The Food Crisis

Toronto Star - June 2008
Op-ed by Stuart Clark, Food Security Policy Group, Canadian Council for International Co-operation, and Cathleen Kneen, Food Secure Canada

In June, governments of the world, including Canada, will be in Rome for a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meeting to address the crisis in the global food system. This crisis is affecting more people than all the natural disasters of the past 20 years. Food prices are "sky-rocketing" according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, as prices of staple foods have increased by more than half in the last six months. There are street protests over food prices from Malaysia to Haiti to Senegal. More than a billion people don't know where their next meal will come from and whether they can afford it. This reflects the world's failure to respect, protect and fulfil the human right to adequate food.

Some of the reasons for the rapid rise in prices are now familiar. The high price of oil is pushing up the cost of crop production because of its impact on the cost of fertilizer and transport. Several grain-exporting countries have been hit by severe weather and yields are down. The world's growing appetite for meat and dairy is increasing the demand for feed grain. The exploding biofuel industry is gobbling up huge amounts of grain and oilseeds. Massive areas of agricultural land in developing countries are being converted to biofuel crops for export to Northern countries.

Two additional and significant factors have not been widely discussed - the impact of global trade policies on agriculture in developing countries, and the role of speculation in the global food market. It is crucial that these be examined before adopting policy solutions at the FAO in Rome.

Food production in many developing countries is stagnating. This is a serious development failure as three quarters of the population (the majority women) make their living in agriculture. Developed nations, during the past few decades, pushed developing countries to liberalize trade in agriculture, dismantle state-run institutions like marketing boards and specialize in exportable cash crops at the expense of staple foods. Developing countries were told they would always be able to buy their food from other countries that could produce it more cheaply. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund urged developing countries to cut government subsidies and technical assistance to small farmers, and to reduce their food import duties. Northern countries continued to subsidize their agricultural sectors and the surge of cheap subsidized imports overwhelmed developing country farmers. Developing countries were transformed from net food exporters in the 1970s to large-scale food importers today.

Food has become more than a source of livelihood and security for the billions of small farmers - it is now a hot commodity for investors in international markets. The sinking US dollar has driven billions in speculative money into global food markets. The price of food has jumped dramatically and it's the hungry poor who end up paying. As the poor spend more on food, the quantity and quality of their food decreases and frequently children are pulled from school as parents are forced to choose between spending on food or education.

Clearly there must be an immediate response to ensure that the poor don't fall deeper into poverty and hunger. The increase in Canada's contribution to the World Food Program will help in the short-term, but work must start on longer term solutions.

Globally, the demand for grain used for fuel must be dampened. In Canada, Bill C-33, now before Parliament, would expand the jurisdiction of the federal government enabling it to set biofuel content in gasoline. This is a step in the wrong direction. What is needed is a moratorium on biofuel development.

The World Bank realized (belatedly) that supporting agriculture is one of the best ways to help the poor. Less than 4% of all foreign aid goes to agriculture and an even smaller percentage to supporting small-scale farmers. It is time for CIDA to make funding for small-scale farmers producing for domestic consumption a priority.

Canada's current approach of aggressive trade liberalization is harming rural livelihoods in poor countries. Trade rules must allow governments to support local food production and protect smallholder agriculture. Canada should be calling for new trade rules to stabilize commodity prices globally and limit the concentration of corporate power in the global food system. Small-scale farmers in the South are not asking for high price high-tech seeds or chemical fertilizers. They are asking for fair terms of trade, basic infrastructure, and access to credit and marketing mechanisms.

In Rome, Canada has an opportunity to influence international policies that affect the food security of developing nations. The FAO and other international agricultural organizations are undergoing major reviews this year. Canada should be calling for reforms that respond to the needs identified by farmers and agricultural workers themselves.

Access to food is a basic human right and simply too important to allow a few companies to control its availability and price. We need to ensure that our foreign aid policies support agriculture and that our international trade rules do not undermine the livelihood of small-scale farmers in developing countries. Without addressing these factors, the food crisis will deepen and lives will continue to be lost.