Ending Global Hunger – is it possible?
This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 25.6.11
On Monday 27th June, Uganda farmer and mother of 11, Polly Apio, will be speaking at the Bellingen Uniting Church, from 5.30 – 7.30 p.m.
She is in Australia on a speaking tour, organised by Action Aid, to raise awareness about the reality of hunger as it is experienced around the world, especially in Africa, and especially by women.
There is a common misconception that hunger in today’s world is the result of a lack of food. It seems logical enough, and our political leaders promote it widely.
For example, Trade Minister Craig Emerson travelled to Paris this week to attend the meeting of G20 Agriculture Ministers to discuss food price volatility, and come up with an action plan to address it. His message was that ‘the single most powerful means of dealing with the food security problem is through agricultural trade liberalisation’. In other words, other countries lower trade barriers to Australian products, creating incentives for our farmers and growers to increase production. We help feed the world, and we get new markets and earnings into the bargain. Simple.
The trouble is, this recipe – this ideology – has been promoted and tried for nearly three decades. It hasn’t worked, at least as regards the alleged objectives of combatting food insecurity and providing decent livelihoods for farmers. Since 1980, the numbers of malnourished people worldwide have more than doubled, food price volatility has become endemic as speculators have poured into commodity futures markets, and the terms of trade for most farmers worldwide – Australians included – have steadily worsened.
In any competitive system there are always winners and losers; only in this case, we have well over a billion losers, and a tiny handful of big winners. Among them is the leading grain processing and meat-packing corporation, Cargill. Cargill’s sales have more than doubled since 2000, while its profits have risen 500% to $US2.6 billion in 2010; and that figure is a hefty fall from the $US3.95 billion it earned in 2008, at the height of the last round of extreme food price volatility. So far this year its profits are up nearly 50% on the 2010 figure, once again taking advantage of the sharp rises in commodity prices.
I don’t know about you, but frankly I find something quite obscene in this coincidence between record agri-business profits and the proliferation of mass hunger, poverty and suffering. It says a lot about the naked and callous self-interest that passes for global culture at this point in history.
You won’t of course find this item on the agenda in the ministerial discussions in Paris. Instead, the communiqué calls for greater free trade, increased production, and the more efficient functioning of international commodities markets.
The alternative to this failed agenda for food security is to empower small farmers in the developing world to feed their communities and countries. This used to happen; before the era of trade liberalisation, most sub-Saharan African countries were actually net food exporters. Now they have to import as much as 50% of their food, which makes them highly vulnerable to price shocks.
Incidentally, Australians as a whole don’t eat enough fruit and veg, especially leafy greens, and we don’t produce enough either to meet the recommended daily intake. So before we start telling other countries how to organise their food systems, we should get our own house in order.
Which brings us back to Polly. Ironically, more than half of the malnourished persons in the world are small farmers; and in developing countries, most of the small farmers are women. Supporting them to raise their productive capacities – and to do so sustainably, without creating further dependencies on expensive seeds and chemical inputs – will make large inroads into global hunger.
This is called Food Sovereignty, and it means looking beyond our own self-interest, to stand in solidarity with inspiring leaders like Polly, and to do what we can to help them achieve their vision of dignity and self-determination for their communities. Come along and listen to what she has to say.