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A tiring tale from the FAO that again ignores the global food industry

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Cheap processed food advertised in Chengdu, P R China.

Cheap processed food advertised in Chengdu, P R China.

Why has the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) not stated what has become painfully obvious to households the world over – that the macro-economics which determines everything from what farmers grow and what city workers pay for food is utterly out of control?

This silence is why FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ – with its updated estimates of undernourishment and its diplomatic paragraphs about progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and World Food Summit (WFS) hunger targets – remains conceptually crippled.

The roles of the food industry, its financiers, its commodities satraps, the marketers and their fixers in government, the networks that link legislators and food business investors in countries with growing processed foods businesses, all these shape food security at the community and household level. Yet none of these are considered critically by an FAO report that ought to be thoroughly non-partisan on the matter.

The FAO ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ (condensed to SOFI 2013) has said that “further progress has been made towards the 2015 MDG target, which remains within reach for the developing regions as a whole, although marked differences across regions persist and considerable and immediate additional efforts will be needed”.

How many more food insecurity indicators are needed to tell governments what their working class households already know? The table of SOFI 2013 indicators.

How many more food insecurity indicators are needed to tell governments what their working class households already know? The table of SOFI 2013 indicators.

In the first place, let’s consider the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target concerning hunger. This is to halve the proportion of hungry people in the total population. There is also the World Food Summit (WFS) target, which is to halve the number of hungry people. Both have 2015 as the target year. However, any hunger has no place in a world that today produces more than enough food to adequately feed every elder, child, woman and man.

But there is another aspect, and this is: who does the FAO think is paying attention to ‘global’ targets and placing these targets above any local needs or ambitions? Just as the MDGs are scarcely known and recognised outside the enormous development industry which perpetuates a growing mountain of studies and reports on the MDGs, nor are ‘global’ hunger reduction targets. When alleged leaders of the world gather together in the United Nations General Assemblies and other grand international fora and ask (in a tiresome and repetitive way) how we are going to feed 9 billion people, no individual smallholder farmer listens, because growing and feeding is done locally, and therefore ‘targets’ are also local, just as food insecurity or security is local.

This is why the SOFI 2013 approach – which is to say that “the estimated number of undernourished people has continued to decrease [but] the rate of progress appears insufficient to reach international goals for hunger reduction” – is utterly out of place and does not in any way reflect the numerous variety of problems concerning the provision of food, nor does it reflect the equally numerous variety of local approaches to fulfilling food provisioning.

Next, it is way past high time that FAO and the UN system in general jettison the “developing regions” label. It has no meaning and is an unacceptable legacy of the colonial view. Besides, as I point out a little later, food inadequacy (including insecurity and outright poverty) is becoming more and not less prevalent in the so-called developed regions. And moreover, I object to “considerable and immediate additional efforts will be needed” to reverse food insecurity, as the SOFI recommends, because this is the green signal to the global industrial agri-food industry to ram through its destructive prescriptions in the name of additional efforts.

SOFI 2013 also “presents a broader suite of indicators that aim to capture the multi-dimensional nature of food insecurity, its determinants and outcomes”. Once again, it is way past high time that the FAO ceased encouraging a proliferation of indicators of every description (and then some) that do next to nothing to ensure low external input and organic agriculture supported by communities and local in scale and scope, and in which the saving of seed and the preservation of crop and plant diversity is enshrined. There is not one – not a single indicator from FAO (and not one from any of its major partners, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – for this need that is at the core of the myriad wonderful expressions of human civilisation.

Oxfam has made graphic the growing poverty in the European Union.

Oxfam has made graphic the growing poverty in the European Union.

SOFI 2013 also said that “recent global and national food consumer price indices suggest that changes in consumer prices were generally much more muted than those recorded by international price indices, often influenced by greatly increased speculation in spot, futures and options markets”. This unfortunately is completely untrue, for even FAO’s own database on national consumer price indexes (supplied by FAO member countries themselves) suggests that the CPI follows international price indices (this blog has pointed out the correlation a number of times in the last two years). And it is the same macro-economics that rewards speculators in “in spot, futures and options markets” which also deepens food insecurity every year.

Now, to return to the question of who is “developing” and who is not. The European Union (28 countries) has a population of 503 million (the early 2012 estimate). The USA has a population of 313 million (mid-2012 estimate). How large a group in both the European Union and the USA are hovering around the poverty lines, or who are plain poor, and who cannot afford to buy enough food for themselves?

In a report released in September 2013, the Oxfam aid agency warned that the poverty trap in Europe, which already encompasses more than 120 million people, could swell by an additional 25 million with austerity policies continuing. The report, ‘A cautionary tale: Europe’s bitter crisis of austerity and inequality’, said that one in two working families has been directly affected by the loss of jobs or reduction of working hours.

The food insecurity problem has been growing in the non-“developing” world just as fast as it has been growing in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, south-east Asia and other “developing” regions that the FAO’s flagship reports habitually places in the foreground. In early 2012 news reports in European Union countries were mentioning regularly how “ever more people are threatened with poverty”. The European Commission’s office for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion said so too: “Household incomes have declined and the risk of poverty or exclusion is constantly growing.”

