Following the 2008 food crisis and the highly media-related food riots, the international community soundly rallied in order to try to improve the fate of the one billion people suffering from hunger worldwide. Wealthy countries boosted their food aid programs to poor nations and sometimes made funds available (such as the European Commission’s Food Facility with a €1 billion budget). As far international institutions are concerned, they implemented specific programs––still currently operative––to stimulate agricultural production in developing countries. The FAO launched the “Initiative on Soaring Food Prices” (ISFP with over US$100 million), the World Food Program (WFP) with its “Global initiative for social safety nets” (over US$200 million of a five billion annual budget), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) released US$200 million and the World Bank established the “Global Food Crisis Response Program” (the US$1.3 billion GFRP)… The latter recently took a leading role in the subject matter, since it was also entrusted by the G-20 Summit with the supervisory control of the new multi-donor fiduciary fund that was recently launched to meet the G-8 Summit commitments––the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program with a budget of nearly US$1 billion1. The United States, Canada, Spain and South Korea are its first contributors.
Globally, the international community marshaled closed to $4 billion in reaction to the food crisis. And this does not include an additional increase in public investment for agriculture: The World Bank invested $6 billion in agriculture in 2009 and spent close to $14 billion between July 2008 and October 2009 in social safety nets (including but not exclusively in school feeding programs) 2.
However, the results remain mixed. The FAO latest figures are showing that, instead of declining, the number of people suffering from hunger rose to exceed the threshold, o how symbolic, of one billion persons. Worse even, the share of undernourished people in relation to the global population also grew, evidence that the situation is deteriorating on a daily basis, not that the agricultural production is out of synch with demographic variations. In some countries, such as India for instance, public authorities and the media are fearing a new food crisis3 ; and many experts believe that the 2008 crisis was only a “warning”, as stated as early as November 20094 by Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program.
Faced with the billions of dollars invested following the food crisis, it is legitimate to ask why the results are so disappointing. Maybe because the international community is picking the wrong target. In fact, a closer look at the figures shows that out of the one billion people who suffer from hunger in the world, about half of them are small farmers in poor countries, 22 percent are landless countryfolk, 20 percent are urban poor and eight percent are people, whose livelihood is mostly based on natural resources, such as fishermen, herdsmen and forest tribes.
Yet, as stated in a working document to prepare for the “State of the World 2011” report of the Worldwatch Institute5, the key players in the food chain, the ones who have the most financial means––and thus power––are basically food and agribusiness multinational corporations, whose goal is to secure food supply at low and stable prices for a great number of clustered consumers, that is to say mostly urban or peri-urban populations. For these corporations, food security comes down to collecting large quantities of foodstuffs and presenting them to local distribution channels at prices low enough to feed the urban an landless populations.
While public investment in agriculture fell in the 1980s and 1990s6, these agribusiness groups conversely invested significant amounts in private research, in particular in the development of varieties and agrochemical products, with the goal of improving the productivity of farms that were already the most productive and the only ones capable to export to urban populations at lesser costs.
There lies the need to guarantee and ease international trade… Such rationale led the international community to give a key role to international agricultural trade in political talks. Only about ten percent of global food products are traded on international markets. Nevertheless, because of their role in setting foodstuff prices and their significance for large agribusiness multinationals, the international community focuses on them, as shown by the media and political hype concerning the Doha Round. In this respect, the defenders of a rapid conclusion of the Round point out that food security will improve if we increase trade volumes on international markets, which will lead to price declines because of competition.
But what about the least fortunate, those who are kept away from traditional distribution channels and are outside the economic system? Generally, it belongs to the states and local as well as international public authorities to offset such imbalance. Yet, far from concentrating on lessening food insecurity in developing countries, recent studies strive to show that the international community––led by the World Bank in particular––has not fulfilled its duty. This is a factor in explaining the lack of progress and the deterioration of the global food situation.
Indeed, in spite of the international community’s commitment to assist small farmers, some reports highlighted the fact the World Bank programs, which were bound to intensify global agricultural production, targeted in priority the most endowed and relatively productive farmers, rather than the least fortunate farmers and the rural populations that do not farm7. For instance, in Ethiopia––the largest beneficiary of the World Bank GFRP––the distribution of fertilizers was clustered in “productive” zones.
Some studies, such as the April 2010 report published by the Oakland Institute8, think tank, are going even further and accuse the World Bank to have encouraged land grabbing trends by implementing technical assistance programs offered to governments to ease foreign direct investment (FDI) in agriculture. Two projects in particular––“Access to land” and “Land market for investment––might have deeply influenced legislation in a number of developing countries, by lowering foreign investment barriers, thus leading to the acceleration of the land grabbing phenomenon. The result: close to 50 million hectares (125 million acres) of agricultural land have been acquired by foreigners. Once more, large players in the global agricultural and food chain were given preferentiality.
From a certain viewpoint, it is logical to deem it natural for those with the required means to carry out development and investment projects. But this obscures two key factors. First, foreign investment in agricultural land is achieved at the expense of small local producers, whose land is seized regardless of individual rights. Second, these are precisely the ones suffering from hunger in the world… We are therefore thinking with our feet: Far from rescuing the least fortunate and cutting world hunger, the implemented policies thus seem to have achieved the contrary.
We must urgently come back to the elementary rules of good sense. Today, one estimates that feeding about half of the world population directly relies on the agricultural production of local small farmers. Perhaps, we should acknowledge, once and for all, that solving the problem will entail improving their productivity to resolve the current food outrage, when one out of six persons in the world suffers from hunger. The implementation of the “Global Program for Agriculture and Food Security” initiated by the United States, Spain, Canada and South Korea, seems to be a good omen, since it intends to focus on small farmers. Let us hope that such objective leads to a reorientation of the international community’s policy to fight world hunger.
1 Please see momagri’s May 3, 2010 article “Launching a fund to fight world hunger”.
2 See the FAO 2009 report “Responding to the food crisis: Synthesis of medium-term measures proposed in inter-agency assessments”. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ISFP/SR_Web.pdf
3 See momagri’s April 19, 2010 article “The specter of a new food crisis looms”. http://www.momagri.org/UK/a-look-at-the-news/The-specter-of-a-new-food-crisis-looms-_664.html
4 Brookings Institution roundtable on the global food crisis of November 2009, Washington, DC.
5 “Agricultural Innovation for Food Security and Poverty Reduction in the 21st Century: Issues for Africa and the World”, Issues Paper for State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, April 2010. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6219
6 According to the FAO, investment in agriculture dropped to 3 percent from 17 percent of global investment between 1980 and 2006.
7 See Frederic Mousseau’s “Policy & Programme responses to High Food Prices”, Forthcoming Oakland Institute Publication, 2010; quoted by The Oakland Institute, “(Mis)Investment in Agriculture, The role of the international finance corporation in global land grabs”, 2010
8 The Oakland Institute, “(Mis)Investment in Agriculture, The role of the international finance corporation in global land grabs”, April 2010 http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/pdfs/misinvestment_web.pdf