April 29, 2008

The false promise of food security

Katy says: When Chávez first came to power, one of the things he asked to include in the Constitution was the concept of "food security." The country's ability to produce its own food was viewed, according to Article 305 of the Constitution, as "fundamental for the Nation's social and economic development."

After nine years and countless laws, policies and actions related to the ownership of land and the production of food, has the government delivered on this front?

A new paper by Ataman Aksoy and Francis Ng from the World Bank addresses this question, albeit indirectly. They set out to answer the question of which countries are net importers of food and which are net exporters.

The authors explore the many methodological issues involved in an international comparison of this sort, and questions like what constitutes food imports are addressed. More importantly, they track each country's net food trade balance over time, and compare it to their total imports.

Table 3 is the most interesting one. The findings for Venezuela confirm what we all know: during the Chávez years we have become more dependent on foreign food, not less. The following graph tracks net food imports (the difference between food exports and food imports) as a percentage of the country's total imports. It tells a clear story: an increasing percentage of the stuff we import is food.

And that's without including whiskey in "food imports".

During the same period, Latin American countries that were running a deficit like Bolivia decreased the weight of their deficit on their trade balance, and countries that have food surpluses (like Brazil) showed significant improvements.

We don't even have oil exports as an excuse. During the same period, Saudi Arabia's net food imports went from 6.5% of total imports to 6.1%; the UAE's went from 3.0% to 1.3% and neighboring Trinidad and Tobago went from 6.4% to 2.8%. These results are confirmed if you look at an alternative definition of net food imports, such as the one used in Table 4.

This is an additional piece of the puzzle that we need to arm in order to continue debunking the myth of Chávez's empty revolution, a revolution in name only that is really just a grand scheme to funnel Venezuela's wealth to the rich and the well-connected.

The issue of food scarcity is a pressing one the world over. We can only wish we had a government whose policies helped alleviate the problem instead of exacerbating it.