Their Crisis or Ours?  The Battle over the World’s Food Supply Relocates to Rome


The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is currently holding an emergency summit in Rome that will be focusing on the ongoing global food crisis, but rejuvenating and protecting agriculturalists does not seem to be on the agenda.

In the past couple of months, the attention of the world has been directed at the issue of food availability and production, but poor people across the world have felt its effects for years.

Global food prices have risen 83% over the last three years — recent price rises have only accelerated this trend.  According to the FAO, there has been a 45% increase in its world food price index during just the past nine months while The Economist‘s food price index puts wheat prices 130 percent above last year’s levels.

This has hit the developing world particularly hard, and not just because poorer people spend a relatively higher proportion of their income on food.  Previous bouts of neoliberal structural adjustment at the request of financial institutions already placed many national economies in a precarious state and often led directly to higher food prices.

This general situation combined with recent price rises has contributed to the wave of food riots that has taken hold in countries as diverse as Haiti, Indonesia, Mexico, Bangladesh, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Cameroon, Morocco, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines – showing with crystal clarity the global scale of the problem.

The threat of political instability and the whiff of revolution has galvanized the World Bank, the UN, and the governments of richer nations — hence the attention that this current spike in prices is receiving.  However, with crisis comes opportunity.  As Naomi Klein has counseled us in her book The Shock Doctrine, neoliberalism works best when societies are prepared for its implementation via societal “shock.”  Debt and hunger — both products of rising food and oil prices — are generating just such a shock.  So while there is a fear of instability, there is also a sense of opportunity.

Long hindered measures such as expanded cultivation of Genetically Modified Crops are being pushed as solutions to the crisis.  At the same time, the much-maligned practice of biofuel cultivation is being defended by its corporate and governmental advocates.  The lines have been drawn and battle has been joined in Rome, where the future of global agriculture is being fought over.

Crisis, Which Crisis?

A battle it certainly is.  Simply put, there are two sides to the summit, offering two versions of “crisis.”  Which version of crisis we accept is crucial to formulating policies to combat its effects — the fate of whole ecosystems and peasant populations hinges on what we believe drives higher commodity prices.  Do we blame rising demand and tight supplies and the early effects of climate change?  Or do we seek answers in the role that financial speculation, neoliberal restructuring, and biofuel cultivation play alongside those other factors?

The first version, which serves the interests of the international finance institutions, is represented by developed nations such as the US, the UK, and global agribusinesses like Monsanto, Cargill, BP (biofuels), or Syngenta.  It focuses on the role that increased demand from China and India and tightened supplies are playing in driving prices skywards.  Meanwhile, farmers in Africa and elsewhere remain too unproductive, with dilapidated road systems unable to transport their produce to market.  They are hence in need of “modernization.”  Along with that, the leaders of the FAO and the World Bank agree, must come technological innovation.  The language of a “new Green Revolution” is being mobilized, with GMOs in the vanguard.

The second version wells up from peasant organizations such as Via Campesina and is represented by a clutch of eloquent NGOs such as Practical Action, Food First, GRAIN, Movement for the Global South, and the World Development Movement.  Its diagnosis of the current crisis is far deeper.  Rather than concentrating on a short-term rise in food and oil prices, this version tends to see the crisis as rooted in the longer-term neoliberal project.  Food prices in poor countries have been allowed to rocket by the system in which consumers are now embedded — with government-run distribution networks dismantled, grain stores abandoned, large corporations dictating prices, and highly indebted nations and farmers converting to export crops to earn highly prized foreign currency.

In short, the first version counsels not business as usual, but business as usual — enhanced.  Big agriculture, techno-fixes, market liberalization — all of these must expand.  The second counsels systemic reform as advocated by small farmers.  Inevitably the two continue to collide as the battle for global agriculture intensifies.

The question then becomes, do we attack and reform the system or do we strengthen it?  The stakes could scarcely be higher.

Grain, Grain Everywhere, and Not a Loaf to Eat

However, despite the atmosphere of crisis and very real spiraling prices, the truth is that food supplies are not particularly tight.  There is no Malthusian crisis on the near horizon, at least not owing to climate change or the exhaustion of arable lands to cultivate.

2007 saw a record global grain harvest.  As the May 2008 Food First paper “From Food Rebellions to Food Sovereignty: Urgent Call to Fix a Broken Food System” puts it, the global food supply is “at least 1.5 times current demand.”  As a matter of fact, “over the last 20 years, food production has risen steadily at over 2.0% a year, while the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.14% a year.”  And yet, in 2006, 854 million people were food insecure.  The food system was starving people well before this current crisis.