Across the Atlantic, a US Census Bureau report released in September 2013 titled ‘Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012’, poverty was found to be “at a near-generation high of 15 percent, close to the high point since the 1965 War on Poverty, the 15.2 percent rate reached in 1983”. This report found that 46.5 million USA ctitzens (about 9.5 million families) live in poverty and that some 20.4 million people live on an income less than half of the official poverty line of the USA.

FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’ will with its present methods, outlook and biases be useful neither to cultivating communities growing the food we eat, nor to administrators in districts and provinces who must plan and budget to encourage local action that brings about food security, nor to the member countries of the United Nations if it continues to ignore the very large and growing numbers of the poor in the European Union and USA – 170 million poor people, and therefore food insecure, is a population that is considerably larger than that of any country in sub-Saharan Africa which inevitably figures in these reports.

Here are the materials for FAO’s ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013’: The FAO news story. A frequently asked questions document. The FAO page on State of Food Insecurity 2013. The executive summary. The full pdf file and chapters. The e-book. The food security indicators data.

For whom do the FAO and its director-general work?

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A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

For farmers small and large?  For the tens of millions of food-consuming households, poor or just getting by?  For the governments and bureaucracies of small countries who want to import less and grow more?  For the organic cultivators on their small densely bio-diverse plots?  Or for the world’s large food production, trading, and retail corporations, whose influence is wide and whose power is vast? [This is an extract from the full article at Monthly Review’s MRZine.]

FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva

There is the continuing if travel-stained hope — held by so many of us, those who work at humble stations in the food and agriculture sector — that, of all those whom the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO of the United Nations) does work for, it is not that last.  But, since 2011 June, when José Graziano da Silva became the head of the FAO, the signs have been otherwise, and they are growing stronger with each passing month.

What effect does this have on the way the 190-odd member states of the UN deal with agriculture and food, with nutrition and food security, with making food affordable?  A great deal.  These are questions the member states of the FAO (and of the UN) have faced since 1945, with the end of World War Two.  If you read this passage, it helps illustrate how little has changed from one point of view, and how much has, from another, far more insidious and destabilizing point of view:

. . . [S]ome of the basic problems that have afflicted humanity since the beginning of society remain unsolved.  Large parts of the world still suffer from hunger, and the threat of famine is ever present.  Today we are confronted by a new challenge in human history which, if not faced, could sweep away the little progress we have so far achieved — this is the upward surge of world population at a rate never experienced before.

That was the fourth director-general of the FAO, B. R. Sen of India, and he said these words during his inaugural address at the First African Regional Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, on 3 November 1960.

Sen appealed “… to our Member Governments not only to discuss their problems, but also to avail themselves of the knowledge and skills FAO has acquired over many years in the fields of agricultural development and food production and distribution.”  He said: “While the increase of agricultural productivity must remain the sine qua non of economic development of the less developed regions, the importance of education, public health and institutional factors must be recognised in any plan of balanced economic development.”

The FAO 'real' food price index. What will a private sector 'political commitment' do to these trends?

The FAO ‘real’ food price index. What will a private sector ‘political commitment’ do to these trends?

As you see, it has been over 50 years and few of the deficits recorded then have been banished.  How could they have been?  In the years — the decades — since 1960, many a development theory has been advanced only to be discarded . . . but not before the worst of them were thrust upon poor folk and choiceless urban dwellers, as they are now.

Only the armory of the food giants today is far more potent than it ever has been.  And still more powerful will they become, if championed by the FAO as they currently are.  Graziano da Silva at the end of 2012 November said that the private sector can make an important contribution to the fight against poverty and hunger and promote sustainable food production and consumption.  Where did he say this?  At the FAO Headquarters, to participants whose associations represent more than five thousand companies, during the first in a series of planned dialogues on what the FAO is calling “private sector involvement in poverty- and hunger-reduction initiatives.”

This is deeply worrying.  Food companies, global grain traders, commodities exchanges, multi-national food retail chains, and large processed-food corporations have been using all the means they could muster to influence the FAO during the 2001-10 decade.  Now, under Graziano da Silva, the gates have opened wide in a manner that was still resisted during the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Jacques Diouf (1994-2011), and could hardly be countenanced during the tenure of Edouard Saouma (1976-1993).  What would those who came before — A. H. Boerma (1968-1975), B. R. Sen (1956-1967), P. V. Cardon (1954-1956), N. E. Dodd (1948-21), and J. B. Orr (1945-1948) — have thought of such a swerve marketward?

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

The signs came early.  In 2011 October, for the World Food Day of that year, Graziano da Silva in an article wrote of “boosting investments in agriculture and food security” but didn’t say whether he meant public investment or private.  What he did do was extol what he believes are the benefits of “boosting cash flows into economically stagnant rural communities,” as the FAO release of that day explained.  The director-general’s words were: “Cash transfers and cash-for-work programmes work in the same way as rain on dry soil, allowing these communities to bloom once again.”

