World food politics!
"We have the means ... to wipe hunger and poverty from the face of the earth in our lifetime". President John F Kennedy, 1963.
So, what's new? The US still subsidises its farmers, yet creates huge food surpluses. In 1974, at the World Food Conference, Kissinger got up and declared that "for the first time, we have the technical capacity to free mankind from the scourge of hunger". Rousing words indeed! The Conference agreed to eradicate hunger within a decade. The decade passed: little happened.... and the rest of us forgot about it. Then in 1996, the World Food Summit tried again. Only this time it settled for feeding just half the world's hungry (400 million of them) by 2015. "Efforts so far have failed abysmally", says Clive Pointing (A New Green History of the World, 2008).
Where the food goes:
So is the world really serious about feeding the hungry? Some people answer NO! They argue there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. The issue is not the supply of food. It is the way we distribute it. Any thinking person knows that some of us get to gorge on food while others simply go hungry. Raj Patel (Stuffed and Starved 2008) points out that the result of this is that rich countries have to deal with the problems of obesity and diabetes caused by too much food and too much sugar in our diets. And the rest go hungry. Look at the figures. The global north consumes a half of all the world's food. Yet it has only a quarter of the world's mouths to feed. The other three quarters of the world are left with the rest! That means that we in the global north eat roughly three times as much as those in the south. And the poorer countries export more of their food to the richer countries than vice versa, although journalists highlight only the 'food aid' that goes from the rich to the poor!
Countries organise their agriculture so that the best land goes for cash crops; the other land goes for feeding local populations. The World Bank persuades poor countries to grow "high-value added" crops - cut flowers, asparagous, and broccoli - rather than crops that will fill hungry stomachs. (see note below*) This inequality is compounded by subsidies.
Below the belt support:
Rich countries pay their own farmers about $500 billion a year in farm subsidies. The European Union subsidises sugar by four times its world price. Then, it slaps on a tariff of 324 percent on any sugar imports from the developing world. Cows in the US and the EU are each subsidised by $2.7 a day: twice the income of a farmer in the developing world. Saudi Arabia decided in 1984 to become self sufficient in wheat production. To do this, it had to subsidise domestic production at five times the world wheat price, and extract massive quanmtities of water from underground acquifers. Half of these have now dried up completely and the rest can only be accessed by drilling down a kilometre! Yet India (the world's largest milk producer) is forbidden to subsidise its milk by the World Trade Organisation. This sounds crazy. But it is caused by the power of the rich world farm lobby. President Sarkozy knows only too well that French farmers can stop the traffic around Paris, until they get some concessions. Spineless politicians?
In the US nearly a half of all food sold gets wasted. And a fifth of the world's grain harvests gets eaten by rats. Pets do pretty well too: a rich world cat eats more meat than any human being in Costa Rica. Poor countries have to cope with serious rates of malnutrition. At the turn of the century, a billion people suffered from chronic malnutrition and another billion people lived on a grossly inadequate diet. Overall, a third of the world does not get enough food to live a healthy life, while a many more live on the margins, facing the constant threat of food shortages. About forty million people die every year from hunger.
Likeness is a peasant farmer who lives in Malawi. She has three kids and no prospects. John Vidal (Guardian, 28 August 2008), talked with her at a FAO conference on food last June.She told him that last year the rains came late to her maize field near the Zambian border and then they stopped early. The result was misery. Her crops failed. What she harvested had nearly gone by June. She had no work, and there was no money to buy food, fertiliser or seeds for this year. She is the face of world hunger, along with nearly a billion others caught up in these unprecedented food price rises. What is she to do?
Four hundred and seventy million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in the countryside. Its agriculture employs 65 percent of the labour force. But, says the UN, agricultural growth is four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. "Consequently, the implementation and scaling up of initiatives to support improved agricultural productivity, particularly amongst smallholder farmers will be critical to speeding growth, increasing incomes and improving the lives of the continent’s people. With the assistance of the international community, rural producers who are the prime victims of the present crisis can become the prime actors of its solution". This came from a press release issued, not by the FAO conference, but as an afterthoughht by the UN office. A sop to small farmers? Probably.
