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Food Security & Agriculture

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The concept of food security for all people, or the state of physical and economic access to safe and nutritious sustenance, has remained a pledged but distant goal of governments since the late 1970s.  In 1996 the World Food Summit renewed a global commitment to reducing by half the ‘proportion' of people experiencing hunger by 2015, followed up by the Millennium Declaration of 2000 which applied the same target to the ‘number' of chronically hungry people.  Despite enshrining food as a universal human right in 1948, the international community continues to fail in its modest promises; by 2005, the extent of hunger was increasing at 4 million people a year, and current prospects for the Millennium Development Goal on hunger remains pessimistic.  Meanwhile, as a global food crisis deepens with the escalating price of staples causing widespread riots in developing countries, world leaders are being forced to seriously re-examine the international approach to food distribution. 

The Hunger Equation

Of more than 800 million people currently suffering from chronic hunger, around 75 percent live in rural areas, with half of them living as smallholder farmers on limited areas of land.  Research makes clear that hunger is not caused by food shortage or scarcity, but by the inequitable distribution of food, land and other productive resources.  An analysis of food insecurity therefore demands an analysis of the current neoliberal approach to international development, or the longstanding conflict in philosophies between the presiding belief in large-scale, export-orientated agricultural markets, versus an alternative model that prioritizes local ownership of production and pro-poor policies for rural communities.

The term ‘food sovereignty' was coined in 1996 as an alternative policy framework by La Via Campesina (Peasant Way), an umbrella body that encompasses more than 120 small farmers' and peasants' organizations in 56 countries.  With working farmers excluded from the UN's ‘World Food Summit' on global hunger of that year, the fight for ‘food security' or the amount of food people are able to access is not enough, they argued.  What is more important is how people access this food.  A growing grassroots movement in favor of a rights-based approach to ensuring universal access to food has since led to a broader questioning of the deeper causes of hunger and malnutrition.

In the final declaration of the World Forum on Food Sovereignty agreed in Cuba, 2001, the current process of economic globalization was directly blamed for the ongoing crisis of food insecurity.  In a sharp debunking of neoliberal theory, the use of intensive industrial agriculture and trade liberalization was related to a "veritable food imperialism" that uses food as a weapon of political and economic pressure against sovereign countries.  In completely rejecting the role of the World Trade Organization in determining national food policies, the Forum called for "the implementation of radical processes of comprehensive agrarian reform" in order to develop sustainable food systems and prioritize the needs of local and national markets.  In this wider analysis, the grassroots battle to achieve food security is at the heart of a greater struggle against the globalization of free markets.

Biopiracy or Green Devolution

Another key issue in a cause commonly termed ‘food justice' is the patenting of life forms under WTO agreements.  Academic activists such as Vandana Shiva have catalogued in detail how the ‘biopiracy' of turning basic agriculture products into corporate property has devastated the livelihoods of indigenous communities and countless farmers in the developing world.  Many critics have described how the so-called Green Revolution from the 1970s, which transformed agricultural productivity with the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and technology, effectively deepened the divide between rich and poor by empowering large agri-businesses and leading to the loss of biodiversity and the nutritional value of foods.

The prospect of a second or ‘doubly green revolution', with support from Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation to develop genetically-modified (GM) crop technology initiatives in Africa, is expected to further increase transnational corporate power through agricultural privatization, thereby embedding the poverty of African rural farmers who are already devastated after three decades of neoliberal structural reforms.  In India, the country with the highest number of undernourished people, a farmer committed suicide around every 30 minutes from the late 1990s as a result of mounting debt, failed crops, and increased competition after years of export-oriented economic policies.

The use of plant crops as ‘biofuel' has also become a highly controversial government policy response to the threat of climate change and the global dependency on fossil fuels, further threatening food security in an inevitable competition between land to provide food for the hungry, or for the production of transport fuel to satisfy rich Western lifestyles.

Without a fundamental turnaround in the organization of international food systems, the future prognosis is less than optimistic.  Newspaper reports already forewarn a global food crisis caused by oil price rises, the switch to growing biofuel crops, extreme weather events, population growth, and rising demand from countries like China and India.  In 2007 the price of wheat doubled within a year, whilst global food reserves reached their lowest level for 25 years.  Boycotts, shortages and price rises are now commonplace, with violent food riots taking place in several developing countries.  It is inevitably the poor who will suffer most if food continues to be priced out of their reach, compounded by the threat of bad harvests and diminished food supplies following serious floods, droughts and heat waves that are already taking place as a result of climate change.

Food for All

Despite these insurmountable challenges ahead, the goal of achieving ‘food for all' has never been such a viable possibility.  Countless books, reports and eminent bodies stress that we have everything necessary to end hunger immediately, as notably argued by the FAO and the outspoken former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Zeigler.  Food production and distribution capacity is abundant, there exists a 10 percent surplus of food per capita, and according to the FAO's Agriculture: Towards 2015/30 report, global demand for food can easily be met through 2030 despite a forecasted population growth to 8 billion.  Based on current trends, however, there will still be 580 million chronically undernourished people in 2015. 

As world powers march onwards with free trade and the creation of ‘special economic zones' in the countryside, a protest movement has long been forming against the expropriation of resources belonging to small-scale farmers and fishermen.  From a million landless peasants in Brazil to rallying farmers in the US, Mexico and India, a common stance against the policies of economic globalization is firmly set in motion.  The only barrier to achieving food security and ending hunger in a world of plenty, as popularly argued for many decades, is a lack of political will and skewed government concerns in favor of national security, corporate power and economic hegemony. 

To understand how to begin the necessary and monumental reordering of world priorities, a source of hope can be found in the values of the food justice movement.  According to a broad coalition of voices, the foremost and basic goal of governments must become food security for all as a basic human right, requiring an international and collective approach to achieving a fairer distribution of food regardless of the recipients' ability to pay.  A first step, which is powerfully opposed by the overbearing influence of transnational agribusinesses, is a worldwide acceptance of the current system of agriculture's failure and incapability of delivering global food security and environmental sustainability. Secondly, with around 850 million people going hungry each day, the global community must coordinate efforts to redistribute available food to avoid starvation, whilst ensuring export-oriented agricultural trade does not affect local food security in developing countries.  Only then can the current obsession with ‘efficient' large-scale production for an ever more competitive global market become subordinated to the primary objective of meeting basic human needs.