It was a turn of metaphor that, when similarly used by him in an article about eleven months later, infuriated 109 farmers’ and peasants’ movements and associations.  Graziano da Silva and Suma Chakrabarti, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), wrote an article published in the Wall Street Journal on 6 September 2012.  In the article, they called on governments and social organizations to embrace the private sector as the main engine for global food production.

mrzine_logo“The language used by Graziano da Silva and Chakrabarti is offensive,” said the signatories to the common statement issued by the 109 organizations.  “Phrases like ‘fertilize this land with money’ or ‘make life easier for the world’s hungry’ call into question the FAO’s ability to do its job with the necessary rigor and independence from large agribusiness companies and fulfill the UN mandate to eradicate hunger and improve the living conditions of rural people.”[You can read the rest on MRZine.]

Written by makanaka

December 5, 2012 at 16:35

AMIS for us, we hope, but wheat and maize look scarce

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Welcome tables from the FAO AMIS, with USDA, IGC and FAO forecasts for major crops. Note the declines in production

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS for short, although whether it Francophonically proves to be an ‘ami’ of the cereal trader or the food consuming household we shall know in the months to come) has released its Market Monitor Number 3 which is for 2012 November.

Here, in a bland paragraph that tells us nothing about the travails of households budgeting for their evening bread, ‘roti‘, or rice, the AMIS Market Monitor has said: “World supply and demand situation continues to tighten for wheat and maize but rice and soybeans have eased.”

Here’s the rest of the snapshot paragraph: “In recent weeks, unfavourable weather conditions affecting some winter wheat growing areas in the northern hemisphere and maize and soybeans in the southern hemisphere have become a concern. In addition, contradictory reports about possible export restrictions by Ukraine also influenced the market.”

Two familiar blues and a new green. The IGC Commodity Price Indices chart in the company of the FAO’s Food Price and Food Commodity Price Indices charts.

What I find useful is that the tables provided now include the USDA estimates and the IGC estimates. And moreover, in a generous display of collegial latitude (perhaps the AMIS has its good points after all) the Monitor has included the IGC index chart alongside the FAO index chart.

But as the World Food Programme (WFP) tirelessly warns, From Africa and Asia to Latin America and the Near East, there are 870 million people in the world who do not get enough food to lead a normal, active life (see the WFP’s hunger map here in Englishen français, en español. What does that do to households who are not the primary audience of the AMIS?

This report from IRIN has said that now in Pakistan, more than half of households are food insecure, according to the last major national nutrition survey. The prices of staple grains like wheat and rice have been stable but are “significantly higher” than 2011, according to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) October 2012 Global Food Security Update. A 25% rise in fuel prices has also pushed up the price of food, as it becomes increasingly expensive to transport. WFP says rising food prices in international markets recently may also lead to price hikes in Pakistan. Clearly, we need to find a way to filter the AMIS outputs (or screen its inputs) so that the Monitors are more directly useful to houseolds and their struggle to find enough healthy food at affordable prices.

Moorosi Nchejana is one of 40 farmers in the village of Mabalane in Lesotho’s Mohale’s Hoek district who participated in a pilot programme by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to strengthen farmers’ capacity to adapt to climate change (June 2012). Photo: IRIN / Mujahid Safodien

Right-sizing the 2050 calculus on food and population

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A man walks away with a bag of rice at a food distribution centre in Tarenguel, Gorgol region, in Mauritania in May 2012. A full third of the country’s population, amounting to around a million people, are at risk of severe malnutrition if rain doesn’t fall by July. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Susana Vera

Ever since October 2011 when the world’s seventh billion person was born, there has been a new flurry of articles and prognoses about the need to increase ‘global’ food production to feed a ‘global’ population. While this may be all very well for earth systems scientists and researchers who are accustomed to dealing with planetary scale, those in charge of planning for agriculture at national and sub-national levels find it difficult enough relating to their own numbers (in India, the population of the smallest states are between 1 and 2 million, while that of the largest, Uttar Pradesh, is close to 200 million (!) which if it were a country would be placed between the fourth and fifth most populous countries – Indonesia and Brazil).

Through this year, numerous inter-governmental agencies and large organisations – including the FAO, WFP and IFAD – have discussed the need to be able to feed a population of nine billion, which we are expected to be in 2050 or thereabouts. And so says, recently, the ‘Sustainable Agricultural Productivity Growth And Bridging The Gap For Small-Family Farms’, which is the ‘Interagency Report to the Mexican G20 Presidency’ (12 June 2012).

Explaining that “the growing global demand for food, feed and biofuel is well established”, this inter-agency report has said that income growth will increase the quantity and change the composition of agricultural commodity demand. I find this approach a troublesome one because on the one hand there is growing recognition (even if corrective action is small and mostly symbolic) that consumption is to sustainable the way energy efficiency is to total energy use. Why are large agency and inter-agency reports continuing to skirt a matter which should be dealt with head-on – that consumption of food by the populations of ‘developing’ countries, on the lines of that practiced by the populations of OECD countries – cannot be encouraged by the food MNCs and the global food retail consortia?

