NewAge, January 30, 2009
In the past two decades, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have largely overseen what was described as ‘structural adjustments’ in developing and least developed economies, which involved the dismantling of tariff regimes that protected local industry and production, among them small-scale agriculture, writes Mahtab Haider
The United Nations summit for food security ended on Tuesday in Madrid without much cause for hope for the world’s hungry. Leading up to the meet, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation had warned that the number of people worldwide now suffering from hunger is 963 million, and though food prices have fallen since last year’s peak, they are still higher than the trend observed through much of the past decade. In Madrid, delegates from some of the world’s leading economic powers heard UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon warn that the global financial crisis will push poverty and hunger to ‘intolerable levels’, but there was little or no meaningful discussion on the trade and economic regimes that are in large part responsible for such chronic hunger. Meanwhile, it was only Spain that committed to a larger aid package for interventions during disasters and famines.
Today, the world, in aggregate, produces more food than it has ever before. According to a study published jointly last year by the FAO, the Stockholm International Water Institute and the International Water Management Institute, close to half of all food produced worldwide is wasted after production. Clearly the problem is not one of production but of inequities in who can buy this food and in what quantities. One of the biggest reasons why hunger is advancing side by side with an expanding global output of food is families across the least developed world are emerging on the losing side of globalisation and neo-liberal reforms, thus losing their ability to buy food. In that sense, even in a scenario of food abundance and falling prices, families may still have little or nothing to buy food with. This grim predicament is confirmed by numerous studies of famines, which reveal that it is not a shortage of food but the loss of purchasing power of a large section of the population that has been responsible for some of the worst famines in modern history.
So, while discussions on food security at global summits seem to inevitably veer towards how global food production could be expanded to feed the hungry millions, what is missing is meaningful discussions on how heavily subsidised agri-businesses in the industrialised north are flooding third world markets with cheap food that drives farming families into penury, to the point that they cannot afford to buy food as cheap as it may be. In the past two decades, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have largely overseen what was described as ‘structural adjustments’ of developing and least developed economies which involved the dismantling of tariff regimes which protected local industry and production, among them small-scale agriculture. And if it was cheap food imports that strangled small scale agriculture, financial ‘reforms’ in the form of shrinking public sector investment in agricultural research and expansion, as well as fewer formal credit sources for farmers, and the Bank and the Fund’s pressure to reduce agricultural subsidies have all constituted nails in the coffin.
In predominantly agrarian economies like Bangladesh, small farmers have found it increasingly difficult to compete with imported food. While Bangladesh has almost always been a net importer of food, there has also always been a portion of total food production that did not enter the formal economy and was set aside by small or tenant farmers as a source of food for their families. It is the absence of this food that is forcing marginalised and tenant farmers to buy food for most of the year, often forcing them also to sell off farming implements or their small landholdings to finance day-to-day living.
This uncharted chronic hunger is like a double-edged sword which is also taking its toll on health and education that families at the margin are able to afford. As food prices are rising, families have less and less left over to spend on their children’s education and their healthcare, thus being mired deeper in poverty despite national development efforts. According to the aid agency Oxfam, about two-thirds of the billion people living in hunger currently live in the Asia-Pacific region, ‘including some 200 million people in India. Progress in reducing hunger has been variable, with some countries and regions making significant progress, and others falling further behind. Sub-Saharan Africa is a region causing serious concern, as the number of hungry people has increased by 43 million over the last fifteen years to 212 million.’
For Bangladesh, the most terrifying aspect of rising food prices internationally is that crop yields are falling at home with climate change wreaking havoc on the agricultural calendar. The rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods have meant that many agrarian communities have seen their resilience worn out by a series of natural disasters which have pushed families to sell farming assets to get by in the short run. On the other hand, the consequent chronic malnutrition and the devastating health effects this has in the long run could offset some of the major gains in social indicators Bangladesh has made in the past decade. A glimpse of Bangladesh’s predicament was evident from its situation in 2007 — in the wake of two back-to-back floods followed by Cyclone Sidr — which not only destroyed crops but also coping capacities across south and central Bangladesh. It has since emerged that Sidr destroyed 600,000 metric tonnes of standing crop in the first few hours of making landfall.
The series of initiatives for the agricultural sector — especially the cut in fertiliser prices and the consistent assurances that agri-subsidies are set to rise — adopted by the newly elected government could be key to a more stable market for food at home, and could go a long way in offsetting the damage. But there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way the government views food security — not as a problem of production but as a problem of entitlements — launching massive employment guarantee schemes and food for work programmes to ensure that hunger does not persist in an environment of abundance.
In recent times Brazil has pioneered a number of initiatives to support impoverished people and family farmers, which are yielding substantial benefits. According to Oxfam, ‘family farmers benefit from credit, insurance schemes, technical assistance, and a food procurement programme that buys food from them for redistribution to the poor and destitute…support to agriculture is combined with social protection measures that include universal access to the Rural Social Security System, the Bolsa Família (family grants) programme, school meals, and minimum wages.’ This comprehensive approach to combating hunger lies at the heart of a meaningful solution. In India school meals have also been introduced as a way to at once keep children in schools, and making sure their nutritional needs are nominally met.