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Appraising World Food Day 2013

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FAO-world_food_day_2013It must be difficult to be a senior official in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN these days, especially if the official is above 40 years old and has spent the last two decades working “in the field” (which usually means away from some capital city somewhere, in discomfort that is amusingly relative to most of us proletarian toilers). For, I do think that there is still a majority of folk in the FAO who care about their work and the aims of the organisation, muddled though these get when 190-odd member states each bring their own version of reality (and ambition) into the proceedings.

More difficult it is nowadays in an FAO that is being shepherded more closely into the embrace of the OECD, the World Bank-International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation embrace, with its murmuring old boys’ clubs all shadowy in their suits, adept at facilitating the trade of political positions for corporate board seats. And more difficult it is nowadays in an FAO that is scrutinised every day by NGOs and civil society groups that have successfully ensured that negotiations called ‘multi-lateral’ must be open before public gaze and can no longer hide behind empty principles when hunger – FAO’s single problem – stalks the planet.

Perhaps that is one reason why the FAO has called this year’s World Food Day ‘Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition’ – and notice the addition of ‘nutirion’, there’s no getting away from the N-word these days, so loaded has it become. The theme, to borrow from the typically bland FAO pronouncement, “gives focus to World Food Day observances and helps increase understanding of problems and solutions in the drive to end hunger”. Well said, for the umpteenth time.

Via_Campesina_food_sovereigntyBut there have been departures from the corporate script lately which are surprising. On 2013 October 04 the Director General of FAO, José Graziano da Silva, formalised a tie with La Via Campesina, recognising it as the most important voice of small food producers worldwide. This is seen by Campesina as “yet another welcome step in a series of ongoing reforms of the FAO, which have created a unique and unprecedented space to collaborate with civil society and democratize the arena of global food policy”. Easier wished for than done, as Campesina well knows, because the financiers and bankers, agri-commodity trading oligopolies and mafioso, the crooked politicians in the European Union and their willing partners in the ‘developing’ world are not going to quietly let this happen.

These reforms are aimed at giving the FAO not just more political legitimacy by becoming more inclusive, but also at reviving it as the cornerstone for international cooperation in the area of food security, starting to take such policy decisions out of the hands of the World Bank (WB) or the World Trade Organization (WTO.) While these developments are welcome, the global peasants’ movement remains realistic about the amount of energy that should be put into the UN, maintaining its greatest strength on the ground mobilizing farmers and building alternatives.

The IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 world map, blatantly patronising in its North-South exclusion. The white areas are not even in the map legend. They correspond to the OECD/'industrialised' world, and the IFPRI/CGIAR view is that the chronic mis-nutrition of western societies has no place in a report on global hunger. Nor does this map consider the growing effects of working class poverty in the OECD countries.

The IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 world map, blatantly patronising in its North-South exclusion. The white areas are not even in the map legend. They correspond to the OECD/’industrialised’ world, and the IFPRI/CGIAR view is that the chronic mis-nutrition of western societies has no place in a report on global hunger. Nor does this map consider the growing effects of working class poverty in the OECD countries.

In 2012, at the 39th session of FAO’s Committee on Food Security (CFS), the G20 approached the CFS and asked the Committee to agree with what it said on price volatility in agricultural commodities, which since 2007 has dragged tens of millions of households in South and North into hunger and debt. When that happened, and when a compromised CFS agreed, the civil society delegation to the session walked out. The NGOs, social movements, representatives of peasants’ federations and associations who were present had, on the contrary, demanded strong regulation of the commodity futures markets that fuel price volatility and the food insecurity of the poorest. But the G20 (and that means the investors in a global agribusiness industry) won that round.

With the help of the CGIAR, what for the sake of convenience we call the G20 will want to win every time. The CGIAR is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research which runs 15 centres around the world that are described as “independent, non-profit research organizations, innovating on behalf of poor people in developing countries” and as being “home to almost 10,000 scientists, researchers, technicians, and staff working to create a better future for the world’s poor”. The descriptions about ‘independent’, ‘non-profit’ and ‘for the poor’ are lies, as they have been for every single one of the 40 years of this plague called the CGIAR. But the CGIAR system is large, powerful, almost invisible and little understood except by those in agricultural research systems (such as those in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research) in ‘developing’ countries.

