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What Will the G8 Summit Accomplish: Feed the Hungry or Fuel Hunger?

Anuradha Mittal

As the rich G8 nations convene for their next extravaganza in L'Aquila, Italy from July 8-10, 2009, world hunger will once again take center stage. It is expected that the U.S. will announce "significant" increase in funding for agricultural development aid along with multi-year commitments from other G8 countries. This follows G8's admission of failure in tackling hunger at its first ever farm conference in Treviso, Italy in April 2009.

Proposals to challenge hunger have become a common feature of international conferences since the 2008 food crisis. An increase of 83 percent in food prices between 2005-2008 led to a massive surge in global hunger -- the number of hungry in 2008 increased to 963 million from 854 million a year before (FAO, 2008) -- compelling heads of states to discuss food security as warnings of political instability and social unrest grew. The political intent to combat world hunger, however, was short spanned. Perhaps the decline in crop prices that started in the middle of 2008 made the problem appear less severe for policy makers, while the bailouts of failing banks and bankruptcies of automakers, came to capture all attention and resources.

The hunger crisis is however far from over. The number of hungry has reached a historic high in 2009 with 1.02 billion people -- one sixth of humanity -- going hungry every day. (FAO, 2009a) Despite an improved global cereal supply situation and decline in international prices of most cereals from their highs in the first-half of 2008, food prices remain high in developing countries. (FAO, 2009b) 32 countries face acute food crisis. Economic crisis has worsened the situation by further shrinking the purchasing power of the urban poor and food deficit farmers in poor countries. (TWN, 2009b)

It is in the midst of this deeply entrenched epidemic of poverty and hunger that the G8 will announce their new initiative that seeks a more coordinated approach to food aid and development. G8's performance on its past commitments however casts a shadow on the sincerity of their intentions.

At the height of the 2008 food crisis, G8 leaders had highlighted food security at their summit in Hokkaido, Japan which cost over $600 million compared to $400 million annual budget of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) -- half of it was spent on a massive security operation involving some 21,000 police officers, coast guards and soldiers. With much fanfare the G8 communiqué on global food security had committed $10 billion for food and agricultural aid to increase agricultural production in developing countries. Despite the media glitz around it, this was not any new money, but a mere adding up of aid already pledged by the G8 countries. The G8 communiqué also included a commitment to "reverse the overall decline of aid and investment in the agricultural sector..." The commitment however failed to list any specific dollar amounts with a timeline.

More important, despite commitments, pledges, grandiose communiqués by the rich donor nations to challenge hunger at numerous international summits, world hunger persists. The problem is inherent in the fallacy of explanations offered to explain the hunger crisis and in the promotion of market and technology-based solutions.

With hunger framed as a crisis of demand and supply, the proposed solutions have come to primarily focus on boosting agricultural production through technological solutions like genetic engineering (GE) and chemical inputs or/and on removing supply-side constraints to ensure access to food through liberalization of agricultural trade. This framework was used, for instance, to explain the 2008 food crisis and has permeated international efforts geared towards challenging hunger without questioning the policies promoted by the same donor countries and the multilateral institutions they control, over the last three-four decades that undermined food security in the developing countries in the first place. Their faulty analysis yields an incomplete understanding of the causes of world hunger and hence, broken solutions.

Free Trade = Freedom from Hunger?

While pledging commitment to fight hunger, the 2008 G8 communiqué reiterated its continued support for "the development of open and efficient agricultural and food markets." Ministers at the G8 Farm Conference in 2009 also recommended open markets, urging an "ambitious conclusion of the Doha Round" of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the solution to the food crisis.