A man gestures at a compound belonging to the World Food Programme as it is being looted in Abyei, in this United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) handout photo taken in May 2011. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Stuart Price / UNMIS

It is because of this consistent refusal to see – and name – the elephant in the room that this report, to the Mexican G20 Presidency, has said: “Significant increases in production of all major crops, livestock and fisheries will thus be required”.

What are the estimates provided? “Estimates indicate that by 2050, agricultural production would need to grow globally by 70% over the same period, and more specifically by almost 100% in developing countries, to feed the growing population alone… ” I am puzzled by the easy acceptance of this simple equation by the following agencies and institutions, all of whom have contributed to this report: Bioversity, CGIAR Consortium, FAO, IFAD, IFPRI, IICA, OECD, UNCTAD, Coordination team of UN High Level Task Force on the Food Security Crisis, WFP, World Bank, and WTO.

There is a mathematics here that is eluding me. The estimate is that from now until 2050, world population will grow around 30% – from the current 7 billion to an estimated 9.1 billion. However, if population grows at 30%, why must the available food (excluding biofuels demand) grow at 70% over the same period? It is extremely difficult for most people (earth system scientists excluded) to make sense of such large numbers. In order to break up large numbers into more familiar terms, I have (from UN’s World Population Prospects 2010) extracted the following data. These are the populations of France, DR Congo, Thailand, Turkey and Iran, these are the world’s 21st to 17th most populous countries (in that order).

People buy food at a vegetable market in Tripoli in August 2011. Photo: AlertNet / Reuters / Youssef Boudlal

In 2012 their populations are: France 63.5 million, DR Congo 69.6 m, Thailand 69.9 m, Turkey 74.5 m, and Iran 75.6 m. Let’s not try to strain to look ahead as far as 2050 (by which time some of us will have returned to our ecosystems as dust or as ashes) but look to 2027, or 15 years ahead. Then, the populations will look like this: France 67.7 million, DR Congo 99.6 m, Thailand 73.1 m, Turkey 85.1 m and Iran 83.7 m.

Thus we see that, as the ‘Interagency Report to the Mexican G20 Presidency’ has explained, it is indeed some ‘developing’ countries which will need to provide for considerably more food being grown and made available – DR Congo will have, in this short span of years, 30 million more people! Turkey will have more than 10 million more! The growth – again for the 2012 to 2027 period alone – is France 7%, DR Congo 43%, Thailand 5%, Turkey 14% and Iran 11%.

Does it then still make sense to speak of 2050 horizons and 2.1 billion more people when we are at best talking to national planners, sectoral administrators and thematically-oriented agencies accustomed more to district boundaries than continental spreads? I say it doesn’t – and the less time and money and conferencing we expend on these beyond-humanscale numbers the more sense we will make to those in need of guidance. The question then resolves itself as being more prickly, and more in need of hard answers – if the 30 million additional people in DR Congo are to choose a diet that has 50% less meat and 50% more indigenous vegetables and tubers and roots in it, will DR Congo still – over this period alone – need to plan for growing 43% more food (grain) to keep pace with population growth? Will Turkey need to do the same (time to encourage more çorbasi and less schwarma perhaps!)?

Food crisis in the Sahel

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UN-OCHA map of vulnerability to food insecurity in the Sahel.

ReliefWeb has a series of backgrounders, assessment reports and maps to explain the malnutrition and food crisis in the Sahel. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that the Sahel is characterised by long standing chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, poverty and extreme vulnerability to drought. “The localised deficit recorded for the agropastoral season 2011-12 and increasing cereals prices in Mali and Niger could bring millions of people at risk of food insecurity,” said the UN-OCHA briefing.

Throughout the Sahel, acute malnutrition in children reaches its annual peak during the hunger season. Children under two years of age have the highest risk of becoming sick or dying during this period. Malnutrition is caused by inadequate food quality and quantity, inadequate care, as well as unhealthy household environment and lack of health services.

The prevalence of global acute malnutrition met or exceeded the critical threshold of 10% in all of the surveys conducted in the hunger season of 2011 (from May to August). If food security significantly deteriorates in 2012, the nutrition conditions for children could surpass emergency levels throughout the Sahel region.

Affected countries are: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia (the), Mali, Mauritania, Niger (the), Nigeria and Senegal.

Food insecurity and malnutrition chronically affect a significant part of the Sahel population. However, several events came in 2011 which exacerbate this vulnerability:

1. In 2011 many parts of the region received late and poorly distributed rains, resulting in average harvests and serious severe shortfall in some areas. Consequently, the Government of Niger as an example has estimated that the 2011 agro pastoral season will record a deficit of 519,600 tons of cereals and of over ten million tons of fodder for livestock.
2. In Mauritania, authorities expect a decrease of more than 75% of the agriculture production and a strong fodder deficit.
3. In areas where harvests are weak, households will run out of food stocks faster than usual and will be forced to rely on markets for supplies, contributing to maintaining the already high prices at the same level.