And that is why the release, a few days ago, of the ‘Global Hunger Index’ 2013 needs to be interpreted for what it is, because it is the product of one of the CGIAR centres, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The annual index offers a ranking of hunger, or food insecurity/security for many countries but not all (see the image of the map and its caption). The IFPRI functions worldwide as a motivated think-tank that commissions carefully scripted research to fulfil pre-determined outputs that serve the interests of those who profit from the industrial agricultural system and retail food system.

That such an obvious fifth column finds residence and a willing ear in India ought to be a matter of shame to us. Here is a small example why. The IFPRI, in the 2013 Global Hunger Index, has distributed its ‘recommendations’ which are from the typical neo-liberal charter of subjugation of the working classes and the denial of choice, all camouflagued by whichever development jargon is found to be currently in vogue.

The cover of the Global Hunger Index 2013 report. Read the recommendations to grasp why this has been released, ignore the data.

The cover of the Global Hunger Index 2013 report. Read the recommendations to grasp why this has been released, ignore the data.

Hence “broader policy coherence for development is also a key requirement for efforts to strengthen resilience. Policies that undermine resilience must be revised. To foster resilience to undernutrition, policies should be designed with the intention of improving nutrition outcomes and realising the right to adequate food” in fact means – do away with policies that still see a role for the state and the public sector, hide this behind trendy concepts like ‘resilience’ and ‘right to food’, but include nutrition (which I mentioned earlier) because that is the route the MNCs have successfully used.

Hence “encourage and facilitate a multisectoral approach to resilience (as the Scaling Up Nutrition movement encourages a multisectoral approach to nutrition, for example), coordinating plans and programs across line ministries” in fact means – phase out your thinking and replace it with ours, which comes with a United Nations endorsement and which places private business at the centre of policy and its implementation.

Hence “adjust policies and strategies that undermine the resilience of poor and vulnerable groups, such as the low import tariffs or the structural neglect of smallholder agriculture in Haiti” in fact means – remove barriers to food imports, stop subsidies and subventions that the poor, marginalised and vulnerable have a right to in your country (consider the ruckus the World Trade Organisation has been making about India’s new National Food Security Act) and spout righteous claptrap about ‘neglect’.

Hence “ensure that policies and programs draw on a wide range of expertise such as collaborative, multiagency, and multisectoral problem analysis. National governments should support the emergence of multistakeholder platforms and make active use of such forums” in fact means – the expertise will be foreign and provided by the CGIAR and its numerous allies in all garbs, these ‘multi’ platforms will be public showcases to conceal an agenda already set.

[The full IFPRI Global Hunger Index 2013 report is here. The ‘issue brief is here’ for those who want a condensed dose of dangerous neo-liberal vitamins. And the obligatory data set used to support the well-set arguments is here.]

There is no comparison between the IFPRI propaganda and the annual report of the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2013, the sixth edition of which was released in 2014 October. The Watch identifies a number of policies that generate hunger and malnutrition instead of reducing them. The Watch insists on the need for meaningful participation – at every level – of people and communities in the development of those public policies which affect their lives.

You will find here national case studies and analysis that show (1) policies that foster violence and discrimination against women with regard to equal access to natural resources, inheritances, equal wages and political decision-making, (2) policies that systematically limit and exclude large groups, including peasants, agricultural workers, fisherfolks, pastoralists and indigenous peoples from participating in those decisions that affect their very livelihoods and (3) policies on a global level that facilitate land grabbing, concentrated ownership of natural resources and the commodification of public goods that deprive smallholders and other people of their food resources.

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FAO’s World Food Day sermon, well balanced with a few blind spots

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This is worth a close read for it reflects, in my view, the pull and tug of various opinions and convictions inside the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the single entity that we rely on the most to inform us about the state of cultivators, what they’re growing in our world, and who isn’t getting enough of those crops as food.

I have extracted some important paragraphs of this publication [get it here as a pdf], and commented on them. Here goes:

“At the level of individuals, people living on less than US$1.25 a day may need to skip a meal when food prices rise. Farmers are hurt too because they badly need to know the price their crops are going to fetch at harvest time, months away. If high prices are likely they plant more. If low prices are forecast they plant less and cut costs.”

