Which Will Win Out in the Food Crisis: Greed or Guilt

Fri, 05/09/2008

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

This week we saw some big gestures but small progress in the fight to tackle the soaring costs of food worldwide. But in the wash of statistics, finger-pointing, excuse-making and rescue packages from governments and international agencies, we often miss the real stories from people who have been affected by this current crisis.

Protests from thousands of hungry Somalis on their capital’s streets were met with gunfire and at least five people were killed. Thousands more are lining up for free food handouts in Nigeria where bakeries have gone on strike to protest at rising flour costs. For a country rich in commodities, poor city-dwellers often don’t eat more than a small loaf of bread a day.

In Punjab , a region once known as India ’s breadbasket, thousands of farmers have committed suicide in the last decade because of a crisis blamed on neglect of the agricultural sector, leaving behind widows and families to fend for themselves.

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a group of widowed women who have been part of their local community’s social justice campaign for years are now queuing up with small bowls to receive a meagre rice handout from the military and don’t know how long even this will last.

If the causes of the food crisis are complex and many, one thing is known. It was predictable, preventable and the result of, as one UN official put it, “20 years of mistakes” from international organisations and Northern government policies.

Also during the week, Jay Naidoo (no relation), Head of Southern Africa's Development Bank, spoke out on the crisis at a meeting in Brussels, "These increases in food prices are not the consequence of food shortages, it's the consequence of human greed that is putting at risk the lives of millions of men, women and children."

This is the denouement of decades of inappropriate agricultural policies, protectionism, unjust trade practices and ultimately, yes, greed. This is the preventable outcome of a global economic system that values profit above human life and dignity and about which campaigners have been raising red flags for years. What can civil society do now, in the weeks and months to come, in order to influence the response and redirect the path in the interests of poor people?

The first and immediate need is to understand the structural causes of the crisis. A combination of under-investment in sustainable agriculture and unfair trade rules has exacerbated the more recent developments such as rising oil prices and the sudden increase in Northern government demand for biofuels. The latter has caused farmers to divert land and crops previously used for food production to this more lucrative option, causing a shortage in basic crops which has led to increases in prices worldwide.

Add to this the increasing demand for food due to growing populations (the world's population is expected to top nine billion by the middle of the century). As one commentator put it, “That is an incredible number of mouths to feed and will put pressure on a range of resources, including land, water and oil, as well as food supply.” Combine this with the distortion of food pricing as a result of years of agricultural subsidies in the North, over-regulation and hoarding plus poor harvests - in part as a result of climate change - and you have a picture of disgraceful neglect.

But one of the most disturbing causes is the impact of speculation on raw materials. Speculators, who used to look at energy and metals to get a quick return on their investment, are turning their attention to food, thereby forcing prices upwards. These investors have clear motives - to capitalise on the new markets that China and India provide for food consumption; to tap into the biofuels markets which the US, among others in the developed world, have been promoting heavily for several years, and to make the most of the weak dollar.

State-owned pension funds should not be speculating on food commodities but they are… they are following the scent of money. Where there is a fall there will be a rise and they want to be on the winning side when that happens.

Demand for agrofuels or biofuels has also directly affected the price of food adversely and some predictions indicate that targets may result in an extra 600 million people being hungry by 2025. While some economists and world leaders are already calling for a halt to biofuels production, representatives from the EU and US are staunchly defending their policies, claiming it is being used as a scapegoat for the crisis. Biofuels are not only a major cause of increasing prices but are also linked to labour rights abuses and land grabs in developing countries; and research by some like Friends of the Earth suggests they may in fact make climate change worse.

Food is a human right and governments have a responsibility to see that their people are fed. A sustainable and secure food system requires a different and much more equitable relationship among people. The more the poor and farmers, particularly women, themselves are included in all aspects of the effort to gain food security, and the more they are energised in the process, the greater the chance of attaining lasting food security.

So how do we move forward as civil society? Obviously, there is an urgent and immediate need for food to be delivered to those facing hunger across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Food distribution from international organisations and governments needs to be implemented, and monitored; the process should be transparent and should prioritise pregnant women, small children and sick people.

National Governments have a particular role to play in ensuring the pricing mechanisms being employed for basic foodstuffs like rice and maize are also transparent and those involved in price-setting are held accountable.

Longer term, the primary responsibility of poor countries in eradicating poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals requires that rich countries also keep their side of the grand global partnership deal. If the rich do not deliver on their overdue commitments of both meeting aid volume commitments (0.7%) and aid quality promises made in the Paris Declaration, then other short term efforts will be undermined.

Developed countries have no choice but to reinvigorate the stalled Doha Trade Round, which was intended to be a development round, in a manner that helps poor countries. There must be a call for an end to the long-term distortionary impacts of subsidizing agriculture in rich countries, which then leads to dumping agricultural produce on poor countries. This has eroded the agricultural base in so many poor countries.

And armed with these demands civil society MUST be heard. There are several key opportunities coming up at which I hope and expect civil society can and will be heard on this issue. The Global Call to Action against Poverty will be working with partners to encourage a worldwide response.

Coming up first is the special meeting of the FAO from 3-5 June in Rome at which Ban Ki Moon will be joined by several world leaders including French premier Nicolas Sarkozy and Brazilian biofuels-defender, President Lula. In conjunction with this meeting, people all over the world are expected to mobilise, sign petitions, take e-actions, talk to the press and call for immediate and long-term solutions to the food crisis. They will make sure that people living with the reality of the food crisis are given a voice in Rome (visit www.whiteband.org for details).

Just over a month later comes the second big opportunity, the G8 Summit in Japan. Not only will the food crisis still be top of the agenda along with climate change at the meeting in Hokkaido, but civil society plans to be heard when they present a global petition (www.whiteband.org/Action/take-action/actionnow).

And then the logical place to take this growing movement forward will be in the run-up to the September High Level Meeting called by the UN Secretary General at the UN on 25 September. An MDG Call to Action that has already got the support of over 30 countries across the world will help in keeping our eyes firmly on the prize. The 43 million people who Stood Up for the MDGs (www.standagainstpoverty.org) on 17 Oct 2007 and the hundreds of millions of people living in extreme poverty will expect nothing less.

There is no time like the present! take action, be part of the civil society response and demand that the structural causes of poverty and hunger are addressed now.

Kumi Naidoo