Food for Thought on Food

by levien on za 22 mei 2010 // Posted in misc // under

This blog entry was originally written in June 2008.

Although it has hardly received any media attention here amongst the hype of the European Soccer Championships, just over a week ago the FAO organised a big conference on World Food Security. As I had some trouble concentrating on my research report last Friday, I went clicking through the FAO press releases. And unfortunately, what I read didn't make me very hopeful that the food crisis is going to be solved any time soon.

In the past I never gave it much thought that food may actually become a problem at some point. A quick look in my local Dirk van den Broek supermarket would seem to indicate that there is plenty of cheap food around these days. And forgetting for a moment the dry regions of Africa, also the markets in most developing countries still look pretty well stocked. But what most people don't realise is that food security is often not a matter of availability, but more of accessibility. In other words, there is indeed plenty of food around to feed everyone, but the majority of people just can't afford it. So what I'd like to know is: how the hell did that happen?

Some of the issues surrounding food security were first brought to my attention at the end of 2006. I was part of a group of students that was asked to do some research into the relationship between biofuel production in developing countries and food security. At the time, the consensus among most policy makers and scientists seemed to be that biofuels would be a good sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. The high price of biofuels was regarded as their main drawback, but it was not thought that biofuels would pose a great threat world food security.

Two months later however, public opinion started to change, as the prices for maize in Mexico suddenly went through the roof. This was largely due to the US starting to use their surplus corn production for the production of bio-ethanol, instead of dumping it on the Mexican market. This example already illustrates some of the causes and paradoxes of the current food crisis, as well as its relationship with the global energy crisis and rising environmental concerns. But unfortunately it gets yet more complicated.

An interesting way to look at the global agricultural production system is in terms of nutrient and energy flows. The Netherlands is apparently one of the few countries in the world with an organic nutrient surplus. The reason is that we import a lot of plant material from countries like Brazil, which is mostly used as fodder for cows, pigs and chickens. The rest-product of this intensive livestock production is of course a large pile (or rather pool) of manure, which is considered a toxic pollutant here. This is interesting, because for instance in the tropics agricultural production is often limited by a shortage of soil nutrients, and manure is considered a valuable fertiliser.
Moreover, to compensate for the lack of nutrients, artificial fertilisers are applied. These are mostly produced by big companies in Europe, the US and South-East Asia, through the rather energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process. This industrial process uses fossil fuels (currently over 5% of global natural gas consumption) to fix nitrogen from the air into ammonia.
In other words, there is a global net flow of organic nutrients from "developing" countries to "developed" countries (and from agricultural regions to urbanised regions), which is compensated in part by a flow of fossil-fuel based industrial fertilisers from developed countries to developing countries. Additionally, much energy is used in long-distance transport of agricultural products and fertilisers, as well as for irrigation to compensate for water losses. This means that basically the global agricultural production system is driven by cheap energy from fossil fuels. So of course you can expect problems in the form of rising prices when energy stops being cheap.

Second, it is interesting to look at how agricultural production is distributed around the world. Almost all of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Central America and the Western edge of South-America are partially dependent on food imports. However, many of these countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia also depend on agricultural export products for a large part of their income. So both import and export of agricultural products form an important percentage of total trade for Africa, Latin America and much of Asia. The agricultural exports mostly constitute "luxury" products such as coffee beans, tea, fruit and spices, as well as raw materials such as cotton, sugar, vegetable oils, cocoa and fodder for livestock, which are processed into luxury products elsewhere.
This export role is of course in part due to the tropical climate in such countries, but the availability of cheap land and labour, the effective absence of environmental regulations, the colonial past and IMF and World Bank policy are probably at least as important. On the other hand, staple food crops such as cereals are mostly exported from countries such as the US, Canada, France, Australia and Argentina and imported into Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.
You can probably see where this is going. Bluntly stated there seems to be a global dependence relationship whereby developed countries depend on developing countries as a cheap source for agricultural luxury products and raw industrial inputs, and developing countries depend on developed countries for income and basic food products. It seems therefore not surprising that, even before the food crisis, most poor and undernourished people were already found in the areas that depend to a large extent on non-food agricultural exports for income and on imports for food. And they are the first to suffer further when global food prices go up.

