and many thousands died.

      This piffle is emblematic of a sloppy argument.

  15. Anonymous Coward


    Good and accurate post. Not normally a cup half empty sort, but if I do stop to think about how, we, humankind are managing ourselves and our planet I'm afraid despair sets in as to how stupid and incredibly short sighted politicians and 'do goods' are.

    IMHO we are all in for a rough ride going forward. Even rougher for the next generation, hopefully they will come to manage themselves and the planet in a far more enlightened way than us.

    Came across this site recently - certainly not joyous but very thought provoking and eye opening.

    Links to a couple of articles:

    1. Gareth Gouldstone

      @AC 13:36


      Those articles look very interesting; certainly along the lines that I have been thinking since I was at school in the seventies (when the population was a mere 4 billion!). I shall enjoy reading them this eveving.


  16. Matt Bryant Silver badge

    Two birds, one stone....

    OK, why don't we ship our long-term unemployed AKA slackers off to Africa? We can pay the African goverment the same money we'd pay the slackers in aid which can be used to buy the infrastrcuture required for development, and the slackers can then re-learn the work ethic by having to subsistance farm for a while. Nothing will encourage a bit of elbow grease like the fact you'll starve if you don't! Any excess food produced can be given to the local government to seel to raise even more funds for infrastrcuture projects. After three years, we let the slackers come back on the condition they find gainfaul employment within six months, otherwise it's back off to Africa again. They might then be more inclined to take the lower-paid jobs instaed of leaching. The Africans get plenty of aid money, we should get less unemployed. If it's too successful and we start seeing a shortfall of unemployed we could always expand the scheme to include other slackers like journalists, arts teachers.....

    /Sorry, was that a bit too right-wing even after the article?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Matt Bryant

      We've already tried that one a couple of times. The problem is that it's very hard to tell the unlucky / uneducated from the lazy / stupid. You end up with a mix of which the former tend to adapt well (the latter die off), then, a hundred years down the line, the uppity bastards start trying to tell you what to do...

    2. Tim Worstal


      The end result is Australia....

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Because

        Or worse, America...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But ...

      The problem is that just teaches them to value their independence and they still won't have that particular type of work ethic we value.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    Commodity Futures Speculation Increases Price Stability?

    (Non anecdotal) Evidence for this please. Also I would like to see the figures on Sweden's anarchic descent into instability since they started taxing speculators.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down


    Can I summarize the concept as "make the poor richer", or "make subsistence farmers more like American and European farmers"?

    If you do that without some very significant changes in how things are done, the energy resources and other raw materials (iron, copper, rare metals, etc.) will be needed as well. Ignoring the huge environmental impact that will have, the prices of these resources will skyrocket. Is that really what we want happening?

    Actually, perhaps it is.

  19. Tim Worstal

    Futures and price stability


    "In this paper, the divergence between popular and professional opinion on speculation in general

    and futures markets in particular is explored. Along the way, a synopsis of prevailing popular

    attitudes on futures markets is presented, and an outline of a formal model of futures markets

    and its implications for commodity price volatility are sketched. The heart of the analysis is drawn

    from the historical record on the establishment and prohibition of futures markets. Briefly, the

    results presented in this paper strongly suggest that futures markets were associated with—and most

    likely caused—lower commodity price volatility."

    Didn't say that Sweden collapsed. Rather that ther options market disappeared and their futures one nearly did so.

    1. TelePom


      They seem to manage quite well without either.

      1. Tim Worstal


        Because they looked at what happened and abolished the tax a few months later.

  20. Ossi


    How would you feel if a bunch of people from, say, Japan, turned up all over your country? They're impossibly rich by your standards, but they'd come to 'help'. They're young and idealistic, and more than willing to spread their ideals. Their ideals don't seem to involve giving you the lifestyle that they have, but rather a 'pure' and 'better' lifestyle that more suits 'your people'. And I thought colonialism was dead.

    You, sensibly, prefer to do business with the Chinese.

