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World trade order

Something rotten in the food system

by Dagmar Milerova Praskova

In depth

Half of the world’s hungry are small-scale farmers: the owner of  a bean field  in Paraguay

Half of the world’s hungry are small-scale farmers: the owner of a bean field in Paraguay

Poverty, not scarcity of food is the cause of hunger. The current world trade order is skewed against the interests of the needy. Change is required at all levels, argues Dagmar Milerova Praskova of the Czech think tank Glopolis, and small-scale farms matter most.

The latest numbers show that there has been progress in fighting hunger since the 1990s (FAO, WFP, IFAD 2012). However, there is still no reason to celebrate. Almost 870 million do not get enough to eat. It is unacceptable that one in eight people in the world must stay hungry. In Africa, moreover, the trend is pointing in the wrong direction. This is the only continent to experience rising hunger rates.

There are three misunderstandings about hunger that we need to get straight:

  • The first is that hunger is caused by a lack of food. The truth, however, is that there is currently enough food to feed everyone in the world, but the food is not distributed fairly. Wealthy countries produce large food surpluses while masses of people in developing countries are too poor to buy the supplies they need.
  • The second misunderstanding is that natural disasters cause hunger. This notion is not completely wrong, but it is misleading, because the underlying problem is the lack of good infrastructure, early warning systems and a stable political environment. Where these things are in place, disasters do not cause hunger.
  • The third misunderstanding is that biotechnology and genetically modified organisms are the keys to eradicating hunger. In practice, these high-tech approaches tend to have huge negative effects on so­ciety and environment – and poor people are the least likely to benefit from them.


Vicious circle

To understand the root causes of hunger we have to take a closer look at who the hungry are. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), small-scale farmers with less than two hectares of cropland constitute about 50 % of them. Another 20 % are landless labourers, and 10 % are fisher folk, pastoralists and forest dwellers. The remaining 20 % are urban poor who mainly live in slums.

These figures show the great paradox of hunger: the world’s most food-insecure people are more or less directly involved in agriculture and food production. The primary cause of hunger is not lack of food but poverty. This is also evident in the fact that poverty lines are typically calculated on the basis of the costs of the caloric consumption that is required for a healthy life.

Relative poverty obviously differs from country to country. In the developing world, however, around three quarters of the poor normally live in rural areas. They not only lack fair and adequate access to vital resources such as land and water, but also to markets and infrastructure, credit, information, education and health care. Their powerlessness is exacerbated by social exclusion due to gender, age, ethnicity, faith and other issues.

They are stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty. Depressingly, the global food system does not help them escape. International agricultural trade is marked by the liberalisation paradigm and a “market first” approach, which put the most vulnerable people at a disadvantage. Unskilled workers without access to resources, markets, equipment or education cannot benefit from market competition. They are crowded out and lose their livelihoods.

Harmful policies

The governments of many developing countries were forced to cut public spending on agriculture and regulate trade according to multilateral and bilateral agreements. The idea was that developing countries would focus on their comparative advantages. The irony of the matter, however, is that countries that were known for food abundance in the past have become net-food importers. They currently export cash crops such as coffee, tea, sugar cane or cotton, but they import staple foods. Obviously, our current world trade order is good for large-scale plantations, but does little for the poor rural people who suffer hunger most.

The agricultural policies of rich countries harm developing countries. This is especially true of the two trade giants: EU (Common Agricultural Policy) and USA (Farm Bill). Rich economies’ export subsidies help farmers in rich nations to sell their surpluses in poor countries, charging prices that are below the production costs and crowding local competitors out of the market. It is absurd that such market-destroying practices are allowed and prevail under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation in the name of free trade. Depressingly, rich nations similarly make sure that bilateral trade agreements serve their special interests.

The world market is distorted in other ways as well. A small number of huge agribusiness companies dominate their respective sectors. For example, just three companies control over 80 % of the world´s tea market, and only four companies dominate the grain market (Oxfam 2011). Their power to set prices at the lowest levels does not guarantee small-scale food producers fair remuneration at all.