UN-OCHA map of expected cases of severe acute malnutrition in the Sahel.

Furthermore, the purchasing power of the most vulnerable populations is likely to deteriorate. In addition the lean season is estimated to begin earlier than usual, probably as early as January 2012 in Chad, two months in advance. As the situation gets worse by spring 2012, there will be an increase of infant acute malnutrition, already beyond emergency thresholds in four wilayas in southwestern Mauritania.

Several countries in the Sahel have already announced measures taken to curb the negative effects of the food insecurity and malnutrition on vulnerable populations; who have not had enough time to recover from the 2009-10 crisis, despite the good harvest registered last year. Three countries (Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali) have also requested for assistance from the humanitarian community. In late November, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), administered by OCHA, allocated US$ 6 million to three organisations in Niger – the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization – for emergency operations to fight food insecurity and malnutrition.

According to a ‘Humanitarian Dashboard – Sahel’ dated 12 January 2012 released by UN-OCHA, early indicators point to a likely food crisis in localised areas of the Sahel in 2012, with people at particularly high risk in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and localized areas of Senegal. These are:

1. Acute food insecurity already noted in southeastern Mauritania.
2. Deficits in 2011, in agro-pastoral production led to higher market prices, resulting in an earlier than usual need for food aid.
3. Resilience to food insecurity is low in most vulnerable groups.
4. High poverty level in Sahel (51%) impacting on food accessibility due to high prices.

FAO 2011 October Food Index down, food prices still up, what’s going on?

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FAO has released its Food Price Index for October 2011, saying the index has dropped dropped to an 11-month low, declining 4 percent, or nine points, to 216 points from September. Indeed the index has dropped, declined and has certainly not risen. But does this mean food prices for the poor in many countries, for labour, for informal workers, for cultivators too – has the cost of food dropped for any of them?

The answer is a flat and unequivocal ‘No’. FAO has said so too: “Nonetheless prices still remain generally higher than last year and very volatile.” At the same time, the Rome-based food agency has said that the “drop was triggered by sharp declines in international prices of cereals, oils, sugar and dairy products”.

The FAO has said that an “improved supply outlook for a number of commodities and uncertainty about global economic prospects is putting downward pressure on international prices, although to some extent this has been offset by strong underlying demand in emerging countries where economic growth remains robust”.

Once again, the FAO is speaking in two or more voices. It should stop doing so. A very small drop in its food price index does not – repeat, does not – indicate that prices for food staples in the world’s towns and cities has dropped and people can afford to buy and cook a square meal a day for themselves and their children. Not so at all.

I am going to contrast what FAO has said about its October food price index with very recent reportage about food and food price conditions in various parts of the world.

FAO: “In the case of cereals, where a record harvest is expected in 2011, the general picture points to prices staying relatively firm, although at reduced levels, well into 2012. International cereal prices have declined in recent months, with the FAO Cereal Price Index registering an eleven month-low of 232 points in October. But nonetheless cereal prices, on average, remain 5 percent higher than last year’s already high level.”

Business Week reported that rising food prices in Djibouti have left 88 percent of the nation’s rural population dependent on food aid, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network said. A ban on charcoal and firewood production, which provides about half of the income of poor people in the country’s southeast region, may further increase hunger, the Washington- based agency, known as Fewsnet, said in an e-mailed statement today. Average monthly food costs for a poor urban family are about 33,907 Djibouti francs ($191), about 12,550 francs more than the average household income, Fewsnet said. Urban residents in the Horn of Africa nation don’t receive food aid, it said.

FAO: “According to [FAO’s November 2011] Food Outlook prices generally remain ‘extremely volatile’, moving in tandem with unstable financial and equity markets. ‘Fluctuations in exchange rates and uncertainties in energy markets are also contributing to sharp price swings in agricultural markets,’ FAO Grains Analyst Abdolreza Abbassian noted.”

A Reuters AlertNet report quoted Brendan Cox, Save the Children’s policy and advocacy director, having said that rising food prices are making it impossible for some families to put a decent meal on the table, and that the G20 meeting [currently under way in Cannes, France] must use this summit to agree an action plan to address the food crisis. Malnutrition contributes to nearly a third of child deaths. One in three children in the developing world are stunted, leaving them weak and less likely to do well at school or find a job. Prices of staples like rice and wheat have increased by a quarter globally and maize by three quarters, Save the Children says. Some countries have been particularly hard hit. In Bangladesh the price of wheat increased by 45 percent in the second half of 2010. In new research, Save the Children analysed the relationship between rising food prices and child deaths. It concluded that a rise in cereal prices – up 40 percent between 2009 and 2011 – could put 400,000 children’s lives at risk.

FAO: “Most agricultural commodity prices could thus remain below their recent highs in the months ahead, according to FAO’s biannual Food Outlook report also published today.  The publication reports on and analyzes developments in global food and feed markets. In the case of cereals, where a record harvest is expected in 2011, the general picture points to prices staying relatively firm, although at reduced levels, well into 2012.”

