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Food Security & Agriculture

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Food security basics

It is often quoted that enough food is produced in the world per capita to feed almost twice the population of planet Earth - dispelling the myth that there is not enough food in the world.[1]

The question of food scarcity is well established as a misnomer: the world is wealthier today than ever before, the knowledge and resources to tackle hunger have never been more at hand, and still more food could be produced without excessive upward pressure on prices.[2]

Still one in seven people do not receive enough sustenance to lead a healthy and active life.[3]

Two internationally-agreed targets are held to monitor hunger reduction, beginning with the World Food Summit (WFS) pledge of November 1996 which seeks to halve the number of undernourished people by 2015.  More than a decade since the WSF target was set, which would also leave 412 million people with chronic hunger in 2015 if reached, virtually no progress has been made toward the objective.[4]

The less ambitious Millennium Development Goal 1, aiming to halve the proportion of those suffering from hunger compared to 1990 levels, will still leave around 580 million people hungry in 2015 even if achieved.[5]


Today, hunger and malnutrition remains the number one risk to health worldwide - greater than Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.[6]

Almost the same amount of money is spent annually on pet food in these same rich countries as could eliminate world hunger and malnutrition.[7]

Urbanisation and rural livlihoods

Although 80 percent of the hungry and food insecure currently live in rural areas,[8] the global countryside has reached its maximum population and is expected to shrink after 2020.[9]

Urban areas of the developing world are expected to absorb 95 percent of a predicted population explosion of approximately two billion between 1990 and 2015, forewarning a trend towards food insecurity in the least developed cities.[10]

The worst scenario is predicted to occur in sub-Saharan African, the only region where food security has worsened in recent decades.  Prevalence of hunger across the region is expected to account for 30 percent of the developing world in 2015, compared to 20 percent in 1990-92 - while already holding the highest prevalence of undernourishment, with one in three people denied access to sufficient food.[11]

However, still three out of every four poor people in developing countries live in rural areas-2.1 billion living on less than $2 a day and 880 million on less than $1 a day-and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.[12]

Causes of food insecurity

In Africa, decreasing investment by donors and African governments in agriculture over the past 20 years is also established as a major reason for food insecurity.[13]

The reasons for decades of inexcusable political inertia are rooted in a biased system of economic distribution that typically causes a net outflow of essential resources from those regions most in need.  Huge quantities of fish caught in less developed countries suffering from food deprivation, for example, is exported as pet food to Europe and North America.[14]

Between 1997 and 2005, food insecurity resulting from trade liberalisation under a corporate-driven economy caused an average of one Indian farmer to commit suicide every 32 minutes across just four states.[15]

Many countries have been prevented by donor countries and international financial institutions from implementing economic and trade policies that would support local producers and their markets, a critical factor in averting widespread hunger.[16]

Food security in rural India has deteriorated over the last 10 years with wheat production falling and the largest number (212 million) of undernourished people in the world - this in a country trumpeted as a modern economic powerhouse.[17]

Agriculture is no longer a major source of economic growth, contributing on average only 7 percent to GDP growth, but poverty remains overwhelmingly rural (82 percent of all poor). This group, typified by China, India, Indonesia, Morocco, and Romania, has more than 2.2 billion rural inhabitants.[18]

The impact of biofuels

Biodiesel production in the EU reached a record 3.2 million tons in 2005 and was set to increase to 4.5 million tons in 2006. According to the European Commission, in order to meet the 2010 agrofuel target (of 10 per cent agrofuel use in transport by 2020) without imports, the EU would need to switch an estimated 20 per cent of its almost 100 million arable hectares to the production of agrofuel crops.... (I)t is clear that a large share of the agrofuels needed to meet the EU target will be imported from countries in the Global South.[19]

