World Hunger, A Breviary

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The World Food Summit has just ended in Rome, at which the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, lauded the declaration as “an important step towards the achievement of our common objective – a world free from hunger.”

Sadly, the declaration itself is written in UN prose, a bloodless language created in committee and intended to be as bland as possible. Even the snappy summary, found in the press release, reads like it has been translated from English to Esperanto and back again by someone armed only with a dictionary of international management consultancy:

Renewed commitment to end hunger…
Countries also agreed to work to reverse the decline in domestic and international funding for agriculture and promote new investment in the sector, to improve governance of global food issues in partnership with relevant stakeholders from the public and private sector, and to proactively face the challenges of climate change to food security… UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called the current food crisis “a wake-up call for tomorrow”.

Luckily, I speak fluent UN and, for your edification, here’s a handy guide to what it all means:

Renewed commitment

‘Renewed commitment’ is a fairly straightforward way of saying ‘we’re sticking to the promises we’ve made before, and we feel terrible that so many people are going hungry.’

The purpose of the summit was to create the political will to end hunger. Specifically, the goal was to change old policies, and commit to spending the $44 bn a year required to end hunger by 2025. (To put it into context, rich countries spend $1.3 trillion every year on weapons.) No such commitments were forthcoming. Instead, it’s business as usual, and the same old promises for change. As Francisco Sarmento from ActionAid puts it, “unfortunately, the poor cannot eat promises”.

Decline in international investment

Following a model of ‘economic liberalisation’ peddled by institutions like the World Bank in the 1980s, governments in poor countries were told to cut back their funding for agriculture. The ‘decline’ in investment was imposed, as the Filipino activist and academic Walden Bello observed, with apparently benevolent motives:

U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block put it at the start of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations in 1986, “the idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agricultural products, which are available, in most cases at lower cost.”

So governments in poor countries stopped supporting their own small-scale farmers. Export-driven agriculture continued to get government cash – in Brazil, for instance, soy farmers received loans with negative interest rates, which explains why they are now the world’s largest soy exporters. But, in the main, the poorest farmers were left to fend for themselves, even when it has long been known that investment in agriculture is one of the best ways fighting poverty. After all the poorest and hungriest people invariably depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

The language about the ‘decline in international investment’ is as close as the rich countries in the international community can come to a nostra culpa.

Relevant Stakeholders

One of the major problems with this food summit, as with food politics in general, is that the range of ‘stakeholders’ who matter in making agriculture policy is small.

Farmers are almost never at the table. Farm workers and landless people are always absent. The big agriculture corporations, the seed and pesticide companies, the grain traders, the food manufacturers are, by contrast, right in the centre of the policy huddle. But rarely are the people who actually grow food to be found in the corridors of power.

Those farmers who do have the ear of government are invariably large-scale farmers, the ones with money who stand to profit from increased trade, not the poor mostly-women farmers who grow the majority of food eaten in developing countries, and who are invariably overlooked in the making of international food policy.

Proactively face the challenges of climate change

Climate change will hurt poor farmers, and women in particular. Food production in Africa could fall by 50% by 2020. The language of the declaration makes it seem as if no-one has a clue about how to avoid this, and that Something Must Be Done.

But here’s the thing. The international community has already spent a few million dollars, a few years, and called on the talents of hundreds of top scientists to figure out how to address climate change in agriculture. In a report equal in scope and structure to the IPCC report on climate change, scientists led by the World Bank collaborated on the International Agricultural Assessment on Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (yes, the report was written in UN English too, though a more readable version is available as Agriculture at a Crossroads).

The report concluded that industrial agriculture, with its thirst for water and fossil fuels, will cause more harm than good. It also concluded that, based on the evidence so far, genetically modified crops have limited use in the fights against hunger and climate change. Instead, agro-ecological farming systems seem to offer the best way of reducing input-dependence, and sequestering carbon in the soil. But nowhere in the declaration is this research mentioned. By pretending that it never happened, the door is still open to large agribusiness to pretend that they’ve got the solution to a problem that has already been solved.

Wake-up Call

This is perhaps the most pernicious line – the widespread notion that the hunger crisis is somehow a ‘silent tsunami’. I’ve fulminated about this before but it’s sad to see that the language remains pervasive. Most recently, the idea that we need to ‘wake up’ to hunger was used by US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to talk about the historic levels of hunger in the US. In the US, the number of ‘food insecure’ people went up from 36 million in 2007 to 49 million in 2008, the highest since records began in 1995. Globally, the number of hungry people, classified as undernourished (a stricter criterion, since it counts the people eating less than 1900 calories a day) is over 1 billion, the highest since records began in 1970. This despite the amount of food being produced per person remaining roughly the same between 2007-8. So it’s not like there’s less food around. So why do people go hungry? Because the recession has produced more poverty, and people can’t afford the food that’s right in front of them. Who’s most affected? Women. Around the world, women.

They wake up to hunger every day. When you hear about ‘wake up calls’, it’s not the hungry who’ve been sleeping.