Food, Prophecy, and Shades of Thomas Malthus

Following up on my recent post about wheat prices and the Third Horseman of Revelation 6, it has been hard to miss the headlines in recent days about the effects of the growing price of food.  Well, I say “hard to miss” when actually it has been easy to miss if you only read certain periodicals.  But it has been front and center (or close to it) for some time in pages of the Financial Times.

I wish I could recall where I saw the article several days ago — could have been the FT, but I am not sure —  in which it was suggested that commodities, chiefly grains and food stuff, were set to take the stage as a global currency to replace the dollar.  I’ve looked for the article, but it is apparently on the way to the recyclers by now.  Along with it, apparently, is an article I read in which some expert (assumably in an applicable area, though without the article in hand I can’t say for certain) stated that he or she finds the state of grain prices much more frightening in terms of global stability than the state of fuel prices.

I do have two other articles, though, that have avoided the recycle bin for now.  On Monday (2/25/2008), the front page of the Financial Times declared, “UN poised to ration food aid as prices soar.”  The article describes the dire straits caused by the climb in food prices and the danger to many countries that have “largely escaped hunger” until now.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has stated that the world’s “poor countries” will have to pay 35% more for cereal imports “even as their food purchases fall 2 per cent…”  The article points out that Egypt is widening its food rationing system for the first time in two decades.  (Couldn’t help but think of Joseph in Egypt in Genesis 41 when I read that.)

The final statement in that article states that “[t]he US Department of Agriculture warned last week that high agricultural commodities prices would continue for at least the next two to three years.”

Then today (2/27/2008) I read this great commentary by Mark Thirlwell in the Financial Times: “Food and the spectre of Malthus.”  For anyone familiar with the gloomy, controversial, and highly influential theories of Thomas Robert Malthus, the title was an attention getter.  (For anyone not familiar, you can start here.)

Thirlwell reminds us of the social upheaval that was connected to food shortages in the past, but states optimistically that there are good reasons to think that this current difficulty will be like those: temporary.  Yet he wisely qualifies that statement with what he calls “two important caveats”: (1) changes in world energy markets (think biofuels), climate changes, and environmental degradation may present factors that will lengthen the duration of the difficulty this time around, and (2) significant social costs — the magnitude of the impact this time on poorer countries and politically volatile population classes (e.g., the urban poor) and the potential “spillover effects” that may result from monetary policy moves meant to address this problem.

The article explains how this time around the dilemma has both demand and supply side forces behind it.  Increasing populations and the powerful growth of new consumer classes in various places (China would be a key example, here) impact the demand side.  Impacting the supply side of the equation, notes Thirlwell, are “disruptions in key commodity markets ranging from drought to disease…”  (The Bible speaks of the combination of drought and disease — lack of rain in one city, yet mildew in another — as a curse on Israel for failing to honor God’s commandments in Amos 4:6-9.)

Wikipedia notes that one of the characters in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress says, “It is never safe to laugh at Dr. Malthus; he always has the last laugh.”  While I would not go that far, perhaps, I will say that a tough time is indeed ahead, for the U.S. and for the world — tougher than has ever been or will ever be again (Matthew 24:21-22, Revelation 3:10).  Are these things we see the beginnings of that time?

I will not say that we are on an irreversible path into Malthus’ shadow, but something does seem to be blocking the sun these days.  And assuming it is merely a passing cloud could be a dangerous assumption, indeed.

3 thoughts on “Food, Prophecy, and Shades of Thomas Malthus

  1. Ed Ewert

    EU Referendum, at in a very interesting Feb 23 article, Mushroom Government, explained something of the relationship between EU policies and the world price of wheat.

    Some of it:
    … EU, driven by the memory of “grain mountains” of the ’70s and ’80s, and the attendant bad publicity, was committed to a long-term policy of cutting back agricultural production … and failed to see the shortfall coming. Thus, at the very time its policy was starting to “succeed” in cutting back production, the world was facing a production shortfall and increasing demand.

    Secondly, … the EU allowed itself to be carried away with the idea that “surplus” agricultural capacity could be used to produce ethanol and bio-diesel, thereby adding to the stresses on the world market and driving up commodity prices further.

    Then, in the shorter-term, as the global shortage crept up on it, the EU sold off its remaining intervention stocks, leaving the cupboard bare, and was extremely dilatory in reacting to the changing market conditions …

  2. Commodity prices have been increasing because fund managers are trying to protect themselves from the falling dollar, inflation, and a slowing economy. You protect yourself by purchasing hard goods.

    There’s one problem, however. Comodity prices have been increasing faster than the economic situation warrants. In short, it’s beginning to develop into a market bubble, much like the housing market did.

    If that bubble pops, then suppliers could get devastated.

  3. Pingback: Food prices sparking riots « Thoughts En Route

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