Cheap food and low productivity

In: Uncategorized

3 Jun 2009

The six British consumers taking part in BBC 3’s “Blood, Sweat and Takeaways” documentary were, with a couple of exceptions, less narcissistic than their counterparts in last year’s “Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts” (see posts of 18 April, 14 May and 17 June 2008). This year’s programme featured young foodies doing menial work as producers of food in south east Asia. So far they have worked on tuna in Indonesia, prawns in Indonesia and rice in Thailand.

But like its predecessor, which focused on the Indian garment industry, it suffered from a narrow consumerist perspective. The programme bills itself as discussing “the human price of producing our food”. What this seems to suggest it that cheap food prices in the West inevitably mean low wages in poor countries. But this is a false assumption.

The key economic problem in poorer countries is low levels of productivity. Although they are no doubt generally more productive than in the past they still have a long way to go. For example, Indonesian prawn farmers were shown constantly rebuilding mud walls around prawn ponds by hand. If they could afford the machinery to perform this task they would no doubt be much more productive.

Cheap food is a huge achievement for humanity that is well worth celebrating. But the poorer countries need to raise their productivity so they can enjoy higher living standards.