Food, Food, Everywhere – But Not Enough To Eat

  • From: Think.
  • Published: June 16, 2013
FOOD FOOD EVERYWHEREEvery leader travelling to Northern Ireland for the G8 summit will open their briefing notes to find “food security” at the top. Each paper will have the same simple, largely uncontested facts - this issue isn’t climate change or Syria, after all.

They run like this:
Every year there are another 80 million mouths to feed. The world is currently producing enough food, and it even has the land and resources to feed the projected nine billion who will inhabit the planet in 2050.

However, we don’t distribute our food resources fairly or cleverly: hence, 870 million people are chronically malnourished while we throw 40 percent of usable food away. The food price spikes of 2008 and 2010-12 exposed the fact that economies remain highly vulnerable to the fluctuations of a complex and little-understood market. Frightened governments put up protectionist barriers, scaring the markets further. Serious unrest followed those price rises in some 30 countries, resulting in the fall of governments in half a dozen and, arguably, sparking the Arab Spring.

Over the short- and medium-term we can expect further volatility and an overall increase in prices, not least because agricultural commodity indices are now inextricably tied to those of energy. In the next 50 years climate change and extreme weather will radically alter patterns of production in some of the current breadbaskets of the world, such as Russia, Brazil, the United States and India.

It may destroy farming in some of the poorest parts, like swathes of sub-Saharan Africa. Large population movements, civil unrest, trade wars and inter-state conflict are the proven results of pressures on food security. Unless we find a better way of managing the supply of food on a global level, we must expect trouble.

But agreeing on the problem is only part of the task. Any friendly consensus round the Lough Erne table will start to tremble when the leaders turn to the page in their briefing marked “Solutions”.

Underpinning the discomfort is the knowledge that the G8’s most obstreperous member, Russia, played a major role in sparking the food price spikes of 2008 and 2010-12 by banning grain exports and spooking the markets. In August 2010 Russia’s export ban, which lasted 11 months, was an understandable response to a terrifying drought which cut wheat production by one third. But it pushed prices 60 percent higher, and sparked a wave of export bans or tariff manipulation in other countries, including the European Union. Some irrational export controls in Africa contributed to making the humanitarian crisis caused by drought and conflict in the Horn immeasurably worse.

Such protectionism stops the self-righting mechanisms in the food commodities market from operating. This is a major issue for the French, who believe that an out-of-control market, flooded with cash from investors who sought safer returns after the 2007 financial crisis, is an important part of our failure to manage food prices properly. Between 2005 and 2008 the commodity indices quintupled, from $46bn to $250bn. The true effect of this is still much debated, but there seems to be a consensus among analysts and some traders that speculation in this huge new casino did and continues to significantly fuel price rises.

Reforms to make this market less volatile and more transparent are on the table. But America has stalled on the various global proposals to regulate financial systems, and it will not implement the brakes on commodity trading many see as crucial. Britain will not go down that route either. Nor is a restart for the Doha round of trade talks - one way of addressing the problems in the food markets - likely from this G8.

That is a pity, as 45 percent of the increase in rice prices in 2008, and 30 percent of the rise in wheat, were caused by “the way countries manipulated trade”, according to the World Bank. But, as is often pointed out, faced with a food crisis, countries don’t currently have many tools at their disposal other than trade restrictions.

The world has talked often about addressing global food security: but it has never moved to action. Just two years ago, France, as host of the G20, tried to address volatility in agricultural prices - and got nowhere. The history of brave attempts to collectivize strategy on food goes back to the formation of the United Nations in 1945. Many campaigners wanted to have a strategic World Food Board. Agricultural and trade interests lobbied hard against it, however, and what resulted was the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) - the Rome-based research and advisory entity that is one of the least regarded of the UN’s supranational bodies.

In modern times, governments have generally kept out of the food supply business. And, perhaps as a result, much of the world has seen hunger disappear. The global population increased by two-and-a-half times between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of food, in calories, that the world produced more than tripled. Real food prices have dropped to levels unknown in human history - in developed nations people spend 10 percent or less of income on food, a third of what their parents did 50 years ago.

Even though in countries like Kenya and Guatemala 45 percent of income goes on food, the proportion of the world population that is hungry is half what it was 40 years ago. Most significant of all, the target of halving world hunger by 2015, set as a Millennium Development Goal in 2000, looks likely to be met.

This all happened in a period where the world was without a food policy. Is there a causal relationship? The Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen famously stated that countries with functioning democracies don’t experience famines - but it is equally arguable that it is governments which interfere with agriculture and food supply that cause famines. Those that affected the Soviet Union in the 1930s and China in the late 1950s were, in terms of millions of deaths, the greatest food supply-related disasters of the 20th century.

