From climate change to food justice: insights from Oxfam’s GROW report

The international non-governmental organization Oxfam has just put out a major new campaign, the likes of which seem as large—or larger—than their “Make Trade Fair” Campaign that crystalized during the massive globalization protests of 1999.

The campaign—called GROW—sets out a discrete but complex challenge: with nearly one billion people facing hunger every day (about 1 in 7 people worldwide), and international prices of basic foods expected to double by 2030, how do we tackle food insecurity? The question is not a simple Malthusian excuse to promote biotechnological, industrial agricultural overload—after all, Oxfam is well aware that famine results from the inability to purchase food in a world where there is still enough to go around. Rather, Oxfam poses the question in the broader database of key facts: that women’s access to farming is limiting progress to reduce hunger; that three big multinational agricultural companies (Cargill, Bunge, ADM) control almost 90% of the grain trade; that climate change is anticipated to reduce agricultural yields dramatically; and that diabetes and hunger are both appearing in poor communities as manifestations of malnutrition (breaking down our medical dichotomy between the under-nourished and over-nourished, as we discussed in an earlier blog post). If power determines who gets to eat properly and who does not, then how do we shift power, and in what ways? And how can we do so within the world’s political and environmental realities—that is, with a viewpoint that is informed not only by public health and nutrition science, but also by agricultural insights, ecological findings and economics?

Oxfam’s answer is to explicitly propose solutions to three major challenges: (1) the sustainable production challenge: to produce enough nourishing food for 9 billion people by 2050 while remaining within planetary boundaries; (2) the equity challenge: to empower women and men living in poverty to grow or buy enough quality food to eat; and (3) the resilience challenge: to manage volatility in food prices and reduce vulnerability to climate change. (As an aside, if Oxfam can answer all three of these questions in just one 39-page report, we might have to ask them about other major life struggles: boxers or briefs? Who actually listens to Katy Perry? And why does iTunes have a critical software update every five minutes?).

The sustainable production challenge

The sustainable production challenge can be captured in one key fact: based on current trends, demand for food may increase by 70% by 2050 due to population growth (mostly in low-income nations) and due to shifts in consumption from economic development, but agricultural yields have dropped from 2%/year to 1%/year since 1990 and are expected to be less than 1%/year during the next decade. Limiting population growth in poor countries would not solve this problem: poor people contribute little to food demand; high consumption among the wealthy appears to be the major problem driving utilization. The Western diet uses far more land, water (and creates more CO2 emissions) than does a grain-based diet; as much as 25% of Western countries’ food is also wasted.

Increasing industrial agricultural farming does not seem to solve the problem. Higher irrigation and fertilizer productivity has hit a plateau, with the opportunities to irrigate more land disappearing, but food commodity consumption now outstripping production. Aid for agricultural development in poor countries has reduced from 20% in 1983 to 4% of aid in 2006 in real terms, while rich countries provide $250 billion per year of subsidies to their domestic farming sector (79 times the amount of agricultural aid, preserving low prices for US and European agricultural products to outcompete farmers in poorer countries). Such subsidies cost the taxpayer far more than does international aid, and ironically the wealthiest 20% of the population—agribusiness company executives, not domestic farmers—gain the resulting revenue.

Worst yet, major companies have been participating in “land grabs” to buy-up agricultural plots in poor countries, waiting for this land to be valuable in the future as the demand for farming increases. Over 1,200 land deals sold 80 million hectares in poor countries since 2000 (mostly since the 2008 food price spike), and investment hedge funds such as Emergent Asset Management are specializing in a new form of land grabbing that is reminiscent of colonial British acquisitions of exporting islands. The World Bank has found that investors are targeting the countries that have the least institutional capacity to regulate them; the deals involved “displacement of local people without compensation, land being given away at below its potential value, and negative knock-on effects on other nearby areas”. The investment value to these firms is unquestionable; in the words of the Nestle Corporation’s CEO: “with the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries essentially a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal.”

With scarcity, demographic change and climate change, demand for food and improper distribution of supply is likely to continue to inflate commodity prices into the future.

So how to address the sustainable production challenge? First, US and European farm subsidies have to be cut. They are subsidizing executives in a few high-profit agribusinesses, which have been destroying local production systems in poor countries by flooding markets with corn and soy products that are neither nutritious nor reliable sources of food. The practice of sending these subsidized-products to poor country markets is often disguised as food aid, but known by the hunger community as “dumping”. Just as importantly, the massive subsidies stifle investments in diverse agricultural programs such as small-scale farming, which have more effectively addressed hunger than has industrial agribusiness. The myths about smallholder farms in poor countries have been dismissed: they are not low in productivity, they are not averse to technologies and innovations, and they seem perfectly accepting of risk and markets. They have nothing to do with pastoral fantasies of returning to the forest and living like Hobbits; they are practical, real, and technological…just not so enormous as to be market-distorting and out-of-touch with their communities.

Meanwhile, huge waste of between 30% and 50% of all food is taking place along storage and transportation routes from US and European agribusiness farms to consumers both domestically and (most of all) in poor nations. In addition to addressing these market inefficiencies, using novel techniques that large agribusinesses have not bothered to adopt—such as drip-feed irrigation, water harvesting, low- or zero-till agriculture, agroforestry, intercropping, and the use of organic manures—reduces the carbon footprint of production while actually increasing yields and reducing reliance on input products, as demonstrated in Bolivia. Further investing in water management—including pricing water for industry and commercial agricultural uses—results in higher water use efficiency, higher agricultural productivity, and a net gain to governments of $8 in revenue earned for every $1 of initial investment.

