Food Crisis, Which Crisis?

This June the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) held an emergency summit in Rome that focused on the current global food crisis. However, rejuvenating and protecting agriculturalists did not seem to be on the agenda.

Global food prices have risen 83 percent over the last 3 years while recent price rises have accelerated this trend. According to the FAO, there has been a 45 percent increase in their world food price index during just the past nine months. The Economist’s food price index puts wheat prices 130 percent above last year’s levels. This has hit the developing world particularly hard. Previous bouts of structural adjustment at the request of financial institutions have already placed such economies in a precarious state and often led to higher food prices.

This general situation, combined with recent price rises, has contributed to a wave of food riots in countries as diverse as Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Senegal, Cameroon, Morocco, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines—revealing the global scale of the problem.

The threat of political instability and the whiff of revolution has galvanized the World Bank, the UN, and the governments of richer nations, hence the attention that this current spike in prices is receiving. However, while there is a fear of instability among the powerful, there is also a sense of opportunity.

Long-hindered measures such as expanded cultivation of genetically modified crops are being pushed as solutions to the crisis. At the same time, the much-maligned practice of biofuel (or agrofuel) cultivation is being defended by its corporate and governmental advocates. The lines have been drawn and a battle was joined in Rome over the future of global agriculture.

And a battle it certainly is. There are basically two sides, offering two versions of "crisis." What version of crisis we accept is crucial to formulating policies to combat its effects. The fate of whole ecosystems and populations hinges on what drives higher commodity prices. Do we blame rising demand and tight supplies or the early effects of climate change? Or do we seek answers in the role that financial speculation, neoliberal restructuring, and biofuel cultivation play alongside those other factors?

The first version, which serves the interests of the international finance institutions, is represented by developed nations such as the U.S. and the UK and their corporations. It focuses on the role that increased demand from China and India and tightened supplies has played in driving prices skywards. Meanwhile, farmers in Africa and elsewhere remain too unproductive, with dilapidated road systems, to get their produce to market. They are, in the lingo, in need of "modernization." Along with that, the leaders of the FAO and the World Bank agree, must come technological innovation. The language of the "new Green Revolution" is being mobilized with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)  in the vanguard.

The second version comes from peasant organizations such as Via Campesina and a clutch of eloquent NGOs, such as Practical Action, Food First, GRAIN, Movement for the Global South, and the World Development Movement. Its diagnosis of the current crisis is far deeper. Rather than being a short term rise in food and oil prices, this version tends to see the crisis as rooted in the longer-term neoliberal project. Food prices in poor countries have been allowed to rocket by a neoliberal system where government-run distribution networks are dismantled, grain stores abandoned, large corporations dictate prices, and indebted nations and farmers convert crops for export to earn prized foreign currency.

The first version counsels not business as usual, but business as usual enhanced—big agriculture, techno-fixes, market liberalization must all expand. The second counsels systemic reform as advocated by small farmers. Inevitably the two continue to collide as the battle for global agriculture intensifies.

The question then becomes, do we attack and reform the system or do we strengthen it? The stakes could scarcely be higher.

Grain, Grain Everywhere, And Not A Loaf To Eat

Despite the atmosphere of crisis and very real spiraling prices, the truth is food supplies are not particularly tight. There is no Malthusian crisis on the near horizon, at least not owing to climate change or the exhaustion of arable lands to cultivate.

There was a record global grain harvest in 2007. As a Food First paper "From Food Rebellions to Food Sovereignty: An urgent call to fix a broken food system" puts it, this is "at least 1.5 times current demand." In fact, over the last 20 years, food production has "risen steadily at over 2.0 percent a year, while the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.14 percent a year." Moreover, in 2006, 854 million people were food insecure. Hence, the dysfunctional food system was starving people well before the current crisis.

What has changed is that the contours of the global food market have dramatically shifted. While 40 years ago, developing nations as a whole had a food export surplus of $7 billion, by 1980 that had shrunk to $1 billion and, according to Food First, "the southern food deficit has ballooned to U.S. $11 billion/year."

This is the "result of systematic destruction of southern food systems through a series of northern economic development projects." These projects are by now familiar—structural adjustment programs that gutted local storage, distribution, and marketing systems, huge subsidies to European and U.S. farmers, "free trade" agreements which locked in liberalized agricultural markets, the "green revolution," which primarily benefited large farmers and corporations while making many small farmers dependent on chemical inputs to farm marginal lands.

Many of these "projects" were piloted by the World Bank and IMF, yet it is the World Bank that is stepping up to the plate to propose crisis measures. On May 29, the Bank announced the launch of a $1.2 billion "fast-track facility for [the] food crisis" including $200 million in grants "targeted at the vulnerable in the world’s poorest countries."

Haiti ($10 million), Liberia ($10 million), and Djibouti ($5 million) are the first nations to receive such assistance, although as Bank chief Robert Zoellick says, this is part of "longer-term solution that must involve many countries and institutions," including the FAO.

Apparently, it must also include benefits for corporations and encouragement of GM crops. In an "Outlook Paper" circulated before the Rome summit, the secretary general of the OECD, Angel Gurria, wrote, "The way to address rising food prices is not through protectionism but to open up agricultural markets and to free up the productive capacity of farmers, who have proven repeatedly that they will respond to market incentives."

FAO Secretary General Jacques Diouf wrote in a recent press release in late May, "High food prices represent an excellent opportunity for increased investments in agriculture by both the public and private sectors to stimulate production and productivity" adding that "Governments, supported by their international partners, must now undertake the necessary public investment and provide a favorable environment for private investments."

The agenda for the GAO summit was clear—more of the same, with the World Bank back at the helm. The systematic destruction continues.

