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Yet more hunger

by Claudia Isabel Rittel
According to the FAO, more than a billion people worldwide are currently undernourished – despite the fact that farmers achieved record harvests last year. The problem is not the volume of production but the way in which food and farmland are distributed. The global financial crisis is making matters worse. Hunger is particularly common where there is strong discrimination against women. NGOs demand a reform of global-governance bodies.

Following protests by farmers and environmentalists, the Tanzanian government recently cancelled plans to invest millions of dollars in biofuels, as The East African, a newspaper, reported in early October. The decision was prompted, the newspaper claimed, by fear of food shortages and pressure from environmentalists.

This episode should please Ute Hausmann. As policy adviser with the German section of the human rights organisation FIAN, she took the upcoming World Food Day as an opportunity to issue a warning about this very scenario. Hundreds of thousands of small farmers, herders and members of indigenous groups in Africa are facing the threat of displacement, she says, unless their right to land is strengthened against big investors. But Hausmann is particularly critical of assistance programmes that are primarily geared to “seed and fertiliser, the production of which requires a great deal of energy”. On top of that, she claims, aid programmes have forced small farmers to depend on large corporations. Strengthening family farms and eco-friendly agriculture, she argues, would make better sense.

But the problem is more complex than that. According to a new research paper published by Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), a Berlin-based think tank on international and security affairs, sudden price hikes like the ones seen in 2008 result from various factors coinciding. Because agricultural markets are increasingly demand-driven, SWP author Bettina Rudloff argues, the risk of price surges is growing. In the past, she points out, volatility was offset by overproduction in surplus markets.

As a whole, she says, the opening of agricultural markets due to the WTO agreement of 1994 served to stabilise prices – but at a generally higher level than before. This is good for those who want to sell their harvests, but it leaves consumers vulnerable. Moreover, according to Rudloff, prices can be destabilised by exceptions to market opening such as automatic, flexible protective tariffs.

What is still not clear, Rudloff remarks, is the impact of speculative transactions on the price of agricultural commodities. Even defining “speculation” is tricky. Many agricultural products have been traded on futures markets for more than a hundred years. Basically, this is speculation, as futures markets are about anticipating future prices. Nonetheless, it seems that pure price wagering, in which buyers have no interest in actually trading commodities, but hope to profit form price differentials, may be harmful. Both the G8 and the European Commission have commissioned research to shed light on the matter.

In future, global food supply will tend to diminish as a result of slower increases in yields and crop failures due to climate change (see article next page). However, because the world population is growing and meat consumption is increasing in emerging ecomomies, demand is set to rise. This is the view of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In 2050, the UN agency reckons, the world will have 9.1 billion human mouths to feed – and that challenge will only be met if yields can be increased and farming made more intensive.

FIAN and Brot für die Welt, a Protestant German charity, disagree, however. In a study co-published by the organisations in October, failure to make progress on hunger reduction is blamed mainly on poorly coordinated international policy and lack of national food strategies. What is needed most, the NGOs claim, is a more inclusive global food architecture. “The UN's World Food Committee needs to take charge of coordination, strategic gearing and supervision of global food policy,” says Bernhard Walter of Brot für die Welt.

A reform proposal has been presented, stating that all FAO member countries should have a right to vote in the future. But NGOs, charitable foundations, intergovernmental organisations and employers’ associations would also be admitted as participants. What is more, the actions of the World Food Committee should be in line with the FAO’s right-to-food guidelines of 2004. The final decision on the reform will be taken in mid-November at the World Food Summit in Rome.

According to FAO data, more than one billion people are affected by hunger, 100 million of whom have been made poor by the impacts of the global financial crisis. Economic turmoil is exacerbating food scarcity in many countries – especially where levels of undernourishment were already high. According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI), the hunger situation is “alarming” or even “extremely alarming” in a total of 29 countries.

The situation is worst in six African countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo leads the field of the worst GHI performers, followed by Burundi, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Chad and Ethiopia. The GHI combines three indicators: the percentage of undernourished people, the percentage of underweight children under the age of five and the percentage of children who die before the age of five. The latest GHI is the fourth to be published by Welthungerhilfe, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute and Concern Worldwide of Ireland.

This year, the GHI, for the first time, assessed how women’s rights and hunger correlate. The result is that the need tends to be greatest where women have the least say in public and private matters.

Claudia Isabel Rittel