Food crisis: time to break the cycle
Once every few years, the world goes through a familiar ritual: various factors converge to trigger unusual increases in global food prices. In response, countries rush through emergency measures to ward off widespread shortages. Prices stabilize, calm returns and the world declares yet another victory in the war against rising food prices. The crisis vanishes from the radar — until the next one.
Few are surprised that for the second time in three years, another crisis is back. In February the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)'s food index, which tracks monthly changes in the global prices of staple foods, reached its highest level ever. At the same time, the World Bank announced that 44 million people in developing countries had been thrown into poverty by rising food prices since June 2010.
A report released in May by Oxfam, a British charity, predicts that food prices will more than double in the next 20 years unless the global food system is overhauled. The report, Growing a Better Future, forecasts price increases in the range of 120–180 per cent “as resource pressures mount and climate change takes hold.” The US-based think-tank International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) projects similar increases over the same period. Newly elected FAO head José Graziano da Silva of Brazil said in June that “food prices would remain volatile for some time.”
Without doubt, Africa's poor suffer the most from high food prices, as they rely on a few staple crops for survival. This year the Horn of Africa faces its worst drought in 60 years, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Millions of people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda will face severe food shortages. Oxfam identifies the sub-region as one of the world's “food insecurity hotspots”. According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), millions are threatened with starvation in eastern Mali, northern Cameroon, Chad and Niger (see Africa Renewal Online).
World leaders have avoided a head-on tackle of the food system's underlying weaknesses, including low investment in agriculture, especially for smallholders; an end to huge land purchases by the rich; lack of transparency and fairness in food markets; and disputes over climate change. Each time a crisis strikes, they have tinkered at the edges of a broken system or employed makeshift measures.
“Unfortunately, it is a general trend in the world,” complained Jacques Diouf, the outgoing FAO chief, frustrated by world leaders' failure to heed his warnings of imminent shortages during the 2008. “We react when the crisis is already here.”
Arguably, the national interests of the major food producers have paralyzed efforts to reform global agricultural policies. For example, the first ever gathering of ministers of agriculture from the Group of 20 (G-20), which includes South Africa as the sole African member, failed to reach an agreement in June on policy issues.
The Paris talks deadlocked on concerns that biofuel policies divert crops from food markets to the production of ethanol and biodiesel and also that export bans, imposed by governments to ensure adequate stocks at home by restricting food exports, distort global supplies.
Prior to the G-20 meeting, Oxfam had noted angrily that “the failure of the [food] system flows from failures of government — failures to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest — which mean that companies, interest groups, and elites are able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge and food.”
Experts generally agree on the causes of food crises. Bad weather has reduced grain exports from Australia. Export bans by food exporters (21 countries at the beginning of the year), continued subsidies to farmers by rich nations and market speculation have distorted the supply and price of food on global markets. Subsidies encourage farmers to over-produce and thus depress market prices, forcing farmers in poor countries to compete with cheap food imports. Commodity traders contribute to spikes in global prices through speculation.
In addition, lack of investment in agriculture and inefficient farming contribute to food shortages in Africa. About 40 per cent of Africa's farm produce is lost on the way to the market, notes The Economist, a British weekly. In some areas, as in western Kenya and northern Ethiopia, families have less than the minimum farmland required to support a household. Lack of land titles, access to credit and property rights, especially among women, limits the amount that can be harvested from small plots, observes the magazine.
Due to perennial food shortages, experts and anti-poverty activists continue to press for a better system. Robert Townsend, an economist with the World Bank, argues that better seeds, more fertilizer and improved methods of cultivation increase harvests. He calls for more investment in research to develop improved varieties, as well as well-managed irrigation schemes to ensure reliable water supply. In Benin, the Bank's Global Food Crisis Response Programme supplied fertilizer, which boosted cereal production by an additional 100,000 tonnes.
Following a continent-wide initiative by the African Union to spend more money on agriculture, 26 counties have so far signed agreements under a plan called the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme, run by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the AU development agency.
The results in some countries have been remarkable. Rwanda, the first to adopt the programme in 2007, increased land allocations to maize by almost five-fold in three years, raising maize yields by more than 212 per cent — from less than 0.8 tonnes per hectare to 2.5 tonnes — over the same period. Malawi has also seen comparable successes, along with Sierra Leone and Tanzania, among others.
Equally important is the need to reverse the gender imbalance. Giving rural women the same access as men to land, technology, financial services, education and markets, argues FAO in its State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11 report, will increase agricultural production and reduce the number of hungry people by up to 150 million worldwide.
There is no doubt that the pace of overhauling the global food system will be painfully slow. This will guarantee repeated food crises. Responding to the failure to reach an agreement on agricultural policies by the G-20, Oxfam noted that the group's “sticking plaster approach falls well short of the major surgery” needed to tackle the global food system. Like a festering wound left untreated, failure to act now will only hasten the inevitable — a visit to the surgery room.
Africa Renewal www.un.org/africarenewal