By Deborah Doane, World Development Movement
Last week, the World Bank announced that food pricesare on the rise again, having climbed 8 per cent between December and March this year. Rising and volatile food prices have a massive and extremely detrimental effect on the world’s poor. Short-term spikes lead to malnutrition, and often force people to sell off their assets and forgo so-called luxuries like healthcare and education.
The World Development Movement has been pointing to the role that financial speculation on food prices has played in recent price rises, and this view is now supported by the European Commission, the FAO and the UN rapporteur on the right to food. The EU has put forward draft regulations to curb the practice. But while limiting speculation is part of the solution to curtailing short-term rises, there are wider debates about our long-term food system. Concerns about rising populations tend to dominate, with alarmist concerns that a planet occupied by 9 billion people will be unable to feed itself. But even with 7 billion, we are facing problems. The current food crisis in the Sahel region of Africa threatens 10 million people. And according to the Royal Society, in 2010 close to one billion people worldwide did not receive enough calories to reach their minimum dietary energy requirements.
What concerns many is the fact that in 2010, while millions of people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East couldn’t afford food (sparking the Arab Spring), there was still plenty of food on the shelves. In fact, the UN FAO declared that 2010 saw the largest harvest on record.
Development economist Amartya Sen demonstrated decades ago that there is no such thing as an apolitical food problem, showing that famines, for example, are entirely man made. This view is at the heart of the battle for our food system, and our future ability to feed ourselves, and has given rise to two competing philosophies – food security and food sovereignty.
Ensuring food security demands technical solutions – improved production, access to water, and better means of distribution. It tends to favour the predominant food system – large-scale agriculture and global trade.
Grassroots social movements, backed up by international research, have put forward the rival concept of food sovereignty that addresses the political concerns alongside the technical. Founded by the international peasants movement La Via Campesina, food sovereignty responds to the heart of Sen’s analysis, and suggests that we must tackle inequality of power and justice in our global food system. Facing a massive increase in land grabbing, a corporate dominated system that has prevented people from storing seeds, and a decline in biodiversity, the food sovereignty movement is now fighting back with viable alternatives.
Proponents of food sovereignty argue that people, and sovereign states, must be able to democratically determine their own agriculture and food policies. The concept supports an increase in smallholder farming and more ecologically-friendly means of production. It is not anti-trade or anti-technology, but locally based food is prioritised and corporate control of agriculture is rejected.
Decades of growing globalised trade in agriculture have failed to provide for the most vulnerable. Research, including by the World Bank, is increasingly showing that many countries that have embarked on systems of export-led agricultural trade have been left more vulnerable. Kenya, for example, which has 75 per cent of its population working in agriculture and where agricultural exports account for 25 per cent of GDP, still saw empty shelves and many people unable to afford food during the 2008 and 2010 crises alike.
With the Sahel crisis, some analysts have pointed to the fact that millet, a far more sustainable and indeed nutritious crop for the arid region, simply is not grown enough locally, in part because it is not a globally traded commodity. So the region relies on other, imported, staple foods, and in times of crisis becomes even more vulnerable and unable to pay for these imports.
The comprehensive International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, backed by the World Bank, supported food sovereignty in its final report in 2010. It concluded that far more effort should be put into researching and implementing agro-ecological methods (organic agriculture) and small-holder production. Unsurprisingly, countries like Canada and the US which are dominated by large-scale agriculture, and which export staple crops globally, dissented from the final report.
Nonetheless, the values of food sovereignty resonate with many in the growing food movements in both the north and south. The UK-based transition movement and the global slow food movement, for example, fully embrace the concept of locally produced, organic food. Yet as food sovereignty raises difficult questions about protectionism and commercialism and challenges our economic models of competitiveness, it will be a fierce political battle to ensure it gets the attention it so rightly deserves.