On May 2, George W. Bush explained that the current spike in food prices worldwide is primarily a consequence of rising demand from China and India: “when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.” The quote was widely seen in the English-language Indian media as “blaming” Chindia for the problem, and was met with outrage.
Some of that outrage is collected in a recent IHT article on the President’s controversial statement. Some of the best, most snarky comments are by Pradeep Mehta, who works for a private economic research organization in India:
The food problem has “clearly” been created by Americans, who are eating 50 percent more calories than the average person in India, said Pradeep Mehta, the secretary general of CUTS Center for International Trade, Economics and Environment, a private economic research organization based in India with offices in Kenya, Zambia, Vietnam and Britain.
If Americans were to slim down to even the middle-class weight in India, “many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates,” Mehta said. The money Americans spend on liposuction to get rid of their excess fat could be funneled to famine victims instead, he added. (link)
And somewhat more measured comments, along with some more statistics on caloric consumption, are here:
Americans eat an average of 3,770 calories per capita a day, the highest amount in the world, according to data from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, compared to 2,440 calories in India. They are also the largest per capita consumers in any major economy of beef, the most energy-intensive common food source, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The United States and Canada top the world in oil consumption per person, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“George Bush has never been known for his knowledge of economics,” Jairam Ramesh, the minister of state for commerce, told The Press Trust of India after Bush’s remarks, which he said proved again how “comprehensively wrong” Bush is.
“To say that demand for food in India is causing increase in global food prices is completely wrong,” Ramesh said.
Politicians and academics in India cite various other reasons: diversion of arable land in the United States and Europe into ethanol production; trade subsidies by the United States and Europe; and the dollar’s decline. (link)
Those latter factors (ethanol production, trade subsidies, dollar’s decline) have also been cited by a number of economists in the west. Still, the President and Condoleezza Rice (who made a similar statement a couple of weeks ago) are presumably right when they say that there has been a rise in global demand, though I have a strong feeling that that demand started to rise more than a decade ago. It’s those other factors that, as I understand it, have really converged this year to drive up prices. (Does anyone really know? Is this an economics problem that can be solved?)
Consumption-wise, I admittedly look like an ordinary American: my own caloric intake is probably closer to 3000 than 2000 (though I’ve admittedly never been able to count it out… how many calories in roti? rajma-chaval? chicken biryani?). Still, on this issue, I can’t help but see things from the Indian point of view: “Why do Americans think they deserve to eat more than Indians?”