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"Feed The Future" Plan Repeats Mistakes of the Past

Food Crisis Response Continues to Exclude Question of Land Distribution: Southern Africa and the U.S. Plan for Global Food Security

Rebecca Burns

Deadly riots in Mozambique this month momentarily renewed attention to the vulnerability of poor countries to shocks in global food prices. Subsequent reassurance that there are adequate fuel and grain stocks worldwide to prevent a disruption like that of 2008, in which rapidly rising food prices saw riots across the globe, has calmed much of this concern. That Mozambique is slated to begin receiving funding for agricultural development this year under Obama’s new global food security initiative further reinforces the impression that a crisis has been averted. Unfortunately, the price increase in Mozambique bears little relation to the global food supply, and the emphasis on increasing food production will thus have little impact on hunger and malnutrition in Mozambique or elsewhere.

Efforts of major donor governments and international institutions to address global hunger and food insecurity have gone through many iterations, but a constant feature since the “Green Revolution” of the 20th century has been a paradigm that emphasizes increased agricultural productivity through the introduction of new seed varieties and agricultural technologies. In 2009, Obama announced his new $3.5 billion, 3-year program called “Feed the Future” (FTF), and implementation plans have been developed for twenty target countries.

The 2010 FTF implementation plan for Mozambique follows from the Green Revolution’s premise that farming by small-holders cannot achieve food security. Instead, the plan for “agricultural transformation” in Mozambique focuses on the commercialization of agriculture through technology transfer and public and private investment to support large-scale farming.

Is this emphasis on commercial farming warranted? Roughly 75% of Mozambique’s population is currently involved in agricultural production, and many do indeed struggle to maintain livelihoods and produce sufficient crops absent government support and access to irrigation. Under-investment in agriculture, however, is a direct legacy of the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs of the 1970s and 80s. International financial institutions urged African governments to eliminate subsidies for the peasant farmers who were previously the main source of domestic food production.

Now, as food rights group FIAN International points out, these same international bodies and donors have begun to blame the failure of the Green Revolution in Africa on low levels of agricultural investment. Recent policy shifts on the continent, however, are heavily skewed towards investment in the production of food for export. They also are friendlier to acquisition of land by foreign investors, a growing trend in Africa that is complicating land tenure systems and further dismantling smallholder farming systems. The distribution of land is a crucial factor in determining who has access to food, but it is one that is often minimized within the framework of “food security” through an emphasis on who is able to produce the most food.

Smallholders in Mozambique currently control 95% of the land. According to FIAN, Mozambique’s 2006 Action Plan to Reduce Absolute Poverty (PARPA II) emphasizes “rationalizing” land use and the loosening of legal barriers to these “land grabs.” PAPRA II, the FTF implementation plan, and other internationally-backed strategies would thus likely begin to consolidate land ownership in Mozambique the hands of larger producers under the premise that declining involvement in the agricultural sector is one of the hallmarks of a growing economy. In this way, food security becomes de-linked from access to land and premised instead on the ability of agricultural-led growth to create non-agricultural sector jobs so that newly landless consumers are able to purchase cheap food.

This model of land and agricultural relationships is one that exists currently in South Africa, which the 2009 UN Conference on Trade and Development report identifies as the top importer and exporter of food in the region. South Africa also features in Feed the Future documents as a “strategic partner” for implementing food security in the rest of southern Africa, both through trade and through sharing expertise. The intersections between the food systems of Mozambique and South Africa are symptomatic of the problems of Feed the Future’s approach and the analysis resulting from the broader framework of food security.

Mozambique only produces about 30% of its wheat, and its status as a food importer is precisely what makes it so difficult to keep prices stable. A basic implication of a globalized food system is that a number of factors impact prices, and prices in turn determine who can access food, regardless of how much is available. Mozambique imports many of its staples from South Africa, and a recent strengthening of the South African rand against the Mozambiquan metical was most likely the key factor in the government’s decision to increase bread prices by 30%.

South Africa, in turn, is generally considered a “food secure” country at the national level, but as many as half of South African households experience hunger regularly. This contradiction is inherently related to the state of land relations in South Africa, which remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.  The country has a strong agricultural sector developed historically through expropriation of fertile land during colonization, subsidies from the apartheid government, and the exploitation of black labor. The post-apartheid government’s plan to redistribute 30% of fertile land to black farmers has been excruciatingly slow, and farm labor remains plentiful and exceedingly cheap.

These historical inequities have been exacerbated by the moral assumptions and other general features of the globalized food chain. As South Africa has begun to import more processed foods, the agricultural sector has lost hundreds of thousands of low-paying farm-worker and processing jobs. Meanwhile, South Africa still sends primary commodities to Europe and elsewhere in Africa. This results in a pattern in which agricultural activity in South Africa has become consolidated onto larger, export-oriented farms while soaring unemployment and the decreasing availability of local food sources makes the majority of the population less food secure. To export this model, which is literally built upon a colonial system of land relations, to other parts of southern Africa will likely result in an increased food supply which a decreased proportion of the population can afford.

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Rebecca Burns is a master's student in peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame and is currently living and researching food security in South Africa.

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