What has changed is that the contours of the global food market have dramatically shifted.  Forty years ago, developing nations as a whole had a food trade surplus of $7 billion.  Today, according to Food First, “the southern food deficit has ballooned to US $11 billion/year.”

This is the “result of systematic destruction of southern food systems through a series of northern economic development projects.”  These projects are by now familiar: structural adjustment programs which gutted local storage, distribution, and marketing systems; huge subsidies to European and US farmers; “free trade” agreements which locked in liberalized agricultural markets; and the “Green Revolution” which primarily benefited large farmers and corporations while making many small farmers dependent upon chemical inputs to farm marginal lands.

Many of these “projects” were piloted by the World Bank as well as the IMF, and yet it is the World Bank that is stepping up to the plate to propose crisis measures.  On May 29, the Bank announced the launch of a $1.2 billion “fast-track facility for [the] food crisis” including $200 million in grants “targeted at the vulnerable in the world’s poorest countries.”

Haiti ($10 million), Liberia ($10 million), and Djibouti ($5 million) are the first nations to receive such assistance, but, as Bank chief Robert Zoellick says, this is part of “longer-term solution that must involve many countries and institutions,” including the FAO meeting in Rome.

The “solution” must also include benefits for corporations and encouragement of GM crops.  In an “Outlook Paper” circulated before the Rome summit, the Secretary General of the OECD Angel Gurria wrote that “The way to address rising food prices is not through protectionism but to open up agricultural markets and to free up the productive capacity of farmers, who have proven repeatedly that they will respond to market incentives.”

FAO Secretary General Jacques Diouf wrote in a press release last week that “high food prices represent an excellent opportunity for increased investments in agriculture by both the public and private sectors to stimulate production and productivity,” adding that “Governments, supported by their international partners, must now undertake the necessary public investment and provide a favourable environment for private investments.”

The agenda for the summit is clear — more of the same, with the World Bank back at the helm.  The systematic destruction continues.

A Brave New World Bank

Critics of the World Bank have long questioned its motives in dispensing aid to poorer nations and have attacked the conditionalities that it has attached to its loans as a means of opening up undeveloped economies to corporate predation.  The Bretton Woods institutions have stumbled in recent years, however, partly due to their failed policies, but also due to a credit glut.  Smaller nations have not needed the services of the global institutions and their power has begun to wane.  But with the credit crunch and rising food prices, some nations are headed back to the trough.

Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First thinks that this represents an opportunity for the World Bank to regain some of its lost influence.  As he told me, “For the World Bank, the food crisis comes at a perfect time.”  With the credit glut and countries turning away from the Bank, “the challenge became how to get countries of the global south to borrow again.”

Rising food prices have fortunate effects for the Bank.  As Holt-Gimenez continued, “The world food crisis solves both the problem of over-accumulation of finance capital and the problem of overproduction of grain, that neither biofuels nor the beef industry is capable of sopping up.”

Meanwhile, Holt-Gimenez expects the Bank to “prepare the field with its loans and conditions for the spread of industrial (GMO) seeds and inputs” — allowing corporations and the Bank itself to pose as “saviors” through the spread of high-tech methods.  Echoing Klein, he calls this “another fine case of ‘disaster capitalism’ at work” as human misery prepares the ground for renewed capital accumulation, against the wishes of those it purports to serve.

A Summit of Deception?

The FAO Summit has attracted a host of activist organizations to propose an alternative vision of agricultural reform and to resist the model being pushed by the World Bank and the leadership of the FAO.  Eloquent statements have been issued from groups such as Via Campesina, Food First, GRAIN, and the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty.  In the press, excellent diagnoses of the crisis and calls to action have appeared from Walden Bello alongside Raj Patel‘s book Stuffed and Starved and testimony on Capitol Hill.

There has been no shortage of high-quality writing on the issue, and certainly no shortage of passion.  A bottom-up alternative to corporate-led agricultural globalization is readily available.  As GRAIN writes in its statement “Peasant organisations and their allies have clear, viable ideas about how to organize production and services and how to run markets and even regional and international trade.  Ditto for labor unions and the urban poor, who have an important role to play in defining food policy.”

Unfortunately, the problem is that those in power simply aren’t listening.  The FAO has shut its ears to alternative notions of agricultural development, turning its Rome summit into a rubber-stamping exercise that will put profits before people and land.

