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Profiting from the food crisis

The world’s major governments are sitting on their hands while the world’s poor face starvation from soaring food prices. This is the stark conclusion to be drawn from the fact that the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) has so far received only £9 million towards closing a £380m funding gap, despite all the fine words from London, Washington and other capitals.

What is also increasingly clear is that the focus is on imposing top-down, market-driven “solutions”, which will deliver no benefits to the poor but will boost investment in research into agri-chemicals, GM crops, and second generation bio-fuels. The British government, for example, is giving just £30m extra to the WFP but has pledged £400m in extra investment in “agricultural research” over next five years. Much of it will be spent in the UK.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is doing his best to keep the issue upfront but he faces a slow reaction by governments more concerned about the impact of the global financial crisis on shares and property values then they are about starvation. The WFP believes 100 million people are currently going short of food. The prices of staple foods including rice, grain, oil and sugar are all at least 50% higher than a year ago. Fertiliser prices have soared too, leading to a decline in production by poorer farmers.

As for the leading agencies of global capitalism, they see the food crisis as an opportunity to boost corporate-driven globalisation. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, says curbs on food exports, “have a damaging global impact”. He called for the completion of the Doha round of trade talks as it “would reduce trade barriers and distortions and encourage agricultural trade”. The World Bank is developing a “Strategic Framework for Climate Change and Development” which will “provide direction on how adaptation - in agriculture as well as other impacted areas, such as flood-prone coasts – can be integrated into country, sectoral, and regional development strategies”. In other words, a series of expensive, prescriptive and ill-planned strategies will be imposed on poorer nations in return for World Bank funds.

In an excellent report on the food crisis, the biodiversity group GRAIN says:

Farmers across the world produced a record 2.3 billion tons of grain in 2007, up 4% on the previous year. Since 1961 the world’s cereal output has tripled, while the population has doubled. Stocks are at their lowest level in 30 years, it’s true, but the bottom line is that there is enough food produced in the world to feed the population. The problem is that it doesn’t get to all of those who need it. Less than half of the world’s grain production is directly eaten by people.

Most goes into animal feed and, increasingly, biofuels – massive inflexible industrial chains. In fact, once you look behind the cold curtain of statistics, you realise that something is fundamentally wrong with our food system. We have allowed food to be transformed from something that nourishes people and provides them with secure livelihoods into a commodity for speculation and bargaining. The perverse logic of this system has come to a head. Today it is staring us in the face that this system puts the profits of investors before the food needs of people.

The way out of this impasse is through putting land into the hands of the people who work it and giving them independence and self-determination. It also means placing the global chemical and agri-business and food distribution corporations under democratic control and common ownership. Scientists and technologists could then get to work on sustainable, holistic approaches to agriculture and food production on the basis of need and not profit.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
30 April 2008

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