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How has the world allowed hunger to grow, rather than reducing hunger by half, the world's solemn international commitment in 1996?

Chaitanya Motupalli

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in its 1999 report  “The state of food insecurity in the world” (FAO 1999) assured us  that we had the tools to achieve the World Food Summit target of halving the number of undernourished globally by 2015 from where it was in 1995. Since 1996, the aim has been to reduce the number of undernourished people from approximately over 820 million in 1995 to  420 million in 2015. To achieve that goal, the report maintained that the goal had to be translated into concrete objectives at the local, national and regional levels where people and their leaders can take action.

Thirteen years since the World Food Summit, and ten years since the report, where are we on reaching the goal of halving the number of undernourished globally? Now, the number of undernourished people worldwide is 1.02 billion. Instead of halving the number of undernourished we have multiplied it.  As the FAO 2009 world food security report maintains, this represents more hungry people than at anytime since 1970 and a worsening of the unsatisfactory trends that were present even before the current economic crisis.

It appears that our plans and their implementation have not been effective, and it also may be true that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we are trying to address world hunger.

The FAO 2009 report mentions that the resulting increase in food insecurity is not a result of poor crop harvests but because high domestic food prices, lower incomes and increasing unemployment, which have reduced access to food for the people living in poverty.

The capitalistic growth model that we have been following during the last fifty years has led to a grave economic crisis that has affected large parts of the world. This crisis showed how vulnerable the developing countries are to the changes in international market as they have been so much financially and commercially integrated. Given this situation, what could be done? The FAO 2009 report offers three solutions to tackle this situation: 1) governments should boost and encourage their investments in agriculture, 2) expand safety nets and social-assistance programs, and 3) improve governance through implementing right-to-food framework for food security.

Citing the World Bank’s World Development Report 2008, which shows that agriculture can make substantial contributions to economic development and poverty alleviation in the least developed countries, the FAO 2009 report suggests that governments should boost investments in agriculture.

Would increased investments in agriculture address the global hunger crisis? Yes, in part. Boosting investments in agriculture ensures economic development and poverty alleviation in the least developed countries, and it also would increase the availability of food.  However, if availability of food alone were to solve world hunger, it would have already been solved, because there is enough food to feed all people in the world (according to a paper prepared for the International Conference on Financing for Development).1

The problem is with regard to food access and utilization, which, in addition to food availability, are two other important factors for food security. Given the present economic system and policies, boosting investments in agriculture by no means ensures food access and food utilization.

Until 1995 agriculture was excluded from the sphere of negotiations of international trade. But with the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) agriculture entered the liberalizing world trade. The aim of the AoA was to make international trade in agriculture more open, fair and smooth. This was expected to be achieved through the three “pillars” of AoA: market access, domestic support and export competition (Gulati 2002, 40). As we look back and see how international trade in agriculture has taken place, we cannot but agree to the fact that the WTO framework had failed in achieving its  goals. In the area of international trade of agricultural products alone, something like 70-80 percent of share is cornered by less than ten top Transnational Corporations (TNCs) (Datta 2002, 86). Further, while the poor countries have lost sovereignty in matters of agriculture, the wealthy countries’ policy-making process has been affected by the TNCs because of the huge sum of tax revenue and the number of jobs to be lost if a TNC decides to disinvest (Atkins and Bowler 2001, 183).

In addition, the trade liberalization under AoA affects access to food and thereby food security in two ways. First, at the national level, when a country is not self-sufficient in food, it must have enough foreign exchange to buy food from the world markets. But, especially during peak prices in world market, it may not have enough foreign exchange to do so. Second, at the household level, when the high prices of world market bring high prices in domestic economies, the the poorest households simply do not have enough money to buy sufficient food (Gulati 2002, 52-53). In fact, the poorest households are the worst affected by the fluctuating prices.

Given this volatile situation that countries go through due to the success of (or failure of) trade liberalization of agriculture, agriculture must be freed from international trade.

There are other reasons why agriculture should be freed from international trade. For instance, Professor Samar K. Datta, in his reflections on Indian agriculture in the WTO context, points out that the liberalization in agriculture did not work because India did not undertake necessary internal reforms, which would have been helpful in taking advantage of the positive aspects of WTO (Datta 2002, 86). The same could be said of many other countries. Since many countries still have not yet gone through the internal reforms that Datta is talking about, it is wise to disassociate agriculture from the sphere of international trade until such a time when all countries would be benefitted by agreements such as AoA. More importantly, since food is a subject of the state, interference of TNCs should not be tolerated. Moreover, this is because, the goal of TNCs – making profits at any cost – constantly interferes with the goal of the state – to provide for the needs of its members.

While capitalist markets would want to follow the principle of free exchange of food distribution to address world hunger, any responsible political community would want to operate on the principle of ‘need’. Only if need is the operative principle for food distribution, then the second solution that the FAO 2009 report offers, expanding safety nets and social assistance-programs, would come to the fore. Certainly, safety nets and social programs are particularly important to food-insecure people during any crisis. Implementing effective safety nets, however, requires (as rightly observed by the FAO 2009 report) tailoring the nets to the local context by taking into consideration the local capacity, and also the countries’ institutional, political, historical, technical and financial capacity to introduce or expand safety nets. In addition, intricacies such as unequal distribution of food within the family also need consideration while tailoring the safety nets.

Finally, improvement in governance at all levels, national, local and international,  through upholding the right to food is a valid approach to solving world hunger. Although right to food doesn’t determine priority and degree of hunger or the need of the people who are most vulnerable, it does remain as a criterion that gives a critical standard towards which we  need to work. In any political community where the members have something to say about their government, some such principles have to be worked out which sustain and enhance a common culture and the ethos of that community. At the basic level, right to food is such principle that testifies of the ethos of human community at large.

With the policy changes suggested above and tools that we have today, it could be hoped that we can still aim at achieving the World Food Summit target of halving the number of undernourished globally by 2015.

Mr. Chaitanya Motupalli is a Ph.D. student at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA in the field of Ethics and Social Theory. He is interested in the issues of ecojustice and social justice, and their interconnections.

Footnote

1 “The food is there: world agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase” (Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Program 2002, 9).

Bibliography

Atkins, Peter, and Ian Bowler. 2001. Food in Society: Economy, Culture, Geography. London: Arnold Publishers.

Dutta, Samar K. 2002. “Discussion”: Indian Agriculture in the WTO Context. In WTO Agreement and Indian Agriculture, ed. Anwarul Hoda, 81-98. Delhi: Social Science Press.

Food and Agriculture Organization. 1999. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 1999. http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/x3114e/x3114e00.htm

Food and Agriculture Organization. 2009. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009.  http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0876e/i0876e00.htm

Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Program. 2002. "Reducing Poverty and Hunger: The Critical Role of Financing for Food, Agriculture and Rural Development". http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/003/Y6265E/Y6265E00.HTM

Gulati, Ashok. 2002. “Trade Liberalization and Food Security.” In WTO Agreement and Indian Agriculture, ed. Anwarul Hoda, 35-64. Delhi: Social Science Press.


 

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