The logic of the G8 that international trade will help solve the global food crisis was well reflected in a speech by Pascal Lamy, Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council conference in May 2009. Lamy claimed that increased competition reduces prices and thus enhances the purchasing power of the consumers. Secondly, he argued, trade helps transport food from places where it can be produced efficiently to where there is demand. (Reuters, 2009a)

Assertion that free trade will help solve hunger is however based on amnesia. Liberalization of agricultural markets has yet to deliver on the promised or expected gains in growth and stability in the developing world. In a submission to the Commission of Sustainable Development (CSD) in May 2009, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, pointed to the multilateral trading system as being "heavily skewed in favor of a small group of countries, and in urgent need of reform." (TWN, 2009) He was referring to the heavily subsidized agriculture in the rich countries which has helped them secure markets by flooding developing countries with cheap farm imports, making subsistence farming uncompetitive and financially unstable.

Dumping of cheap subsidized food has converted developing countries that had been once self-sufficient, and even net exporters of agricultural products, into net importers. In the 1960s, developing countries had an overall agricultural surplus of U.S. $7 billion. With the increase in imports by the 1970s, it had shrunk to U.S. $1 billion. Most of the 1990s and 2000s saw developing countries turn into net food importers with the deficit in 2001 being U.S. $11 billion" (Action Aid International, 2008).

The worst impact of indiscriminate opening of markets has been felt in the rural areas, where agriculture is the main occupation for most of the poor as well as a source of purchasing power. Increased imports have thus not increased food security. (South Center, 2008) Also, the suggestion that further liberalization of agricultural markets increases access to food overlooks the fact that the majority of the population in countries classified as having "widespread lack of access" is unable to procure food due to their low incomes. (FAO, 2008b)

At the national level, increased dependence on food imports has made developing countries more vulnerable to high prices. For instance in 2008 many developing countries experienced shortages because the markets upon which they have come to depend underwent changes in national food supply policies. The U.S. and European bio-fuel policy is a case in point: corn production dedicated to bio-fuels, instead of food, increased scarcity in terms of both its market availability and food aid availability.

Also measures previously available to governments to soften the effects of price volatility (such as controlling import and export volumes, managing domestic stocks, using price control and price support tools, consumer subsidies, rationing systems, etc.) have been criticized or discouraged for being distorting free trade. Export bans of food in 2008, imposed by some 40 countries including India, Egypt, and Vietnam, were seen as a threat to free trade and held responsible for increasing prices. But these measures had sought to protect national populations, especially the poor and vulnerable, against the global agricultural price shocks by ensuring national food availability below world prices before allowing exports to other countries.

A Technological Agricultural Revolution= Freedom From Hunger?

After nearly two decades of decline in aid for agricultural development, commitments to reverse the trend have become common in international summits. Olivier De Schutter, in his submission to the CSD, cautioned that increased investments in agriculture, while necessary, must be thought out seriously. The issue is not one of merely increasing budget allocations to agriculture but rather, "that of choosing from different models of agricultural development which may have different impacts and benefit various groups differently," he said. (TWN, 2009a)

The first element of the food security initiative to be announced at the G8 meetings reportedly will focus on improving agricultural productivity and development. (Reuters, 2009b) This comes on the heel of the G8 Farm Summit in April 2009 which too promoted a technological agricultural revolution, for instance the genetically engineered crops, to increase agricultural productivity in response to hunger.

A big player promoting genetic engineering as the panacea to global hunger was the United States. During the Summit, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack warned that failure to boost agricultural productivity would cause fresh social unrest and urged the G8 to back the use of science in agriculture, including genetically modified organisms. (Financial Times, 2009) On his return from Italy, much to the delight of biotech companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto, he pledged to bring a "more comprehensive and integrated" approach to promoting agricultural biotech overseas. (Des Moines Register, 2009).

Similarly, former Executive Director of the UN World Food Program, Catherine Bertini, and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, in an essay hailed plans for a new Green Revolution that includes use of biotechnology, as holding "great promise." They advocated prioritizing food and agriculture in the U.S. foreign aid. Recognizing that their plans might generate resistance, the authors wrote, "Although there is the potential for conflict over a hunger initiative on the issue of introducing more GM crops, this conflict is more likely to be with Europeans than with Africans or Asians, both of whom are increasingly inclined to accept the technology." (Bertini & Glickman, 2009)

Their thinking that developing countries can be arm twisted into accepting GE crops is reflected in a new multi-billion dollar U.S. aid bill as well. Global Food Security Act (SB 384), also known as the Lugar-Casey Act, revises the 1961 Federal Assistance Act to direct more money towards GE research as part of U.S. foreign aid programs. (PANNA, 2009) The bill awaits its future in the Senate after passing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2009 on the basis of hastily conducted, industry-friendly research that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the biggest forces behind plans for a new Green Revolution in Africa.

