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G8 Italian Gala: Will it Feed the Hungry or Fuel Hunger?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A version of this Briefing Paper was first published by the Foreign Policy in Focus.

By Anuradha Mittal

The G8's extravaganza in L’Aquila, Italy this week (July 8-10, 2009) will showcase its efforts to combat world hunger. Reports sugest that the United States will announce a “significant” increase in funding for agricultural development aid and urge multi-year commitments from other G8 countries to reach a $15 billion target, that will be pooled in a global agriculture and food security trust fund administered by the World Bank. This move follows the G8’s admission of failure in tackling hunger at its first-ever farm conference in Treviso, Italy in April 2009.

Proposals to challenge hunger have become essential at international conferences since the 2008 food crisis. The 83 percent increase in food prices between 2005 and 2008 created a massive surge in global hunger. The number of hungry in 2008 increased from 854 million in 2007 to 963 million. (FAO, 2008), compelling heads of states to discuss food security amidst warnings of political instability and social unrest grew. The political intent to combat world hunger has however proven to be short-lived. The decline in crop prices that started in the middle of 2008 made the problem less severe for policymakers, while the bailouts of failing banks and bankruptcies of automakers captured all attention and resources.

The hunger crisis, however, is far from over. So far, 2009 has witnessed a historic high in hunger – an estimated 1.02 billion people, one sixth of humanity – go hungry every day. (FAO, 2009a) Despite an improved global cereal supply situation and a decline in international prices of most cereals from their highs in the first half of 2008, food prices remain high in developing countries. (FAO, 2009b) Thirty-two countries face acute food crisis. The economic crisis has worsened the situation by further shrinking the purchasing power of the urban poor and subsistence farmers in poor countries. (TWN, 2009b)

In this world of increasing poverty and hunger, the G8 will announce a new initiative to fight hunger that seeks a more coordinated approach to food aid and development. The G8’s performance on its past commitments, however, casts a shadow on the sincerity of their intentions.

G8’s Record

At the height of the 2008 food crisis, G8 leaders highlighted food security at their summit in Hokkaido, Japan, which cost over $600 million – compared to the $400 million annual budget of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Nearly half of the summit’s budget was spent on a massive security operation involving some 21,000 police officers, coast guard, and soldiers. With much fanfare, the G8 communiqué on global food security committed $10 billion for food and agricultural aid to increase agricultural production in developing countries. Despite the media glitz around the announcement, this was not new money, but a mere adding up of aid already pledged by the G8 countries. The G8 communiqué also made a commitment to “reverse the overall decline of aid and investment in the agricultural sector...” But the commitment failed to list any specific dollar amounts and with no timeline.

Similarly, at the 2005 summit, the G8 promised to double aid to Africa by 2010, but members have failed to fulfill their pledges.

Despite commitments, pledges, and grandiose communiqués by the rich donor nations to challenge hunger at numerous international summits, world hunger persists. The problem lies in the fallacy of explanations offered regarding world hunger. World hunger has been framed as a crisis of demand and supply, thus the proposed solutions primarily focus on boosting agricultural production through technological solutions, like genetic engineering (GE) and chemical inputs, and/or on removing supply-side constraints to ensure access to food through liberalization of agricultural trade. This framework was used, for instance, to explain the 2008 food crisis without questioning the policies promoted over the last several decades by the donor countries and the international financial institutions that have undermined food security in developing countries.

Free Trade = Freedom from Hunger?

While pledging commitment to fight hunger, the G8 communiqué in 2008 reiterated its continued support for “the development of open and efficient agricultural and food markets.” The G8 Farm Conference in 2009 also recommended open markets, emphasizing that an “ambitious conclusion of the Doha Round” of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will help solve the hunger crisis. The draft communiqué at L’Aquila will once again urge members to keep their markets open and to reject protectionism.(Reuters, 2009c).

