Christmas 2007: Tales From The Other Side of the World

It’s that time again.  I find myself sorting through my pre-Christmas ritual.  However, I also have traveled to the local mall to see how the rest of the world lives.

That life drives me crazy, not because I don’t enjoy all of the material things of life.  It’s only because sometimes I think as a society we consume too much and conserve too little.  With the current craze within North American society to gorge themselves on consumer goods from China, my feelings are just that much more acute.  I always think of the poor Asian guy making all of this junk starving to death.

I think those things because as many of you know, I’ve walked through many an Asian street.  I haven’t been there in five long years.  However, I feel the pull of that place very strongly.  Maybe in 2009 I’ll make my way back there, to the other side of the world to once again measure how people survive.

Last week I told my agricultural readership I was dreaming about $20/bushel soybeans.  Some of those people in Asia are just dreaming about getting some soybeans.  Simply put in parts of south east Asia people sit down for some type of soybean derivative every day.  If we could get that done in North America, maybe we’d end up with $30 soybeans.  Don’t quote me on that one.

In the rest of Asia it isn’t so rosy and the people don’t eat soybeans products.  That’s the Asia, which I’m very familiar with.  For instance in Bangladesh which I’ve visited three times, there are many empty stomachs; in fact there are millions.  As a journalist and an agricultural economist I live with this great dichotomy every day.  How do you balance the economics of modern agricultural production with the dire needs of people who never get their basic daily nutritional needs satisfied?  Lost is the connection between my combine and their hungry stomachs.

For me there is also a great culture shock.  For instance let me describe one scene from my sojourn to Bangladesh in 2003.  I had traveled to the southeast port city of Chittigong by car.  However, that’s not like driving to Toronto.  That’s more akin to being in a “tilt-a-whirl” upside down for eight hours.  Bangladeshi drivers take no prisoners; it’s about the most dangerous place to drive a car in this world.  On reaching the city I scarfed down some rice and barricaded myself inside a dark cave of a room, which reminded me of the movie “Dracula”.  Having secured the door, I now had to secure myself from the “critters” on the inside.

That is not so easy, in fact I do the best I can and then throw caution to the wind.  I sleep under a mosquito net, several layers of blankets, (some brought from Canada) blinders and earplugs to deaden the deafening noise outside the room.  The next morning there was going to be a national strike, violence might break out at any time.  Unbelievably I slept the night and woke up in pretty good shape the next day.  And yes, the strike was on.

Into this cultural divide North American agriculture sometimes muses about “feeding Asia.”  In fact we used to hear about the “China card” for future agricultural demand.  We know now that’s happening in spades.  However, it’s now mentioned almost always as increased demand from “China and India”.  Inherent in that is demand from Bangladesh, Pakistan and other South Asian nations.  In my own mind, I think adding India and South Asia is a stretch.  What are we going to do, ship them rice and get richer and richer?  I don’t think so.  I think some of those agricultural analysts who muse about “China” and India better go there with me on my next trip to the other side of the world.

One benchmark in economic theory is when a country can feed its people; it’s a true measurement of a mature economy.  In Canada, the United States and other developed countries, “food production” is taken for granted.  Nobody doubts there will be food in the grocery stores tomorrow.  On the other hand in the developing world, people struggle every day to figure out what they are going to eat tomorrow.  As I walked the streets and rice paddies in Bangladesh that fact was written on every face.

For the most part here in the west, we don’t get that.  Folks in southwestern Ontario are no different.  However, if we concentrated more of our global resources toward lifting these people out of poverty, global food demand would rise and eventually that would show up in a big way in the southwestern Ontario economy.

So at Christmas time, I ask all of you to reflect once again, like I do every year.  Yes, 2007 has been quite a year, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.  However, there are still lots of empty stomachs yearning for something to eat.  At Christmas time 2007, we need to remember that.

Merry Christmas