Yes and no. The one-dollar-a-day global poverty line really ought to be done away with. It means nothing at national level and less within countries. Trying to equate real prices and actual consumption (in grams or hundred grams a day) with purchasing power parity-adjusted international dollars is generally a pointless exercise that generates lists and rankings that distract rather than inform. Anyway, the important part of what FAO said here is that when they’re under a certain daily income line, people can’t buy food to eat what they need to. The comment on farmers making decisions based on expected prices is a good one, something that most people miss, assuming that farmers are as interested in food security as academics are – which is quite untrue. For a farming household, sowing a field is a cost, and that cost needs to be more than recouped in order to make the decision to sow a good one.

“Rapid price swings make that calculation much more difficult. Farmers can easily end up producing too much or too little. In stable markets they can make a living. Volatile ones can ruin them while also generally discouraging much-needed investment in agriculture. Recognizing the major threat that food price swings pose to the world’s poorest countries and people, the international community, led by the G20, moved in 2011 to find ways of managing volatility on international food commodity markets. Under the presidency of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, the world’s 20 largest economies agreed that any strategy directed to that purpose should have the protection of vulnerable countries and groups as its main priority.”

Now here’s the FAO getting to grips with today’s problem. Rapid price swings is what we tend to call volatility – this can be volatility in retail food prices, or in input prices for farmers, or in offtake (purchase at the farm gate or local market) prices of harvested crops. I don’t see any stable markets the FAO is referring to here. Under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) the stability is constructed by coordinating a monstrous array of incentives and subventions – causing instability elsewhere in the world and particularly when that ‘elsewhere’ is importing (under duress) European agri products and processed food. But that’s another though related story.

The idea of “much-needed investment in agriculture” is an ill-defined one. The best investment a farmer can make, so goes an old Indian proverb, is that she walks the soil of her field every day with her bare feet – and that means for the farmer to till her land and come face to face with her natural resources and biodiversity. It is not the sort of investment the ‘market’ can understand. But FAO ought to, especially since it also has a Save And Grow programme aimed at addressing the organic, low input, community side of cultivation. This is an example of the contradictions in this FAO document. The “international community” is a tired and non-existent label, describing nothing while pretending to be collegial. Mediocre editorial writers still use it but no realists do. The G20 statement this time around may be a little less wishy-washy than it was last year, but that is scant comfort to the hungry or to the cultivators of small plots.

“Today’s turbulent commodities markets contrast sharply with the situation that characterized the last 25 years of the twentieth century. Between 1975 and 2000 cereal prices remained substantially stable on a month-to-month basis, although trending downwards over the longer term. For despite rapid population growth – world population doubled between 1960 and 2000 – the Green Revolution launched by Dr Norman Borlaug in the 1960s helped food supply to meet and even exceed demand in many countries, including India, thanks to the work of M. S. Swaminathan, then Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.”

Oh dear. This is one step forward and three back for the FAO. It should not – not – go looking at Green Revolution history in an attempt to encourage beleaguered small farmers and consumers battered by food price inflation. Yes, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and CIMMYT (the CGIAR International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) will establish the Borlaug Institute for South Asia in India. This institute will be at the forefront of the so-called Second Green Revolution in eastern India (and thereafter sub-Saharan and East Africa). The kind of infrastructure demanded by the first Green Revolution by way of irrigation canals, dams with extensive command areas, provision of rural electricity to run pumpsets with, heavily subsidised inorganic fertilisers produced by a monolithic industry closely allied to the petro-chemicals industry and fossil fuel suppliers – all these were overlooked in the rush to raise yield per hectare. We do not want to see that being attempted again with public monies. It is this investment – rather this big fat public money pipe – which kept cereal prices “substantially stable on a month-to-month basis” in what used to be called the First World. It is not possible there now, it is not possible here (Asia and Africa) now. And that’s what FAO should have said, clearly and bluntly.

“In fact there was, in the Western Hemisphere at least, an over-abundance of food, caused in no small part by the generous subsidies which OECD countries paid to their farmers. But the picture today is a very different one. The global market is tight, with supply struggling to keep pace with demand and stocks are at or near historical lows. It is a delicate balance that can easily be upset by shocks such as droughts or floods in key producing regions.”

So it does try to say this, in a push-me-pull-you sort of way, but the truth is there is no delicate balance. Markets do not tolerate delicate balances because investors have no time for such niceties.

“In order to decide how, and how far, we can manage volatile food prices we need to be clear about why, in the space of a few years, a world food market offering stability and low prices became a turbulent marketplace battered by sudden price spikes and troughs.”

Hear, hear.

