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Job Talk - Global Grains: Feed, Food, and the World Economy

by Rob Peeler Feb 24, 2017
When Mar 01, 2017
from 1:00 PM to 2:15 PM
Where 12 Katz Building, University Park, PA 16802
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Presented by Bill Winders


This paper examines the political economy of grains (corn, rice, and wheat) in relation to world hunger and food security. Drawing on a food regimes perspective with particular emphasis on the potential for political and economic divisions between food grains and feed grains, this paper discusses how the market economy and political-economic divisions between grains can, at times, contribute to world hunger and undermine food security. The paper will draw on statistics from the USDA (PS&D online database), the World Bank (Pink Sheet, commodity prices), and the FAO (FAOSTAT). These sources provide important information regarding production, consumption, trade, and world prices. The FAO also provides information about world hunger and malnutrition, and the IFPRI provides information about food security through its Global Hunger Index (GHI). This paper will put data from these different sources into historical context to analyze different examples of hunger and food insecurity.

                This paper will compare a few examples of how the geopolitics of grains have influenced patterns in world hunger and food security: the 2008 food crisis, the issue of food security and agricultural exports in South Asia, and expanding global meat consumption. First, the food crisis of 2008 helps to demonstrate that such crises have not generally resulted from changes in the food supply or sharp increases in demand. Instead, dynamics in world grain markets and national policies are important to consider. For example, as several nations restricted rice exports while others shifted from feed grains to biofuels. Second, although many grain-exporting nations (particularly, rice exporting) put restrictions on exports in 2008 and thereby exacerbated world price increases, in other instances nations have actually exported grains during periods of food crisis or food insecurity. This can be seen in South Asia (e.g., India and Pakistan), where several countries export grains even while having GHI ratings of “alarming.” Third, the division between food grains and feed grains links to the issues of hunger, food insecurity, and food crises. Not only does the expansion of feed grains and meat production have the potential divert grain production or distribution away from food to more expensive livestock production, but increased meat production also has the potential to use important resources (e.g., water and land). In addition, small farmers may be displaced in this process.

One potential solution to these issues is a “normal granary,” or a world grain reserve. Such a reserve would help to smooth out sharp fluctuations in prices due to significant differences in production and supply. This was one element that helped to stave off food crises in the mid-1900s – until the early 1970s. The International Wheat Agreement and the continuous grain surplus in the U.S. combined to provide a grain reserve. As a consequence, grain prices were remarkably stable, with little variation from year to year. Such policies are no longer viable, due largely to shifting political power among grains over the past 40 years.