Wed, May 11, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Food security fears return

A broad mixture of factors are combining to threaten food security for nearly half of the world’s population

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Illustration: Mountain People

Lack of food is rarely the reason that people go hungry. The world today produces enough food to feed everyone. The problem is that more and more people simply cannot afford to buy the food they need. Even before the recent food-price increases, 1 billion people were suffering from chronic hunger, while another 2 billion were experiencing malnutrition, bringing the total number of food-insecure people to around 3 billion, or almost half the world’s population.

Global food prices are at the highest level since the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) started monitoring them in 1990. The World Bank estimates that recent food-price increases have driven an additional 44 million people in developing countries into poverty.

The rapid rise in world prices for all basic food crops — corn, wheat, soybeans and rice — along with other foods like cooking oils, has been devastating for poor households all over the world. However, almost everybody’s standard of living has been reduced. Middle-class people are increasingly careful about their food purchases; the near-poor are losing headway and falling below, rather than staying above, the poverty line; and the poor and vulnerable, not surprisingly, are suffering even more.

Food production increased greatly with the quest for food security and the Green Revolution from the 1960s to the 1980s, owing to considerable government and international not-for-profit support. However, agricultural experts have warned of the risks of flagging efforts to boost food output since the 1980s.

As food-supply growth has slowed, demand has continued to rise, owing not only to population increases, but also for reasons such as the growing use of food crops to sustain livestock. The problem is exacerbated by the significant drop in official development assistance for agricultural development in developing countries. Aid for agriculture fell by more than half in the quarter-century after 1980, as the World Bank cut agricultural lending from US$7.7 billion in 1980 to US$2 billion in 2004.

With cuts continuing, agricultural research and development — needed to improve crop productivity — has fallen for all crops in all developing countries. Meanwhile, in the private sector, agribusinesses spend much more on research than all public agricultural research institutes together.

Developing-country governments also stopped subsidizing farmers or being involved in food marketing, storage, transportation or credit provision. Meanwhile, rich countries continue to subsidize and protect their farmers, thereby undermining food production in developing countries.

The World Bank and the WTO still insist that further agricultural trade liberalization is the best medium-term solution.

Since the 1980s, governments have been pressed to promote exports to earn foreign exchange and import food. As a result, many poor countries have turned to the world market to buy cheap rice and wheat, instead of growing their own. Some countries and regions that were previously self-sufficient in food now import large quantities of it. This drives up food prices, causing even more anguish for the world’s poorest people.

Other factors have contributed to the food crisis. Climate change resulting from greenhouse-gas emissions exacerbate water-supply problems, accelerate desertification and water stress, and worsen the unpredictability and severity of weather events, all of which adversely affect agriculture in much of the world. Deforestation, growing population pressure, urbanization, soil erosion, over-fishing and the impact of foreign control of marketing, inputs, processing and even farming also play a role.

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