Father Z. versus Pope Francis on World Hunger

Over at Fr. Z.’s Blog (wdtprs.com), Father John Zuhlsdorf disagrees with Pope Francis on the topic of how economics affects world hunger: Does Pope Francis get what it takes to feed the poor as he calls for? But Zuhlsdorf agrees with the main points of an article on the same subject from Forbes.com: Pope Francis Doesn’t Really Understand This Economics Thing, Does He? by Tim Worstall.

And all these comments refer to a speech given by Pope Francis to political leaders at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (OCN2) — Pope Francis urges solidarity and concrete action in global nutrition challenge.

Now we all agree that the opinions of Pope Francis on any topic, whether on faith and morals (absent a magisterial teaching on the same points), or on secular matters, is fallible. All are free to contradict the Pope in any personal opinion that he expresses: about Jesus, about matters of faith and morals, and certainly on other matters. Conservative Catholics have become fond of pointing out this truth, with frequent repetition, ever since a liberal but orthodox Cardinal was elected Pope, taking the name Francis.

I would like to add that every Pope deserves to have his publicly expressed opinions treated with the utmost respect. And when the Pope opines on an important subject, even beyond faith and morals, one should not discount his opinion because it is not an act of the Magisterium, nor because it contradicts one’s own assumptions and socio-political biases.

I’ve read many posts by Fr. Z. that mention Pope Francis. Anytime the Pope says anything that does not fit into the absolute conservatism that colors Fr. Z.’s view of the entire Faith, this not-so-humble priest casts it aside. Pope Francis puzzles him; he is scratching his head over the Pope’s comments. Why? because the Pope is liberal, and Fr. Z. assumes that the correct answer to every question on faith, morals, salvation, discipline, and apparently also economics must necessarily be the conservative answer. When did Jesus teach that? Never at any time.

The Pope’s opinions are fallible and not required beliefs, we are told incessantly by conservative and traditionalist commentators. Fine. But are not your own opinions fallible? Is the prevalent opinion among conservative Catholics (or among conservative economists!!!) a required belief?

I am dismayed to see that Fr. Z. treats his own ideas as nearly infallible, and the Pope’s ideas (absent an act of the Magisterium) as chaff. Whenever the Pope says anything that is different from this priest’s understanding, the automatic assumption is that the Pope is wrong, or the media must have misquoted him, or we just have no way of understanding what the Pope meant. Never does Fr. Z. consider that he himself might have misunderstood a point, or that he might benefit from some insight offered by the holy Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ.

But the opinions of Tim Worstall on economics are treated with respect and honor. Why? The Pope is liberal and Worstall is conservative. Is Father Zuhlsdorf a conservative CATHOLIC, or is he a CONSERVATIVE catholic? I’d like to know.

And these general criticisms of the way that Fr. Z. treats the Pope apply also to this topic of how economics might affect world hunger. Pope Francis is not an expert on economics, but neither is Fr. Z. Now Tim Worstall writes frequently on economics, but his expertise on the topic of world hunger is nil.

What did Pope Francis say that has Worstall and Fr. Z. in a tizzy? Nothing new or controversial. His take on the economics of world hunger emphasizes the dignity of the human person, and the harm that can occur if profit and speculation are unbridled by respect for the dignity and rights of all.

‘It is also painful to see the struggle against hunger and malnutrition hindered by ‘market priorities’, the ‘primacy of profit’, which reduce foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation and financial speculation in particular,’ Francis said.

To which Fr. Z. replied “huh?” Fr. Zuhlsdorf is confused as to why the Pope would make these types of comments because Fr. Z. is ignorant on the subject of world hunger, and biased against Pope Francis because he is liberal.

The holy Pontiff’s comments are in agreement with what many experts on hunger have been saying for many years now [2]. For example, the NGO Working Group on Food & Hunger at the United Nations says this about price speculation:

Financial firms and agro-industrial companies have moved very large sums into produce markets, or derivatives markets based on agricultural products. Four companies control seventy-five percent of the world’s international grain trade, while governments (under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF) have dismantled their national food reserve and marketing systems. Speculative investment funds have multiplied, as billions of dollars have flowed into the derivatives markets, driving prices higher, contributing to price volatility, and resulting in increasing financial desperation for small producers. [3]

Certainly, no one is objecting to farmers selling crops at a profit, or to commodities markets being used to buy/sell crops. Neither the Pope, nor experts who have expressed similar ideas, would rule out some use of the tools of capitalism in the world food ecomomy.

