World Food Day: A Time to Listen

October 16 is World Food Day at the UN, and this year focus is how to achieve food security in times of crisis. This is a timely topic on the heels of last year’s food price crisis, the recent financial crisis, and the ongoing and accelerating climate crisis – this year, the global financial crisis has pushed over 1 billion people into hunger, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s latest annual report. Africa in particular feels the pangs of such a global crisis, where around 30 percent of the total population is estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition. Global leaders also anticipate the accelerated impact of climate change on vulnerable farmers around the world, for whom higher temperatures or more erratic weather patterns mean widespread crop failure.

In the wake of the last year’s global food price crisis, hunger issues have earned a more prominent place on policymakers agendas, and there has been no shortage of bold rhetoric and policy initiatives – the Global Food Security Act of 2009 is making its way through the Senate, Secretary Clinton just launched the State Department’s Global Food Security Initiative, G8 nations pledged $20 billion to agricultural development and a new approach to global food security. But World Food Day should be an occasion for reflecting on not only the statistics of the crises, but on the real human face of these numbers. After all, for the small farmers (mostly women) who grow the majority of the world’s food agriculture is more than a scientific problem of production numbers – it is a livelihood. And for those who do not have access to food or cannot afford it, hunger is more than just a pang in the belly – it is the deprivation of means to a dignified life.

But World Food Day is also an important time to think critically about how we go about responding to such an imperative for action, especially as the U.S. government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, largely through the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa, gears up to fund millions of dollars’ worth of initiatives across Africa. In sum, World Food Day should be a time to listen.

Lessons from the Green Revolution

Conventional wisdom, explains Food First’s Raj Patel, “suggests that if people are hungry, there must be a shortage of food, and all we need to do is figure our how to grow more.” Such was the logic of the original Green Revolution, which poured millions of first-world philanthropic dollars into bringing third-world farming “up to speed” on the intensive, high-input, high-yield agribusiness model implemented in the U.S. While achieving impressive statistical successes in China in particular, the model of top-down, resource-intensive solutions to growing numbers of mouths to feed, only saw hunger increase in the rest of the world not only by 11 percent.

Furthermore, it brought a method of food production that ignored both the ecological well-being of the land and the livelihoods of those who had been working it for generations. Massive displacement of peasants contributed to the ongoing urban slum epidemic, and industrial agriculture did a number on groundwater levels and soil quality. A cycle of dependency on the expensive seed and pesticide technology brought by the Green Revolution and the corporations that promoted it is well-documented in India, where suicides among debt-ridden farmers is an epidemicthat has taken more than 200,000 lives over the last decade or so.

But then and now, enough food is produced to feed the entirety of the world’s population (today we produce enough food for around 11.5 billion people). This time around, farmers’ coalitions, development organizations, research institutions, and scientists alike have put forth a unified stance – production is not the problem, and technology imposed from the top down is not the solution.

Finding the voices

Nevertheless, the recent High-level Conference on Global Hunger, in preparation for The UN World Summit on Food Security in November, failed to provide a venue for the complex economic, ecological, and social dimensions of hunger and agricultural production. According to a statement from dozens of farmers’ coalitions and international development organizations, “much of the debate nevertheless focused on production needs. Much less was said about the market failures behind world hunger. And the continuing marginalization and restricted access to land and productive resources of small-scale food providers – the women and men farmers, fishers, pastoralists, Indigenous Peoples – although they are the major providers of food for the one billion hungry, were not adequately addressed.” (Read full statement here)

Meanwhile, the United States government, while integrating a more complex understanding of global agricultural issues, still privileges the vision of a new “Green Revolution” for Africa, and places the efforts of U.S. agribusinesses at the helm. AFJN celebrates the steps taken away from superficial and costly band-aid solutions to hunger – such as shipping American food over as aid – and toward a concern for smallholder farmers, but we have also expressed our concerns about the Global Food Security Act’s mandate for biotech research and promotion of genetically modified crops (GMOs). While touted as a solution to world hunger in the face of a changing climate, there here has been significant lack of evidence of the ability of GMOs to improve yields, not to mention strong resistance to such solutions on the part of African farmers. (See past AFJN article on the Global Food Security Act)

In fact, recent declarations by the African Biodiversity Network at their 2009 Summit and the African Center for Biosafety express grave concern about and strong opposition to the way the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) dominates the debate, privileging the industrial model of agriculture and promoting land tenure legislation and weaker bio-safety regulations to the benefit of the biotech and agricultural firms closely linked with the initiative. “The sheer amount of money and political influence the Green Revolution push has behind it, is now dominating the debate on agriculture … and, in the process, narrowing Africa’s options for food sovereignty both on country and local level,” the Africa Biodiversity Network said in their statement.

These voices must no longer be excluded from the process and the lessons learned from the first Green Revolution must be revived. And it must be remembered that, as Raj Patel puts it, “philanthropic choices are very different from democratic ones,” and the ongoing dominance of those philanthropic voices in the debate must be replaced by a genuinely inclusive process. Innovative, small-scale solutions to drought, pests, or malnutrition have taken hold at the local level across Africa, and many have found ways to scale up to a national level. First-world efforts should shed the assumption that our technological know-how trumps and replace it with the ecological-based agricultural methods called for scientists from the global North and South alike. (See the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, for example)

For this World Food Day, we ask the U.S. government to listen the plight of small farmers, particularly women, who stand to be displaced by the intensive agricultural model, and to privilege organic solutions to world hunger. In addition, AFJN asks its members to click here! to send a message to your Sentators expressing your concern for the mandate for biotech research and promotion as it is currently written into the Global Food Security Act.

by Allison Burket

Action Alert! Tell your Senators to take the biotech mandate out of the Global Food Security Act! Click here!

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