One of the pleasures of summertime is that I get to read some of the books that have piled up over the years and this is how I came to read Niek Koning’s monumental monograph on: ‘Food security, agricultural policies and economic growth: Long-term dynamics in the past, present and future’. For someone like me, who usually finds herself working around the immediacy of crises, disaster and displacement, the book gives me a solid reminder of how the critical moments of emergencies are interlinked with each other and emerge from global histories and contexts.
Food security is today increasingly linked to climate change but this book spells out how throughout history it is especially interlinked with agricultural policies and economic growth. If there is one lesson the book brings out, it is that policy matters! Good or bad policies make a crucial difference for whether people have or have not enough to eat to sustain themselves. Economics – to say it once more – is not a value-free science and requires clear policy goals and values behind them.
Niek Koning is driven by some pertinent questions, such as “Why has Asia surpassed Africa in economic development? Why have social reform experiments failed in Latin America? Why has communist China achieved miracle growth whereas the Soviet Union collapsed?” Unlike most authors that focus on such big questions, Koning does not provide a monocausal explanation (such as the absence or presence of a ‘Protestant’ ethic, the inclusivity of institutions or different leadership styles), but he puts together a framework that covers several aspects of world history. He starts with secular cycles and techno-institutional change. Looking through that lens, he zooms in on the fossil fuel revolution that has enabled modern economic growth and has entailed a demographic transition. He analyses how the socio-political fabric of societies, international power relations and changing political tides have induced different policy responses to the problems that were involved in modern growth, with vast consequences for both the fate of nations and global population growth. And yes, he also talks about what may happen when fossil fuels will be exhausted. A major message of the book is that agricultural policies have failed to ‘use’ the springboard that was created with the fossil fuel revolution to transform the global economy for a sustainable future.
This is not a book review and I am skipping some major parts of the book, showing how different ideologies and histories have created different outcomes. They are a good read – often more like a novel than an economic textbook – with among other a long conversation between Thomas Malthus and Karl Marx. Browsing through the chapters, one realises that indeed politics matter, and the political views of the author shine clearly through. In his view, supporting self-employed farmers are indispensable for obtaining and maintaining food security. Agricultural and industrial development going hand in hand would be an effective approach, coupled to more explicit pro-poor politics, including social safety nets. He is clearly opposing the neo-liberal trade models and analyzes how these are driven by self-interest of strong countries.
The book is not just an amazingly resourced piece of scholarly work, it is also in many ways a long essay. In the eyes of Koning, the impending exhaustion of fossil fuel create major risks to forge global food scarcity that will exacerbate the food insecurity of the poor. In his view, several things are needed to mitigate this threat. Claims on farmland for luxury foods and urbanization should be limited. New breakthroughs should make the economy less carbon-dependent to prevent a dramatic increase in the demand of the affluent for bio-energy and bio-materials. Biological and ICT-based innovations should overcome limits in land productivity. However, a vital overall condition is that global food and energy markets are stabilized to enable timely investment in innovations that enable poor countries to protect their farmers while securing economic growth. The propositions coming from the book may be agreeable or disagreeable, but coming from decades of deep scholarly work, they merit a lot of discussion.
Koning, N. (2017). Food security, agricultural policies and economic growth: Long-term dynamics in the past, present and future. Routledge.
About the author:
Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.