It is important to note that speculation is important for the efficient functioning of markets because it brings liquidity into the market and helps farmers and other participants to offset their exposure to future price fluctuations in the physical commodity markets…. However, speculation can also play a perverse role in markets. Excessive levels of speculation can lead to sudden or unreasonable fluctuations or unwarranted changes (in one particular direction) in commodity prices. [1]

But much harm can occur when profit and market forces are the primary influences on food production. Consider an example from our own nation. U.S. law and policy caused a vast area of arable land to be taken out of food production, in order to grow maize for ethanol. Congress set up import quotas, tariffs, mandatory levels of ethanol in gasoline and other provisions in order to move farmland to the production of ethanol. That land alone could solve at least half the hunger problem. [5] And yet the land continues to be used for production of biofuel.

More so than ever before in human history, world agriculture is one system, a vast interconnected world economy. When the U.S. began to sharply increase its conversion of corn (maize) into ethanol instead of food, beginning about 2004 to 2005, [4] the result was that less farmland was used to grow various crops for food. This change in supply drove commodity prices for cereals higher, resulting in higher prices for corn, rice, wheat, and other foods worldwide. By 2006, the higher prices created a food crisis at both the retail and the agricultural (or “farmgate”) sources of cereals. The harm to the world food economy continued thereafter, with prices never fully recovering.

Why do farmers grow huge quantities of maize (corn) for ethanol as well as maize and soybeans for livestock feed, instead of growing a variety of foods for human consumption? Primacy of profit and market priorities. The Pope’s summary of the situation is correct, and not controversial to persons who are informed about world hunger.

Fr. Z. has little to say about world hunger and economics, because he knows little on those topics. But he makes his views known by highlighting and agreeing with what Worstall says. Neither of them knows much about world hunger. But that doesn’t stop them from rejecting any ideas that seem liberal, even if expressed by the Pope.

For example, Worstall opines “So, we want the producers of food to profit from their having produced it. Otherwise we just don’t get enough food.” And Fr. Z. adds “Because by making a profit we can feed more people.”

OK. Well, those comments show that both Worstall and Fr. Z. have a superficial understanding of the interplay between economics and hunger. Again, no one objects to farmers selling crops at a profit. However, the vast majority of farms in the world are small subsistence farms, not commercial farms.

“There are about 400 to 500 million small farms of about 2 hectares (5 acres) or less in the world; the average small farm size is 1.5 hectares. The total land in these small farms is about 600 to 750 million hectares (average farm size times number of farms). These are generally subsistence farms; they grow food mainly for the use of their extended family. If the harvest is good, they may sell some of the excess at a local open-air market.” [5]

A vast quantity of food is produced with little or no profit. The motivation is to produce food for one’s own extended family. Share-cropping is also common in the developing world. A farmer hires workers to help produce the crop, and their payment is a share in the food that is produced.

However, large U.S. and EU based agricultural companies are buying or leasing vast tracts of land in the developing world, to produce crops for profit, usually for sale in wealthy developed nations. This profiteering reduces the land and other resources available to feed the hungry.

Capitalism is an unthinking economic force. It has no conscience and no respect for human dignity and rights. That is why food cannot be treated like any other product, subjected to market forces and greed, with no regard for the undernourished.

Sometimes, the tools of capitalism can be used, by compassionate human persons, to help those in need in the world. These tools can be adapted to philanthropic purposes. The concept is called philanthropic capitalism or philanthro-capitalism or even philanthropic venture capitalism. But while profits are used within that approach to fund philanthropic endeavors, the goal is not profit, but assistance to other human persons in need.

Contrast that approach with the rants of some ignorant cheerleaders for capitalism, and the difference is night and day. The one approach is led by the light of true concern for fellow human persons in need; capitalism is treated as a useful tool. The other approach is guided by an unthinking adherence to conservatism; capitalism is treated as a religious dogma.

