Ten million hunger-related deaths every year, half of them children, testify to our failure to achieve global food security. Over 850 million people remain trapped in the spiral of hardship that hunger imposes, a figure which continues to rise even amidst the riches of the 21st century. The recent escalation of world food prices has transformed food insecurity from a difficult development problem into an emergency. Having recently mobilised vast financial resources to rescue the discredited international banking sector, rich country governments are now under pressure to achieve similar coordination in dealing with a crisis which hits hardest at the poor.
Millennium Development Goals and Hunger
Food security is the condition in which everyone has access to sufficient and affordable food; it can relate to a single household or to the global population. The first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) falls short of food security aspirations in seeking only to reduce by half the proportion of the world’s population experiencing hunger. Furthermore, governments signing the Millennium Declaration were overriding a commitment made just 4 years earlier at the World Food Summit of 1996 which applied the same target to the number of people. Rising population figures mean that 170 million fewer will be targeted by the MDG programme than would otherwise have been the case.
The first of two benchmarks for measuring progress is the “minimum dietary energy requirement” for each person as stipulated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This naturally varies by age and sex so that a weighted average is calculated for each country based on its population profile; typically this average is just below 2,000 kilocalories per day. Despite the promises of the MDGs, over 50 million people have been added to the 800 million falling below this benchmark in 2000. Malnutrition impairs the ability to learn or to work and reduces resistance to disease, these problems increasing in severity with the shortfall from the minimum dietary requirement. Hunger is therefore a cause as well as a consequence of poverty. Children’s health and cognitive development is especially sensitive, to the extent that the majority of child mortality is attributed to malnutrition. The second MDG indicator is therefore the proportion of children under age 5 who are underweight in relation to their age. This figure has reduced only from 32% to 27% in the period 1990-2006. Unicef says that 51 countries are unlikely to reach this MDG target by 2015. Moreover, these progress assessments predate the explosion in world food prices that has rocked global development agencies in 2008. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has warned that “high food prices threaten to undo the gains achieved so far in fighting hunger and malnutrition”.
Climate Change and Food Security
As recently as 2006, progress reports on malnutrition published by UN agencies made no reference to climate change. Yet it was no surprise when, in preparation for the Bali Climate Change Conference in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted an almost cataclysmic picture for Africa in which “for even small temperature increases of 1-2 degrees….. yields for rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020”. In addition, the predicted increase in drought and floods will aggravate what is already a serious short term cause of food insecurity. In South and East Asia climate change threatens to upset the stable monsoon pattern around which rice production in particular has evolved. The UN supports the 50 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in preparation of National Adaptation Programmes of Actions (NAPAs) and the Bali Conference launched an Adaptation Fund which may in time support these programmes. Recognising that funding is likely to be scarce, NAPAs limit their scope to community-based low-cost options for dealing with climate variability. Adaptation of agriculture will include the use of alternative seed varieties, improved soil management, maintenance of water management systems and reforestation. These NAPA reports convey universal concern for the sensitivity of food security to a less predictable climate and for the very limited capacity of poor communities to respond. Seed scientists acknowledge the extreme difficulty of climate adaptation even where research funding is available.
Biofuels and Food Security
Under pressure to take action on climate change in the run up to the Bali Conference, politicians resorted to knee-jerk policymaking, seduced by the claims of the biofuel industry. Petrol additives such as ethanol and biodiesel are manufactured from plant crops as a means of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Apparently oblivious to the mathematics that one tank of ethanol for a Sports Utility Vehicle consumes corn that could feed a man for a year, the EU announced that these biofuels will contribute 10% of transport fuels by 2020 whilst the US plans to quadruple output in that period. Quite apart from the flawed assumption that these products create a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the use of land and food crops to cater for rich motorists at a time of global food insecurity has provoked outrage amongst groups campaigning for poverty reduction. Oxfam predicts that biofuel targets could create 600 million additional hungry people by 2025. In 2008, one third of the US maize crop will be diverted to biofuel production, showering corn farmers with subsidies of far greater value than US food aid. As these realities sink in, there are initial signs of back-pedalling on biofuel targets and subsidies amongst EU and US officials.
The Right to Food Promotion of biofuels has been cited as a breach of the right to sufficient food enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaty commitments. The UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, has urged the UN to respond to the food crisis as a human rights emergency and called for a freeze on new investment in converting food into fuel. In contrast to the half-speed MDG vision, a human rights approach to food security places immediate and inclusive obligations on governments to create capacity for their people to feed themselves. Ideally the right to food should take its place in national laws or constitutions, with guarantees of non-discriminatory and non-political strategies. Many of the world’s food security problems stem from the absence of an overriding goal to honour the right to food. A set of world trade rules might look very different if governed by such an objective rather than the focus on absolute volumes of trade.
Causes of Food Insecurity
The aftermath of the Second World War saw strategies which did indeed award priority to food security. The European Common Agricultural Policy and the US Farm Bill combined subsidies and tariffs to support the pattern of small family farms which were dominant at that time. These policies proved successful, generating colossal internal food surpluses. Not surprisingly, the poorer countries of the modern world are keen to copy this successful protectionist model, not least because of their similar profile of agriculture - there are 500 million farms of less than 2 hectares in developing countries. Such ambitions remain unfulfilled largely because in 1995 the richer countries were successful in their efforts to include agriculture in the system of open market rules governed by the World Trade Organisation, whilst simultaneously refusing to unravel their own protectionist model. Attempts by developing countries to build their agriculture sectors have been undermined, both in domestic markets undercut by cheap imports from rich countries and in exports which encounter trade barriers erected in Europe and US. Countries in Africa and South Asia are also to blame for their prolonged lack of investment in rural economies which account for about 75% of world hunger. For example, African governments are yet to meet their 2003 Maputo Declaration commitment which called for 10% of national budgets to be dedicated to agriculture by 2008. Rural economies have therefore failed to grow. Poor farmers, often holding uncertain land tenure and lacking capital, plant for a mix of subsistence and surplus for market, a model chronically vulnerable to fluctuating prices or unfavourable weather. The majority of developing countries have food deficits, a serious problem for those lacking foreign currency to purchase expensive imports.
Whilst overall population growth creates pressure on food security, it is a relatively minor factor. Since 1961 world production of food has trebled whilst the population has doubled. Feeding more than half of the world’s grain production to animals is the more significant indicator. As 7kg of grain is required to produce 1kg of beef, there is an argument that meat production on this scale impedes the goal of global food security. Another human weakness - for violent conflict - invariably leads to extreme food insecurity. The 2007 Global Hunger Index reports that “almost all” of its worst ranking countries have been involved in violent conflict in the last decade. Collapsed economies such as North Korea and Zimbabwe also generate food crises. (Oneworlduk)