World Food Day, belatedly

A mere two weeks late, published on World Food Day, here’s something I wrote for Reuters/Alertnet about what to expect from our leaders in the upcoming World Food Summit and Climate Change summits…

Better ways to tackle hunger than recycling old policies

This World Food Day, for the first time in human history, more than a billion people will go hungry. In a month’s time, the world’s leaders will fly to Rome for another World Food Summit, at which they will wring their hands at this awful statistic.

And, since they’ll be hopping over to Copenhagen in December to discuss climate change, we can expect that our leaders will also be touting their greenest credentials.

The best that can be said for the environmentalism of the world’s most powerful countries is this: they’re fanatically committed to recycling the same policies year after year.

In tackling the hunger crisis, the alphabet soup of summits that have addressed the problem – the FAO in Rome, G8 in Hokkaido, G20 in Pittsburgh, IMF in Istanbul – have generated solemn declarations saying the same thing, over and over again.

You know the drill: hunger is a scar on the conscience of the world. The solution is to intensify free trade in agriculture; We must bring the full might of the private sector to bear on the problem.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what has been done for the past thirty years, through policies meted out by the international development industry. The results speak for themselves. Africa used to be a net exporter of food – now it is food dependent.

The Green Revolution technologies being pointed at Africa have already caused such devastation in India that Punjab’s Chief Scientist, a paid flag-waver for industrial agriculture, has said that most of India’s farmers would be better off farming organically.

Although it is hard to hear above the din of the development industry’s well-funded choir, there are in fact some very sound ways of meeting both the challenge of climate change and of hunger. Some of these alternatives come with an impeccable scientific pedigree.

Last year, 400 of the world’s top agricultural experts produced a report commissioned by the World Bank’s Chief Scientist, Robert Watson.

The World Bank, a range of national governments, the private sector and NGOs were all represented in a scientific process that lasted three years.

They produced a report called “The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD),” or more readably… “Agriculture at a Crossroads”.


It’s a landmark report that asks the question: how will we eat in 2050, when there are 9 billion of us?

Their conclusions are eye-opening. In 2050, we won’t be able to subsidise our agriculture with cheap energy. We’ll be facing acute water shortages and a shortage of arable land.

The solutions, though, lie in abandoning the failed thinking of the past. Rather that seeing soil fertility as a resource to be mined, and then replaced with chemicals when the soil is dead, new approaches see soil ecology as something to build and nurture.

This runs almost completely counter to the fulminations of national governments, and contradicts the solutions being offered by industrial agriculture.

The scientists behind IAASTD suggest that we will need to relocalise our farming systems, to make them less dependent on resources that simply aren’t available today.

By farming organically so doing, another recent report suggests that we can sequester up to 40% of our CO2-equivalent emissions.

No other technology is capable of doing that. So why haven’t we heard more about this? In part, IAASTD is the embodiment of an inconvenient truth. It challenges the most powerful corporations in the food system today – call them Big Ag.

But perhaps more subversively, what the IAASTD report also points to is the need to relocalise our food politics. In other words, the report calls for more democracy in our food system, suggesting that decisions around production and consumption should happen much closer to those whose lives are affected by it.

This is a threat to the rule not only of development institutions like the World Bank, but also to national governments that have been bought by Big Ag.

Which goes some way to explaining why, despite its credentials, the IAASTD report has been effectively smothered by large governments and, indeed, the World Bank.

Yet it is through peer-reviewed science and political change that we will address both hunger and climate change. Business as usual is what has created the mess we’re in today. And what we need isn’t more recycling of tired ideas – it’s the open and democratic discussion of new ones.

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