Extreme world-market price volatility compounds the hunger problem. From 2005 to 2008 maize prices almost tripled, wheat prices increased by 127 %, and rice prices rose by 170 % (Mittal 2009). In February 2011, the FAO Food Price Index hit record levels. The impact on poor people, who spend up to 80  % of their incomes on food, was devastating. Average residents of the developed world, however, only spend up to 20 % of their incomes on food.

Food production depends on the weather, and the destructive impacts of climate change are becoming ever more evident. Unpredictable – and often un­precedented – weather events such as extreme storms, rains and draught are causing crop failures all over the world. More bad news are likely to come. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), farm yields in Africa could drop up to 50 % by 2020 because climate change will severely affect rain-fed agriculture. By 2080, the experts warn, wheat production may disappear from Africa.

These problems are compounded by the mismanagement of natural resources. The “business as usual” approach is based on over-exploitation and unsustainable land use. It results in land degradation, soil contamination, pollution and depletion of water resources, deforestation and loss of biodiversity. The tragedy is that precisely these natural resources are crucial for food production, livelihoods and sustain­able rural development. Statistics tell brutal stories. In Africa, for instance, 25 % of fragile dry lands have been degraded to the extent of desertification in recent years (CGIAR 2009).


Mind-set change

The international community has developed the concept of food security in order to gauge hunger issues. This concept stresses four dimensions:

  • food availability,
  • access to food,
  • use of food and
  • stability of access.

The international community, moreover, has explicitly incorporated the right to food in international law. Nonetheless, there is a huge gap between the pledges written on paper and reality.

To improve matters, small-scale food producers must be put at the centre of food security strategies. Sustainable small-scale farming must be promoted worldwide. This is the only way humanity can fight poverty and prevent environmental degradation. Both goals are of vital importance.

In order to eradicate hunger, the role of agriculture must be taken seriously at all levels. Small-scale farmers must supply local markets and benefit from them. Poor people must be given control over food production, distribution and consumption without any dependence on international markets. They must have the opportunity to feed themselves. Countries importing staple food should focus on ensuring food security at the national level rather than exporting cash crops.

There is an instant need for responsible investment in infrastructure, food reserves, irrigation systems, storage facilities and research on sustainable agriculture. At the same time, so called land grabbing must be prevented. Big investors must not be allowed to acquire millions of hectares of farmland in poor countries for export-oriented production. Such projects typically cause more harm than good. All too often, moreover, they breach human rights (see essay by Sandra Abild on p. 159 ff.).

Food use needs to be reconsidered too. Only about one half of world cereal production is currently consumed by people. More and more production is either wasted (see essay by Uwe Hoering on p. 156 ff.), ends up as animal feed in order to satisfy the growing demand for meat, or goes into agrofuel production. Today, at least one fourth of the cereal production in the USA is used for agrofuel production. This is not acceptable, given that so many remain hungry.

Focus on causes, not symptoms

At the international level, wealthy countries must stop pursuing harmful trade and agriculture policies. Global agricultural trade is unfair and does not respect the needs of disadvantaged people. This must change. Developing countries must be allowed to support and protect their small-scale farmers. At the same time, there is a need for regulating commodity markets more stringently. Traders who are only active for speculation reasons with no immediate interest in agriculture are currently gambling with poor people’s lives (see Paasch and Luig, D+C/E+Z 2012/03, p. 114 ff.). This must stop.

Last but not least, the management of natural resources must improve. Intensive farming, monocropping, high use of chemicals, intensive livestock production, overgrazing, deforestation and water mismanagement are destructive and unsustainable. Humanity needs to move on to sustain­able practices. At the same time, our species will have to mitigate global warming and adapt to what has already become  irreversible. Climate change obviously poses serious threats to food production.

Hunger is often misunderstood to be a normal aspect of life in poor countries. In truth, it is a challenge political leaders must rise to. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, has often pointed out, we need to focus on the causes of hunger and not only the consequences. Ultimately, his plea should concern consumers and voters all over the world.


Dagmar Milerova Praskova is an analyst at the independent think-tank Glopolis in Prague.
[email protected]