Food Insecurity: Role of Unjust Global Systems

Published on 5th June 2012

Farmers inspect their harvest                 Photo courtesy
There is, of course, no greater injustice than the fact that, in an era of plenty, hunger continues to cast a dark shadow over so many lives. Without providing people with the food they need, our hopes of building a fairer and better world for all will be thwarted.

Yet 20 years after the world came together at Rio to pledge determined action to tackle inequality, hunger and environmental destruction, we seem to be moving in the wrong direction. After decades when the overall price of food fell and the numbers going hungry declined, the trend has been reversed. The impact of population growth, climate change and lack of investment in agriculture on already unfair global food systems has pushed prices up and millions more people into abject poverty.

The result is that close to one in seven people – more than the population of Europe and North America combined – will not have enough food to eat today.  Even these shameful figures under-estimate the scale of the problem. Another one billion may put enough food on the table but the meals lack the nutrition necessary for proper health and development.

We see the impact of these failures from the very earliest days of life.If mothers don’t eat properly – and it is usually the mothers who go without – the health of their unborn children can be permanently harmed. Poor diets damage the physical and mental development of millions of young children. And, of course, all this feeds through into their later health, life chances and wider society and economy. The result is wasted potential, poorer productivity and increased poverty and hardship.

We are seeing these problems, too, when the global population is at seven billion. But at current projections, it is expected to rise by another two billion by 2050 and could increase to ten billion by the end of the century. And while, of course, rising prosperity in many parts of the world is a positive trend, without urgent action, it could worsen food insecurity. With another three billion people set to join the global middle class, grain once used for food will be diverted to feed animals to meet their growing appetite for meat and dairy products. Population growth and increased consumption could alone increase demand for food by 70 per cent by 2050.

Despite so many people still going hungry in developing countries, we are also seeing potential food crops and productive land used for bio-fuels. High oil prices make this even more attractive, no matter how much we may doubt the ethics and sustainability of these decisions.

These reasons would be enough for anger and action. But we must also add the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change on harvests. Climate change, of course, will affect us all wherever we live. But it is another great injustice that those who are already the poorest and have done least to cause climate change will feel its greatest impact. Rising temperatures, increasing droughts and more frequent extreme weather events will have a devastating effect in many developing countries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, crop yields from rain-fed farmlands are forecast to fall by as much as 50 per cent by the end of the century. Indeed we are already seeing this happening. Climate change, combined with unsustainable farming practices, is turning productive land into dust bowls, increasing poverty, mass migration and instability. It is why our collective failure to tackle climate change is so disastrous.

Climate change is a terrible legacy to leave our children. Yet so far our generation of leaders has failed dismally to rise to the challenge. We must fervently hope that the Rio +20 Conference will help address these failures. We need to see the adoption and, crucially, implementation, of the policies needed for sustainable development and a more equitable world.

In some ways, of course, global hunger should be easier to overcome than many other challenges. We already produce sufficient food to feed everyone. It is simply that we don’t have the right systems in place to ensure the food we grow reaches the people who need it most.

These are failures not just of policy and politics but also of vision and values. For if we can’t come together successfully to deliver something as basic to our needs as food, what hope is there for wider international co-operation. Yet even on food, there has been in recent years an ominous retreat from the idea of a global community. We have seen a worrying rise in self-interest and beggar my neighbor trade policies. Richer countries are using the excuse of the financial crisis to break their promises to the poor on development aid.

We need to rediscover the common purpose and faith in the dignity of each of us as individuals which is, of course, at the heart of this movement.

So how can we reform our food systems so that they best reflect this common purpose? It must, of course, be a twin-track approach. When people are starving now, we have to find the will and resources to feed them.

Here, of course, the work of Caritas and many other faith organisations around the world are simply indispensible. The international community needs to do more to help through increased co-ordination of relief work. We need to see, for example, better co-ordination of emergency food and nutrition programmes, improve early warning systems and speedier transfers of both cash and food reserves.

But as well as urgent short term measures, we need to put in place major long-term structural reforms. First, we need to improve global governance and overhaul unfair trade rules. Developing countries must be given a much more powerful voice in the key international decision-making bodies. Though I am pleased that African leaders were invited to last month’s G8 at Camp David to talk about food security, developing countries need a permanent seat at the table.