    If I want help from someone, I tell them what I want, and ask them do it. I wouldn't be happy if they decided I needed help, and then told me what I want doing, and then did it.

    We'd be doing the poor many more favours if we treated them like adults. We should open our markets, help to educate their future generation if necessary (and not in a political way), invest in them (yes, and allow "corporations to be corporationy") and let them trade their way to wealth.

  21. Isabello


    Maybe we should ask all those "White*" farmers who made Zimbabwe a net exporter of cereals if they'd like to work their "magic" elsewhere...give them a wedge of cash (ie. a loan at good rates), and some UN muscle backed assurance that Mugabe & his ilk will not be able to grab the land & parcel it out to cronies. At the same time make them take on two apprentices every couple of years to learn how its done. Rinse & repeat.

    * I have no idea of the actual colour they were, nor do I care, just that Mugabe** used that as an excuse for destroying his own economy and turning a well fed country into one that needs food aid.

    ** BTW He's STILL in power

    1. Tim Worstal

      This is happening

      Zambia asked some of the displaced Rhodesians over and S Africa has a company organising the move northwards of loads of Boers. Thousands are on the move.....

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        spurious film quote

        "Zulus ... ffasands of 'em ..."

  22. Rajan

    Its Just a rehash of the Malthusian Theory that failed

    It took over a decade for Oxfam to condemn bio-fuels. This programme encouraged crop land conversion to biofuel production, reducing agricultural output of countries contributing to hunger and starvation. The question, if Oxfam is so concern over hunger, why it didn't act earlier.

    Through its growth programme, Oxfam will continue to have blood on its hands as its the focus continues to be conversion of cropland for (non-biofuel presumably) forestry. This has the same effect - cropland conversion for forestry reduces agricultural output, causing starvation and hunger. Why ? According to Oxfam, agriculture is responsible for 30% of all greenhouse gases and therefore this has to be slashed.

    Besides, Oxfam's analysis is only a rehash of Thomas Malthus, the 18th century political economist's theory in which whenever population outstripped food production, starvation would cull the numbers until the equation was restored. As we know, this is failed theory and should be extended the contempt it deserves.

    Read more:

    1. PT

      [citation required]

      "Oxfam's analysis is only a rehash of Thomas Malthus, the 18th century political economist's theory in which whenever population outstripped food production, starvation would cull the numbers until the equation was restored. As we know, this is failed theory and should be extended the contempt it deserves."

      Perhaps you could tell us of one instance in which this theory has been known to fail? It may not have failed - yet - for the human species in recent years, but it has proved unerringly correct for every other species - including humans - in the previous history of life on Earth.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Thomas Malthus

      "As we know, this is failed theory"


      Really? How long can population outstrip food production before someone starves? Things like the 'green revolution' produce a once and for all increase in output, but that only buys you time. If the population continues to increase you still run into the same problem. As you try to push efficiency closer to 100% it gets more and more difficult and you will never get it _beyond_ 100%. You also steadily decrease your margin for error: your estimates of soil erosion, desertification and water availability had better be damn near perfect or you may, inadvertently, reduce the amount of food that can be produced, not increase it.

    3. Gareth Gouldstone

      In Malthus' time ...

      ... there weren't 7-10 billion people to feed and fuel.

      It's the scale of the problem, year after year.

      1. Pigeon

        Damn, You all got there first.

        Malthus observed a basic truth. All life produces more offspring than will reach maturity. He also concluded that doom will fall on humanity soon, which didn't happen. This does not mean that his observations were wrong. Seedlings shrivel. Children die. It's life. And that is what influenced Mr. Darwin greatly.

    4. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: the Malthusian Theory that failed

      "whenever population outstripped food production, starvation would cull the numbers until the equation was restored"

      You're a bit harsh on Malthus there. This balance has undoubtedly been the case for most of human history, and also happens to be flippin' obvious. (Just what do *you* expect to happen when there isn't enough food to go around?) Malthus was simply unfortunate in publishing the observation just after the Enlightenment kicked off the longest sustained improvement in productivity that history has yet seen.