But people, and governments, are beginning to suspect that it wasn’t laissez-faire regimes and benevolent capitalism that produced the well-fed times of recent years. If it had been, we’d have used those immense surpluses to sort out the problem of feeding the remaining one in eight human beings who were hungry. (Incidentally, at a food summit in 1974 the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that child hunger could be dealt with in 10 years, if the global community could agree a plan. They did not - and today and every day, 7,100 children under five will die because of malnutrition.)
Most analysts on long-term food security agree that the era of cheap food is over. Modern production is dependent on fossil fuels, for energy and for chemical inputs. The Green Revolution that turned India into one of the world’s biggest rice exporters (and may have saved up to a billion people from famine) was built on better plant varieties and fuelled by synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Food was cheap in the 20th century because energy was, and the prices of both remain intimately entwined. Further, while Malthusian threats of world starvation (because of the increasing number of people) have been proven wrong more than once, there are some uncomfortable mathematics around population to consider.

The devil is in a side-effect of development - that richer people require more food, and food that is more expensive to produce. China’s meat consumption is doubling every 10 years; and the vegetables consumed by animals in order to feed one meat-eater would satisfy half a dozen vegetarians. This is why the FAO says food production must increase by 70 percent to feed the 2 billion extra mouths we will have by 2050.

On the table at Lough Erne is one pre-cooked solution, served up by Barack Obama with the blessing of significant voices like Professor Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and now the UN’s chief advisor on the MDGs, as well as some of the nearly 180 charities gathered in the IF campaign to end hunger. It’s a soft solution, it addresses no structural issues, and it won’t please the radicals on either side. It is more aid.

The ask is for funds for small-scale farmers, to expand the US President’s New Alliance initiative launched at last year’s G8. This ties into a dominant line of argument in the debate, which says that since wealth is key to better nutrition, we should direct funds straight to the poor who constitute 70 percent of the world’s farmers. For decades now aid as investment in agriculture has been dropping, while money spent on food aid has risen, allowing many African countries to become net importers.

But educating their small farmers in low-tech irrigation, sustainable energy and use of bio-technology offers all sorts of developmental and environmental gains - a fact that has been spotted by the increasingly influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent nearly $3bn on these issues in a few years. As Professor Sachs explains: “Africa’s agricultural production could double in a decade, ending famines and easing pressures on the fragile global food supplies.”

There’s no question that Obama’s plans will get a thumbs-up round the table, though cynics point out that summit pledges rarely translate into their full value in hard cash. The G8 and G20 agreed in 2009 to commit $22bn to increasing food security, for instance, but two years later only half of that sum had actually materialized.

Financially hard-pressed G8 members like Italy and Britain will not be able to find much in the way of new funds: Britain’s generous aid budget is the cause of vociferous complaint from within Prime Minister David Cameron’s own Conservative Party. But Obama’s is an attractive, “pro-poor” solution that ticks a lot of boxes and will provide a feelgood end-of-summit headline.

It will not, however, satisfy most observers of the bigger picture on food security. The campaigners of IF hope to be as influential in Northern Ireland as Make Poverty History was at the last British G8 summit; they want action on biofuels, tax transparency and “land grabs”. These are all inequality issues that can get their protesters singing. But the call is complex and the take-up for the campaign has been muted: the hope and spirit of 2005 does not hang over this summit.

Most of the countries attending are more concerned about their own financial woes. “Policymakers are clearly less engaged with the development agenda than they were in the mid-2000s. None of the G8 leaders are prepared to put in the time and effort of Blair and Brown,” commented the Guardian newspaper’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, in April. Perhaps most notably, the country that now holds the bulk of the world’s foodstocks, China, won’t be represented at Lough Erne.

The boom in acquiring sites overseas for farming, led by some Gulf states short of land and water, is the poverty campaigners’ issue of the moment: their rhetoric is of neo-colonialism and piratical injustice. But the view the G8 leaders will take is that such moves are inevitable as rich states run out of resources, and not necessarily damaging if local rights and needs are respected and the deals are transparent.

Development economists generally feel the challenge of feeding the world demands multiple assaults. Amartya Sen leads a school of thought that would like to see the right to food enshrined in international law, an approach that has had impressive results with other rights issues. But the road to international commitments on women’s and children’s rights was long and slow, even in a 20th century United Nations more receptive to such ideas than it is today.

So what medicine should be prescribed to the G8? Paul McMahon is an economist and a former food systems advisor to the UN who now runs an investment fund for sustainable agricultural enterprise. In his new book, Feeding Frenzy, he trawls the views of all interested parties and comes up with a four-pronged approach.

It is: “helping small farmers in poor countries to grow more food; putting ecology at the center of food making; making financial markets work to address real challenges; adapting to higher food prices and the shift to a [biotechnology-based] economy.”

At least by the end of the Lough Erne Summit, we may have a deal on the first of those. And the hungry will benefit – even if it is, yet again, only a partial solution to a problem the world still seems to lack the resolve to settle decisively.

Alex Renton is a prize-winning journalist whose work has been honoured by the Guild of Food Writers, Amnesty International and the British Press Awards, among others. His examination of the practical solutions to global hunger will be published by Guardian Books later this year.

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