Which way out of the food crisis? - Review of the conference “The global food crisis, one year on. How to achieve food security.”

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On 4 March 2009, Glopolis and the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung convened a conference entitled “The global food crisis, one year on. How to achieve food security.” The program was focused particularly on those structural causes of the food crisis related to the areas of agriculture and trade. Leading experts from the Czech Republic and abroad gave their views of the current global food situation, the quality of agricultural policies, and the operations of the global trade in agricultural commodities. Those participating included Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Daniel de la Torre Ugarte of the Institute for the Analysis of Agricultural Policy from the University of Tennessee, Mamadou Cissokho of the Union of West African Farmers’ and Agricultural Producers’ Organizations, and many others.

In many instances, the contributions of the international guests offered a different perspective on the relationship between the liberalization of world trade and poverty in the developed world than the perspective most frequently encountered in the Czech Republic. Olivier De Schutter, Mamadou Cissokho, Daniel de la Torre Ugarte, Alex Danau of the Belgian organization Collectif Stratégies aliementaires, and Hannes Lorenzen, an advisor to The GREENS – EFA group at the European Parliament, all agreed that the current form of international trade prevents the development of agriculture and the improvement of the lives of rural inhabitants in developing countries. Rural areas and inhabitants are at the heart of global poverty.

Olivier De Schutter’s opening speech was an excellent starting point for discussion of the role of agriculture and trade in the fight against chronic poverty. “The idea that the global food crisis can be solved through the simple increase of the volume of agricultural production is simplistic and erroneous,” De Schutter said. In the majority of cases, hunger and malnutrition are not the result of an actual lack of food, but of the low purchasing power of a broad section of the population, who simply cannot afford it. Half of the almost one billion people living with a long-term lack of food are small-scale farmers. One- fifth of all rural inhabitants, one-fifth of all urban inhabitants, and one-tenth of all fishers and herders do not own their own land.

According to De Schutter, the governments of developed and developing countries should not primarily strive for massive increases in production, but should focus on the heart of the problem – ending hunger and extreme poverty. This requires many measures to be taken. It is necessary to improve poor rural people’s access to natural resources, especially to the land, and to strengthen the position of small farmers in the production chain so that their products do not have to be sold for ridiculously low prices. These steps require a radical departure from the dominant agricultural model and the direction in which international trade has been heading for quite some time.

The intensive agricultural model advocated by the so-called Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had far-reaching negative impacts on the environment and the social situations of rural inhabitants. Ideas of increased production, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, must head in a different direction now. It will be especially necessary to carefully research the options provided by environmentally friendly forms of agriculture. These have two great advantages:  They are a way to ameliorate climate change, and they do not require the agricultural inputs and mechanisms that small-scale peasants are unable to afford.

Olivier de Schutter also said the “current trade system suffers from serious deficiencies”. It is based on the idea that it is most advantageous for the agricultural sector to specialize in the production of those specific commodities for which the country has a comparative advantage. However, the result is that some countries permanently win while others continue to lose. Developing countries have oriented themselves toward the production of coffee, cocoa and other commodities, the price of which has fallen over time. At the same time, they do not produce basic foodstuffs and are therefore dependent on the global market for them. The food crisis has shown us what a slippery situation this is. Developing countries, therefore, should do their best to diversify their agricultural production and achieve maximum food self-sufficiency. According to De Schutter, the current trade regime also prevents the elimination of poverty because it privileges large, concentrated production at the expense of millions of small farmers in developing countries. The operation of the market today is completely estranged from the concept of human rights - including the right to food - as values which rank far above the trade interests of influential groups.

According to Daniel de la Torre Ugarte, another important guest at the conference, we must strengthen the position of small farmers in the production chain and guarantee a more equitable global distribution of agricultural production. More precise tools for the management of supply must be introduced, such as quotas on the amount of production of certain foods or commodities, or the removal of part of the land from agricultural production. The largest producers, as a result of these measures, would stop producing cheap, subsidized oversupply and would thus open the way for the broader use of the agricultural potential in developing countries.

Torre Ugarte, like De Schutter, warned against the solutions that states have tended towards in the past in their efforts to increase agricultural production, such as the conversion of the Brazilia savannah, the cerrados, into a monoculture of soybeans, or the first Green Revolution, initiatives which resulted in seriously negative impacts on ecosystems, the environment, and the social situations of rural inhabitants. “It is easy to achieve a reduction in food prices by simply massively increasing production. However, we pay dearly for this solution.” According to Torre Ugarte, the world should move away from the predominant model of agricultural production. The lack of balance between plant and animal production is alarming:  “A large volume of agricultural commodities annually go to the feeding of cattle and overproduction of meat. We are disturbed when part of the harvest is exploited for bio-fuel, but the question of cattle feed does not bother us.”

