Susan cites the Washington Post's series that is attempting to explore the nature of the current crisis in-depth, or at least more systematically than the sound bites we've grown wearily accustomed to. I commented on her post as follows:
It's refreshing to see the analysis acknowledge that "No single factor can be blamed for the global food crisis. An unlucky confluence of events over the past several years contributed to soaring prices." This is important: too often a crisis involving food supply and prices is attributed to some sort of Malthusian-Darwinian reductionist explanation (one that does little credit to either Malthus or Darwin, but especially the latter). With all due respect to the late Garrett Hardin, who taught at my alma mater and lived not far from us, we need to be vigilant when it comes to assessing long-term policy proposals intended to prevent similar crises as, alas, neo-Malthusian "solutions," have in the past proven all-too-tempting: One recalls Hardin's suggestion that we issue licenses for reproduction, sold on the open market, as well as his triage-inspired "lifeboat ethics" in which the poorest of nations are allowed to perish. Hardin, along with Paul Ehrlich, viewed the so-called developing nations as "locked in an updated Malthusian dilemma of numbers and land" (Robert C. Paehlke). How utterly wrong-headed such an explanatory picture was and remains, is found in a book by another professor from my alma mater (and whose home I happened to help re-model back in the days when I was working as a finish carpenter), William W. Murdoch's The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). Indeed, I trust you'll indulge me if I proffer some titles that should count for "background" reading for those attempting to understand what ails us, granting the peculiar confluence of factors in the present crisis may be novel in their synergistic effects.
First, we need to put the consumption habits of Americans in proper perspective, as Jason Epstein does when discussing the work of Michael Pollan in the New York Review of Books (March 20, 2008), freely available at Pollan's website (or here).
In addition, the works of Juliet Schor are essential:
-The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1998).
-Do Americans Shop Too Much? (2000).
-(With Douglas Holt as co-editor) The Consumer Society: A Reader (2000).
-Born to Buy: The Commercialized Society and the New Consumer Culture (2004).
Next, we should forswear succumbing to economic and political myopia and place this crisis within a framework built from the materials of global distributive justice in conjunction with a sophisticated environmentalism, although the following titles largely focus on the former (the latter can be gleaned from my bibliography for 'ecological and environmental worldviews' posted at Ratio Juris):
-Bardhan, Pranab. Scarcity, Conflicts, and Cooperation: Essays in the Political and Institutional Economics of Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.
-Bardhan, Pranab, Samuel Bowles and Michael Wallerstein, eds. Globalization and Egalitarian Distribution. New York: Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
-Barry, Christian and Thomas W. Pogge, eds. Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Global Justice. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
-Dasgupta, Partha. An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
-Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
-Dreze, Jean, Amartya Sen and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
-Hurrell, Andrew and Ngaire Woods, eds. Inequality, Globalization, and World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
-Kerbo, Harold R. World Poverty: Global Inequality and the Modern World System. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
-Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
In addition to the above, let me add a few titles relevant to treating the salient ethical questions and moral topics associated with the structural roots of the current food crisis:
-Chatterjee, Deen K., ed. The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
-Cullity, Garrett. The Moral Demands of Affluence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
-Goodin, Robert E. Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
-Mayfield, Jamie. Suffering and Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
-Hausman, Daniel M. and Michael S. McPherson. Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 2006.
-Sen, Amartya. On Ethics and Economics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1987.
-Unger, Peter. Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Update: Three more posts treat our topic, the first and second, are by Rebecca Bratspies, a veteran of both the Agricultural Law and Biolaw blogs, and now a member of IntLawGrrls, where she has a helpful piece on the "'predictable' food catastrophe", while at Biolaw she links to Sen's classic study of famines and entitlement relations. As Sen wrote, "Viewed from the entitlement angle, there is nothing extraordinary in the market mechanism taking food away from famine-stricken areas to elsewhere. Market demands are not reflections of biological needs or psychological desires, but choices based on exchange entitlement relations. If one doesn't have much to exchange, one can't demand very much, and may thus lose in competition with others whose needs may be a good deal less acute, but whose entitlements are stronger. In fact, in a slump famine such a tendency will be quite common, unless other regions have a more severe depression. Thus, food being exported from famine stricken areas [e.g., the Irish famine of the 1840s and Bangladesh in 1974, as well as several Indian famines] may be a 'natural' characteristic of the market which respects entitlement rather than needs" (pp. 161-162). Our third post, "Global Food Crisis," comes courtesy of Ezra Rosser of the Poverty Law Prof Blog. Ezra has some great links, including several to World Bank sites.
[T]the focus on entitlement has the effect of emphasizing legal rights. Other relevant factors, for example market forces can be seen as operating through a system of legal relations (ownership rights, contractual obligations, legal exhanges, etc.). The law stands between food availability and food entitlement. Starvation deaths can reflect legality with a vengeance.
Update No. 2: See the article by Fred Magdoff in The Monthly Review, May 2008 (Vol. 60, No. 1): "The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions." Finally, this piece by Walden Bello from the June 2, 2008 issue of The Nation, "Manufacturing a Food Crisis," makes plain the links between institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the current food crisis. Perhaps I should note here that I think these institutions are capable of reform and thus can be harnessed toward the ends of global distributive justice. For one such argument, please see Robert Hockett, "Three (Potential) Pillars of Transnational Economic Justice: The Bretton Woods Institutions as Guarantors of Global Equal Treatment and Market Completion," in Christian Barry and Thomas W. Pogge, eds., Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Global Justice (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005): 90-123.