Trade restrictions which distort the markets and put the poorest at a disadvantage must be swept away. The international community must finally provide effective, efficient and equitable market access policies for food. This includes guarding against protectionist tendencies which all-too-often are the knee jerk reaction to rising prices and shortages.

Structural reforms are required to protect the poorest from global shocks. This includes limiting excessive global speculation in food stocks which forces up prices and exacerbates shortages. If the amount held in global and regional stocks was more clearly known and maintained at higher levels, price volatility and speculation would be dampened. I believe a financial transactions tax could be used to help curb excessive speculation while raising money for development and climate change finance.

Second, the investment in agriculture in developing countries must be significantly increased. It is here where the need and the potential to increase productivity and production are greatest. There is, as I have said, no shortage of support for farming and food production but it is spent by wealthier countries to protect their own farmers and food sources.

Agricultural support from richer countries to their own farmers in 2009 was 80 times the funding for development aid to agriculture. It is re-assuring that both national governments and international organisations have recognized that this trend has to be reversed. Individual countries and regional groups such as the African Union are increasing investment in their own agricultural sector. Thirty African countries have put in place national agricultural investment plans. Richer countries have promised, not least through the L’Aquila G-8 initiative, to increase support for farming in the developing world. The launch of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition by the G8 last month was another important step in the right direction.

Increased investment from the private sector is also vital and must include ways to open up access to credit. We need as well to increase research into new crops and techniques which focus on the challenges of farmers and farming in the developing world. This must include how we can use new crop varieties and irrigation so harvests can be increased and land helped to stay productive despite climate change.

Too often the interests of the developing world are overshadowed by the needs of large farming enterprises in the developed world. This is doubly foolish because it is the developing world which offers the best chance of increasing global food production. If we get this right, Africa, for example, can produce not only food to meet its own needs but will grow a surplus to export.

Thirdly, we must invest, in people and particularly in the small-holder farmers who remain the backbone of agricultural production. We need to give them access to the latest knowledge, increased support and credit to create fair markets so they can sell their surpluses at a fair price. This must include women farmers who make up the majority but face the greatest barriers and disadvantage.

The FAO has estimated that if women farmers had the same access to productive resources as men, yields would be increased by up to a third. It is why gender equality must be at the core of the green revolution we need. 

Concentrating on small-holder farmers is not about creating a false choice between big farms and small. Both have a vital role to play. It is about recognizing reality. Even today, four out of five Africans depend on farming to provide for their families. Food production simply can’t be increased at the speed and scale needed in a sustainable way without mobilizing this army of small-holders. If we do, not only will they transform food production but their efforts will provide a springboard for wider economic development.

As urbanization gathers speed, this is vital to help provide both jobs and food for those living in our towns and cities.  Larger commercial farms also have an important role to play provided they share knowledge and resources with the local community rather than operating in isolation. Nor can we sanction the speculative land grabs which have seen communities evicted in order to meet the future needs for food or biofuels in other countries.

It is very disturbing that agricultural land the size of France was bought in Africa in 2009 alone by hedge funds and other speculators. It is neither just nor sustainable for farmland to be stolen from communities in this way nor for food to be exported when there is hunger on the doorstep. 

It is easy when we look at the injustice and inequality in something as fundamental as food supply to sink into despair. But it is not pessimism but action we need.

I have seen how if farmers are given a fair opportunity, they grab it with both hands. In West Africa, for example, over 300,000 farmers have adopted the latest micro-dousing techniques to boost yields of sorghum sustainably by protecting the environment. In Tanzania, small-holder farmers are producing record amounts of maize. Young men and women, with tremendous entrepreneurial spirit, are being attracted into growing and distributing food. We are seeing similar progress throughout the developing world.

We have the ability to solve the challenges we face. We simply need to find the courage and will - and to rediscover our common values and purpose. The survival of the weakest and most vulnerable on the planet depends upon us overcoming the obstacles in our way. So, too, do our hopes for a just and peaceful world.

By Kofi Annan,
Chair of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

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