Finally, while increased oil prices and droughts have been partially responsible for the increase in food prices, rising demand for agricultural products also plays an important role. As recent as 2006 there was actually such an over-production of dairy products and staple foods in Europe and North America, that most countries had quotas in place to limit production. Terms such as the Grain Mountain, the Butter Mountain and the Milk Pool were commonly used to refer to this situation, and it resulted in large-scale "dumping" of cheap cereal and dairy products on the world market, as well as widespread market protectionism. This is also one of the reasons why many developing countries disregarded their own food production systems, focussed more on growing non-food export products ("cash-crops") and became more and more dependent on cheap food imports.
However, the successful development in areas like South-East Asia, and with it the increased demand for meat and dairy products has recently turned this production surplus into a deficit. And because livestock has to live off something, this is also driving up prices for cereals, soy beans and other products increasingly used to feed not just people but also the rapidly increasing number of chickens, pigs and cattle. Add to this the growing demand for starch (from cereals and soy), sugar and vegetable oils for the production of biofuels, and suddenly the world's main agricultural products have gone from being a cheap surplus to becoming a valued resource. And the world's poor are, quite literally, paying the price.

In my mind, the current food crisis is not a singular event, caused by one or two easily identifiable factors. Rather, it is the result of a structurally imbalanced and unsustainable global system of agricultural production. This, in turn is the result of the global balance of power, of history, of overconsumption and overuse of resources, of short-term economic thinking, and of no-one wanting to take responsibility for the long-term consequences. Why else do we still have widespread poverty and hunger, after more than 50 years of institutional "development programmes"?
Yet, it is easy and tempting in any kind of crisis to start pointing fingers. Of course many developing countries are blaming the West, for their economic policies, their consumption patterns and their obsession with biofuels. And last month, Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice were quoted as effectively blaming the Indians and the Chinese for doing what we've been rather forcibly been telling them to do for the last 50 years or so, namely "developing".
And of course I am also part of the problem, as consumer, as citizen of an ex-colonial power, and as as just another individual trying to get along in the world, perpetuating the unequal society into which I was born. So if it's all so incredibly complex and everyone's to blame, what can we do about it?

I definitely think that many of the outcomes of the FAO World Food Summit last week are a step in the right direction. For instance the investments suggested to restore local food production systems in developing countries, and providing more support for small-scale farming and self-reliance. Such measures will certainly be more constructive in the long term than just sending more food aid. Sure, food aid has its importance in alleviating immediate suffering, but in the long term it destroys local markets and is therefore hardly a structural solution.

Setting aside my concerns over hunger for a second, it will certainly be interesting to see whether increasing energy and water prices, climate change and the increased risk of large-scale infectious diseases such as Avian Influenza will play a role in reforming current global production and trade systems the coming years. As I see it, centralised large-scale intensive agricultural production systems are unsustainable, structurally unstable, and not able to cope with the large economic, social and/or environmental changes that are periodically bound to happen in the real world. I think that smaller-scale sustainable and decentralised production, more food sovereignty, and more diversity are the way to go. Further intensification and yet another "green revolution" are only going to make things worse in the end.
Also, large-scale production of biofuels is a Bad Idea. Surely there must be more efficient and sustainable ways of using the energy from sunlight, that do not involve wasting this planet's preciously small surface of arable land.

Finally, if we are all part of the problem, I believe that we can also all be part of a solution. If you want do something about world hunger, you can start by taking a few minutes to consider your own consumption patterns. I'm not saying that we should all become vegetarians and start growing our own vegetables. In fact, I'm not a vegetarian myself. But that doesn't mean that I should eat half a dead chicken every day. Or indeed, that I should eat meat every day.
If everyone would reduce their meat consumption by a mere 10%, this could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by roughly half a billion tonnes per year. That's about a sixth of the world's total road-traffic emissions! It could also reduce global water use by about 30 thousand billion litres per year, and free around 47 million hectares of land for other uses, such as more sustainable forms of agriculture. And as an added bonus, you may even live a few years longer. If you ask me, I'd say that's a win-win situation.

And if you want to do a bit more, consider buying a few eco- and/or fair-trade products every once in a while, instead of just going for the cheapest brands (or the ones with the most advertising). Many products we buy are actually under-priced, including daily things like coffee, cotton clothing, chocolate, fruit and meat. Sure, some of these may still seem expensive, but most of what you pay for them goes to suppliers higher up in the chain, not to the producers. The producers often earn so little that they cannot even buy proper food for their families. Moreover production is often unsustainable, because measures to limit degradation of land and water resources would increase the price of a product, making it less attractive to consumers like ourselves.
At some point we will have to start paying a more realistic price for the constituents of daily Western life. We might as well start now, instead of just continuing to rely on cheap but unsustainable consumption of natural resources and on cheap labour in developing countries.

In the end, solving the world's food and environmental problems is not just about economic and agricultural policy. It's also about people taking responsibility, if even a little. Think about it.

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