IRIN News reported that food production is expected to be lower than usual in parts of western Niger, Chad’s Sahelian zone, southern Mauritania, western Mali, eastern Burkina Faso, northern Senegal and Nigeria, according to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and a separate assessment by USAID’s food security monitor Fews Net. “We are worried because these irregular rainfalls have occurred in very vulnerable areas where people’s resilience is already very weakened,” said livelihoods specialist at WFP Jean-Martin Bauer. Many Sahelian households live in a state of chronic food insecurity, he said. “They are the ones with no access to land, lost livestock, without able-bodied men who can find work in cities – they are particularly affected by a decrease in production.” A government-NGO April 2011 study in 14 agro-pastoral departments of Niger noted that pastoralists with small herds lost on average 90 percent of their livestock in the 2009-2010 drought, while those with large herds lost one quarter. Those who had lost the bulk of their assets have already reduced the quality and quantity of food they are consuming.

FAO: “Food Outlook forecast 2011 cereal production at a record 2 325 million tonnes,  3.7 percent above the previous year. The overall increase comprises a 6.0 percent rise in wheat production, and increases of 2.6 percent for coarse grains and 3.4 percent for rice. Globally, annual cereal food consumption is expected to keep pace with population growth, remaining steady at about 153 kg per person.”

The Business Line reported that in India, food inflation inched up to 11.43 per cent in mid-October, sharply higher than the previous week’s annual rise of 10.6 per cent, mainly on account of the statistical base effect of the previous year. Inflation in the case of non-food items and the fuels group, however, eased during the latest reported week. According to data released by the Government on Thursday, an increase in the year-on-year price levels of vegetables and pulses contributed to the surge in the annual WPI-based food inflation for the week ended October 15, apart from the base effect. Sequentially food inflation was up 0.25 per cent.

FAO: “The continuing decline in the monthly value of the FAO Cereal Price Index reflects this year’s prospect for a strong production recovery and slow economic growth in many developed countries weighing on overall demand, particularly from the feed and biofuels sectors.”

Al Ahram reported that Egyptian household budgets had mixed news in September with prices for some basic foods tumbling month-on-month and others showing small climbs, according to state statistics agency CAPMAS. Figures released this week show the price of local unpacked rice fell 15.6 per cent to LE4.96 per kilo between August and September 2011. It was the commodity’s first decline in nearly a year, although the per kilo price remains 68 per cent higher than the LE2.95 that rice cost in October 2010. Chicken also fell 5.8 per cent to LE16.26 per kilo between August and September. Other staples, however, continued to rise; the price of potatoes climbed 14 per cent to LE4.89 per kilo, while a kilo of tomatoes gained a monthly 14.8 per cent to cost LE4.65.

World food insecurity report 2011 – expect more of the same

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The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have released ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011’ (SOFI).

This year’s report focuses on high and volatile food prices, identified as major contributing factors in food insecurity at global level and a source of grave concern to the international community. “Demand from consumers in rapidly growing economies will increase, the population continues to grow, and further growth in biofuels will place additional demands on the food system,” the report said.

Moreover, food price volatility may increase over the next decade due to stronger linkages between agricultural and energy markets and more frequent extreme weather events.

Price volatility makes both smallholder farmers and poor consumers increasingly vulnerable to poverty while short-term price changes can have long-term impacts on development, the report found. Changes in income due to price swings that lead to decreased food consumption can reduce children’s intake of key nutrients during the first 1000 days of life from conception, leading to a permanent reduction of their future earning capacity and an increased likelihood of future poverty, with negative impacts on entire economies.

Key Messages

Small import-dependent countries, especially in Africa, were deeply affected by the food and economic crises. Some large countries were able to insulate themselves from the crisis through restrictive trade policies and functioning safety nets, but trade restrictions increased prices and volatility on international markets.

High and volatile food prices are likely to continue. Demand from consumers in rapidly growing economies will increase, population will continue to grow, and further growth in biofuels will place additional demands on the food system. On the supply side, there are challenges due to increasingly scarce natural resources in some regions, as well as declining rates of yield growth for some commodities. Food price volatility may increase due to stronger linkages between agricultural and energy markets, as well as an increased frequency of weather shocks.

Price volatility makes both smallholder farmers and poor consumers increasingly vulnerable to poverty. Because food represents a large share of farmer income and the budget of poor consumers, large price changes have large effects on real incomes. Thus, even short episodes of high prices for consumers or low prices for farmers can cause productive assets – land and livestock, for example – to be sold at low prices, leading to potential poverty traps. In addition, smallholder farmers are less likely to invest in measures to raise productivity when price changes are unpredictable.

Large short-term price changes can have long-term impacts on development. Changes in income due to price swings can reduce children’s consumption of key nutrients during the first 1,000 days of life from conception, leading to a permanent reduction of their future earning capacity, increasing the likelihood of future poverty and thus slowing the economic development process.

High food prices worsen food insecurity in the short term. The benefits go primarily to farmers with access to sufficient land and other resources, while the poorest of the poor buy more food than they produce. In addition to harming the urban poor, high food prices also hurt many of the rural poor, who are typically net food buyers. The diversity of impacts within countries also points to a need for improved data and policy analysis.

