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Global governance, food security? What do these mean?

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Vendors in Mapusa, Goa

Vendors in Mapusa, Goa. The middle basket contains 'nachne', local millet

Are the current arrangements fit for the job? This is the question posed in a current discussion on FAO’s The Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum). The Forum is set up and managed by by FAO’s Agricultural Development Economics Division and, in their words, “is a community of practitioners currently reaching more than 2800 members” around the world.

The short intro to this discussion is: one of the consequences of the 2007-08 food price crisis was the emergence of a number of new institutions and initiatives that were intended to strengthen global capacities to respond to such situations. “You are invited to share views on how an effective global food governance system should work and on what major issues are to be addressed in order to ensure an adequate and safe food supply for all humans at all times.”

Here is my contribution to the discussion on ‘Global Governance for Food Security: are the current arrangements fit for the Job?’.

‘Global governance’ and ‘food security’ are not compatible ideas in present circumstances. If we look at the idea of ‘food security’, which development agencies and social scientists tend to agree is achieved by every family/household having enough to eat – and able to find and purchase that food easily – then this is only part of a way of living. That way of living, where the production and consumption of food is concerned, has for some years now been more aptly called ‘food sovereignty’. The difference between ‘security’ and ‘sovereignty’ is a major one, and governance – as it is commonly understood by UN agencies and development professionals – may apply to ‘security’ but hardly can to ‘sovereignty’.

So there is a difficulty with how this has been framed. Global governance is I’m sorry to say neither feasible under current economic conditions nor desirable from a cultural diversity point of view. It may have been a guiding principle in the mid-1930s when the League of Nations was created, and has been re-articulated in many forms – sometimes grandly, at other times in attempts to find peace and end conflict. The idea lies at the heart of many of the multidisciplinary efforts led by UN agencies, especially concerning human development, environment, healthcare, the right to education. It is at the core of the Millennium Development Goals programme. It remains, as it was more than 70 years ago, a fuzzy notion that does more to distract than to build. FAO needs to have nothing to do with such an idea.

Rice is still planted and harvested in the coastal talukas, but fields such as these are threatened by urbanisation

Rice is still planted and harvested in the coastal talukas, but fields such as these are threatened by urbanisation

The food crisis of 2007-08 is a point of extreme stress in the steady progress of the consolidation of the factors of food production and the organisation of the consumers of food products. In many ways, the ‘crisis’ began when the first fields were harvested with Green Revolution hybrids, and that was a long time ago. It is the growing concentration of capital in the post-harvest sequence – rather than in the people and households and villages who cultivate – that has led to the extreme food impoverishment which we first recognised in 2007-08 and promptly called a ‘crisis’.

This systemic difficulty continues simply because the same forces that, in public fora, in UN agencies, in corporate-industrial circles and within national policy, call for governance are also the forces that create legislation, treaties, trade agreements and multilateral institutions designed to sabotage all expressions of food sovereignty.

I have no doubt that within the ‘number of new institutions and initiatives’ there are also a number of people with the will and intention to help solve a problem that is found in many countries, many provinces and states. However, that does not make it a ‘global problem’. Some of the forces at work are international in scope and scale, such as the reach of the giant fertilisers corporations, the impact of the world’s major agricultural commodities exchanges, the dense links between grain trading cartels and the financial markets. These operate internationally, and the effects of deprivation and food price inflation are also seen in many countries. There are common elements, no doubt, but it is useful to distinguish elements that are common from the idea of ‘global’, for there will not be an inter-agency solution.

Identification of these problems, the reform of economic systems which permit such deprivation, and the creation and maintenance of social institutions (council of village elders for example) can only form locally and work locally. At best, there may be an exchange for methods and practice, available to all to participate in. That I think is what FAO should aim for on this subject.

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Poverty, low carbon, Transition and history

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UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

Energy Bulletin, which is a project of the Post Carbon Institute, has just published my article on the Transition movement and poverty (in the South, Asian and African). I have raised some questions and perspectives about this aspect of the Transition movement which has intrigued me for some time.

It also has to do with knowing the perspective from Europe – which sadly has too often been coloured by a “we know best how to help you” approach. That’s led to all sorts of inter-cultural problems and the last thing I want to see is for Transition ideas to be looked at with suspicion in the South because of historic blunders on aid and ‘dev-econ’.

The full article is available on Energy Bulletin. Here is the intro:

Serious traders see the trends before anyone else. They do so because their business depends on seeing the minute deviation that signals the beginning of a trend. Early in June 2010 commodities traders charted the new signals they were getting from the world’s agricultural exporters and major consumers. What they saw then became the picture that in late July began to alarm governments and international development agencies. World foodgrain supplies were entering a new phase of tightening, as the impacts of drought and extreme weather in grain producing countries around the world became clear.

For the trading community – whose strong and deep links with the world’s financial markets and banks have become more visible since 2008 – the opportunity is large, perhaps even bigger than the one that slowly unfolded in 2007, when the last global food price crisis swept through cities and villages alike. For inter-governmental agencies such as the United Nations system, the news is a body blow to the idea and effort that has sustained work on social justice and equality.

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

The effects of the 2007-08 food price crisis were still being unravelled when the 2009 financial crisis took hold. That prompted many UN agencies, major aid organisations and hundreds of large NGOs to quickly study the impact of both on their work, and on those whom they work for, which is the poor and marginalised on all continents. Much less visible and quite unrecognised is the impact of the same two crises on the small but philosophically very sound transition movement. Guided by tenets that became clear in the 1960s and 1970s, this constellation of movements (low carbon, sustainable communities, local resilience being some variations readily recognisable in the ‘west’) has adapted practices central to all ur-rural settlements, and continues to internalise the collected wisdom and practice of the world’s indigenous peoples. In so doing, the transition movement in the ‘west’ (and therefore North) has for the most part been unable to conceptualise a response to the human development and social justice needs of the South.

Much of this lack, as I see it, has to do with the very formidable inertness which western societies inherited from the transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the apparently incontrovertible ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, which by the time the Bretton Woods institutions came into being were well suited to form the core of a ‘development economics’ that has wrought havoc on both North and South, although in different periods of the 20th century. Transition ideas and praxis have had to therefore first wage an intellectual battle against ‘development economics’ and then launch a physical struggle against the socio-ecological degradation that followed such economics on the ground.

What we do know is that rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little. Here are a few points that help explain why the MDGs assessment is crippled by its reluctance to face facts:

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished – their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements – not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. The US$1.25 a day line (which can be replaced by any currency unit at any ruling amount) does not describe a poverty threshold. At best it provides a measure of one marker out of many for poverty, and even that marker needs to be localised for it to have community meaning. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa – correlated with poverty – most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

2. The percentage of chronically hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for years even though the number of hungry worldwide has barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these years of slow gains, and now the gathering 2010-11 food crisis (a shortage of availability coupled with price rise) will further reverse the gains.

There is another linkage, that of population. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and could plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall production of food has meant that the fairly weighted global average of available calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water and energy, is not (which is exactly where transition concepts and praxis come in).

3. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares – mostly from South America and Africa – without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.