"Biopiracy refers to the use of intellectual property systems to legitimize the exclusive ownership and control over biological resource and biological products and processes that have been used over centuries in non-industrialized cultures. Patent claims over biodiversity and indigenous knowledge that are based on the innovation, creativity and genius of the people of the Third World are acts of ‘biopiracy'" - Vandana Shiva[20]

With Swaziland in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid (late 2007), forty per cent of its people faced acute food shortages. So what did the government decide to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava.[21]

Even the IMF have acknowledged and warned that using food to produce biofuels "might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further."[22]

"If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry" - George Monbiot[23]

EU proposals will make it mandatory by 2020 for ten per cent of all member states' transport fuels to come from biofuels. In order to meet the substantial increase in demand, the EU will have to import biofuels made from crops like sugar cane and palm oil from developing countries.  But the rush by big companies and governments in countries such as Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, Tanzania and Malaysia to win a slice of the ‘EU biofuel pie' threatens to force poor people from their land, destroy their livelihoods, lead to the exploitation of workers and hurt the availability and affordability of food.[24]

According to a major report on biofuels by UN-Energy, the global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants will drive deforestation, push small farmers off the land and lead to serious food shortages and increased poverty unless carefully managed.[25]

[1] ‘World's hungry swell to 852 million despite promises to eradicate hunger: UN expert' (Report on press conference with Jean Zeigler - UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, UN newswire, 26th October 2006)

[2] see State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006, and State of Food Insecurity in the World 2005 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2005-6) p 6.

[3] Source: World Food Programme

[4] According to the FAO, the number of undernourished people in the developing countries declined by a mere 3 million compared with 1990-92, a number within the bounds of statistical error.  See State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006 p 4.

[5] The Challenge of Hunger 2007 (International Food Policy Research Institute, October 2007)

[6] Ibid.

[7] State of the World 2004: The Consumer Society (WorldWatch Institute, January 2004)

[8] ‘World's hungry swell to 852 million despite promises to eradicate hunger: UN expert' (Report on press conference with Jean Zeigler - UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, UN newswire, 26th October 2006)

[9] Mike Davies. Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006), p 2.

[10] State of Food Insecurity in the World 2005 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2005)

[11] State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006)

[12] see World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (World Bank, October 2007)

[13] Achieving food security: What next for sub-Saharan Africa? (id21 insights magazine #61, April 2006)

[14] see George Kent. The Political Economy of Hunger (New York, Praeger, 1984), chapter four.

[15] P. Sainath. ‘Farm suicides rising, most intense in 4 States' (The Hindu, November 12th 2007). See also Vandana Shiva et al.  Seeds of Suicide: The Ecological and Human Costs of Globalisation of Agriculture (Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, January 2002)

[16] Frederic Mousseau. Food AID or Food SOVEREIGNTY? Ending World Hunger in our Time (The Oakland Institute, October 2005)

[17]UN report slams India for farmer suicides' (Times of India, 24 September 2006)

[18] World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (World Bank, October 2007) p 4.

[19] Paving the way for Agrofuels: EU policy, sustainability criteria, and climate calculations (Transnational Institute, Sep 2007) p 9.

[20] Vandana Shiva. Wheat Biopiracy The Real Issues the Government is Avoiding (ZNet, November 2007)

[21] Quote from George Monbiot. The Western Appetite for Biofuels is Causing Starvation in the Poor World (The Guardian, November 2007) - see source at IRIN Africa. Swaziland: Food or biofuel seems to be the question (25th October 2007)

[22] Valerie Mercer-Blackman, Hossein Samiei, and Kevin Cheng. Biofuel Demand Pushes Up Food Prices. (IMF Research Department, 17th October 2007)

[23] George Monbiot. The Western Appetite for Biofuels is Causing Starvation in the Poor World (The Guardian, November 2007)

[24]Biofuelling Poverty - EU plans could be disastrous for poor people, warns Oxfam' (Oxfam report, 6th November 2007)

[25] John Vidal. Biofuel Boom Brings Famine Risks, says UN Report (The Guardian, 9th May 2007)