Hannes Lorenzen introduced his study “Slow Trade Sound Farming:  A Multilateral Framework for Sustainable Markets in Agriculture” at the Prague conference, emphasizing one of its key principles, that of economic subsidiarity. According to the study, trade policy should be structured so as to privilege economic exchange at the local, national and eventually the regional level over continental-level or global trade. This would mean a completely different position for international trade and its rules than is currently the case. According to Hannes Lorenzen, World Trade Organization rules restricting the right of member countries to autonomously decide their own trade policies are undemocratic and hostile to fundamental human rights. If the World Trade Organization is to be preserved in the future, the principles of its operation must be radically changed.

Alex Danau also emphasized the significance of locally produced food. Giving the example of Senegal, he showed that during the period of the highest food prices in the spring of 2008, the prices of local products were lower than the prices of imported ones. This was because the current prices of commodities on the global market necessarily impact the prices of imported goods. Developing countries, therefore, should not orient themselves toward the international market, but should strengthen their own production capacity and their local and regional markets. Opening up to cheap imports within the framework of the further liberalization of world trade is completely incompatible with these aims.

Czech Deputy Agriculture Minister Jiří Urban also attributed a fundamental significance to regional self-sufficiency in the developing countries. He illustrated the absurdity and harmfulness of the situation created by the massive global trade in agricultural commodities by the example of the import of livestock feed into the European Union:  “We import dairy cow feed from South America in order to overproduce milk, which we then have a hard time getting rid of.” Deputy Minister Urban, unlike Daniela de la Torre Ugarte, does not believe in the regulation of supply and demand. Instead, he proposes regulation through systems such as the European cross-compliance system (a set of conditions in the area of environmental protections that a farmer must meet if s/he is to qualify for European subsidies) as a recipe for addressing the absurd transport of commodities around the planet.

Opinions favorable to the current principles along which international trade operates and its further liberalization were also heard at the conference. Some guests expressed the conviction that the strengthening of local food production in developing countries and the opening up of competition in developed states with subsidized agricultural sectors do not contravene one another.

Flavio Coturni of the DG for Agriculture and Rural Development at the European Commission said liberalization of multilateral and bilateral trade (within the framework of the Doha Development Round and the Economic Partnership Agreements between the EU and the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific) is an important factor in reducing price instability for agricultural commodities and achieving global food security. However, Coturni emphasized that the process of the further opening up of the markets must be further subjected to clear rules, for example, in the form of the well-established mechanisms of so-called different or special treatment for developing and less developed countries. At the same time he indicated that the Doha round of talks may take a completely different direction with the advent of the new US administration. US government documents issued at the beginning of March state that “it will be necessary to correct the imbalance of the current negotiations.”

First Deputy Agriculture Minister Ivo Hlaváč’s contribution was also in the free-market spirit:  “The basic principle of the European Union’s common trade and common agricultural policies should be openness, and the development dimension should also be an integral component. The unacceptability of protectionist measures was the topic of the extraordinary EU summit which has just ended,” declared Hlaváč during the afternoon round table discussion. Global food security can be strengthened by the liberalization of world trade, which should guarantee naturally functioning local markets. “I truly believe that an overregulated sector like agriculture should take the liberalization route,” Hlaváč said.

However, according to Mamadou Cissokho, deregulation measures may be appropriate for European agriculture, but are not appropriate for Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa there are almost no subsidies for farmers, no export subsidies, no quotas on production amounts, no strict norms on food quality – none of the aspects characteristic of the EU Common Agricultural Policy or the agricultural policies of other developed states. A strong agricultural policy is missing entirely, and African farmers are paying a hard price for it.

Cissokho, a leading civic activist and farmer from Senegal, emphasized, like Hannes Lorenzen, the principles of economic subsidiarity:  “If you want our agriculture to develop, then we should not focus on exporting to the European or US markets, but primarily on production for local consumption. We must protect producers from the subsidized competition of cheap products from Europe, help them to build up reserves, and facilitate the sale of their goods at local markets.” He emphasized that only this approach can improve the position of small and subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. These farmers, not large farms specialized in exports, are key to the food situation in that part of the world. Moreover, rural inhabitants, with their relationship to the land and their traditional forms of production and consumption, are the bearers of the continuity of tradition and of cultural wealth. According to Cissokho, sub-Saharan Africa’s way out of poverty does not consist in the further reduction of trade barriers, but in the opposite. Africa needs the freedom to establish protective measures where they are needed. This often concerns agriculture. “Africans want nothing more than what you Europeans yourselves want:  They want a strong agricultural policy that strengthens the position of local production and producers.”

Aurele Destree, Glopolis