For the second time since June 2007, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is warning the international community of the impact food insecurity has on social peace.
"If we do not find mechanisms for technical and economic regulation, water and food will be sources of potential conflict," emphasized Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO, in an interview with national daily newspaper "Le Monde" on January 25.
And there is cause for alarm; more and more demonstrations against the rising prices of agricultural raw materials have been organized, most frequently in Indonesia, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea and Yemen, but also in Mexico and Italy. In one instance, sellers of tofu1 and tempeh,2 foods produced using soybeans, protested in Jakarta in mid-January against the three-fold increase in soybean prices over one year.
Food security is receiving more and more media attention, from the FAO in Rome to the World Economic Forum in Geneva – but is this simply the result of a difficult economic situation in the agricultural markets, or is it instead due to the political and economic choices made at an international level, since these choices are not only failing to offer any solution to the problem, but may even be causing greater insecurity?
Up until recently, agriculture was essentially considered a traditional, primary activity whose main objective was to meet one of mankind's most basic needs: nourishment.
Although many people still hold a narrow view of agriculture that limits it to the mere production of foodstuffs, which can be qualified as a "material" function, current global issues have revealed the strategic potential of agriculture, specifically its "intangible" dimension.3 This includes all of the "services" that agriculture provides for society, which cannot be tangibly quantified but that are essential to the future of humanity, such as food security, the creation of social and cultural connections, poverty reduction (specifically in developing countries), land planning and the protection of biodiversity.
This growing awareness of agriculture as a strategic sector with "multiple possibilities" is even starting to spread within the international community, and has led to an about-face on the part of several international institutions like the World Bank, which, in its 2008 World Development Report published in October 2007, calls for "agriculture for development."
In light of this, the various "dimensions" of agriculture can no longer be compartmentalized within international institutions whose mandates cover them only partially and which, furthermore, do not cooperate with one another.
Indeed, the FAO sees agriculture only for its "nutritive function," and is increasingly stepping forward as an initiator of debates: "Our role as a UN agency is to provide world leaders with the necessary conditions for reflection." The World Trade Organization (WTO), in addressing the question of agriculture solely from a trade perspective, is similarly missing the other, related issues.
It is clear that the approaches of these two institutions are suffering from a lack of cooperation on the most basic points: one cannot continue giving warnings about the dangers threatening food security while the other is trying to liberalize global agricultural markets without any regulatory mechanisms.
Agriculture is a cohesive whole, and it would be idealistic to believe that any decision on agricultural exchanges (which still comprise only 10 percent of world trade) would have no effect on food security, poverty or the environment. It is therefore not up to agriculture to adapt to the excessively narrow mandates of the international institutions, but rather it is up to the international community to work together to embrace all agricultural issues, so as to meet the challenges of the future by initiating collective, global management of agriculture.
This is what Jacques Diouf means when he declares, "we must all talk about it together (…) and make political and strategic decisions on this subject collectively."
WOAgri has been lobbying for this since its creation, and the organization is happy to see this development of the ideas it initiated and which should bring about a different type of international cooperation.
Nonetheless, WOAgri would like to draw attention to the danger of making decisions hastily in the framework of the agricultural negotiations of the Doha Round; such decisions could have practically irreversible effects on the agricultural sector, which is currently one of the driving forces of development.
Indeed, it is imperative that we define the organizational and operational principles of a new type of global governance before necessarily trying to conclude negotiations that no longer reflect today's issues.
1 Tofu is a white, almost odorless paste derived from soybeans. It is produced from soy milk.
2 Tempeh is produced using immature, dehulled yellow soybeans.
3 See the article by Virginie Allaire-Arrivé, advisor to the president of the APCA: "Protecting and Capitalizing on Intangible Agricultural Assets," in the Points of View section, dated October 29, 2007