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Follow the Cotton

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMarch 30, 2011 1:03 AM


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Global food security concerns are about to ratchet up:

"There's a lot more money to be made in cotton right now," said Ramon Vela, a farmer here in the Texas Panhandle, as he stood in a field where he grew wheat last year, its stubble now plowed under to make way for cotton. Around the first week of May, Mr. Vela, 37, will plant 1,100 acres of cotton, up from 210 acres a year ago. "The prices are the big thing," he said. "That's the driving force."

Economists, agricultural experts and government officials are predicting that many farmers, both in the United States and abroad, will join Mr. Vela this year in chasing the higher profits to be made in cotton "” with consequences that could ripple across the globe. "It's good for the farmer, but from a humanitarian perspective it's kind of scary," said Webb Wallace, executive director of the Cotton and Grain Producers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. "Those people in poor countries that have a hard time affording food, they're going to be even less able to afford it now." Myriad factors determine food prices. Ethanol demand has pushed up corn prices. Wheat prices rose last year when Russia banned exports after drought devastated its crop.

Other global indicators are worrisome, too, according to this essay highlighted in The New Security Beat. But it contains an oft-repeated statistic that gives me pause:

Yet, when food prices fall, India's small farmers suffer. Already crippled by debt and encumbered by water shortages, 200,000 of them have committed suicide over the past 13 years.

Hmm. That's a huge number of people. The link is to a speculative, poorly sourced CNN story that makes me even more skeptical. It also reminds me of a similarly hyped claim in this Daily Mail article, which blamed the "genocide" of Indian farmer suicides on GM crops. So which is the cause for the farmer suicide epidemic in India and how reliable are those numbers? Such questions don't undercut the legitimacy of the global food security issue, but I'm also of the mind that inflated statistics (be they propagated in the media or in policy journals) don't help inform the policy debate.

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