      Oxfam, however, have the benefit of two hundred years of hindsight and so have no such excuse. You are right to give *them* a good duffing up.

  23. Paul 5

    speculation reduces volatility?

    I'd like to see proper citations for the claim that speculators reduce volatility, along with an examination of the effect that speculation has on the price paid by consumers (or manufacturers or users of the raw material) and on the price received by the original growers (or miners, etc). The effect of speculation on copper prices seems to have been less uniformly rosy than the advocates of speculation suggest - it seems to have quadrupled or more the end price [handwaving citation: BBC Documentary "Bubble Trouble"], and I'm not sure how well it will work in the food market. I'd also like to see a more considered and thoughtful examination of how the "pain" of displaced workers is likely to manifest, and how it might be relieved.

    The problem is that an economy is a bit complex, and that there are many different effects of any one change. And sometimes those who get all dewey eyed about the profits to be made from speculation gloss over the harm that unfettered speculation does to the rest of the end-to-end trade in the comodity. Just as the fans of industrial-scale agriculture gloss over the harm done to displaced farmers who are expected to "move to the city" (shanty town sector, presumably) and get jobs in the lucrative drug, crime or prostitution sectors of the economy. The main problem of African economies is NOT a shortage of labour, and it won't be solved by a deluge of displaced peasant farmers.

    1. Tim Worstal


      "I'd like to see proper citations for the claim that speculators reduce volatility,"

      Read the paper mentioned 5 comments up.

      1. Paul 5


        I saw the citation after I'd written my comments. Interesting paper, although I think it concentrates on some historical markets, rather than speculation on today's global markets, with their increased (in real terms) amounts of capital and frequency (and thus, perhaps, volatility). They also mention, but don't really address, the issue of asymetrical information flow in the market, which significantly affects outcomes. Another poster has pointed out the issue that can arise when trades are faster than the information on which rational trades could be made. The paper also concentrates rather a lot on then-widespread philosophical objections to trades not involving real goods.

        Of course none of that answers my other points - about the effect that the higher end prices has on the overall economy, the issue of fairness and sustainability of prices to producers, the effect on displaced farmers of industrial-scale agriculture in a mid-african-style economy, and the doubtful benefits to such an economy of a large influx of now-unskilled workers.

        The goal may be to get to a more prosperous and inclusive economy (perhaps with less waste than ours), but the huge shocks from industrialisation of farming, without any way to deal with the human collateral damage, may not be the best way to get there.

    2. Peter Murphy

      Get with the times, Tim Worstall. Not all speculation reduces volatility.

      Some speculation increases it, especially if the market is deregulated. This is from left-of-centre US news service "Think Progress":

      "In April, ThinkProgress caused a stir when we uncovered a series of Koch Industries corporate documents revealing the company’s role as an oil speculator. Like many oil companies, Koch uses legitimate hedging products to create price stability. However, the documents reveal that Koch is also participating in the unregulated derivatives markets as a financial player, buying and selling speculative products that are increasingly contributing to the skyrocketing price of oil. Excessive energy speculation today is at its highest levels ever, and even Goldman Sachs now admits that at least $27 of the price of crude oil is a result from reckless speculation rather than market fundamentals of supply and demand. Many experts interviewed by ThinkProgress argue that the figure is far higher, and out of control speculation has doubled the current price of crude oil. "

      Damn, even Goldman Sachs, no mean dabbler in toxic derivatives itself, ADMITS that speculation has raised prices.

  24. Anonymous Coward


    Those high frequency trading robots must be for stabilising the prices then I suppose. lol. Oh look a paper that says that speculation stabilizes prices, it must be true then.

    Regardless of whether it is true or not, the banksters stabilize nothing they are in the business of boom and bust in case you hadn't noticed. If it will make a quick buck they will jam up the price of food while you starve.