High food prices present incentives for increased long-term investment in the agriculture sector, which can contribute to improved food security in the longer term. Domestic food prices increased substantially in most countries during the 2006–08 world food crisis at both retail and farmgate levels. Despite higher fertilizer prices, this led to a strong supply response in many countries. It is essential to build upon this short-term supply response with increased investment in agriculture, including initiatives that target smallholder farmers and help them to access markets, such as Purchase for Progress (P4P).

Safety nets are crucial for alleviating food insecurity in the short term, as well as for providing a foundation for long-term development. In order to be effective at reducing the negative consequences of price volatility, targeted safety-net mechanisms must be designed in advance and in consultation with the most vulnerable people.

A food-security strategy that relies on a combination of increased productivity in agriculture, greater policy predictability and general openness to trade will be more effective than other strategies. Restrictive trade policies can protect domestic prices from world market volatility, but these policies can also result in increased domestic price volatility as a result of domestic supply shocks, especially if government policies are unpredictable and erratic. Government policies that are more predictable and that promote participation by the private sector in trade will generally decrease price volatility.

Investment in agriculture remains critical to sustainable long-term food security. For example, cost-effective irrigation and improved practices and seeds developed through agricultural research can reduce the production risks facing farmers, especially smallholders, and reduce price volatility. Private investment will form the bulk of the needed investment, but public investment has a catalytic role to play in supplying public goods that the private sector will not provide. These investments should consider the rights of existing users of land and related natural resources.

The United Nations sushi-sundae food aid dodge

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The United Nations has shown no spine at all in endorsing the rather childish and distracting new tactic adopted by its own agency, the World Food Programme.

Pointless, ill-advised, juvenile, misleading and an insult to the intelligence of those who want to help solve the hunger problem.

The WFP has launched a website called WeFeedBack which is based on appealing to internet users to “share” their favourite meals by making equivalent donations of what these meals cost to WFP, so that children can be fed by the food aid agency.

The UN News Service, which reflects the outlook of those in the UN who dream up and carry out programmes, makes a great deal out of the “social media platform” aspect of the gimmicky effort.

“In the developed world, life puts tasty food on our plates all the time. French sausage, avocado or chocolate cake – we all have our favorites,” explains the WeFeedBack website.

“If we take just one of these things and give it back, or feed it back, we can help change the lives of hungry school children around the world. WeFeedback brings together individuals like you to do just that. It’s fun, it’s social and it makes a lasting difference.”

This is the sort of thinking that only the fossilised and increasingly insolvent global food aid industry can now resort to. Late last year, in 2010, the World Food Programme had complained about donors not giving it enough money to buy wheat and rice for distribution in regions it regularly supplies.

Instead of agreement at the UN General Assembly that this is state of affairs that cannot be tolerated, the WFP has obviously been left to fend for itself and find innovative ways to raise the money to buy foodgrain. This approach is no more useful than the money spent on the so-called high-profile “ambassadors” (pop singers, footballers, etc) UN agencies seem all to want, which are no more than tawdry public relations manipulation to advertise to the world that its agencies exist.

By turning individual food consumption into a social media sport, the World Food Programme has trivialised its own work.

The UN lost no time in getting the Security Council to come up with an invalid, unrepresentative, illegal and morally reprehensible resolution on setting up a “no fly zone” in Libyan air space, but the UN cannot convene even its committee assigned for the job to meet in between the 65th and 66th sessions of the General Assembly to tackle the question of chronic hunger and the need for continued food aid.

The 65th session of the General Assembly took place last September. There is however a Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee which ought to have paid more attention to this problem. The UN itself says: “Year after year, the General Assembly allocates to its Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee, commonly referred to as the “Third Committee”, agenda items relating to a range of social, humanitarian affairs and human rights issues that affect people all over the world.” It seems to have missed this issue – the feeding of those blighted by globalisation.

The WeFeedBack website and its juvenile appeal to those in the world who have both plentiful food to eat and an internet connection is ludicrous. “So far, one of the most popular ‘Feedback’ items is birthday cake, but participants have also fed back glasses of wine, cappuccinos and Mexican burritos,” says the UN News Service report, as if this is no more than a weekend festival.

In its misjudged attempt to appeal to the socially connected online population, which by default is the youth, primarily of the Northern countries, the UN and the WFP have said not a word about the reason for the conditions they are hoping these servings of sushi, sundaes and pizza will address. The UN agencies must practice honesty and openness with its member states as the only way towards genuine social justice, and waste neither scarce money nor the goodwill of well-meaning folk willing to help a greater cause.

