For anyone who has been ignoring the news as of late, food is an enormous issue this year. Prices are up 83 percent since 2005, sparking riots in countries around the globe including Egypt, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, and Indonesia. In Haiti the unrest has even led to deaths and the fall of the government. Big rice producers like China, India, and Vietnam are becoming worried about their own supplies and are moving to restrict their exports, further fueling food insecurities. Through this all our policymakers at the World Bank and the IMF are calling for more of the same practices that got us into this mess. The question that confronts us is: How has this come about and what can we do to begin to address the problem?
Food prices are up for a number of factors and most analysts agree that they are probably not going to decrease significantly in the foreseeable future. Increasing consumption of meat (which requires vast quantities of feed to produce), bad weather, hoarding, and demand for biofuels (which use land that could be used to produce food) have all done their part to dramatically boost food prices. While some of these factors may become less influential in the future, the fact remains that demand is going to continue to grow at a strong pace. The world's billion-plus people who subsist on less than a dollar a day are not going to enjoy affordable food anytime soon.
In order to address this grave problem the officials at the World Bank have proposed an "action plan," which includes emergency food aid and more loans to farmers, so they can increase their productivity with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds. While this may sound reasonable at first, it is in fact precisely the same policy that the Bank and massive agricultural corporations (who not so coincidentally sell pesticides, fertilizers, and seeds) have promoted over the past few decades, and a large part of the reason that we are in this mess. Food aid, while obviously needed in the short-term, does nothing to address the actual reasons why people cannot buy food or grow their own. We cannot allow ourselves to think that we are solving hunger by handing out some free bread. Actually tackling the issue requires a deeper examination of the problem.
The fact is that hundreds of millions of people in the world face malnutrition and hunger because of policy failure. We have encouraged small farmers to take out loans to buy chemicals, fertilizers, etc., in order to boost their productivity; meanwhile when their crop fails or soil becomes infertile due to these same products we sold them and they lose their land, we tell them to just go to the city. So the displaced farmers go in great numbers to the mushrooming slums where there are far too few jobs to sustain them. Their options are mostly limited to subsisting on handouts or migrating to a richer country. Ten years ago this was a huge problem; now it has been greatly exacerbated by the massive hike in food prices.
If we are to do something other than business as usual, what should be our course? We need to start with policies that allow small farmers to stay on their land, and thus can continue feeding themselves and their neighbors far into the future. The first step in this direction would be to encourage agriculture that does not require expensive inputs and machinery, so farmers can avoid getting caught in a cycle of debt. Part of this will mean spending more money on agricultural research that uses this low-input model. An actual worthwhile foreign aid project would be helping finance land reform and training for those individuals who receive plots of land. This would ease the number of people moving to cities, which are then unable to support them. We could pay for this by slashing the billions of dollars in subsidies we give to our own agricultural giants here in the US. This would have the added benefit of strengthening small farmers against unfair (i.e., subsidized) competition from corporations. If more small farmers stay in business and on their land then they can in turn take advantage of the high food prices, and the profits they make from these sales they naturally spend in their local community will boost their neighbors' wages and business opportunities. Instead of starvation and food riots we could have a dynamic and sustainable rural economy based upon small farmers.
The sudden rise in food prices has dramatized the issue of food security throughout the world, but this has been a serious concern for years. We can allow our government (through the World Bank, agricultural subsidies, etc.) to continue the same policies, which have not worked over the past few decades, or we can force it to deal with the actual problem: hundreds of millions of small farmers who are unable to continue growing their own food. The rioting, poverty, and dislocation brought on by food's increasing cost are only going to get worse if our policies do not change.
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