    The larger mainstream charities are almost all a scam please do your research people. Where do you think most of the money goes, it goes straight into their pockets in the form of wages for staff or worse still they also spend a great majority of the money on brainwashing you with advertising propaganda for their masters while courting your custom. Case in point here where they are assisting the UN promoting their carbon tax ponzi scheme.

    How many years have we been giving to charities and yet still we see people starving. Starving people will exists as long as the current system exists.

    I'm not advocating that anybody stop giving money to charity, but find a smaller local charity or do a bit of digging before you part with your worthless fiat banknotes.

  25. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Re: HFT

    Trading only stabilises markets if the frequency is below the limit at which information can flow around the market. Beyond that, it serves to de-stabilise. This shouldn't surprise any engineer.

    Apparently the New York Stock Exchange allows certain companies (for a fee) to put their computers "in the building" and enjoy market data (and trades) before everyone else. In Europe, exactly the same sort of thing is banned by law and electronic trading systems even have random delays inserted so that it just isn't worth trying to beat the system. Guess which stock market went tits up in the last bubble?

    One presumes that the legion of rocket scientists who engineered the NYSE system were well aware of the failure mode, but reasoned that either they'd get paid before it went pear-shaped or they'd get bailed out by frightened politicians, or both.

    1. Dave Bell

      Not the same sort of market

      Farming is a non-uniform market.

      It used to be that if there was a bad harvest, produce prices went up. And it was unusual for bad harvests to be continent-wide. Food and information were both slow to move, so the markets had local effects.

      Now everybody trades world-wide. A bad year in Britain, grain comes from the far side of the world, and is traded before it ever arrives, and the users never have to pay the farmer a scarcity price for a local shortage.

      But if European farmers grew food at full-throttle, instead of diverting capacity into bio-fuels, prices in Europe would slump. And, unlike a factory, you can't have a three-day week. All farming is about living things which are "producing" 24/7. Though it's often a batch process.

      Farms don't work the way that the financial markets do.

      1. Chris 263

        It used to be that if there was a bad harvest, produce prices went up.

        "It used to be that if there was a bad harvest, produce prices went up."

        It used to be that if there was a bad harvest, people would starve.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    Speculation and volatility

    Interesting point about speculation damping volatility - the argument being that because those who buy and sell at the wrong time (and therefore increase volatility) will go bust, we can just forget about them. Not so!

    Unfortunately, markets don't always yield profits for everyone, nor even for a majority, and investment decisions aren't always logical. In speculative bubbles lots of investors, often the majority, do indeed go bust because they bought too late and helped push the price up beyond what was sustainable long-term. Price bubbles can last for years and that's plenty of time for people to starve if they can't afford the price of food while they're waiting for the bubble to burst.

    Taking the long-term view, many of those investors probably won't be back again, but there are always new naive investors coming in to take their place. That is why bubbles have a tendency to repeat themselves. So a market in which many investors are naive and destined to lose money may actually increase volatility. That, I think, is the fear that is emerging as food becomes more popular as an investment commodity.

  27. PyrionFlax

    Nowadays Speculators INCREASE volatility

    I think the worst thing people can believe about speculators is that they are good for keeping prices normalised. Not now that speculators can buy as much of a commodity as they want. Previously they were limited to a small percentage of a given markets, and did indeed provide a useful (and profitable) service buying or selling when buyers or sellers were in short supply. Not enough to change the market destructively, just enough to maintain it.

    But since the early 90's under Bush Snr, fifteen of the biggest Wall Street firms have been liberated to buy as much as they want. So, they all buy long and prices go up. This is what is happening. There are plenty of sources, go find one. But please stop believing the guff that modern speculators are a good thing.

  28. Hubert Thrunge Jr.

    Feeding Africa

    As has been said before - the first problem to solve is Zimbabwe. Mugabe's regime has raped the country - Africa's food bowl - to the point where it cannot feed itself. It once was a net exporter of food products, responsible for supplying over half of central/southern Africa. Fix that, and you have a major part of Africa's problem solved.