The G8’s rationale that international trade will help challenge hunger was reflected in a speech by Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council conference in May 2009. Lamy claimed that increased competition reduces prices, thereby enhancing the purchasing power of the consumers. Secondly, he argued, trade helps transport food from places where it can be produced efficiently to where there is demand. (Reuters, 2009a)

Assertion that free trade will help solve hunger requires a certain degree of political amnesia. Liberalization of agricultural markets has yet to deliver on the promised or expected gains in growth and stability in the developing world. Olivier De Schutter, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, in his submission to the Commission of Sustainable Development (CSD) in May 2009, pointed out that the multilateral trading system is “heavily skewed in favor of a small group of countries, and in urgent need of reform.” (TWN, 2009) He was referring to how rich countries have used their heavily subsidized agriculture to help secure markets by flooding developing countries with cheap farm imports, making subsistence farming uncompetitive and financially unstable. This has converted developing countries that were once self-sufficient, and even net exporters of agricultural products, into net importers. With the increase in imports, an agricultural surplus of $7 billion in the 1960s had shrunk to $1 billion by the 1970s for developing countries. By the 1990s and 2000s, developing countries had turned into net food importers, with a deficit of $11 billion in 2001. (Action Aid International, 2008)

The worst impact of the indiscriminate opening of markets has been felt in rural areas, where agriculture is the main occupation for most of the poor and the source of purchasing power. Increased imports, which have destroyed livelihoods, have not increased food security. (South Center, 2008) Also, the notion that further liberalization of agricultural markets increases access to food overlooks the fact that the majority of the population in countries classified as having “widespread lack of access” is unable to procure food due to their low incomes. (FAO, 2008b)

Increased dependence on food imports has made developing countries more vulnerable to high prices. In 2008, many developing countries experienced shortages because the markets upon which they have come to depend underwent changes in national food supply policies. The U.S. and European biofuel policy is a case in point. Corn production dedicated to biofuels, instead of food, increased scarcity in terms of both its market availability and food aid availability.

Also, measures previously available to governments to soften the effects of price volatility – such as controlling import and export volumes, managing domestic stocks, using price control and price support tools, consumer subsidies, and rationing systems – have been criticized for distorting free trade. Export bans of food in 2008, imposed by some 40 countries including India, Egypt, and Vietnam, were seen as a threat to free trade and held responsible for increasing world food prices. But these measures had sought to protect national populations, especially the poor and vulnerable, against the global agricultural price shocks by ensuring national food availability below world prices before allowing exports to other countries.

A Technological Agricultural Revolution = Freedom From Hunger?

After nearly two decades of decline in aid for agricultural development, commitments to reverse the trend by donor countries and multilateral agencies like the World Bank have become common at international summits. Olivier De Schutter, in his submission to the CSD, however, wisely cautioned that the issue is not one of merely increasing budget allocations to agriculture, but rather, “that of choosing from different models of agricultural development which may have different impacts and benefit various groups differently.” (TWN, 2009a)

An element of the food security initiative to be announced at the G8 meetings will reportedly focus on improving agricultural productivity and development. (Reuters, 2009b) The G8 Farm Summit in April 2009 also hailed a technological agricultural revolution, such as the promotion of genetically engineered crops, to increase agricultural productivity in response to hunger.

A big player promoting genetic engineering as the panacea for global hunger has been the United States. During the Summit, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack warned that failure to boost agricultural productivity would result in fresh social unrest and urged the G8 to back the use of science in agriculture, including genetically modified organisms. (Financial Times, 2009) On his return from Italy, much to the delight of biotech companies such as Pioneer, Hi-Bred, and Monsanto, Vilsack pledged to bring a “more comprehensive and integrated” approach to promoting agricultural biotech overseas. (Des Moines Register, 2009).

Similarly, an essay by former executive director of the UN World Food Program, Catherine Bertini, and former U.S. secretary of sgriculture, Dan Glickman, praised plans for a new Green Revolution that includes use of biotechnology as holding “great promise.” While advocating prioritization of food and agriculture in U.S. foreign aid, they recognized the resistance that their plans might generate: “Although there is the potential for conflict over a hunger initiative on the issue of introducing more GM crops, this conflict is more likely to be with Europeans than with Africans or Asians, both of whom are increasingly inclined to accept the technology.” (Bertini & Glickman, 2009)

Their thinking that developing countries can be arm-twisted into accepting GM crops is reflected in a new multi-billion dollar U.S. aid bill. The Global Food Security Act (SB 384), also known as the Lugar-Casey Act, revises the 1961 Federal Assistance Act to direct more money towards GM research as part of U.S. foreign aid programs. (PANNA, 2009) The bill passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2009 on the basis of hastily conducted, industry-friendly research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the biggest forces behind plans for a new Green Revolution in Africa.

