Trying to "Feed the Future" without learning from the past
World leaders met in New York this week at the United Nations to assess progress in halving the proportion of hungry people in the world—the first of eight lofty Millenium Development Goals set by the UN in 2000.
One bit of good news you might have heard is that after the last couple of really disastrous years, we seem to be headed in a slightly better direction: the number of hungry people appears to be inching down, and at 925 million, is 98 million less than the 1.023 billion who were hungry last year. 98 million fewer hungry people is meaningful. But we are still talking about nearly a billion people without adequate food and nutrition—a far cry from the 1996 World Food Summit’s goals of reducing hunger to 400 million people by 2015. We’re basically back to where hunger levels were just before the big food price spikes of 2008. And here’s the real news: food prices are expected to surge again, as they already have in Mozambique and elsewhere, with disastrous consequences for the poor.
As Raj Patel explains, our persistent food crises have little to do with global food supplies (global grain stocks are well provisioned and we’re expecting the 3rd highest wheat crop ever) and everything to do with money and politics. The persistence of world hunger hinges on the fact that almost nothing has been done by global powers to address the structural causes of hunger: inequality and poverty. Meanwhile, uncontrolled financial speculation is wreaking havoc on the price of food, making the situation much much worse.
Fortunately, we know what to do. The most rigorous and comprehensive international assessment of agriculture to date has mapped the path out of poverty: support small-scale farmers, invest in biodiverse agroecological farming, establish more equitable global trade rules, reduce volatility in food prices, and break up corporate monopolies and their control of the food system . . . at least to get started. So is the U.S. on board?
Speaking to world leaders in New York yesterday, President Obama said that the U.S. is changing the way it does business, and that the time in which “development was dictated by foreign capitals has come to an end.” So far, so good. Our new foreign aid policy will help lift nations out of poverty, he continued, so long as they are willing to create attractive environments for investment and trade. USAID will lead the charge. And we should partner with well-financed players like the Gates Foundation. Uh-oh. This is sounding all too familiar (see my blog last week on the U.S.-Monsanto-Gates Foundation cartel).
What the U.S. is offering the world’s hungry is a $3.5 billion initiative known as Feed the Future. Filled with reassuring language about U.S. leadership in feeding the world’s poor with sustainable food systems, the initiative contains a mix of wildly conflicting agendas: commendable attention to small-scale farmers, gender equity and land rights sits alongside promotion of agricultural biotechnology, protection of intellectual property rights (whose, I wonder?) and the fast-tracking of trade liberalization. More revealing perhaps are how U.S. officials talk about Feed the Future. Statements by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack and USAID Director Rajiv Shah (formerly of the Gates Foundation) describe ending world hunger by increasing productivity through U.S. "discovery" and "delivery" of "breakthrough technologies" such as biotechnology to poor farmers. No mention of agroecology, no mention of local or Indigenous knowledge, no mention of food democracy.
I just wish President Obama would sit down with Wisconsin dairy farmer and agricultural policy expert, Jim Goodman, who nails the issue: “The ultimate cause of hunger is not a lack of Western agricultural technology, rather hunger results when people are not allowed to participate in a food system of their choosing.”