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And now for something completely different: Big powers missing in action on food price crisis but new leaders emerge

Wayne Roberts is a Canadian food policy analyst, speaker, and author of seven books, including Get A Life! (1995), and Real Food For A Change (1999). Roberts was chairperson for the Toronto-based Coalition for a Green Economy and served on the board of Food Secure Canada and the U.S.-based Community Food Security Coalition. He is currently serving on the board of Green Enterprise Toronto.

If freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, then revolution could be just another word for nothing left to eat.

Small farmers need the support of the big powers if global food security is to be achieved. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)Small farmers need the support of the big powers if global food security is to be achieved. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack) Nothing new in that, nor in the dreary estimates that about one billion people face an everyday reality of absolute hunger (lack of calories essential to basic functioning), while another two billion people endure chronic deprivation (lack of nutrients essential to health).

This reality of how the world’s other half lives commands special attention now for two game-changing reasons.

First, the numbers of both suffering groups are expected to rise as global food prices continue their record-breaking climb – up 15 percent over 2011, forcing an additional 44 million people onto the world hunger roll, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Second, political observers and strategists know that rising food prices propelled Arab Spring revolts, shaking up global geopolitics.

A bad case of elite jitters explains the recent spike in food and agriculture proclamations from high officialdom, including the World Bank.

Hunger and poverty have long rivaled climate change as subjects requiring solemn statements of concern from corporate and governmental powers-that-be. But now that hunger is linked to regime change from below, food ranks with oil, currency and debt as a topic requiring management by elite bodies that manage geopolitics. Food policy has arrived.

This June 22, the G20, the club of economic powerhouses that was established in 1999, held its first meeting of agriculture ministers – a guest list based on an obsolete presumption that ag ministers have anything to do with hunger, health or well-being. The ministers were called on to do something about food prices that were out of control.

The meeting revealed the deeper crisis of our time, the crisis underlying the emerging convergence of peak oil/peak food/peak water and peak climate – to name only the best known and most frightful problems that are going critical these days. The crisis underlying these emerging crises is the inability of governing groups to use their power to identify and win support for any way forward. This meets the first historic precondition of revolution – inability of ruling elites to rule.

The G20 ag ministers had a policy paper before them identifying two of the relatively new factors destabilizing food prices and making it harder for people on low and fixed incomes to eat.

One factor is a major product shift from food to fuel by many high-producing farms, a trend driven by the fact that most G20 governments mandate and subsidize this shift toward feeding cars instead of people. In Canada, for example, 40 percent of corn is converted to car fuel. Such a mobilization of government policies and incentives and farm resources has never been done in the name of fighting hunger, poverty or environmental destruction – exposing an ethical black hole.

There’s a ripple effect to governments offering premium prices and subsidies for crops that feed machines, not people. A new generation of “land-grabbing” has begun, whereby foreign investors buy up huge swaths of land in Africa and Asia – the continents where absolute hunger is most common –to convert to tropical energy crops such as sugar and palm.

The second factor relates to what’s diplomatically called “financialization of food commodity futures markets” – speculation in plain English – which is sometimes likened to the bubble economy that exploded in the housing sector in 2008, throwing the world economy into recession.

One example of such financialization might be Cargill, the world’s leading grain trader, which announced a profit increase of 23 percent in its quarterly earnings statement this year, according to food industry newsletter Food Navigator. Like the other three global grain conglomerates that monopolize the world grain trade, Cargill treats information about grain stocks and quality as a proprietary matter, which makes government or public oversight of crucial survival and planning data inaccessible – lest any think that the entire food industry, not just the small players, is run amok with red tape.

The one government to challenge this secrecy is Argentina, presently suing all four grain and soya giants for keeping their books in a way that evaded a billion dollars a year in taxes.

The G20 ag ministers could not agree on any action on either fuel farming or commodity speculation.

