Food subsidies in developed countries often have a negative impact on competitiveness in poor countries like Haiti, where this photo was taken in 2012. Photo by Trevor Williams.
full body photo of Marcus Marktanner
Marcus Marktanner

Kennesaw State University’s Coles College of Business this month hosted visiting scholars from Anhalt University in Germany to share insights on food security management. 

Marcus Marktanner, an associate professor of economics and international conflict management who also lectures at Anhalt each year, presided over the event.

Global Atlanta caught up with him by email to talk about developments in the world of food security, which he framed as an increasingly important geo-strategic issue that should be watched more closely.  

Read the interview below, which covers the relationship between U.S. agricultural subsidies and obesity and how Dr. Marktanner’s upbringing as the grandson of a farmer in (West) Germany impacted his understanding of this issue. 

Global Atlanta: What prompted your interest in this subject?

Dr. Marktanner: Food has unique economic, social, and political characteristics. It is the only economic good that we consume inside of our bodies. Food has also strong religious connotations. Famine is the third horseman of the apocalypse, and bread and wine symbolize the body of Jesus Christ. Because food is a necessity, food security is as much a pillar of political stability as national defense.

In 2007, at a time when I lived and worked in Lebanon, global food prices increased dramatically. I was contacted by the United Nations World Food Program to analyze the socioeconomic impacts of food insecurity and to develop policy response options. Specifically, I worked on the analysis of the coping mechanisms of the poor, the preparedness of public social safety nets and inefficiencies in agricultural and food markets.

Why is this important for business students to understand?

The food industry is naturally on the front lines in the battle against food insecurity. In the United States, the food processing industry is one of the largest manufacturing sectors with a deep domestic and global value chain. Food industries provide plenty of employment opportunities for business students across all sub-disciplines like logistics, operations research, finance and marketing. Given the fact that we live in a world with a growing population and limited resources, food industries will continue to grow into highly innovative high-tech sectors, similar to energy, natural defense, and finance.

Are you originally from Germany? How do you think that has impacted your understanding of this issue?

[pullquote]Having grown up in a free country under one roof with grandparents whose freedom was taken away by a socialist regime has clearly helped me to appreciate freedom, as opposed to falling for the alleged romanticisms of central planning.[/pullquote]Yes, I was born and raised in (West) Germany. My father is German while my mother came as a young refugee child from Hungary to Germany. My grandparents on my mother’s side were farmers, whose land was taken away by the communists after World War II. Having grown up in a free country under one roof with grandparents whose freedom was taken away by a socialist regime has clearly helped me to appreciate freedom, as opposed to falling for the alleged romanticisms of central planning.

Most developing countries with food insecurity problems in which I have worked struggle with the absence of market fundamentals in agricultural and food markets. For example, land titles are often not clearly specified, which prevents access to finance and the modernization of production.

How can policymakers enhance security while staying out of private food markets? In other words, what is the government’s appropriate role in this regard? Some would argue that subsidies like the ones the USDA provides to American farmers are against free-market principles and introduce inefficiencies into the global system.

The original purpose of subsidies was to secure food availability in an uncertain world after World War II. Today, Europe and the United States have long solved the food availability problem and there is no longer a relationship between subsidies and food security. If anything, there is now a relationship between subsidies and food insecurity. Eventually, obesity is a sign of food insecurity and it can be questioned whether we would be confronted with an obesity epidemic if we had less subsidies. Because most subsidies go into feed crops, not vegetables and fruits, we are lured into eating too much crispy fried chicken and too few crunchy apples.

Subsidies are simply politically justified with the mercantilist argument that food self-sufficiency is a geo-strategic need. Farmers have become moreover a small but powerful lobby. Because we only spend around 10-15 percent of our income on food, the welfare loss from subsidies is thinly spread across the society, which makes political opposition to subsidies rather unlikely. The fact that excess production is sold on world markets where farmers in developing countries find it difficult to compete with, is also not really a concern to voters in Europe or the United States.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...