Monday, June 22, 2009

Why is Globalized Agriculture Leaving 1 Billion People Hungry?

All of us have probably seen movies lampooning the ditzy beauty pageant contestant and her selfless desire to see the "end of world hunger". All jokes aside, the steady march of global hunger is actually gaining strength, while our every attempt to fight back is encumbered by either a lack of coordination, fresh ideas, or both. The number of people in the world designated as hungry has reached a mind-blowing 1 billion. There are 100 million more people who are identified as hungry than last year, consuming fewer than 1,800 calories a day. Not surprisingly, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of hunger in the world.

There are no easy answers to solving hunger in the world, but at least one thing should be obvious---what we have done up until now hasn't worked.As I explained in an earlier post on the 2008 global food crisis, people around the world aren't hungry because there isn't enough food, or even simply because of bad economic policy (although this is an important factor). The very design of globalized agriculture has unfortunately contributed to a lop-sided model that has enriched a few at the expense of many of the world's poorest.

The Impact of the Economic Crisis

Despite the good intentions of policymakers, activists and aid agencies, the economic crisis has only worsened the hunger problem, moving poor nations further away from the aim of food security. The near future looks even bleaker in light of an expectation that international food prices will be exceptionally high well into the next decade. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, released a report which predicts crop prices will be 10 to 20 percent higher during the next decade than during the previous 10 years. The current economic crisis has reduced access to food by the poor. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf had this to say about the fall-out of the recession on the world's most vulnerable,

"A dangerous mix of the global economic slowdown combined with stubbornly high food prices in many countries has pushed some 100 million more people than last year into chronic hunger and poverty...The silent hunger crisis — affecting one sixth of all of humanity — poses a serious risk for world peace and security. We urgently need to forge a broad consensus on the total and rapid eradication of hunger in the world and to take the necessary actions."

More and more, the urban poor in the developing world are completely dependent on food that they not only can't produce, but that is produced farther away and by fewer and fewer sources. The end result is that poor families are left vulnerable to wild price fluctuations in the global market. When jobs are lost and incomes dried up there is virtually little recourse for protection. Under the status-quo, many governments are unlikely to initiate any kind of price controls on key food sources to offer some security when prices do sky-rocket.

Is Uneven Development to Blame?

There is a strong argument vocalized in the global South that the world's productive and financial resources for farming are concentrated in the hands of too few agricultural oligopolies in North America, Europe, and in Australia. In this view, the economic crisis did not create the world's hunger problem, but only exposed inherent structural weaknesses in the architecture of globalized agriculture.

The Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal explains the uneven nature of global food production in the world lucidly in an article called, "The new agrarian question : What alternatives for the Third World peasant societies?"

"Capitalist agriculture governed by the principle of return on capital, which is localised almost exclusively in North America, in Europe, in the South cone of Latin America and in Australia, employs only a few tens of millions of farmers who are no longer “peasants”. But their productivity, which depends on mechanisation (of which they have monopoly worldwide) and the area of land possessed by each farmer, ranges between 10.000 and 20.000 quintals of equivalent cereals per worker annually..........
The ratio of productivity of the most advanced segment of the world agriculture to the poorest, which was around 10 to 1 before 1940 is now approaching 2000 to 1 ! That means that productivity has progressed much more unequally in the area of agricultural-food production than in any other area. Simultaneously this evolution has led to the reducing of relative prices of food products (in relation to other industrial and service products) to one fifth of what they were fifty years ago."

The majority rural farmers in the global South simply can't compete with the highly capital-intensive techniques of subsidized farmers in rich countries without support. In the developing world, peasant farmers are rarely supported with the appropriate technologies and processes to fight crop disease, and climate change among other external factors. Ultimately, these families are priced out of the local market for agricultural foods, which can be produced cheaper in America or Europe and with higher-yield varieties due to genetic modification. Furthermore, colonialism and later structural adjustment policies from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank coordinated the whole sale abandonment of large scale domestic agricultural production for a "competitive advantage" in the extraction of cheap natural resources or labor.

Finding Alternative Solutions to the Hunger Problem

The natural response to the global hunger crisis by most is simply more investment coupled with liberalization. The assumption being that increased spending on productive capacity, and an expansion of market access will help small-holder farmers increase productivity and income. However, this status quo approach does not address the fundamental structural deficit that developing nations have inherited. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton wrote an article in the Huffington Post laying out the Obama Administration's plan to fight hunger. Her policy prescriptions were more of the same market responses to the problem that has characterized at least the last 30 years i.e. "increase agricultural productivity", "stimulate the private sector", and "increase trade".

There are important organizations in the US investigating alternative responses to the growing problem of world hunger which go beyond free- market mechanisms alone. The Institute for Food and Development Policy is a think-tank in Oakland, California which, "believe(s) a world free of hunger is possible if farmers and communities take back control of the food systems presently dominated by transnational agri-foods industries." The IFDP sees the solution to global hunger as a three-pronged approach including building local agri-food systems, forging food sovereignty for farmers, and democratizing the development process.

A host of think-tanks like the Institute for Food and Development Policy, the Third World Forum and mass social movements in the global South are rightly asking for a re-organization of globalized agriculture to meet the needs of the world's poor. However, the dominant policy discourse on hunger in the US hasn't yet acknowledged the uneven structure of globalized agriculture and the need for serious transformation within the system. It seems highly unlikely that the battle against world hunger can be won without conscious policy changes in the US, Europe and other rich nations. There are 1 billion people and counting waiting for that to happen.

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