This is shown in heartbreaking detail by the FAO’s own preparatory documents for the summit.  As with all gatherings of international institutions, the FAO has consulted its “stakeholders” — albeit some decidedly more closely than others.  When it consulted its “civil society” stakeholders, it received the most thorough analysis of how to solve the food crisis yet delivered.

From raising awareness of consumption patterns in the developed world, promoting sustainable farming practices, setting up a framework to tackle climate change without harming rural livelihoods, to disseminating information on climate change and methods of cultivation, the civil society stakeholders made some sensible recommendations for the FAO.

They recommended that bioenergy (in the form of sustainably harvested local sources such as plant products or animal dung) be promoted instead of biofuels.  They argued that the FAO should demand that governments adopt measures to prevent the dispossession of rural people for plantations and carbon-offset schemes.  They proposed that the FAO promote seed sharing and document and disseminate indigenous knowledge.  They advocated the protection of biodiversity by local peoples, while they also called for the Right to Food to guide global agricultural policies, not the right to profit.

They have also been roundly ignored.

Patrick Mulvany, senior policy adviser at UK-based NGO Practical Action (and a participant in the civil society consultation), told me that at a 2 June plenary meeting with FAO officials, activists from Via Campesina attacked the FAO process.  Speakers from the peasant activist group, which had been shut out of February’s consultation meetings, called the summit a “sham exercise” while others questioned why recommendations from the consultation were completely absent from the summit agenda.

Not only that, but participants also asked FAO staff where the findings of the FAO-convened International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development had gone.  That report, which recommended support for small-scale agriculture and attacked biofuels and intellectual property rights, is similarly absent from the summit agenda.

As Mulvany puts it, the feeling is that the whole consultation was “a token exercise so that [the FAO and World Bank] could say that there was a consultation with civil society.”

At the summit itself, civil society representatives have been dismayed to discover that they alone will be forced to enter via the venue’s rear entrance.  When inside, they will be permitted only a 90-minute forum with an agenda set by the FAO.  Meanwhile, according to Mulvany, a private sector roundtable upstairs will be addressed by Kofi Annan, the FAO’s head Jacques Diouf, and representatives of agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Syngenta.

Other attendants see the summit as a stage for leaders to use to enhance their images.  Helena Paul, head of UK-based not-for-profit Econexus, told me that “The summit has become ‘Important’ (with a capital I) chance for leaders to come to make their pronouncements.”  While the leaders strut, Paul continued, and aid pledges trickle in, “pledges are not going to address the underlying crisis.  They cannot address the problems of monoculture and industrial agriculture.”

The Palace under Siege from the Peasants

The Rome summit seems to have been designed to ensure the “exclusion of civil society voices” — in Mulvany’s words — but this is an aim which reflects the parlous state of neoliberal dominance rather than its strength.  A 1km exclusion zone policed by Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi’s carabinieri many exclude the persons of the global poor, but the neoliberal consensus is under sustained and potentially mortal assault from all sides.

Campaigning groups have long questioned the legitimacy of the international trading system which privileges subsidized US- or European-made products.  But recent work has also demonstrated the severe shortcomings of the first “Green Revolution” — with increasing pesticide use and soil degradation.  Others have demonstrated the superior productivity of small farmers, while numerous studies have forced proponents of GM crops onto the defensive.

Alternative power blocs have arisen to challenge international financial institutions and to push for solutions to the food crisis — as in Latin America.  India, meanwhile, has imposed restrictions on grain exports and begun to reestablish supports for small farmers.  Malaysia has proposed a barter scheme trading palm oil for rice.  Biofuels have been knocked off their pedestal and their proponents are now scrambling to designate them as “sustainably produced.”

This is, as Mulvany told me, an “interesting conjuncture and an exciting time” — opening a window for resistance to climb through into the precincts of the global citadel.  As Holt-Gimenez reminds us, though, it is also a dangerous time, with governments pleading for “support” from the World Bank and a new wave of corporate enrichment likely to masquerade as charity.

What happens in Rome won’t determine the future of global farming, but it may be a turning point in the fight for a fair, sustainable, bottom-up world of fields, watersheds, forests, grasslands, and valleys.  We are being told — as Holt-Gimenez puts it — to “ask an arsonist to put out a forest fire.”  But I know who I’d trust to put our global food system right.

Sam Urquhart is a freelance journalist from London, UK who writes about social justice and environmental issues. He is also an activist with the Campaign Against Climate Change, which fights for a socially just and effective global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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