Rebuilding, replanting in Pakistan

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Women in a camp for flood victims in the Balochistan province of southwestern Pakistan cook bread using the fortified wheat flour rations they have been provided by WFP. Picture: World Food Programme/Copyright: Amjad Jamal

Women in a camp for flood victims in the Balochistan province of southwestern Pakistan cook bread using the fortified wheat flour rations they have been provided by WFP. Picture: World Food Programme/Copyright: Amjad Jamal

A news bulletin from the World Food Programme (WFP) describes in first person the steady rebuilding of lives taking place in Pakistan. More than two months after the devastating August floods, Amjad Jamal, a WFP spokesman in Pakistan, describes how millions of people are at work reclaiming their lives with the help of a massive food assistance effort.

If we were to drive across Pakistan today, from the Swat Valley in the north to Sindh or Balochistan in the south, what would we see? In the Swat Valley where the floodwaters have all dried up or receded, you would see people rebuilding their homes and replanting the many fruit orchards for which it’s famous. In Punjab, the “bread basket” of Pakistan, you’d see whole villages under construction, with a frenzy of activity in the fields as people rush to get their wheat crop planted in time. In Sindh and the sparsely populated Balochistan, there’s still a lot of standing water, with people unable to return to their homes and living in flood camps.

What signs are there that conditions for the flood victims are beginning to improve? Recovery efforts are well underway in the northern parts of the country where people are working hard to get back on their feet. We’re expecting a poor harvest this season, but have high hopes for the one afterwards next summer as the flood waters have left behind a lot of fertile soil.

A family in a flood camp in the Balochistan province of southwestern Pakistan. Picture: World Food Programme/Copyright: Amjad Jamal

A family in a flood camp in the Balochistan province of southwestern Pakistan. Picture: World Food Programme/Copyright: Amjad Jamal

What is the biggest remaining challenge to helping people impacted by the floods get back on their feet? Our single biggest challenge is still the sheer number of people affected. Getting help to six million people per month in a country as vast as Pakistan isn’t just costly, it’s complicated. Whereas in Swat Valley it means helping people in isolated mountain valleys store up food for the winter, in the plains of Punjab it means helping them rebuild their irrigation canals and in the southern region of Sindh, reclaiming entire farms from the floodwaters.

In what part of the country is that challenge greatest? The situation in Sindh is particularly worrisome as much of the province is still under water and the farmers there have by and large missed the September planting season. In Balochistan too, the huge distances and widely scattered population are making it difficult to get to everyone. The logistical challenges there are compounded by the near constant threat of insecurity along the border with Afghanistan.

Of all the things you’ve seen or heard over the past few weeks, what has made the biggest impression on you? I was recently in Balochistan where it’s extremely difficult to work because you need a security detail to do practically anything, and met a man of about my age at camp for flood victims who was there with his children. When I asked about his wife, he told me that she had died of a heart attack at the sight of their house crumbling under the floodwaters. He’d promised his children that as soon as the waters receded, they’d go back and rebuild it just like it was before the floods.

Written by makanaka

October 22, 2010 at 23:35

What use is the Committee on World Food Security?

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The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) opened its 36th session yesterday (11 October 2010). It’s described as “a five-day high-level intergovernmental meeting” which “takes place against a background of recent increases in international food prices which pose additional  challenges to food security”.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) said the Committee aims to be “the most inclusive international and intergovernmental platform for all relevant stakeholders to work together to ensure food security and nutrition for all. In its role as the cornerstone of the global governance of agriculture and food security, the CFS will be more effective in facing challenges to food security”.

I expected that now at least, when the price of food staples is rising the way it did in 2007, the FAO and its constellation of agencies and committees and task forces would quit moralising and get down to naming names and naming reasons for the rise in prices. After all, the FAO food price index is relied on by national governments, traders and commodity markets – all for different reasons of course. It’s absurd to imagine that FAO analysts cannot see the reason why those indices move.

But if you read FAO statements and press releases, it sounds as though the problems they are struggling to describe in real terms have nothing whatsoever to do with things like trade, speculative trading, hoarding, price gounging, dumping, trade rules, tariffs, embargoes and other instruments designed to beggar national neighbours and reinforce trading blocs.

The FAO still refuses to say that market forces – call it what you will, free market forces or speculative trade or consumerist economics – is very largely responsible for food shortages and food price spikes all over the world. If this 36th session of the Committee on World Food Security cannot, will not or dare not speak the truth, it may as well pack up and go home and save some money by disbanding.

As for the statements, sorry but we’ve heard it all before in varying shades of myopic optimism:

1) FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said “Global problems demand global as well as local solutions. The renewed CFS constitutes the required platform for debating global complex problems and reaching consensus on solutions.”

2) “This week marks the launch of a strategically coordinated global effort to draw on the combined strengths of all stakeholders engaged in the fight against global hunger,” said World Food Programme  (WFP) Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

3) International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) vice-resident Yukiko Omura said: “Investing in small farmers — improving their access to land, to appropriate technology, to financial services and markets, and responding to their other requirements — is the most effective way to generate a broad-based movement out of poverty and hunger.”

Messers Diouf, Sheeran and Omura, set aside your prepared statements and summon up the courage to tell the countries which support the FAO the truth about global food prices. Tell them about the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and free trade agreements and the conditions attached to development aid. Help your agencies do their work by being honest about the problem.