Don't hold your breath:
In April 2008, Sir John Holmes promised to write a report on what to do about the the rise in world food prices by June. At the time he made noises about the rich world food subsidies being cut and the need to support small farmers. Both points were somewhere in the final report but their impact was crowded out by the UN's usual plethora of plattitudes. By contrast, the BBC, when it discusses the role of small businesses in manufacturing or retailing, always says that small businesses are the 'bedrock of business'! So why are small farmers not equally the bedrock of agriculture? Perhaps it is because the rich and powerful want to take over their lands.
Empty plates: empty policies:
At the FAO food conference in June, 2008 dozens of farmers' groups made a plea for an overhaul of world agricultural policies. "We have empty plates and we have empty policies," said Paul Nicholson of La Via Campesina, an international small farmers' movement. "Let us protect and defend a farming system that feeds the world," he said. Maryam Rahmanian (Iranian Centre for Sustainable Development) told AFP: "It's obscene that the food crisis is being used to push stronger on policies promoting large-scale agriculture, biofuels and the use of genetically modified organisms and pesticides". "There's been a huge occupation of the FAO by American interests," she charged.
Maryam Rahmanian is right in both her accusations. At these conferences, small farmers get to have their say....generally at the end. Then they get ignored when any decisions are made, in favour of "public-private partnerships" with governments, the UN and the big farmers. It happens every time. And the FAO has often been criticised for being ineffective. The Economist May 8, 2008 pointed out that criticism of the FAO 'has long been swirling around it'. On May 4th, Senegal's President called the FAO 'a bottomless pit of money largely spent on its own functioning'. Yet it remains as part of the UN. The World Bank is supposed to have changed its policies now, to be 'in favour of the small farmer'. Oh really?
Clive Ponting gives the example to Morocco to show how pernicious these World Bank/IMF policies are. In the 1950s the Moroccan government followed World Bank advice to concentrate its agriculture on fruit and tomato exports for Europe, in place of supplying wheat for the hoome market. The new policy entailed dam construction and irrigation (for the large landowners involved) creating $16 billion in national debt by 1984. Food imports trippled between 1970 and 1983 and wheat production fell, creating massive foreign exchange debts. An IMF rescue package cut food subsidies, left (large) farmer subsidies so that the country could repay its debts. As a result, Ponting points out that nine out of twentyone million Moroccans were judged to be 'absolutely poor' by the mid 1980s. Sound familiar?
Even more worrying are the recent initiatives by Korea and Saudi Arabia to buy up large tracks of good farm land in Sudan and Ethiopia to use for growing their own crops (wheat I believe) solely to export back to their home countries. I cannot quote chapter and verse for these developments since I did not make a note of these reports, but I fancy other countries are attempting to do the same. These initiatives usually get reported as 'simple' business transactions on the Business Pages. And no one bats an eyelid!
"Putting in place a WTO agreement that stops rich countries dumping surpluses, opens up their agricultural markets and allows poor countries to protect their producers is a vital long-term recovery strategy..... The sticking plasters and daft advice on offer from Rome (FAO) are not fit for purpose”. So says Kevin Watkins, at the Oxford University Global Governance Programme. The current edition of Foreign Affairs sets out this conventional thinking. Professor Paul Collier argues that African agriculture's productivity has stagnated over the last forty years. "It seems likely that in southern Africa, the staple food, maize, will at some point becoome nonviable'. Collier's answer to this is a 'biological' revolution (the introduction of GM crops). He concludes that, in India too, the peasants need to be slowly squeezed off the land and to seek work in the cities' shanty towns instead. As he puts it: "there are many areas of the world that have good land that could be used far more productively if properly managed by large companies.... allowing commercial organisations to replace peasant agriculture gradually would raise global food supply in the medium term".
People who reject this must, he says, ' come face to face with the prospect of mass malnutrition and stunted children and realize that the vital matter for public policy is to increase food supplies'. Blunt words indeed. But the World Bank, the FAO, the IMF will read this carefully.
Today, there is a vicious struggle going on between large scale farmers and the millions of small farmers around the world. Is anyone listening to what these small farmers have to say? I doubt it.
Amyjudd posted an excellent video (in her piece on Indian agriculural information January 22) by Vandana Shiva, the well known activist, who pointed out that the agro-farmers expected a 25% return on their flower growing investments.!