Defining Food: Sustenance, Fuel, or Profit?

Center of Concern | Thu, Jun 5, 2008

By Theresa Polk

This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is hosting a World Food Security Conference in Rome. Originally conceived as an opportunity for the international community to explore the potential implications of climate change on world food security in the coming decades, the current global food crisis has highlighted not just the relevancy, but the desperate urgency of the issue.

Around the world, more than 850 million people lack adequate food to maintain a healthy, dignified life, of which 100 million are at risk of starvation. Rising food prices have led to riots and civil unrest in countries from Mexico to Egypt, from the Philippines to Haiti, as people who were already struggling to survive can no longer feed their families. Even within the US, 35 million people are considered to be ‘food insecure’, while food banks have served an estimated 15-20% more clients this year than last.

The underlying causes are many. Weather-related crop failures in key grain producing regions, growing demand for grain-fed meat by the middle class in developing countries such as India and China, and diversion of food crops into biofuels have affected global food supplies, while rising energy prices and unrestrained commodity speculation have further driven up the costs of basic grains.

Yet, dig a little deeper and you will find that the crisis is more structural in origin than quantitative, is more about access to than absence of food. Economic policy prescriptions imposed on poor countries by institutions such as the World Bank and World Trade Organization have slowly eroded food security, emphasizing export-oriented agriculture over local food economies, liberalization of markets over the livelihoods of small-scale producers. Domestically, similar policies have meant stagnating wages, growing inequality, disappearing social safety nets and weakened unions.

The result: Food is produced, but not going to people. And, the food that does make it to the market is priced increasingly out of range for most low-income households and the working poor.

An article in today’s New York Times talks about growing private sector investment in agriculture and food. Not only are investors playing with commodity markets, but they are buying up farmland around the world, from Argentina to the US to Sub-Saharan Africa. Supporters claim that such investments could help boost agricultural output in a time of food shortage by consolidating small tracks of land into large, more efficient farms.

But large investment firms are not interested in safeguarding food security for the world’s poor or livelihoods for family farmers. They are focused on profits, and the effect, as farmers are dislocated from their land and livelihoods, and speculators gain increased control over the food supply, can only be more deeply entrenched poverty and exacerbation of the current food crisis.

A draft declaration circulating in Rome focuses on the importance of small-scale producers in promoting food security and acknowledges their desperate need for support, after years of neglect. It is a crucial step in the right direction, but how this will translate into effective policy remains to be seen, particularly in the face of entrenched agribusiness interests. Yet, without significant structural change, all the food aid in the world will not be enough to resolve the current crisis as long as our economic system prioritizes short-term gain over basic human rights, including the right to food, livelihood and, ultimately, life.