The equity challenge

While global hunger prevalence was declining for decades, in the mid-1990s it began to rise again, and spiked further after the 2008 food price crisis. Ironically, about 80% of the hungry are in rural areas that produce food; the poor simply have no means to buy the food they harvest. Most of them do not own the land; while in the US, 4% of farm owners (large agribusinesses) own 50% of farm land, 8% of farmers own 80% of the land in Guatemala and 1% of farmers own 50% in Brazil. The worst-off are women; if the share of land between genders were equalized, world hunger would be expected to decrease by 17%.

If the lack of land ownership means that farmers can’t use their own land to subsist, perhaps the farming sector can provide enough income for them to purchase food. But because of the large number of middlemen, traders, processors, manufacturers and retailers in the agricultural market, few farmers have the ability to negotiate reasonable terms for their labor. Major companies control the price-setting points and reimbursement rates in the global marketplace.

The inequality in power over production also means that research and development resources are misallocated. While the research budget of just one private genetically-modified food developer is $1.2 billion, the world’s leading center for agricultural research in poor communities has $500 million for all developing countries.

How should we address the equity challenge in the face of this disparity? Supporting female producers seems to have made a significant stride with the formation of labor unions; meanwhile, Fair Trade, organic and Slow Food movements have influenced corporate behaviors through consumer campaigns. Producer organizations (cooperatives of producers) have generated new political rights for food harvesters, as seen in Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Collaborative arrangements between such producers and their government have redistributed land in the Philippines, and provided greater food access in Colombia. The arrangements have spread to India, where fisherman have gained access to lakes (“pond reform”?) that has dramatically improved livelihoods.

The resilience challenge 

Food prices have gone wild since 2008 for myriad reasons that we addressed in an earlier blog post.

Recent attention has focused on the banking industry, which has speculated to the tune of $317 billion in commodity indexes (for a simple explanation of speculation and how it affects food prices, see this report). Biofuel subsidies also seem to be a major cause of price spikes as food supply is decreased, diverted into motors rather than mouths; nearly 40% of US corn production went into biofuels at a cost of $20 billion in subsidies per year.

International food aid seems to be impotent in the face of this challenge; US food aid, for example, is spent mostly on US shipping companies and agribusinesses that are charging the government (or taxpayer, rather) up to 70% higher than market prices, and taking 147 days for food delivery on average (four times longer than local sourcing).

Domestic food policy may make a bigger difference to whether international prices translate into low food access. Export bans enacted by 30 countries (banning the shipping-out of food to increase domestic supply and thereby lower domestic prices, often ineffectively) have been disastrous, in that this hoarding has made international prices even higher as global product availability shrank. Forty-six developing countries used domestic subsidies or price controls to prevent high international prices from translating into high domestic prices; these worked temporarily as well, but reduced incentives to food producers to increase their output, and burdened government budgets during a recession.

By contrast, social protection programs like Brazil’s Zero Hunger program were far more successful. Brazil has had slower economic growth than India, but managed to do far better in terms of hunger management by using a broad number of protections ranging from cash transfers to poor mothers to small-scale food producer supports (contrasted with India’s failure to coherently connect its National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to meaningful food distribution programs). This does not mean that everyone should focus on large-scale farming as Brazil has; if such a model were exported, for example, to Tanzania, it would result in the displacement of 12,500 smallholder farms for just one large-scale farm, with a worsening in poverty and hunger. The major success of Brazil’s program was in its ability to connect the to available supply (enabling the purchasing of food), not necessarily in increasing that supply. Ethiopia provides another nice example of improvement in aid reliability when food in local markets was sourced through farmer support systems coordinated by the World Food Program.

The resilience challenge can also be met by modifying the international terms of trade. Multilateral food “reserves” are one approach; because markets are so fickle, building a system of ensuring stable supplies when international investors go into panic buying-and-selling cycles following a drought or earthquake may prevent food markets from behaving like the mortgage markets that precipitated the 2007 recession. Preventing export restrictions is another priority to reduce market volatility, and has already reached the G8. Less political attention has been paid to how to effectively regulate commodity speculation, especially since bankers are politically connected and affluent. But sufficient attention to the global recession and food price crisis may be the impetus for reforms to the banking sector, including the provision of new funding streams such as the Robin Hood Tax on commodity transactions. Such funding can contribute up-front to a global fund, such that famines can be rapidly addressed when they occur after unanticipated humanitarian crises such as natural disasters.

Resilience will also mean anticipating the impact of climate change. Adapting for climate change has been successful in locations such as Thailand, where the development of farmers’ water management systems (storage ponds, wells, sprinkler systems, pumps) helped to navigate the cycle between drought and flooding. So much more attention is paid, however, to developing countries’ adaptation of manufacturing and farming protocols that less attention is now paid to the big polluters in rich countries; there is much concern that putting the most pressure on poor countries to be “green” while rich countries and emerging middle-income economies pollute more is adding more burdens to the poor.

The bottom line       

Oxfam’s campaign really calls for us to make three essential changes to the way we work and play, if we’re going to have an effective hunger policy this century:

(1) Grow better:  This means means investing in a new future for agriculture, so that more than a billion small-scale food producers—especially women—can access the land and resources they need to grow enough for themselves and for others.

(2) Share better: This means transforming how we manage the food supply chain between growers and consumers, to reduce exploitation, reduce market volatility, and ensure adequate access to nutritious foods as well as to the economic revenues generated.

(3) Live better: This means rethinking our notions of prosperity and developing better ways to do business, run our economies and act as consumers.

Ultimately the GROW campaign is about protecting our resources as well as human livelihoods, focusing on the future in a way that is not myopic to the data behind multiple disciplines—from nutrition to ecology. It involves mixing our common sense with experience from the recent food prices spikes. And it means pursuing a meaningful hunger policy that addresses the politics and economics of food as much as our traditional concerns about famine and aid.


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