Food for thought —Syed Mohammad Ali

In 2007 alone, the US diverted 54 million tonnes of maize to produce bio-ethanol. Even the EU used 2.85 million hectares to grow rapeseed oil and other crops for bio-fuels

It is nothing short of ironic that three years after the group of eight highly industrialised countries — known simply as the G8 — pledged with much fanfare to ‘make poverty history’, there is a major global food crisis in the offing, which is estimated to have already deprived close to a quarter of the world’s population of basic food security.

Factors behind this alarming food crisis include speculation on food commodities, and the growing demand for bio-fuels and for meat, which is diverting grain away from feeding people to using it to make fuel or else to feed livestock.

The high price of oil is another key contributor to rising food prices, not only because modern agriculture — including fertilisers, farm machinery and transport systems — remains intensively dependent on fossil fuels, but also because any increase in oil prices gives an additional incentive for diverting crops meant for human consumption towards producing energy.

It is clear that a major change in existing farming practices and policies is needed to address soaring food prices, hunger and environmental disasters. For the past quarter century, developed countries of the world, especially the G8, have been promoting evidently misguided trade and agriculture reforms. Instead of bringing about prosperity, such policies have led to falling yields, heavy dependence on food imports and the loss of livelihoods for millions of poor people around the developing world.

Poor and indebted countries have been perpetually encouraged to dismantle or privatise state institutions such as cooperative credit schemes, input subsidies, and a host of extension programmes. They have been compelled to shift from food to export crops, and to open up their markets to heavily subsidised northern agribusiness concerns.

On the other hand, while direct payments to OECD farmers amounted to US $125bn in 2006, OECD aid to farmers in developing country was US $3.9 billion in the same year; which is only 3 percent of the amount spent on subsidising OECD farmers. Overall aid to agriculture currently accounts for only 3.4 percent of aid budgets even though 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas.

Given this above situation, the international NGO, ActionAid, has written a strongly worded policy paper chiding G8 leaders to take bolder steps to prevent world hunger spiralling further out of control. Its core assertion is that the G8 must step up emergency assistance to the 850 million people who are suffering from hunger, and thereafter begin addressing the underlying causes of the current food crisis.

One measure identified with regards to the latter imperative calls upon the US to immediately remove all subsidies for corn ethanol production and revoke the targets for increased use of bio-fuels which are driving current crop price increases. In 2007 alone, the US diverted 54 million tonnes of maize to produce bio-ethanol. Even the EU used 2.85 million hectares to grow rapeseed oil and other crops for bio-fuels. If the same land had been used to grow food, it would have yielded an estimated 68 million tonnes of food grains, enough to supply food to millions of people.

Besides diverting the existing productive land away from growing food, this great demand for energy provided by bio-fuels has begun scaling up rainforest destruction, which will further fuel climate change. The need for mandatory bio-fuel regulations to ensure that this growing production does not undermine food security is vital.

In fact it would be ideal if all rich countries, including the G8, could put in place a moratorium on the diversion of arable land into bio-fuel mono-cropping. But such a demand may not be more than wishful thinking knowing the way our world works.

The simultaneous need to curb climate change by agreeing to time-bound targets to reduce pollution emission levels by industrialised and emerging economies is also not making very impressive headway. It is therefore necessary that developing countries should at least be helped to cope with climate change. But even this seems like too much to ask.

Instead, powerful rich countries are imposing trade rules and economic policy conditions that make it very difficult for developing country governments to support smallholder farmers and sustainable agriculture. If the developed world remains adamant to subsidise its own farmers, and to take no major steps to curb its existing pollution levels, developing countries should at least have the right to shield their key agricultural goods from the vagaries of international prices. However, institutions like the World Trade Organisation would hardly support such a measure.

It is now high time for some major policy shift to take place, or else food riots and famines will become an increasingly uncommon phenomenon. Both rich and developing countries must begin to invest more in public agricultural research and development, which promotes low-input, organic farming methods, rather than genetically modified organisms. This suggestion is based not only on the fact that GE crops are much more expensive due to multinational corporation patents, but on reported findings that GE cash and food crops experience lower yields under extreme fluctuations in temperature climate change.

The well known environmental activism group, Greenpeace, points out that GE soybean with herbicide tolerance has a 10 percent lower yield than traditional varieties. Extreme temperature changes apparently cause a loss of the GE function which results in lower yields than conventional varieties. Extreme temperature fluctuations have also shown to cause big losses for GE modified cotton crops in China.

Given that food security, particularly in poorer countries, is already under serious threat from unpredictable changes in rainfall and frequent extreme weather events, it is necessary to begin focusing on traditional and modern conventional breeding techniques which try to improve plants’ ability to withstand variable weather. There is ample data from around the world to indicate that mixing different crops and varieties is a fairly reliable method for increasing crop resilience to erratic weather changes.

Governments of developing countries, and concerned donors, should thus pay heed to such evidence and begin channelling more investment in agriculture towards ecological farming methods, working especially with poorer smaller scale farmers, who can more easily be convinced to adopt less capital intensive and more environmentally sustainable farming practices.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

Daily Times, 29/7/2008

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