Monday, September 14, 2009

No winners in the global food crisis

Suman Sahai
These days I often hear that the global food crisis is not bad for everyone. Whereas consumers may not be able to afford food, it is being suggested that farmers at such times will benefit because they will get a better price for their produce. This is a dangerous argument. When there is a crisis of food and its availability is starkly reduced, it is the poor who suffer the most. This includes the small and marginal farmers, who count among the worst victims of such a crisis, specially in developing countries. Perhaps bigger farmers can benefit from high prices of food staples like rice, wheat and corn, but they benefit anyway from agriculture because they have access to resources and know how to utilise the opportunities presented by the market. The small farmers usually have little surplus to benefit from such price surges and they are also consumers of foods they do not cultivate. These farmers suffer disproportionately when prices of food go up.

Recently, the Deputy Director-General of Africa Rice Center (WARDA) made a statement that the global food crisis which sent rice prices above $1,000 per tonne last year, is a great opportunity for Africans to improve their economic situation, because the price crisis has actually made rice farming profitable. As he made this assertion, there was no mention of the fact that if the farmers kept their rice for home consumption, there was nothing to sell and benefit from and if they sold the rice they needed to feed their families, they may get some cash, but what would they eat?

The fact is that there is a food deficit in sub-Saharan Africa which in anycase is one of the most vulnerable parts of Africa. This region imports about 40 per cent of its rice requirement from Asia, at an annual cost of around 2 billion dollars. The anticipated impact of climate change is projected to be particularly severe in Asia and it is likely that rice production could be negatively impacted. In this case, there may not be much surplus for export. Africa too is slated to be hard hit by climate change. Instead of drawing red herrings about the high market price of rice at a time of food shortage and the possibility of making big profits, policy makers and scientists should focus on increasing agriculture productivity at home and ensure that food production is stabilised to avert hunger.

Despite Africa’s favourable climatic conditions, it does not produce enough rice for its needs. This situation must change so that Africa can become selfsufficient in rice production. For this to happen, African governments must invest substantially in research and the international research community must be forthcoming with germplasm and technologies to improve yields on farmers’ fields. This is not the time to think of linking scarce food to the market. It is the time to keep a strong focus on joining hands across the world to stabilise food production in vulnerable areas and prepare strategies to cope with the impact of climate change so that food production does not become a major casualty of global warming and the changing climate.

So far the international effort has simply not been enough to minimise the global food crisis or develop mechanisms to prepare agriculture to cope with the impact of the changing climate. It is disconcerting to hear this ‘winners of the food crisis’ view at international meetings. Its almost as if the global community which has responded shamefully to the food crisis, is making out the case that it is actually not such a disturbing situation after all, and that there are in fact categories of the so-far deprived who will reap a bonanza from the food crisis.

Instead of this cynical hypocrisy, a mission mode intervention is needed to tackle this crisis. At the High Level Conference on World Food Security in June 2008, the UN Comprehensive Framework for Action estimated that US$25-40 billion per year in additional funding is required to restore global food and nutritional security. Given the scale of the crisis, this figure is woefully inadequate. Conservative estimates suggest that
at least US$60-70 billion per year would be needed for the implementation of an “essential minimum package” to effectively combat hunger worldwide.

Following the High Level Conference, world leaders pledged a mere US$12.3 billion to tackle the food crisis, but have donated only US$1billion so far. This is the lowest ratio of actual funds to funds pledged, of any global appeal in recent history. This disappointing
amount illustrates once again that hunger is nowhere on the global agenda. This is sending the dangerous message that the rich nations are not seriously concerned about tackling the food crisis. Serious effort and effective interventions to combat global hunger will need adequate funding and international coordination. This is an ethical and moral imperative.

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