These efforts to challenge hunger however ignore the fact that the promises of feeding the world with GE crops have proven to be empty. A 2009 report from the Union of Concern Scientists which analyzed nearly two decades worth of peer-reviewed research on the yield of GE food/feed crops in the U.S., demonstrates that genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase crop yields. While only one major GE crop, Bt corn, has achieved 3-4 percent yield increase over the 13 years that it has been grown commercially, this growth is much less than what has been achieved over that time by other methods, including conventional breeding. The report contends that it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of technologies that have proven to be more successful at increasing yields. (UCSUSA, 2009)

Other studies also demonstrate that organic and similar farming methods can more than double crop yields. Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, a study by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), found that organic or near-organic agriculture practices in Africa outperformed conventional production systems based on chemical-intensive farming, provided environmental benefits, and are more conducive to food security in Africa. Analysis of 114 farming projects in 24 African countries found that organic practices resulted in a yield increase of more than 100 per cent. (UNCTAD, 2008)

The study confirmed the findings and recommendations of the United Nations' first ever evidence-based assessment of global agriculture for reducing hunger and poverty, improving rural livelihoods, and working towards environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable development. Known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2008), it called for a fundamental paradigm shift in agriculture development and concluded that genetic engineering is no solution for soaring food prices and hunger. It instead recommended low-input, low-cost agroecological farming methods.

In the face of growing evidence, continued focus by the G8 on improving agricultural productivity through technologies like genetic engineering, only serves attempts of biotech corporations like Monsanto which is running an advertising campaign in national newspapers like the New York Times as well as the National Public Radio claiming "its improved seeds help farmers double yields," needed to feed the world's growing population. (Monsanto, 2009)

Building a Resilient Agricultural System

At the World Food Summit in 1996, heads of governments made a commitment to reduce the number of hungry people -- 815 million then -- by half by 2015. The latest hunger figures reveal a crisis spiraling out of control, making the need to feed the world in ways that are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable even more urgent.

UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) recently pointed out that past reliance on technology jeopardized long-term sustainability with the overuse of chemical inputs. ESCAP's report highlights evidence from hundreds of grassroots development projects that increased agricultural productivity through agroecological practices, while increasing food supplies, incomes, food access, and improving the livelihoods of the poor. ESCAP thus recommends investment in sustainable agriculture that would prioritize small-scale food production based on ecologically viable systems. (UNESCAP, 2009)

In 2008, 60 governments approved the IAASTD report's call for a radical shift in agricultural policy and practice, in order to address hunger and poverty, social inequities and environmental sustainability. Recognizing that the past emphasis on increasing yields and productivity had negative consequences on environmental sustainability, the IAASTD report also promoted agriculture that is biodiversity-based, including agroecology and organic farming, for being resilient, productive, beneficial to poor farmers, and one that will allow adaptation to climate change. (IAASTD, 2008)

However these recommendations have yet to make it to the G8 agenda. If the G8 is indeed serious about its commitment to confront hunger, it is key that they stop the steady drumbeat proselytizing free markets and technological solutions to hunger. This will require that they recognize the need for developing countries to have policy space to determine agricultural policies that meet the needs of their populations, ensure that the local products are competitive, farmers' livelihoods and incomes are sustained, and national food security assured. In short, instead of deriving new wording for their old failed formulas the rich nations need to start being responsible and support governments in developing countries to put in place or restore sustainable and resilient agricultural systems.

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Anuradha Mittal is the Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank, working to increase public participation and to promote fair debate on critical social, economic, and environmental issues.

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