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Global hunger and food security
NewsNotes, November-December 2009

At the end of September the Obama administration released its Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative Consultation document. The document is a work in progress and will continue to be expanded over the coming weeks. More information is available at the State Department website where comments and input from the U.S. and global community are welcomed. The issues and concerns raised in the following article represent aspects that the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns hopes will be added to the final initiative.

Food security means having a reliable source of food and sufficient resources to purchase it. The administration’s proposal follows a familiar pattern of embracing this definition, but then turning immediately to investment in agricultural productivity as its response. Such investments are needed but the sole focus on agricultural productivity and the default response of supplying inputs (such as high tech seeds and fertilizers) overlooks many of the vulnerabilities that small holder farmers in less industrialized countries face. A U.S. food security initiative should begin with a detailed study of these vulnerabilities and an analysis of how past, seemingly unrelated U.S. policies such as trade and finance policies have played a role in intensifying the factors that make rural producers more vulnerable.

First, agriculture in most less industrialized countries plays a major role in those nations’ economic development. Any U.S. food security plan must therefore make explicit how it seeks to fit into overall country development plans. Poverty is closely related to hunger in both urban and rural communities. In many parts of the world small producers who rely on farms of less than five acres for their food and income make up the majority of those living in poverty and food insecurity. In most African countries, agriculture provides about 70 percent of all employment and is the backbone of the economy; it is the largest contributor to GDP, the biggest source of foreign exchange – and it still accounts for about 40 percent of the continent’s hard currency earnings; and is the main generator of savings and tax revenues.

Agricultural development then can be a driver of national development goals. The development of national and regional food production systems which support broad participation of small producers offers an opportunity to reduce significantly both hunger and poverty by improving agricultural productivity and rural incomes. This includes improving the quality of livelihoods in impoverished communities as a necessary strategy in combating hunger and food insecurity.

It is time to turn away from failed national and multilateral agricultural policies and international aid efforts favoring large-scale, capital-intensive industrial export production and invest in the world’s small holder producers. Investments in small-producers in particular drive broadly-shared economic development and poverty reduction in developing countries, increasing rural incomes and purchasing power. With greater prosperity, the consequent higher effective demand for industrial and other goods would induce dynamics that would be a significant source of economic growth in parts of the world where growth would contribute to a better quality of life.

Small holder farmers in less industrialized countries have traditionally been locked into schemes of trading their raw products (especially grain and fiber) in markets that are already flooded with these same products. Development focused planning for the greatest success in rural areas would include plans for training, capacity building and infrastructure designed to empower small holder farmers and rural entrepreneurs to expand value-added processing and marketing so that their agricultural products bring them greater profits.

When it comes to selling their products, small holder farmers are particularly vulnerable at harvest time. It is well known that at the time of harvest, commodity prices drop. Added to this simple factor of supply and demand, unregulated speculation in food and energy commodity futures markets exacerbates regular supply and demand price fluctuations, prompting highly volatile global food prices. The recent steep rise in prices affected families here in the United States and was particularly devastating for impoverished people in rural and urban areas in developing countries. Reinstating regulation in food and energy commodity futures markets is necessary to protect people from being unable to afford the food they need for survival.

Sustainability that takes into account Earth’s carrying capacity must also be a central concern if the U.S. wants to effectively respond to global hunger and food insecurity for the long term. Fossil fuel based agricultural systems are often assumed as the model that worked for the U.S. and therefore are best shared and multiplied in less industrialized countries. But this approach does not take into account long term sustainability in the face of diminishing fossil fuel resources, and the impact of these technologies on the soil itself. With regard to the sharing of high tech seeds and fertilizers, it is critically important for the long term to protect the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends, including seed varieties and traditional farming techniques.

Now is the time to invest in research to develop “closed-loop” agricultural systems. A U.S. initiative should heed the recommendations highlighted in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a process that brought together governments, NGOs, the private sector, producers, consumers, the scientific community, and multiple international agencies involved in agricultural and rural development sectors to share views and gain common understanding and vision for the future. This study took seriously long term sustainability in reducing hunger and poverty, improving rural livelihoods, and facilitating equitable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development through the generation, access to, and use of agricultural knowledge, science and technology.

Consistent with the IAASTD findings, the U.S. should support sustainable techniques and low-input practices to increase productivity and build ecological resilience. In doing so, it is important to support innovative, culturally appropriate initiatives in the food system locally and globally, including: private enterprise, cooperatives, and public institutions.

Another area where small producers are extremely vulnerable is in land ownership and use. Land reform policies have long been a point of contention in many developing countries. Since small holder producers’ access to and control of land is crucial to improving their productivity, it is important for the U.S. to respect partner countries’ right to enact land reforms for the purpose of improving food security and enhancing small producer livelihoods. This will mean coordinating trade and investment policies to ensure that countries have the freedom and policy space to exercise this right.

The U.S. should focus on creating an enabling policy environment for well-functioning, vibrant local, national and regional markets. For markets to enhance food security and poverty reduction they must be characterized by competition among diverse entrepreneurs. Concentration at any point along the agricultural value chain can lead to abuses of power and trust which deny farmers a fair return for their crops and force consumers to devote more resources for food.

Small holder producers must have choices among the entrepreneurs with whom they do business. Markets function best when regulations are transparent, mechanisms exist to enforce contracts, policies are predictable and anti-trust laws are robust. The United States could contribute to strengthening enabling policy environments by improving the ability of governments to collect and analyze market information; training private sector trade associations and farmers organizations in how to engage local and national governments; and supporting reform and implementation of policy and regulations that promote vibrant markets and agricultural investment which promotes food security and small holder producer livelihoods.

Food security is often threatened by food scarcity in times of drought and other emergencies. U.S. food security policy could also support the establishment of regional food reserves to enable countries to supply food to vulnerable populations when needed. Such reserves may also stave off sudden price spikes when market supplies are low (planting season in many rural areas).

Faith in action:

Write to the State Department (globalhunger@state.gov) expressing your views of how the U.S. can best respond to global hunger and food security, include personal stories of your experience as a U.S. consumer or producer and any experiences you know from living with or talking to consumers and farmers in less industrialized countries.

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