Reports that the G-20 yet again went Missing in Action perhaps creates a teachable moment on the issue of Big Food, seldom depicted as a behemoth of the global economy. People are used to seeing signs of debate and conflict in industries linked to mining, logging, energy, military, banking or currency. The power of Big Food is more rarified: the ability to prevent, not just win, debates.

Over and above fuel crops and commodity speculation, the preeminent factor in the food price crisis that G-20 ag ministers did not address was the incredible power of a relatively small number of conglomerates, mostly housed in the Global North, to control the rules of engagement in the world’s food system.

To glimpse this “elephant in the room,” check out reports from a range of Non-Governmental Organizations, increasingly shouldering the “heavy-lifting” issues of analysis, policy and action once reserved for governments. Governments aren’t responding to the critical challenges or opportunities, but leading public organizations are increasingly rising to the occasion.

Notable reports and campaign initiatives have been launched by highly-respected bodies such as Worldwatch, Oxfam, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the UN’s special reporter on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter.

Here’s another trend emerging from the global food price crisis. Not only are NGOs dealing with The Big Issues. Despite their many differences, there’s widespread agreement on a central point that is only now receiving the attention it deserves.

The point they make is: only small-scale, environmentally sustainable food production can provide the globe’s expected nine billion people with adequate and nutritious food.

This makes for a stark contrast with standard food campaigns and programs since the 1940s – most famously with the Green Revolution, a set of technologies that produced huge volumes of food using great volumes of synthetic seeds, heavy equipment, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides.

The next steps, the new reports say, will produce all the food humans need while protecting the environment from degradation, by working with smallholder farmers who can handle a wide range of crops and services.

The FAO report, Save and Grow, says this is a “new paradigm,” which it calls, with its tin ear for plain speaking, “sustainable crop production intensification.” Translation: Grow more food using less land, water, fertilizer and pesticides, which are scarce, and more labor, care and intelligence, which are abundant.

Small and different are beautiful, the new wisdom on food goes.

Small farms are ideal for crops that supply nutrients – unlike staple grains or carbs that mainly deliver energy, and which can be highly mechanized – [and that] are best grown with hands-on methods that flourish on small, diverse owner-operated farms, says Shenggen Fan of IFPRI.

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2011 profiles victories of just such strategies throughout Africa, strategies that allow Africa to be viewed as a land of opportunity, a rare perspective in the Global North. The report presents a new face for Worldwatch, long renowned for doom and gloom but, as this book shows, now deserves to be recognized for bloom and zoom.

The circle of consensus among these many groups widens to include fair and humane, alongside small and diverse.

On the eve of the G-20 meet, De Schutter wrote a high-profile op-ed in the Guardian calling on G-20 leaders to build policy and infrastructure supporting regional food systems respecting the human right to food. Oxfam launched its campaign for fairer trade at the same time.

Programs favoring small, diverse and fair food go against the grain of current production principles, based more on factory methods of mass production than craft-style methods suited to fields and forests.

At this moment 12 super-crops – corn, wheat, rice, soy, potato, banana, plantain, sorghum, cassava, millet, sunflower and canola – supply 80 percent of human calories. That’s made to order for monopolies, which can streamline the movement and handling of a limited variety, less than the variations in car models that go down a typical assembly line. The system is great for quantity, though not so good for quality or resilience.

Variety is the spice of life that meets three needs – the wide range of vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients that humans need to be healthy; the wide range of foods and processes that Nature needs to replenish its resilience; and the wide range of food processing, wholesaling, distribution, preparation and service companies that can link billions of distinct producers with billions of different consumers.

A food system that address these three sets of needs in a variety of ways breaks down the choke-holding power of monopolies and financiers, because no one group can control all the ways people find to make connections, especially in an Internet age that encourages differentiation and choice. A system embracing that differentiation won’t have “all its eggs in one basket” and will therefore be more resilient, the quality most lacking in today’s overly streamlined and monopolized system.

This post was adapted from NOW Magazine, June 30-July 6, 2011.

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