    With regard to subsidies funding the rich farmers, hold on a moment - what about the rich factory owners, or rich shop owners - they run a business, not a charity! The sole idea of subsidies is to allow them to continue to to produce and be profitable, whilst depressing the market price for you and I to benefit from cheap food. Remove the subsidies and our food prices rise because the world market price will rise without them. It is the world market price that defines our food prices, and while there are more and more of us every day, there is the same, or less, food produced. It's a supply & demand market. To reduce the price, you either have to increase supply, or reduce demand.

    The Human species is the only one on the planet that is stupid enough to keep increasing in numbers beyond a sustainable point. Unlike nature, we don't operate on a survival of the fittest to strengthen our species, we go completely against it. How do you fix that? Well, you can't. We're too "intelligent" to do it. The human race is a herd of lemmings, running around in their millions, just searching for that cliff to leap off.

    Oxfam feeds on, and supplies, that stupidity.

    Civilisation is it's own worst enemy.

    There is NO right answer, because the question is wrong!

    I have spoken. My phrase is simple "I told you so".

  29. Dave Bell

    The long term

    The trouble is that Big Farming, in the European style (and we get much higher grain yields than the USA does), isn't sustainable. Fertiliser use depends on fossil fuels, both as a source of energy and as a source of chemical feedstock.

    And, in one lifetime, we've gone from using half the land to feed the horses needed to cultivate the land, to using all the land to feed people.

    I don't have any answers, but Oxfam are completely missing the biggest problem, unless they're trying to tell us that peasant farmersn are the answer. Back to the land!

  30. Olius

    The UK and USA subsidise our fuel very heavily

    by backhanders, bribes, wars, installation of regimes friendly to us and who's countries can be placed in massive debt, thus making the possibility of economic sanctions more damaging to that country.

    This costs our taxpayers billions and billions every year. It doesn't make fuel cheaper, but this isn't the aim; the aim is control and subservience of those countries.

    In fact, we also actively try to make fuel more expensive for us at the same time by allowing it to be traded on the Futures Market, allowing its price to increase many-fold before it gets to the pumps and allowing a lot of very rich companies and individuals to make a lot of money out of the consumer.

    At the same time as this, we heavily subsidise our farmers and other producers, which makes our goods cheaper to sell than those of developing countries, which keeps the people of those countries on the breadline and massively in debt, though without effecting the regimes of those countries one iota.

    This oxfam report is a step in the right direction, but whilst questioning a few of the figures is right to do, discussing and criticising the minutia of it, let alone dismissing the whole thing on the basis of a few inaccuracies, truly is "fiddling while Rome burns"


  31. Anonymous Coward

    Sticking my neck out ...

    You need a *stable* and resilient infrastructure before you can do *anything*. And for whatever reason, there are precious few countries in Africa that provide that.

    I was astounded to be told, on one of my visits to Kenya, that there had been many studies which showed that the massively fertile area around lake Victoria (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda) could support ALL of Africa. But as long as there are civil wars and insurrections you won't get anything done.

    I once read a story where two tribes discovered diamonds in the land, and used them to throw at each other ...

  32. Jonjonz

    Multi National Apologist At Work Here, move on...

    Multi-national corporation apologist at work here, nothing to see, move on... Yes they have been in the drivers seat ever since the US Civil War, hows that working out for the worlds poor? Screw Monsanto and their ilk.

    1. Chris 263

      Bigoted and immature.

      A comment that manages to be both bigoted and immature, congratulations.

  33. andy gibson

    Farming subsidies

    A shame it doesn't extend to dairy and the shocking way supermarkets dictate what price a pint of milk can be. Did anyone see Countryfile on Sunday - 2 dairy farms a week are closing because they're losing money on every pint sold.

  34. Ged Barker

    A reposte

    Gosh! As one of the self-serving hippie-crats alluded to here I thought it might be worth pointing out this article:

    (You've really made a difference here Tim, where would the world be without you ;)

    1. Tim Worstal


      Spolling errors annoy me almost as much as economic ones

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