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Global food security

“High prices mean hunger”

by Marita Wiggerthale
“Extreme weather can rapidly undo all efforts towards more sustainable agriculture.” Flood in Pakistan’s fertile Punjab region in August

“Extreme weather can rapidly undo all efforts towards more sustainable agriculture.” Flood in Pakistan’s fertile Punjab region in August

World market prices for agricultural goods have been rising recently. Experts say there may be famines. In the meantime, the renegotiation of the UN’s Food Aid Convention got underway in late February. Oxfam’s Marita Wiggerthale discussed the scenario with Hans Dembowski in this interview. Interview with Marita Wiggerthale

What concerns should we have in regard to global food security?
The situation is very serious indeed, just like three years ago. According to the World Bank, 44 million more people have been driven into poverty since June last year. The number of those who are not getting enough food is rising.

Farms around the world are producing enough food for everyone. Nonetheless, there is hunger and malnutrition. What is going wrong?
The people who suffer from hunger are those who are unable to buy enough food. Poor people in countries that depend on food imports are particularly vulnerable. Three factors have been contributing most to rapid food price inflation:
– Due to extreme weather, crops have failed, for instance in Russia and Australia, so wheat prices have gone up.
– At the same time, maize, mainly from the USA, is increasingly being used to produce agrofuels. Any crop that ends up in the petrol tank cannot reach a dinner plate.
– Excessive speculation, moreover, is exacerbating existing price trends.

What should be done to improve matters?
There are a lot of issues in agricultural policy that need reform, but progress has been slow so far, and there is no clear perspective. Smallholder agriculture has been neglected for decades, even though this is the sector that has the greatest potential for increasing yields – and this is particularly true in Africa, where agriculture is almost exclusively the domain of smallholders. Their farms are small, located in remote areas on land which is not particularly fertile. However, unfavourable conditions do not mean nothing can be done. A recent UNCTAD report found that these farmers could increase their yields by up to 116 % through the use of agro-environmental methods.

Would that involve biotechnology and genetic engineering?
No, such technology is more part of the problem than part of the solution, because it is not sustainable in environmental terms, does not address the socio-economic dimensions of hunger and is not appropriate to the political and institutional conditions in developing countries. In Africa in particular, more­over, soils are quickly depleted by the heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides. In contrast, UNCTAD’s estimates are based on sustainable methods to improve soil fertility. One advantage of this approach is that soils would retain more water and stock carbon. I am neither speaking of capital-intensive nor skill-intensive solutions, but of measures which have to be adapted to suit specific locations with specific environmental conditions.

For a long time, a bitter battle has been raging between civil society organisations, which promote smallholder agriculture and organic farming, and large corporations, which offer high-tech solutions. Is there any common ground between both sides?
Yes, even big industry is becoming aware of the increasing importance of smallholders. From Oxfam’s viewpoint, however, the corporate sector’s approach is sustainable neither in environmental nor social terms. In the end, what matters in corporate balance sheets is fertiliser, seed and pesticide turnover – and, of course, profits. Corporations do not focus on the well-being of smallholder farmers, and especially not of farm women. Indeed, agricultural policy almost completely ignores farm women, even though they are the ones who produce the most food in Africa.

What type of support should be provided to Africa’s farm men and women? Presumably not subsidies based on yields and fields as we have in Europe.
No, it would be impossible to fund this type of transfer. But governments in developing countries can cooperate with donors on providing comprehensive advice, helping the people affected to determine what they can grow and what environmentally sound options they have. In addition, good transport and water infrastructure would be helpful. Some other relevant issues are reliable distribution channels, affordable loans and up-to-date market information. This is a manageable agenda, given the political will.

What role does international trade policy play?
Unfortunately, the WTO does not protect the poor parts of the world from cheap imports, which undermine the economic existence of smallholder farmers because they cannot compete on price. Developing countries need the opportunity to foster and protect their agriculture in order to ensure food security. The EU is certainly asserting that right. Why shouldn’t developing countries do so as well? On the other hand, the WTO talks are not making any progress on issues which really matter to developing countries – such as effective and easy-to-use safeguard measures and putting an end to dumping. As I said before, there are a lot of issues in agricultural policy that need reform.

Renegotiation of the UN’s Food Aid Convention started in London in February. The Convention in its current form will expire at the end of the year. What is your hope?
The most important thing is that hungry people must be given money immediately to enable them to buy food. They cannot wait for the next shipload of aid supplies to arrive from the other side of the world. The current system is slow and expensive. After shipping and procurement costs are deducted, only 50 % of the monetary value of the US’s total food aid reaches the recipient country. The new Convention should also ensure that people in need receive complete nutrition, not just cereals. It must focus on the needs of the people. Unfortunately, however, food aid is mainly based on whatever resources
are available.

Will the new Convention be ready for signature by the end of the year?
No, I’m afraid not. The negotiations are complicated, and they started late because the parties involved hoped that they would be able to bank on WTO results. The WTO has prepared the switch from supplying food to giving money, but there still is a lack of binding results, such as the end of export subsidies. The issues of export subsidies and food aid are tightly interwoven because food aid is typically made up of certain rich nations’ surplus cereals.

What happens if the new Convention is not ready by the end of the year?
Everything will go on as before, the current Convention will remain in force until the new Convention is passed.

What would be the single most important measure to protect people throughout the world from hunger?
Climate change is the greatest danger. We are already seeing world market prices skyrocket when weather events cause crop failures in countries with strong agricultural sectors. High prices mean hunger. If the average rise of global temperatures is not limited to two degrees Celsius, it will be impossible to guarantee food security to all people. Extreme weather can rapidly undo all efforts towards more sustainable agriculture.