World Banked

Critics of the World Bank have long questioned its motives in dispensing aid to poorer nations and have attacked the conditionalities that it has attached to its loans as a means of opening up undeveloped economies to corporate predation. Yet the IMF and World Bank have stumbled in recent years, partly due to their failed policies, but also due to a credit glut brought on by spiraling oil prices. Smaller nations have not needed the services of these global institutions and their power has begun to wane.

For Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First, this current food crisis represents an opportunity for the World Bank to regain some of its lost influence. As he told me, "For the World Bank, the food crisis comes at a perfect time." With the credit glut and countries turning away from the Bank, "the challenge became how to get countries of the global south to borrow again."

Rising food prices have fortunate effects for the Bank. As Holt-Gimenez continued, "The world food crisis solves both the problem of over-accumulation of finance capital and the problem of overproduction of grain that neither biofuels nor the beef industry is capable of sopping up."

Meanwhile, Holt-Gimenez expects the Bank to "prepare the field with its loans and conditions for the spread of industrial (GMO) seeds and inputs," allowing corporations and the Bank itself to pose as "saviors" through the spread of high-tech methods. Echoing Klein, he calls this "another fine case of ‘disaster capitalism’ at work" as human misery prepares the ground for renewed capital accumulation, against the wishes of those it purports to serve.

The FAO Summit attracted a host of activist organizations to propose an alternative vision of agricultural reform and to resist the model being pushed by the World Bank and the FAO. Eloquent statements were issued from groups such as Via Campesina, Food First, and the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC).

There has been no shortage of high quality writing on the issue, and certainly no shortage of passion. A bottom-up alternative to corporate-led agricultural globalization is readily available. As GRAIN wrote in its statement, "Peasant organisations and their allies have clear, viable ideas about how to organise production and services and how to run markets and even regional and international trade. Ditto for labour unions and the urban poor, who have an important role to play in defining food policy."

Unfortunately, the problem is that the FAO has shut its ears to alternative notions of agricultural development, which turned its Rome summit into a rubber-stamping exercise that puts profits before people and land.

This was shown in heartbreaking detail by the FAOs own preparatory documents for the summit. As with all gatherings of international institutions, the FAO consulted its "stakeholders" although some decidedly more closely than others. When it consulted its "civil society" stakeholders, the result was perhaps the most thorough analysis of how to solve the food crisis yet delivered.

From raising awareness of consumption patterns in the developed world, promoting sustainable farming practices, setting up a framework to tackle climate change without harming rural livelihoods to disseminating information on climate change and methods of cultivation, the civil society stakeholders made some sensible recommendations for the FAO. They recommended that bioenergy (sustainably harvested local sources such as plant products or animal dung) be promoted instead of biofuels. It argued that the FAO should demand that governments adopt measures to prevent the dispossession of rural people for plantations and carbon offset schemes. It proposed that the FAO promote seed sharing, and document and disseminate indigenous knowledge. It advocated the protection of biodiversity by local peoples, while it also called for a Right to Food to guide global agricultural policies, not the right to profit. It was also roundly ignored.

As Patrick Mulvany, head of UK-based NGO Practical Action (and a participant in the civil society consultation) told me, at a plenary meeting with FAO officials, activists from Via Campesina attacked the FAO process. Speakers from the peasant activist group, which had been shut out of February’s consultation meetings, called the summit a "sham exercise" while others questioned why recommendations from the consultation were completely absent from the summit agenda.

Not only that, but participants also asked FAO staff where the findings of the FAO-convened International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development had gone. That report, which recommended support for small scale agriculture and attacked biofuels and intellectual property rights, was similarly absent from the summit agenda.

At the summit itself, civil society representatives were dismayed to discover that they alone were to be forced to enter via the venue’s rear entrance. When inside, they were permitted only a 90-minute forum with an agenda set by the FAO. Meanwhile, according to Mulvany, a private sector roundtable upstairs was addressed by Kofi Annan, the FAO’s head Jaques Diouf, and representatives of agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Syngenta.

Palace Under Siege by Peasants

The Rome summit seemed designed to ensure the "exclusion of civil society voices," in Mulvany’s words, even as the neoliberal consensus is under sustained and potentially mortal assault from all sides.

Campaigning groups have long questioned the legitimacy of the international trading system which privileges subsidized U.S. or European made products. But recent work has also demonstrated the severe shortcomings of the first "green revolution" with increasing pesticide use and soil degradation. Others have demonstrated the superior productivity of small farmers, while numerous studies have forced proponents of GM crops onto the defensive.

Alternative power blocs have challenged international financial institutions and pushed for different solutions to the food crisis, as in Latin America. India and Malaysia, meanwhile, have imposed restrictions on grain exports and begun to reestablish supports for small farmers. Biofuels have been knocked off their pedestal and their proponents are now scrambling to designate them as "sustainably produced."

This is, as Mulvany remarked, an "interesting conjuncture and an exciting time," with a window for resistance to scale the walls of the global citadel. Holt-Gimenez reminded us that it was also a dangerous time, with governments pleading for "support" from the World Bank and a new wave of corporate enrichment likely to masquerade as charity.

The Rome summit may signal a turning point in the fight for a fair, sustainable, bottom-up world of fields, watersheds, forests, grasslands, and valleys. Alternatively, we could, as Holt-Gimenez put it, "ask an arsonist to put out a forest fire." I know who I’d trust to put our global food system right.


Sam Urquhart is a freelance journalist from London. He has written on environmental and social justice issues for Guerrilla News Network and Dissident Voice. He is also an activist with the Campaign Against Climate Change.