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Food security

A matter of peace

by Peter Hauff

In brief

Children in a day care center in La Paz, Bolivia

Children in a day care center in La Paz, Bolivia

Famine does not necessarily cause civil war, but it is always a symptom of wrong policies. Experts agree that the growing number of malnourished threatens international security.

The FAO estimates that some 925 million people currently suffer from malnutrition. This UN agency is under fire itself. Despite up-to-date agro-industry and increasing global trade, hunger is worsening, and the UN’s ten-year-old Millennium Development Goal of cutting in half the share of people suffering hunger by 2015 has retreated out of sight. The Worldwatch Institute now estimates that one sixth of the world population is malnourished. The number of affected people is said to have grown by 12 % from 2009 to 2010.

This year, social unrest and civil war in northern Africa pose an urgent question not only to Arab leaders: do rising world market prices for oil, corn and grain threaten international prosperity and security? “Our current architecture is not working,” was the answer of Alexander Müller, the FAO spokesperson for resources and the environment, at a conference held by Germany’s Foreign Office in May.

Mutually reinforcing problems

Two crucial problems go along with global hunger: climate change and the fast loss of biodiversity. These three phenomena result from improper agriculture and from the rising consumption of energy and meat in rich as well as emerging-market countries. The trends are mutually reinforcing. “In the past 20 years, the number of natural disasters has increased fourfold,” says Ralf Südhoff, director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. According to him, “food insecurity may destabilise 30 to 50 countries worldwide.”

Peace researcher Bettina Engels of Berlin’s Free University insists that an insufficient food supply does not automatically lead to civil war and violence. “Conflicts are not the problem, it depends on how they are carried out,” the scholar argues, adding 60 % of the people who currently face need live in “stable” Asian countries. Supply problems only become explosive, she says, when a self-confident middle class rebels – with the French Revolution of 1789 being the classic example.

Famine is only a fuse

Like bread and rice, farmland is not only about prices. Tewolde Egziabher, head of Ethiopia’s environmental authority EPA considers subsistence farming a universal human right. “Although I no longer believe that this universal right is being fulfilled, I demand absolute protection for anyone who produces their own food,” he says. Landholders, he argues, must accept that they do not personally own the natural ressources of other citizens, and all local communities should be able to retain traditional agricultural methods. “Everyone should have free access to water,” he adds.

Egziabher sees industrial-scale monocultures as the real cause of tomorrow’s famine – they destroy plantgenetic resources for which fertilisers and genetical engineering cannot provide substitutes. After the green revolution in agriculture, only 150 basic products of roughly 7,000 crops remain, the Ethiopian says, with 60 % being rice, wheat, and corn. A winner of the ­2000 Right Livelihood Award, Egziabher believes that agro-industry and world trade are stuck in a dead end as long as
– they focus on inexpensive mass production,
– crops are not rotated,
– farming and animal husbandry are viewed separately, and
– our foodstuffs depend on a shrinking range of basic agricultural products.

“Rising productivity in itself, will not solve the food shortage issue,” says Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. He argues that food security in developing countries is a matter of peace, because structural deficits can create instability abroad and even affect German citizens and businesses: “In the long run, people will not just sit by and watch products from nearby fertile fields being exported to rich countries.” According to Westerwelle, un­limited speculation on food markets is irresponsible and can have negative impacts on bread prices.

Productivity will not do

“We should not pay so much attention to nominal production rates but instead focus on individual plantation methods and local solutions,” says Judy Wakhungu. The director of the ­African Centre for Technology ­Research (ACTS) in Nairobi emphasises that there is no blueprint that would fit all situations. In Berlin, she cited a ­dozen positive examples of African practice:
– Victoria Seeds Uganda helps small farmers by selling seeds that are not from large corporations and cost 20 % less.
– In Kenya, Kick Start developed water pumps tailored to the female body.
– In Nigeria, Solar Light Electric Fund promotes drip irrigation.
– In Tanzania, some 500 farmers came ­together to purchase pesticides and fertilisers in bulk.
– In South Africa, Harvest Hope is promoting urban gardening in Cape Town.

Peter Hauff