World leaders gathered in Rome last week for the World Food Summit organised by the United Nations’s Food and Agricultural Organisation in response to the deepening crisis caused by rising food prices.
Drastic increases in the price of staple foods have sparked rioting and protests around the world as millions find they can no longer afford to feed themselves and their families.
The summit’s closing declaration stated that it aimed to cut “the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015”.
Not only is this not ambitious enough, it gives no sense of how it could be achieved.
The declaration is frustratingly vague. It says the UN will “implement policies aimed at eradicating poverty and inequality” and will “endeavour to prevent and be prepared for natural disasters and man-made emergencies”. But exactly how these things will be achieved is unclear.
One concrete measure was the promise of an extra $2.7 billion in emergency food aid. This aid may help some of the most desperate people in the short term. But the amount is a drop in the ocean.
To put it in perspective, the US spent $529 billion on military operations in 2006. While the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon admitted at the summit that up to $20 billion a year would be needed to deal with the food crisis.
Food aid in itself will not solve the problem. It can even make things worse as aid is often used as a tool to impose neoliberal policies on countries, making problems worse rather than dealing with them.
The summit largely focused on how to increase food production in poorer countries, particularly in Africa.
The idea that the poor need “our help” to “rebuild” agriculture became a common theme in the media throughout the summit. Declining food production was the implicit explanation for the current crisis.
It is true that in some poorer countries food production has declined. But what the assorted politicians and experts attending the summit failed to discuss were the reasons for this – the context of global capitalism and the neoliberal policies deliberately pushed onto poorer countries by richer ones.
As free trade and the market spreads – or is imposed – around the world, poorer farmers become increasingly tied into the global food industry. They are at an immediate disadvantage as they are pitted against heavily subsidised farmers in richer countries.
Poor farmers are also unable to afford the machinery, pesticides, fertilisers and irrigation systems that industrial scale farming corporations can access.
Neoliberal policies work to push smaller farmers out of production. As they are unable to compete in a global market they move to cities in search of alternative work.
Production shifts to cash crops for export as the only way to make profits from agriculture, rather than food for domestic consumption. This undermines food security and makes the poor more and more dependent on the global market.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) “structural adjustment programmes” (SAPs) are often behind this process. SAPs involve countries being given loans in return for adopting neoliberal policies such as reducing restrictions on trade and cutting government spending – including on subsidies for agriculture.
The World Bank itself admits that countries in Africa that are following IMF structural adjustment programmes have slower growth in agricultural production than countries that are not.
None of this means that there is not enough food produced to avoid famine and hunger. Worldwide production has consistently expanded and record global crops are expected this year in almost every area of agriculture.
The UN declaration itself points out today there is an average of 15 percent more food per person than that global population had 20 years ago – despite an increase in population of 1.5 billion.
The problems of declining production in some countries may pose problems for the future and need to be addressed. But the summit doesn’t do this.
The structural reasons for declining production – trade liberalisation, lack of subsidies, poverty and inequality – remain.
What’s more, changes in agriculture and land use are just one long term factor behind the food price rises. There are many other factors that the summit ignored.
Biofuels divert land and crops to the production of fuel and are widely recognised to be a key factor behind the current sharp price rises. A row over biofuels at the summit did make headlines, only for delegates to back away from tackling the problem.
Financial speculation is another factor behind the recent hikes in the cost of food. Following the collapse of the housing bubble after the subprime mortgage crisis in the US, speculators have shifted to commodities including food as a safer investment option. The rising price of oil and the weak dollar are other factors.
But the summit failed to agree any measures to tackle these issues. The “solutions” chosen are those that do not threaten the profits and power of global agribusinesses.
So GM foods, with the potential to make huge profits for companies like Monsanto, are increasingly pushed as a solution to the food crisis. But GM foods have not solved hunger – they have increased inequality.
The food crisis has arisen out of the way that food is organised and produced under capitalism. Any genuine solution has to involve challenging the division of the world into rich and poor – not pushing measures that entrench it.