Worstall foolishly says:

That is, modern hunger is a demand side phenomenon and will be solved by demand side measures. Like, as above, giving poor people money to buy food with. This is what actually works, this is how most NGOs now see hunger, many governments too. The problem is not that there’s no food for the poor to buy. It’s that the poor have no money to buy food.

And Fr. Z. shows his ignorant agreement by bolding most of the above quote. The problem is that these types of assertions on world hunger are factually false.

According to my analysis in my book Hunger Math, “the world agricultural system produces sufficient kilocalories, from the top 50 or so staple crops, to feed 10 billion persons.” [5] Unfortunately, those calories include a vast amount of carbs used to produce ethanol, as well as carbs used to produce livestock feed. Now you might argue that feeding crops to livestock results in human food in the form of meat, poultry, farmed fish, and dairy. But you’d be missing the point. Animal-source foods are almost all protein and fat. The carbs fed to the livestock are lost.

“The world agricultural system produces enough carbs for 13 billion persons, enough protein for 8.7 billion persons, and enough fat for only 6.0 billion persons. And, given the fact that some nutrients are lost as the food moves from field to table, even the level of protein production is probably insufficient.” [5]

So the idea that the poor just need money to buy food is false. The world agricultural system does not produce enough dietary fat for 7 billion persons. There’s enough protein, if it were equitably distributed. There’s enough carbs, if we would only stop using food to make biofuels. But this idea that the poor just need money to buy food is simply not true. The problem of world hunger is incredibly complex.

My own list of contributing causes to world hunger, based on research for my book on the topic, includes:

* The Western Diet — excess consumption of animal-source foods, protein, fat, and calories.

* Insufficient Production of Protein and Fat — by the world agricultural system, due to economic incentives to produce livestock feed and biofuels.

* Fuel Ethanol — the area of land used to produce biofuels could cut world hunger in half.

* Lack of Fertilizer — higher yields in the developing world can be obtained very quickly if they had fertilizer for their crops

* The Commercial nature of the world agricultural system and the world food economy.

* Illiteracy — a non-obvious cause of hunger. “It might seem as if illiteracy and hunger are two disparate problems. But when a population has a low literacy level, it becomes much more difficult to provide them with information on health, nutrition, and agriculture.” [5]

* Lack of Land Rights — “There is plenty of land available. But, just as is the case with the food and agricultural system, the land distribution system is largely commercial. As a result, the poor lack land, and therefore cannot grow the food they need to alleviate hunger.” [5]

* Government Policies — as for example, the U.S. Congress’ insistence on jury-rigging the U.S. agricultural system to grow immense quantities of corn for fuel ethanol, instead of growing a variety of food crops for human consumption.

Worstall’s characterization of world hunger as a lack of money by the poor is absurd. It’s as insightful as saying to those who have no bread, “Let them eat cake.” Fr. Z.’s support for Worstall’s misunderstanding is typical of his bias toward all things conservative.

Pope Francis is absolutely correct in his comments on the harm that modern economics can do to the hungry of the world. If I were to criticize his comments, all I could say is that they are boring and trite. It’s nothing we did not already know to be true, “we” being persons who care enough about the issue of world hunger to actually become informed on the subject.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.


[1] PRICE VOLATILITY FROM A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE, Paper prepared by the FAO Trade and Markets Division (EST), A Technical background document for the high-level event on: “Food price volatility and the role of speculation”, FAO headquarters, Rome, 6 July 2012.

[2] Safeguarding food security in volatile global markets, Edited by Adam Prakash; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2011; chapter 13, “The rise of commodity speculation: from villainous to venerable” by Ann Berg (Former director and trader at the Chicago Board of Trade and FAO consultant.)

[3] NGO Working Group on Food & Hunger at the United Nations, Policy Statement to the General Assembly – September 2011, n. 6.

[4] USDA, ERS, “Topics, Crops, Corn, Background,” Chart: U.S. Domestic Corn Use; http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/corn/background.aspx

[5] Conte, Hunger Math: world hunger by the numbers, 2013, Available at Amazon. See chapter 7, “Contributing Causes”.

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