But the promises of feeding the world with GM crops have so far proven to be empty. A 2009 report from the Union of Concern Scientists, which analyzed nearly two decades worth of peer-reviewed research on the yield of GM food/feed crops in the United States, demonstrates that genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase crop yields. Only one major GM crop, Bt corn, has achieved a 3 to 4% yield increase over the 13 years that it has been grown commercially. Even this growth is much less than what has been achieved over that time by other methods, including conventional breeding. The report contends that it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of technologies that have proven to be more successful at increasing yields. (UCSUSA, 2009)

Other studies also demonstrate that organic and similar farming methods can more than double crop yields. Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, a study by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), found that organic or near-organic agriculture practices in Africa outperformed conventional production systems based on chemical-intensive farming, provided environmental benefits, and were more conducive to food security in the region. This analysis of 114 farming projects in 24 African countries found that organic practices resulted in a yield increase of more than 100%. (UNCTAD, 2008)

The study confirmed the findings and recommendations of the UN’s first ever evidence-based assessment of global agriculture for reducing hunger and poverty, improving rural livelihoods, and working toward environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable development. Known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2008), the study called for a fundamental paradigm shift in agricultural development while concluding that genetic engineering is no solution for soaring food prices and hunger. It instead recommended low-input, low-cost agroecological farming methods.

In the face of growing evidence, continued efforts by the G8 to improve agricultural productivity through technologies like genetic engineering only serves the interests of biotech corporations. Monsanto, for instance, is running an advertising campaign in national newspapers like The New York Times and on National Public Radio claiming “its improved seeds help farmers double yields,” needed to feed the world’s growing population. (Monsanto, 2009)

What’s Not on the G8 Menu: Building a Resilient Agricultural System to Feed the World

At the World Food Summit in 1996, heads of governments made a commitment to reduce the number of hungry people-–815 million then–-in half by 2015. The latest figure of 1.02 billion people living with hunger reveals a crisis spiraling out of control. The need to feed the world in ways that are environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable has never been more urgent.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) recently pointed out that past reliance on technology jeopardized long-term sustainability with the overuse of chemical inputs. ESCAP’s report highlights evidence from hundreds of grassroots development projects that increased agricultural productivity through agroecological practices, while increasing food supplies, incomes, food access, and improving the livelihoods of the poor. ESCAP thus recommends investment in sustainable agriculture that prioritizes small-scale food production based on ecologically viable systems. (UNESCAP, 2009)

In 2008, 60 governments approved the IAASTD report’s call for a radical shift in agricultural policy and practice in order to address hunger and poverty, social inequities, and environmental sustainability. Recognizing that the past emphasis on increasing yields and productivity had negative consequences, the IAASTD report promoted agriculture that is biodiversity-based, including agroecology and organic farming, for being resilient, productive, beneficial to poor farmers, and one that will allow adaptation to climate change. (IAASTD, 2008)

However, these recommendations that focus on sustainability and boosting poor peoples incomes have yet to make it to the G8 agenda. If the G8 is indeed committed to ending hunger, the member countries must stop the steady drumbeat of proselytizing for free markets and technological solutions to hunger and instead implement the findings and recommendations of IAASTD, for instance. More important, a genuine commitment will require recognizing the need for developing countries to have policy space to determine agricultural policies that meet the needs of their populations; implement a genuine agrarian reform that will ensure farmers’ rights to land, water, seeds and other resources; ensure that the local products are competitive; see that farmers’ livelihoods and incomes are sustained; and assure national food security. In short, instead of promoting their old failed “development” formulas in new clothing, the G8 need to take responsibility and support governments in developing countries to put in place or restore sustainable and resilient agricultural systems.

* Anuradha Mittal is the Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank working to increase public participation and to promote fair debate on critical social, economic, and environmental issues.


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