“The seeds of today’s volatility were sown last century when decision-makers failed to grasp that the production boom then enjoyed by many countries might not last forever and that continuing investment was needed in research, technology, equipment and infrastructure. In the 30 years from 1980 to date the share of official development assistance which OECD countries earmarked for agriculture dropped 43 percent. Continued under-funding of agriculture by rich and poor countries alike is probably the main single cause of the problems we face today.”

Why does the FAO continue stubbornly to see “investment” as an output of only, and exclusively, national agricultural research systems that are in the vast majority of countries government departments with little real connection to growers and household consumers, or are adjuncts of industrial agriculture multinationals? The seeds of volatility (FAO’s pun, not mine) were planted when commodity exchanges invented commodity futures in collusion with banks and investment consulting companies – production booms were not, in the ecological economics framework of measuring things, booms of any kind, nor were they seen in many countries other than the subvention-drunk OECD of the 1970s and 1980s. In this para, FAO has blundered clumsily by now apportioining some blame to “continued under-funding” while having already mentioned the “generous subsidies” years in the West.

“Contributing to today’s tight markets is rapid economic growth in emerging economies, which means more people are eating more meat and dairy produce with the need for feedgrains increasing rapidly as a result. Global trade in soymeal, the world’s leading protein feed for animals, has grown 67 percent over the past 10 years.”

Hear, hear. Type 2 diabetes and the burden of non-communicable diseases (see the WHO’s recent campaign) have also increased dramatically as a result of the wanton carpet-bombing of “emerging economies” (another revolting label) by the food-agbiotech-retail MNCs.

“Population growth, with almost 80 million new mouths to feed every year, is another important element. Population pressure is compounded by the erratic and often extreme meteorological phenomena produced by global warming and climate change. A further contributing factor may be the recent entry of institutional investors with very large sums of money into food commodity futures markets. There is evidence to suggest that food prices may have surged partly as a result of speculation. But there is considerable debate over the issue.”

Yes and no. FAO is right about the impact of population growth, about climate change (it has an enormous amount of documentation on the subject), about institutional investors and how they distort prices and about food speculation and its effects on street prices. There is plenty of evidence. There is not “considerable debate”, unless the FAO thinks that the angry bleatings of bankers to the contrary is some sort of debate. If so, it should consult its fellow UN agency, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which this year released a study titled ‘Price Formation in Financialized Commodity Markets: The Role of Information’. The UNCTAD experts who wrote this paper concluded that the commodities market isn’t functioning properly, or at least not the way a market is supposed to function in economic models, where prices are shaped by supply and demand. But the activities of financial participants, according to the study, “drive commodity prices away from levels justified by market fundamentals”. This leads to massively distorted prices, which are not influenced by real factors but by the expectation that economic developments will improve or worsen.

“Lastly, distortive agricultural and protectionist trade policies bear a significant part of the blame. In addition, with agriculture now substantially part of the wider energy market, any shock to the latter – such as unrest in a producing country – can have immediate repercussions on food prices. Responding to food price volatility therefore involves two different kinds of measures. The first group addresses volatility itself, aiming to reduce price swings through specific interventions while the other seeks to mitigate the negative effects of price swings on countries and individuals. One measure frequently invoked under the first heading is the setting up of an internationally held food stock able to intervene on markets to stabilize prices. But FAO’s view is that such a stock would be of dubious value, as well as expensive and difficult to operate. Also, government intervention in food markets discourages the private sector and hinders competition.”

Again the FAO push-me-pull-you is at work here, but the premier food agency has made some important points. The connection between agriculture and energy is one – and that means biofuels, which has a para to itself in the FAO document. Conflict is also brought in as a factor affecting prices – in how many food-producing and exporting countries is there now war or armed conflict? The idea of ‘strategic food reserves’ – which countries in South-east Asia and in the Persian Gulf region are pursuing – has been given short shrift, rightly in my view. But once again the FAO makes a tired attempt to placate the pro-WTO groups by bemoaning protectionist trade policies – which in WTO-speak means no barriers to entry for OECD food products anywhere so that all that accumulated legacy subsidy can pay back a little. Not acceptable, FAO folks. And to round off the contradictory para, the FAO statement again criticises “government intervention” as hindering competition. Governments have to serve their citizens according to constitutions and charters – these are internal matters and this is where sovereignty and self-determination come before market. Better believe it FAO. At least, for now.