Food Security: Are we ready for a change?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 16:01

This question really threw me last week:

So you are telling me you have the evidence that producing food on a small scale can feed the world and not destroy the planet? Even with a growing population? And you’ve been talking about it for years to the EU? And nothing has changed? But why not?

Wow, now that is a good question.

The question came at a conference called 'Ready for Change' organised by Partos in the Netherlands on the opportunity offered by the Sustainable Development Goals to really change things — if, that is, governments like that of the Netherlands and the EU are ready to change. So we started to talk about that change related to a specific agenda: hunger and food security.

In 2008 a spike in food prices ignited violent protests around the world as people found themselves unable to pay for basic food needs. The world, and the EU for its part, started to pay more attention to the plight of smallholder farmers and to the years of under-investment in agriculture and rural development. Numerous high level events ensued with titles like "Feed the World".

The idea had not yet fully caught on that the rest of the world might feed itself if we empower it to do so. But somehow investment in empowering the world’s small producers has never properly taken off.

Why not?

First it’s important to acknowledge some global truths:

Truth 1: on inequality and food

Hunger and food rights are not related to the amount of food produced in the world. They are all about how food is distributed, who controls the means of production, trade, processing and sale. Today the control of food markets is ever more concentrated in the hands of a small group of agribusinesses.

Truth 2: on the future of the planet and food

Although most food consumed by people in the Global South is produced by smallholders, food for the North is largely based on a large-scale agribusiness model that dominate supply chains and are destroying the environment bit by bit. Deforestation, water contamination (see the recent case of La Pasión in Guatemala), destruction of biodiversity, soil erosion, and the list goes on. This level of environmental damage is completely unsustainable.

Truth 3: on land and food

That same model of food production is one of the main factors in land grabbing on a massive global scale. Yet land means life for so many people. The existing, painful post-colonial land reform processes have been further complicated by corporate-fuelled land grabs, which in itself is fuelled by mass consumption.

Truth 4: on rural-urban migration and food

The city of São Paolo has a population of 16 million and is having a hard time providing services and well-being to all of those people (see this story on the water crisis, where 70% of the water is used by agribusiness). People are leaving the countryside to move the cities for a number of reasons; including a lack of jobs, climate change, and land grabbing for the production of soya, ethanol, beef and sugar. Meanwhile large scale, export-oriented production of food and fuel is destroying the environment and moving people from their land without providing food or a reliable source of income.

Truth 5: on trade and food

Most developing countries are net food importers. When food prices spike and you are dependent on imports, a crisis will be inevitable. There is an alternative to this which would be reversing the advice of the international financial institutions (such as the IMF and World Bank) from the 1980s and encouraging local food production and local, national and regional trade models. Global free trade frequently results in big winners and big losers. When those losses amount to lives and livelihoods, it should be taken very seriously.

Truth 6: on food and alternatives

Fear not, the answers are there. A growing number of people around the world are calling for the rest of us to wake up and smell the coffee. Small producers from Brazil to Senegal to Vietnam have been talking about agroecology for a long time now. Agroecology, or agriculture as mother nature would do it, is a system centred on small scale, sustainable, local food production — but also goes further towards a respectful way of living that promises not to mess around with planetary boundaries. Interestingly people in Europe are beginning to pick this one up.

Against these global truths, where is European Union policy in terms of making or breaking food security?

EU development policy focuses on supporting smallholder farmers. The Development department of the European Commission is doing some really transformational work helping African farmers to secure their rights to land via the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure, supporting the organisation of women smallholder farmers and the crucial Committee on Food Security in Rome. But how do other European policies and practices compare?

When it comes to agriculture we have been influenced by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy that has always favoured large producers to the detriment of Europe’s small producers. On the global level, the EU is now increasingly promoting the inclusion of African small producers in global value chains. Some evidence exists of increases in farmers’ income when they are involved in these chains, but increases in income are not sufficient when it comes to food security. It is ultimately about powerThere is little point in increasing a small producer’s takings from one dollar to two dollars, if his or her overall power in the value chain is virtually zero and will otherwise stay that way. As UNCTAD remind us, cocoa farmers in Ghana still receive 6.6% of the value of chocolate bars that end up in our supermarkets. Another indicator of the global power imbalance?

In energy, the biofuels policy has been somewhat adapted to accommodate the idea of “no food for fuel”. This is based on the logic that when you have widespread hunger, like we do, you cannot justify putting food in cars. Also that at a time of ongoing land struggles, we cannot afford to use huge stretches of land for energy production. But the EU is unfortunately still promoting biofuels on a large scale basis and the industry has already started to lobby for more in the future.

In trade and investment, the EU still plays a largely extractive role. Let’s look at Latin America. The EU is the largest source of foreign direct investment there. Seventy percent of the exports to Europe are primary goods, produced on large scale plantations with a small number of operators benefitting. Much of this is food which is marked up and exported back. Meanwhile Latin America is the most biodiverse region of the world (well, at least for now). It is also the most dangerous place to be a land activist. Yet at the most recent EU-CELAC summit in Brussels last June, all talk was of the benefits of trade for the people of Latin America and the Caribbean.

At the conference in Amsterdam someone asked me if the evidence was there to say the world can feed itself without a large-scale model of food production. The answer is yes and for some time now already. The IAASTD produced a huge raft of research proving that investing in smallscale producers can help them produce what we need. That evidence was backed up by numerous experts including the then UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter.

But still many policy makers still resist reality. Why is that? Is the agribusiness lobby so strong that an approach based on people and planet cannot prevail?

The message must get through before it’s too late. We must stop imposing a model of production on the world that is excluding people and harming the planet. Instead it is time to invest in those who produce most of the world’s food and recognise their contribution and needs, and to give them a real chance via fairer policies.

This does not mean they need to stay smallscale forever, it means they start to define development themselves.