Open Letter to Paul Collier, in response to “Politics of Hunger”

To:Editors, Foreign Affairs

From:William Aal, Community Alliance for Global Justice, Seattle

Lucy Jarosz, Professor, Geography, University of Washington

Carol Thompson, Professor, Political Economy, Northern Arizona University

Re:Open Letter to Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies, Oxford University, UK,

in response to “Politics of Hunger,” Foreign Affairs (USA), November-December 2008.

Date:20 January 2009Word Count:1122

Paul Collier (“Politics of Hunger,”November-December 2008) advocates “slaying three giants” to end the food crisis:peasant agriculture, fear of scientific agriculture, and the myth of biofuels from grain to overcome US oil dependence.His analysis is, however, very much grounded in the agriculture of the last century.

Collier continues to make the 20th century-long argument that increased yields is what can feed the hungry, a point that seems self-evident.But much research now documents that the hungry remain with us, not because of the lack of food but rather, because of distribution and the inability of the poor to access food that is available, often only a few miles away.Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics (1998) for demonstrating not only the theory, but the empirical reality, of famines occurring in the midst of plenty.Moreover,research on commercial agriculture demonstrates its negative effects on the environment, public health, and farming families (Magdoff et al., 2000; Nestle, 2002).Commercial farming is highly dependent upon fossil fuels for production, processing, and transport, and is a major contributor to climate change (IPPC, 2007).

Collier is correct to lament the high price of food in 2008, causing food riots in about 80 countries.However, he places “the root cause” blame on the increasing consumption of the Asian (e.g. China and India) middle classes.The statistics tell a different story.As stated by the senior economist at the International Grains Council, Amy Reynolds,“At the start of the decade, a small amount of grain—18 million tons—was used for industrial purposes. This year 100 million tons will go towards biofuels and other industrial purposes.Can anyone really tell me that hasn’t had an impact on what we pay for food?” (Chakrabortty, 2008: 4).

There is never one root cause, and using grain to feed American cars, instead of people, is just a single factor, but one we can change quickly.We fully agree with Collier that Americans must end their addiction to oil, by refusing to put, as he states, one-third of our grain production into gas-guzzling vehicles. A longer term issue, but relevant to increasing demand , is that more than half the U.S. grain and nearly 40 percent of world grain is being fed to livestock, rather than being consumed directly by humans (Pimentel, 1997).

Other contributing factors include the increasing costs of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides andincreasing speculation on commodities markets (Stewart and Waldie, 2008).These factors demonstrate, contra Collier, that the root causes of the global food crisis are related to the political economy of commercial agriculture itself, and not simply a matter of supply and demand.

We disagree quite strongly with Collier’s derisive depiction of “peasant agriculture.”He attacks the populism that “Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.”This overly general category seems to include the very diversified category of small-scale family farming, which comprises the majority of farm operations throughout the world.These smallholders (often female farmers) are highly entrepreneurial and innovative.They are even more efficient than commercial agriculture, if one uses the measure of capital expenditure per bushel or ton of yield.

Many scientists now provide statistics that “Africa can feed itself” and that “organic farming can feed the world.”(Halberg et al,. 2007; Norstad, 2007).Organic food production and localized forms of small-scale food production are among the fastest growing areas in agriculture today as the health and environmental effects of commercial agriculture are increasingly rejected and as people move to more healthful plant-based diets.Small-scale urban agriculture in the form of community gardening is becoming increasingly important in seasonal food supplies and local forms of food security.

Commercial agriculture, according to Collier, may increase yields 10-20 percent.Yet long-term analyses from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) demonstrate, across the globe, that “best practices” of smallholder agriculture will double yields.“Best practices” include sharing of seeds (farmers’ rights), research following farmers’ requests, available and affordable credit and yes, agricultural extension.Collier is very wrong in saying that the latter has “largely broken down,”for many sources across the African continent document that removing the government from agriculture was a systematic policy of the World Bank (Berg report) and USAID from 1981.If agricultural credit, extension and markets do not work in Africa, the explicit policy of removing “government interference” from agriculture is a major cause.

Another way Collier reveals he is caught in the last century is that he considers “scientific” thinking as coming from those with white coats in elaborate laboratories.The barefoot woman bending over her cultivated genetic treasure is not “scientific”, even though such farmers have cultivated genetic biodiversity over thousands of years.These free gifts do not fit into the corporate logic behind commercial agriculture, where only profit can be an incentive, not curiosity nor sharing.Yet indigenous knowledge provides us with all our current food diversity and is the basis for 70 percent of our current medicines. Americans, for example,need to know that every major food crop we use today was given to us by Native Americans.In contrast, commercial agriculture makes a profit by depleting the gene pool, the result of valuing only very specific traits.As the FAO concluded (1996: 13-14), “The chief contemporary cause of the loss of genetic diversity has been the spread of modern commercial agriculture.”

A major point which Collier avoids is that genetically modified seeds rely on patenting of life forms, which most all the world rejects, except the U.S. government and the global biotechnology industry.Much of the genetically modified research currently involved in the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations) relies on freely taking seeds and experimenting them with them in the laboratory;if an innovative trait is produced (e.g., pesticide resistance), the plant is patented, with zero recognition to other breeders of the variety, over thousands of years.By adding one gene, the corporation patents the whole plant, and often, the whole specie.Africans call this act “biopiracy,”or the theft and privatization of genetic wealth, which had previously been available to all (Mushita and Thompson, 2007).We agree with farmers that the sharing of biodiversity is both the past,and the future, of human sustenance.

Food is a human right, not a corporate commodity for speculation.Mother Nature does not operate on a board-room quarterly profit margin.But food production can be very profitable, sustainable…and feed all of us.It is just not capable of feeding the “giants” ofWall Street or the City of London;it is those giants’ interference with food production that needs slaying, because food produced mainly to feed corporate profit will lead to further food crises, not less.



Chakrabortty,Aditya. 2008. “Fields of gold,” The Guardian (London), 16 April, p. 4.

Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations. 1996.Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, prepared for the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, Leipzig, June17-23, Rome:FAO.

Halberg, N., et. al. 2007.Global Development of Organic Agriculture:Challenges and Prospects.London:CABI Publishing.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), United Nations.2007.Climate Change 2007.

Magdoff, Fred, et al., 2000.Hungry for Profit.New York: Monthly Review Press.

Mushita, Andrew and Carol Thompson.2007.Biopiracy of Biodiversity – International Exchange as Enclosure.Trenton, NJ:Africa World Press.

Nestle, Marion.2002.Food Politics.Berkeley: University of California Press.

Norstad,Aksel,ed. 2007. Africa Can Feed Itself.Oslo: The Development Fund.

Articles from a June 2007

Pimental, David.1997. “‘U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat,’ Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists.”Cornell University Science News.

Stewart, Sinclair and Paul Waldie.2008.“Who is responsible for the global food crisis?” Globe and Mail, 31 May.

Posted in Agra Watch Blog Posts and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Hi CAGJs,
    This is not a comment but a question, thus I don’t expect to see it on your website.
    I came across your open letter when I was preparing for a talk at Stanford University in February 2016.
    I liked your arguments and as I preferably also argue from the food sovereignty perspective, I would like to use your review for my teaching purpose.
    So, do you agree to this, and if so, please could you provide me with a pdf of it including author/s ?
    I am looking forward to your answer.

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