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Food and biological diversity

“Cities depend on the world market”

by Rafael Schneider
Food riots shuck Haiti in April.

Food riots shuck Haiti in April.

Soaring food prices were the defining topic at the World Bank’s and IMF’s recent Spring Meetings. World Bank President Robert Zoellick and IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn called for additional food aid and warned of political instability. In Haiti, food riots have toppled the government. In our interview, Rafaël Schneider of Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action) explains current trends on the market and expresses himself in favour of environment-friendly farms. [ Interview with Rafaël Schneider ]

What is driving global food-price inflation?
There are several factors. For one, high oil prices mean that investment in biofuels is increasingly profitable, motivating producers to buy up grain on a grand scale. At the same time, climate change is boosting interest in biofuels, while reducing grain harvests in areas like Australia and eastern Europe. Then there is market speculation. In the wake of the international credit crunch, renewable primary products are attracting investors who are looking for safe investment opportunities. Combined, these factors have caused meteoric price rises.

What role do changing eating habits play?
Worldwide meat consumption is on the rise. Germans ate three percent more meat in 2007 than in 2006. As households become wealthier in China, for instance, they are also consuming more meat. Accordingly, the demand for feedstocks is growing too. It takes seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef. While diet changes contribute to shortages, however, they are not at the root of current worries.

The World Bank and IMF are urging the international community to provide more food aid. The USA has accordingly pledged the equivalent of € 126 million, and Germany has raised its food-aid funding to € 36 million. Won’t that money fuel inflation even more? It cannot increase the availability of grain.

The cash made available now serves immediate relief. It is only a drop in the ocean, and will certainly not go very far. What is needed is investment in sustainable agriculture and rural development, for enough food to be produced to feed all of humankind at affordable prices.

What kind of investments are you thinking of?

For a start, more official development assistance must be earmarked for agriculture once more. The share of aid currently spent on agriculture worldwide has dropped to less than four percent. More efficient agriculture will be essential, for instance, thanks to irrigation schemes. Moreover, rural infrastructure in general matters very much, just consider roads. Many people who grow food are unable to sell their surplus crops because those supplies would rot during time-consuming transportation to the next market. Those products simply go to waste. More research into agriculture is also urgently needed, in order to test appropriate methods and increase yields.

How does appropriate agriculture differ from high-yield agriculture?

Most farmers around the world are small-scale farmers. They apply traditional methods, many of which are neither sustainable nor very productive. For example, Africans still tend to plough their fields by hand, without a single ox. Appropriate agriculture depends on cultivation methods that suit the environmental conditions of a certain location as well as the people who live there. These methods may include high-yielding varieties. Pure high-yield agriculture, on the other hand, tends to focus on monocultures based only a very small variety of crops.

High-yielding varieties are always based on the so-called landraces which have evolved over the centuries through natural mutation and cultivation. Is it possible to maximise yields according to efficiency criteria, without eroding the genetical base of agriculture?

The first Green Revolution showed that damage is caused by cultivating high-yield varieties in monocultures, using vast amounts of fertilisers and pesticides. Soils become so degraded that yields eventually drop again. But we have learned that lesson. There are many regions in developing countries that, with irrigation, improved cultivation and adaptive varieties, could produce higher yields. More research is still needed, of course.

The International Assessment of Agricultural

Science and Technology for Development recently demanded that more food be produced in more environment-friendly ways. Do you agree?
Yes, indeed. There is no alternative to environment-friendly agriculture, and to a large extent the true potential of sustainable agriculture has not been tapped yet. Appropriate development should be at the heart of both support and research for farms.

What is the role of small-scale farmers on the world market?

In international trade, the contribution of small-scale farmers is very limited. Most of what they grow serves their own needs, with perhaps a little left over for local markets. The only exceptions are a few high-priced products such as coffee, tea or flowers.

… and in the conservation of biodiversity?

Small farmers, too, are in constant need of more land. Many are encroaching into areas that harbour protected species. But this is only one side of the coin. The other is that small farmers possess a great diversity of seeds that are perfectly suited to their local environments. They are therefore the preservers of many crops, some of which are unique.

What does small-scale farming contribute to supplying food to agglomerations like Cairo or Manila?

The further they live from the major cities, the smaller the flow of goods. The current crisis shows just how much cities depend on the world market. When prices rise because of a lack of cheap subsidised products from industrialised nations, situations escalate. Many urban agglomerations hardly receive food from their hinterlands.

Are rural areas feeling the impact of high food prices as much as the cities do?

People in rural areas do not depend on imports to quite the same extent, but even so, their harvests are often insufficient for their own needs. Therefore, higher food prices will impact on the rural areas – but not in the same simultaneous and collective manner. That is why their plight attracts little media attention.

What proportion of staple foods is traded internationally?

That share varies a great deal. For instance, only a very small proportion of rice, perhaps seven percent, is traded internationally. The lion’s share is sold and consumed in the countries of origin. Wheat and maize, however, are an entirely different matter. Mainly because these grains are also used to produce biofuels, a large ratio is traded on global markets. However, there is also substitution. For instance, when the demand for maize is very high, purchasers fall back on other, similar types of grain – which causes those prices to rise, too.

Germany’s Development Ministry has been speaking out against the cultivation of biofuels for some time, but the EU is categorically sticking to this policy.

Among development experts, there is a widespread consensus that the excessive cultivation of energy crops, particularly in poor countries, leads to a competition between food and energy production. Therefore the EU’s goal of increasing the proportion of biofuel in transportation fuel to 10 % by 2020 is controversial. It is helping to establish a stable market for fuels from biomass. As a result, the financially-strong North will invest more heavily in biofuel farming in developing countries, which in turn will lead to more food shortages. Such trends serve to prove the dominance of the advanced countries in world affairs.

Questions by Hans Dembowski and Claudia Isabel Rittel.