Food prices have been rising for a while. In some countries this has resulted in food riots and in the case of Haiti where food prices increased by 50-100%, the Prime Minister was forced out of office. Elsewhere people have been killed, and many more injured. While media reports have been concentrating on the immediate causes, the deeper issues and causes have not been discussed as much.
Holt-Giménez and Peabody summarize the issue quite well:
The overpopulation argument seems like an obvious one, but when considering who consumes what, in what quantities and whether much use of resources are actually productive or not suggests that there may be other issues, though overpopulation concerns could become real at some point.
A lot of land goes into producing products that could be considered unnecessary or excessive in their production (e.g. tobacco5, sugar6, beef7, biofuels, urbanization, etc).
Some 80% of the world’s production is consumed by the wealthiest 20% of the world suggesting an inequality in resource use due to social, economic and political reasons, and perhaps less because of Malthusian concerns about population sizes outstripping resource availability in most cases.
Furthermore, while many go hungry an equally large number are considered obese8.
These aspects are discussed in more depth on this site’s sections on consumption9, hunger and population10 and poverty and hunger11.
A doubling of per-capita meat consumption in some developing countries
Diversion of 5% of the world’s cereals to agrofuels.
The above range of issues have been the subject of much mainstream media attention. For example, there has been some debate as to how much of an impact the recent rise in biofuels has actually contributed to the rising prices.
Deeper, long term causes of the food crisis
However, as Holt-Giménez and Peabody importantly add, all these causes are only the proximate causes of food price inflation. These factors do not explain why—in an increasingly productive and affluent global food system—next year up to one billion people will likely go hungry. To solve the problem of hunger, we need to address the root cause of the food crisis: the corporate monopolization of the world’s food systems.
What the authors are alluding to is the following:
The dominance of the richer nations and companies in the international arena has had a tremendous impact on agriculture, which, for many poor countries forms one of the main sources of income. A combination of unfair trade agreements16, concentrated ownership of major food production, dominance (through control and influence in institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organisation) has meant that poor countries have seen their ability to determine their own food security policies severely undermined.
Policies such as structural adjustment17 demanded by these institutions meant most developing countries had to not only cut back on health and education, but food stamps and other support for the very poor. Trade barriers and other support mechanisms for local industry were also often required to be removed, allowing foreign companies to more easily compete, often being at an advantage as they would typically be larger multinationals with more resources and experiences.
By comparison, richer countries have hardly reduced their barriers in return. In addition, most poor countries were strongly encouraged to concentrate more on exporting cash crops to earn foreign exchange in order to pay of debts. This resulting reduction in biodiversity of crops and related ecosystems meant worsening environments and clearing more land or increasing fertilizer use to try and make up for this.
Increasing poverty and inequality thus fueled corruption19 making the problem even worse. Food dumping20 (while calling it aid) by wealthy nations onto poor countries, falling commodity prices (when many poor countries had to compete against each other to sell primarily to the rich), vast agricultural subsidies in North America and Europe (outdoing the foreign aid21 they sent, many time over) have all combined to have various effects such as forcing farmers out of business and into city slums. Meanwhile, crop biodiversity dwindled during the promise of the Green Revolution, which also increased chemical input, environmental degradation and felling of forests to bring more land into production.
Food security has reduced as a result and many countries are less able to do things if they want to. Holt-Giménez and Peabody are worth quoting again, this time on the impacts of concentrated ownership:
Genetically modified foods23 also increasingly came to be seen as a technical savior. If it worked, food could be grown with higher yields and in places where natural conditions are usually unfavorable. With increasing threats of climate change, it would seem this technology is potentially more important.
Yet, environmentalists from rich countries have raised concerns about the effect on nature if some GM varieties cross-breed with natural varieties, the effect on other aspects of biodversity etc. Technically, some have found that promised high yields are not always the case.
From developing countries the concern has been the ownership of this technology, typically private companies from rich countries. They have attempted to patent resources that developing countries have long used freely and tried to use techniques such as preventing farmers from keeping seeds for future years (which they naturally do) through terminator technology (which would appear to go against the claim of addressing world hunger).
These concerns go to the heart of food security and accountability to their own citizenry. In addition, what such technologies will not address, however, are the political, economic, social and environmental root causes and choices that govern what is grown, why, how it is priced, and why even when there is enough food, so many cannot afford it.
As professor Richard Robbins notes, food is a commodity:
The above is a gross oversimplification and these deeper issues and causes have been discussed on this web site for a long time. Rather than attempting to explain those all again here, as well as the above links, refer to this site’s Food and Agriculture Issues25 section for a series of articles covering these aspects.
Eric Holt-Giménez and Loren Peabody, mentioned above, also provide a useful summary at From Food Rebellions to Food Sovereignty: Urgent call to fix a broken food system26, Institute for Food and Development Policy, May 16, 2008
Image credits: Cornfield in the Evening, courtesy of Michel Mayerle28
Food and agriculture goes to the heart of our civilizations. Religions, cultures and even modern civilization have food and agriculture at their core. For an issue that goes to the heart of humanity it also has its ugly side.
This issue explores topics ranging from the global food crisis of 2008, to issues of food aid, world hunger, food dumping and wasteful agriculture such as growing tobacco, sugar, beef, and more.
Meaningful long-term alleviation of hunger is rooted in the alleviation of poverty, as poverty leads to hunger. World hunger is a terrible symptom of world poverty. If efforts are only directed at providing food, or improving food production or distribution, then the structural root causes that create hunger, poverty and dependency would still remain. While resources and energies are deployed to relieve hunger through technical measures such as improving agriculture, and as important as these are, inter-related issues such as poverty means that political solutions are likely required as well for meaningful and long term hunger alleviation.
Food aid (when not for emergency relief) can actually be very destructive on the economy of the recipient nation and contribute to more hunger and poverty in the long term. Free, subsidized, or cheap food, below market prices undercuts local farmers, who cannot compete and are driven out of jobs and into poverty, further slanting the market share of the larger producers such as those from the US and Europe. Many poor nations are dependent on farming, and so such food aid amounts to food dumping. In the past few decades, more powerful nations have used this as a foreign policy tool for dominance rather than for real aid.