Inaction to halt speculation on agricultural commodities and continued biofuels policies is paving the way for a re-run of the 2008 food price crisis in 2010 or 2011, argues Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, in an interview with EURACTIV.
The conditions which triggered the 2007 and 2008 price crisis are still present, and panic in the international market is likely to reappear as early as next year, De Schutter said.
Nothing has been done on biofuels, speculation or the other causes of the crisis which erupted in 2008, he warned, foreseeing “the seeds” of a new crisis in the recent increase in the price of oil.
However, De Schutter stressed that the 2007-2008 was a “price crisis, not a food crisis”.
“It was a crisis linked to the evolution of prices on the international market, set by speculation. It was a financial phenomenon primarily and it was not linked to insufficient food being produced,” he argued.
Hunger: The result of increasingly competitive food production
The UN rapporteur argued that “we have enough food” and that hunger is not the result of food being produced in inefficient conditions, as claimed by the majority of scientists, think-tanks and the agri-food industry.
“It is the result of food being produced in conditions which are increasingly competitive, which displace small farmers and which condemn them to subsistence agriculture,” De Schutter said.
Focus on small farmers
De Schutter said governments should consult small-farmer organisations as they decide on policy priorities. The fact that small farmers have been left out of the public debate has contributed to the development of agriculture, which is “heavily distorted in favour of large farmers, creating poverty in the countryside,” he continued.
He argued that large segments of rural areas in developing countries have been cut out from funds and small farmers ignored in good planning and investments, because they are not involved in growing profitable crops such as coffee, cocoa or cotton, but food crops like “cassava, sorghum, millet or sweet potato”.
Decreasing dependency on imports
The UN special rapporteur on the right to food further explained how many developing countries have become net importing countries because of population growth and “because they were convinced that they could always buy food at cheap prices on the international market” – an illusion broken by the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008.
Understanding how dangerous import dependency on imports is, he said “these countries are now re-orienting investments to be able to feed themselves”. While these countries are far from becoming self-sufficient, it is absolutely vital that they at least “decrease their dependency on the international market,” De Schutter added.
‘Disappointing’ world food security summit
De Schutter described last week’s FAO summit as “a failure”. Despite the insistence of the FAO on some $44 billion in annual investments to re-launch agriculture in developing countries, the summit did not lead to any financial commitments or a clear calendar for concrete action to be taken, he regretted.
The UN rapporteur also restated his strong scepticism about global trade liberalisation.
“What we have seen in the past is that countries that have been opening up their agriculture by agreeing to lower import tariffs on agricultural food and by developing their export chain without small farmers benefiting from these exports have just increased inequalities,” he said.
While a country may expand its access to market and its export opportunities, it may still face increases in food insecurity “if this expansion only benefits the largest producers that have access to the global supply chain and are the most competitive in the international market,” De Schutter said.
‘No trade-off’ between climate change and hunger
Asked whether he saw competition between alleviating world hunger and climate change, De Schutter said there are extremely resource-efficient ways of producing food that “increase yields very significantly but without the negative impact on the environment which we have with traditional farming methods”.
“In many cases farmers are not using these techniques enough because they have not been taught to use them,” he said, listing low-tillage agriculture and the use of different crops on the same parcel of land as areas where knowledge transfer is urgently needed.
Speaking for such “agro-ecological” farming practices, De Schutter warned that “it will be extremely problematic to produce food being dependent on oil,” because oil prices will skyrocket as the commodity becomes scarce.
EU farm policy ‘a good example’
While the establishment of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 1962 had “many negative externalities,” De Schutter believes the policy is a good example of how to achieve food security in a given area.
He particularly recognises the importance of providing farmers with decent revenues through market organisation and supply management.
These actions, backed by the rationale that “food is not a commodity like any other,” foster the belief that the “EU has more to offer than is usually thought” in tackling food insecurity, De Schutter concluded.