The global food crisis
XXIII Congress of the Socialist International, Athens, 30 June-2 July 2008
The Socialist International believes that the global food crisis is among the great threats to peace and security in the world, particularly in the most vulnerable of the developing countries, and advocates a thorough reconsideration of the ways in which the world’s agricultural system currently operates.
Since the end of last year there have been riots, protests and demonstrations in at least three dozen countries – from Asia to Africa to Latin America and the Caribbean – against fast-spreading food shortages and the worldwide increase in prices that has pushed the costs of food to the highest levels in decades.
For the approximately one billion people living at the edge of survival on less than US$1 per day, and the 2.6 billion people – forty percent of the world’s population – living on less than US$2 per day, according to the United Nations Development Programme, the steep hike in prices, particularly of staple foods such as rice, corn and wheat, has been calamitous.
The upheaval afflicting the world’s food supply not only deepens poverty and undermines stability in countries and regions where economic and social pressures are severe, it also adds to the set of factors that push vast numbers of people to migrate from rural to urban areas and from the South to the North, and this during a time when xenophobia is already on the rise and harsher anti-immigrant laws are being implemented in developed countries.
The food crisis stems from rising energy prices, minimally regulated agricultural markets, financial speculation, growing demand in emerging economies, armed conflict in some countries and increasing, often heavily subsidised, biofuel production.
The crisis is compounded by extreme weather due to climate change, including drought such as in Australia, one of world’s leading agricultural producers where wheat and rice crops have been devastated, and increasingly violent storms such as those that have wreaked havoc in Central America and parts of Asia and other regions in recent years.
According to some scientific studies, climate change – particularly the way it negatively affects water resources necessary for crop cultivation – threatens to reduce food production by up to half in some areas of the world in little more than a decade.
At the same time, the two areas of global enterprise that utilise the greatest amounts of water, energy production from fossil fuels and chemical-intensive industrial agriculture, are among the principal contributors to global warming.
The worst effect of current policies has been the neglect and undermining of domestic agriculture in developing countries. The change in emphasis in recent decades from domestic production to importing basic grains and processed foods heavily subsidised by governments in the developed world has been driving small farmers out of business practically everywhere.
Moreover, cuts in budgets for agricultural research and development by governments and international agencies have left national agricultural systems unable to respond to the growing need today for greater production.
This is most evident with regard to the mounting shortages of basic grains in the developing world, where fewer farmers, lacking in the know-how and technologies to produce higher yields, are simply unable to feed growing populations that can no longer afford increasingly inflated prices for imports.
The Socialist International believes that the food crisis could have been avoided and that it can be overcome with a redirection in thinking, approach and policy.
Achieving food security in the developing world first and foremost requires a coordinated, multilateral response at both the global and the regional levels, based on mutual need and long range cooperation rather than short-sighted, debilitating competition between nations.
This effort requires a renewed sense of solidarity – in this case, putting human values before exchange values – and should focus on revitalising domestic production and relying on more traditional foods, supported by substantially higher levels of public investment in agricultural development and technologies.
The International recognises the important role of women in the domestic production and distribution of food crops in the developing world, particularly in Africa, and underlines the need to enhance their education levels and economic opportunities so that they can fully participate in the development of new agricultural policies.
Biofuel production should be reorganised and regulated so that it does not undermine the production and distribution of basic foodstuffs.
At the international level there should be a reorientation and strengthening of programmes to support agricultural production and food distribution on the part of the OECD nations, international agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as regional institutions including the Inter-American Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Particular emphasis should be placed on increasing the budgets of vital agricultural research centres and earmarking loans and resources to help farmers in developing countries adopt improved methods in their fields.
With regard to the countries most immediately affected by manmade and natural disasters or otherwise threatened by famine, emergency food distribution plans, particularly by the United Nations, should be upgraded and enhanced in terms of both human and financial resources.
The food crisis is an example not only of how markets alone cannot provide solutions, but also of how markets, when they are left alone, can add to the problem that needs to be solved.
During the 1960s and 1970s Asia embarked on a Green Revolution which, through a joining of forces between poor countries and wealthier nations and hands-on governmental policy and public investment in the science of feeding, caused crop yields to increase substantially and significantly reduced the threat of starvation.
The global economy has evolved greatly since then, but with political will and determination agricultural policies can still be reformulated in a coordinated way at the national, regional and global levels to alleviate today’s food crisis and to make substantial progress in reducing world hunger overall.