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Vandana Shiva challenges food globalization and free trade myths

(Monday, Jan. 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- This book review is provided courtesy of The Agribusiness Examiner.

by Richard A. Levins

In 1792, a Scottish observer worried that the "unrestrained and universal commerce" advocated by Adam Smith would "propagate opinions as commodities". Those opinions, now propagated so widely, range from the Ricardian teachings of contemporary economics texts to the impassioned world of Vandana Shiva.

Samuelson and Nordhaus (Microeconomics, 17th Edition) put the Ricardian case this way: "The principle of comparative advantage holds that each country will benefit if it specializes in the production and export of those goods that it can produce at relatively low cost. Conversely, each country will benefit if it imports those goods, which it produces at relatively high costs." (p. 299)

Specialization is quickly pronounced to be the "unshakable basis for international trade."

In Stolen Harvest, Shiva presents a radically different view. For her, specialization is eminently "shakable": "Globalization has created the McDonaldization of world food, resulting in the destruction of sustainable food systems." (p. 70)

Elsewhere, she explains how "the myth of 'free trade' and the global economy becomes a means for the rich to rob the poor of their right to food and even their right to life". (p. 7)

How can the two views be so different, and what, if anything, can economists learn from the strident writings of Shiva? The answers to both questions arise from the way elementary texts present the case for comparative advantage theory. The standard treatment involves two countries and two goods, one of which is usually an agricultural product and the other a manufactured good.

Samuelson, for example, has used "food" and "clothing" since the First Edition appeared in 1948. That one of the goods is produced in a biological process, and the other in a manufacturing, appears to be of no consequence.

In Shiva's world, however, the difference is everything: "food is our most basic need, the very stuff of life". (p. 5) Stolen Harvest, I think, is best read by economists as a solid case for the uniqueness of those biological processes that lead to food production. To fold a small farmer in India and a German buying a new hat into a single, simple trade theory will lead to problems in the environment, biodiversity, animal welfare, and culture. Our usual nod of the head to "externalities" will not satisfy Shiva.

Take, for example, her discussion of confinement animal agriculture:

Robbing cattle of the roughage they need does not merely treat them unethically; it also does not reduce the acreage needed to feed the cows, since the concentrate comes from grain that could have fed people. The shift from a cooperative, integrated system to a competitive, fragmented one creates additional pressures on scarce land and grain resources. This in turn leads to non-sustainability, violence to animals, and lower productivity when all systems are assessed. (p. 63)

Shiva's thinking on the unique importance of food is also evident throughout her book when she speaks of issues of corporate control of the food system and what she calls "food democracy."

Democratic control over food requires the reining in of the unaccountable power of corporations. It involves replacing the 'free trade' order of corporate totalitarianism with an ecological and just system of production and distribution, in which the earth is protected, farmers are protected, and consumers are protected. (p. 117)

A broad concern for the welfare of all living things, for culturally appropriate uses of food, and for protecting the diversity of plant and animal genetics is seemingly impossible to fit into standard comparative advantage analysis. Should we stay with simplifying assumptions, or listen to Shiva?

Listening to Shiva, especially at first reading, will be difficult for many of us. She is not an economist, and her language is a tad over-the-top in many places: "corporate hijacking of the food system" and "food dictatorship" are not terms from which academic articles are often fashioned.

But she does have a significant advantage over Ricardo in that she is a leading scientist and writes with current knowledge. Ricardo, we must remember, lived a long time ago.

Science, like agriculture, has changed so much as to make many of Ricardo's observations on the world around him of mere historical interest. All but a few biographers forget his dabbling into the nature of electricity. Nor is it widely noted that Ricardo died prematurely of a common ear infection after treatments with leeches and poultices failed.

The environmental implications of global specialization in crop and livestock production would have been impossible to address with early-nineteenth century science. Modern science acknowledges that specialization in food production is fundamentally different than specialization in manufacturing.

While Ricardo can easily be understood and forgiven, it is more difficult to understand how his trade theory, born in a world unrecognizable to us, has survived so well in the lore of free market economics. Perhaps Shiva will help us to rethink the fundamental questions we ask in trade theory. We should not argue with other economists over simplified worlds in which all products are merely "goods". Rather, we should engage physical scientists in a discussion of issues surrounding real-world trade in food, that most important and unique of all goods.

Richard A. Levins teaches in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Minnesota.