Choosing food security

24 March 1999
A quarter of the world’s population is today exposed to food insecurity, and 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Nevertheless, there are policies that are more favourable than others for promoting security, but also food diversity and self-sufficiency in food for all. These are choices which will determine the future of our civilizations.
What is food security? Ask the World Bank this question and it will reply that it is "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life". The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) would go much further: "Food security means that food is available at all times, that all persons have means of access to it, that it is nutritionally adequate in terms of quantity, quality and variety, and that it is acceptable within the given culture". This last, somewhat utopian definition casts doubt on whether any country, even a rich and socially exemplary one, has ever been able to guarantee total "food security" for all its citizens. Certain political choices, however, are more likely than others to achieve this. Hunger is not a technical problem Even though the vast majority of victims of hunger are in Third World countries, hunger also hits the so-called developed countries where there is no social welfare system. A charity such as the "Restaurants du cœur" (Restaurants of the heart) in France [1] and other comparable ones in the countries of Europe are sufficient proof of this. Hunger today is not a technical problem, nor even, with rare exceptions, a problem of total food scarcity. Food security depends much more on the distribution of land and income. The World Bank and the FAO are right to stress the concept of access. Even in the poorest countries and those most heavily affected by food crises, there are not many victims of hunger in business circles, the army or among senior civil servants... Inequalities have been galloping away over the last fifteen years between North and South and within individual countries, reducing access to food ever further. All the indications give us reason to fear an even greater increase in economic disparities in the next century. Reports on human development by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the reports on trade and development by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) regularly demonstrate that globalization makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, whether they be regions, countries or individuals. World cereal harvests have increased by more than 40% since 1980 and are today approaching a record 2 billion tons. And yet the future of the planet’s food is not very rosy. Too many countries have systematically neglected their farmers, who are capable of producing subsistence crops. Encouraged, if not forced, by the structural adjustment programme of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, they have, on the contrary, emphasized export crops. As a result, they must appeal to the world cereal markets, where barely 5% of harvests are marketed. While a country self-sufficient in cereals has nothing to fear, a country which depends on imports is exposing its population to serious danger. Any fluctuation in world stocks of cereals may make prices rocket and as a result exclude millions of people from access to the wider world food market. Another cloud on the horizon is that even if harvests are reaching record levels, the rates at which the population [2] is increasing now exceeds the rate at which harvests are increasing. No one will be surprised then that chronic hunger is still a daily reality for at least 800 million human beings. Millions of others are still far from eating enough to guarantee them an "active, healthy life". A good quarter of the world population is being weakened by food insecurity. A question of resources To ask oneself whether "the world" in this context is able to feed a population of X billion people tomorrow is a virtually meaningless question. "The world" is capable of feeding 6, 8, 10 billion people as long as it is willing to pay the price, both financial and political. Everything therefore depends on what is meant by "feeding". Is it to provide a basic calorie intake with a small amount of vegetable protein or a rich and varied meat diet (that is to say in concentrated calories)? In any case, those who have the means monopolize the available calories. Any improvement in the national income is always accompanied statistically by an increase in meat consumption. If each inhabitant of planet Earth were to eat a meat-based diet, production in the next century would have to double, or even treble. What should be done? In the 1960s and 70s, it was loudly proclaimed that the "Green Revolution" [3] would solve all the food problems and put an end to hunger. This system of cultivation, which requires expensive equipment, often imported from abroad for the developing countries - irrigation, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, commercial seeds, tractors - was not suitable for poor farmers. Outcasts, many of them left to swell the population of the towns. In addition, this "revolution" decimated biodiversity, killed the fish of the rivers, created salty soils, polluted the rivers, the source of drinking water, and so on. Today, a new generation of "techno-believers" are telling us with the same fervour that the future belongs to the genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which will miraculously feed the world. These people are not at all concerned by the fact that a few transnational firms control these seeds and that they are not philanthropic companies. The GMOs could also cause ecological disasters even more serious than those caused by the Green Revolution. Some GMO seeds are programmed to distil a herbicide little by little. Others are resistant to herbicides spread by the farmer. But farming is a complex activity. The characteristics introduced into the GMOs can be passed on to other plants or interfere with micro-organisms in the soil and create super-predators or highly resistant weeds through natural selection. At another level, the impact of globalization is contributing to food insecurity. The financial crises of this decade have shaken many "emergent markets", ruined thousands of small and medium-sized local enterprises, created massive unemployment and caused prices to rise for vital commodities. As a result, serious food problems are re-curring in Mexico, in Russia and in Indonesia in particular. The multipurpose nature of farming The fate which the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will cast on the highly controversial problem of agriculture, during the negotiations in Seattle in December 1999 [4], will also have a major impact [5]. Few subjects arouse as many passions and confrontations. On the one side are those who think that a food product should be treated in the same way as any other product. Those countries and their companies see the future of the planet’s food along the lines of a vast global supermarket, where everyone sells what he produces better and more cheaply than his neighbour and buys everything else, according to the sacrosanct principle of comparative advantage. This is the position of the United States and the "Cairns Group" (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand, Paraguay, Thailand...), which is fighting the principle of subsidies, which the European Union gives its farmers. On the opposite side, the countries of Europe, - including France -, Japan and some of the countries of the South, refuse to put farm products and industrial products on the same footing. They stress the special nature of agriculture: its "multifunctionality", which preserves biological diversity, protects the environment, keeps villages and medium-sized towns alive and slows down massive rural migration. This type of farming also means that the consumer can be in closer proximity to the producer instead of merely obtaining food products from the global supermarket. This clash between countries of the WTO is much more than a dispute about trade; it is also about choosing civilization. Small farms and family farms, whether they are in the North or the South, could not withstand competition from the highly capitalized, major cereal producers, who could easily besiege all the markets of the world by selling below the production costs of local farmers. When all the small farmers are ruined and have left to go to the towns, there will be no guarantee that the prices of imports will not increase, thus making food insecurity worse. For us who are able to satisfy our hunger, small-scale farming and small farms maintain both the diversity and variety of our food. What will life be like in a world that is rushing towards uniformity in food? The day when everybody will depend on the global supermarket, there will be no more food security, nor any pleasure in eating. Susan George, an associate director of the Transnational Institute, is a researcher and writer, president of the Globalization Monitoring Body in Paris and vice-president of ATTAC [6] France Notes 1. Established hurriedly, in 1985, by the comedian Coluche, the Restaurants du cœur distributed 8.5 million meals that winter and, in 1999, will have reached a total of more than 60 million meals distributed by more than 30,000 voluntary workers during the three winter months to more than half a million people in difficulty. 2. See article by Jean-Claude Chesnais in this issue. 3. Agricultural development method based on the use of high-yield varieties, irrigation and technological innovation, started in 1966-67, particularly in India where, due to a storage policy and an efficient popular system of distribution, it was able to eradicate large-scale food shortages for the past twenty years. 4. See article by Béatrice Marre in this issue. 5. At the time this article was written, the Conference had not yet started. 6. The Globalization Monitoring Body, set up in 1996, includes a group of fifteen or so economists, researchers, journalists, trade union and association office holders, "involved in a critical review of globalization". Established in France in 1998, having given rise to an international network, ATTAC, the Association for taxation of financial transactions to help citizens, defines itself as an international movement for the democratic control of the financial markets and their institutions.