Food security : The politics of global crisis

Food insecurity is a manifestation of cumulative effects of political, economic and social factors. Dealing with food is not only a technical subject. Rather, it is largely a political issue governed by multiple reasons linked with the process of globalisation and economic reform, climate change, mobility, migration and energy price. All these impact production, marketing, consumption pattern and purchasing power of consumers.

Ensuring food security requires political commitment, vision and concerted effort. First, the state should be committed to each citizen’s right to adequate, healthy and culturally acceptable food. The state is obliged to respect, protect and fulfill the conditions to realise citizen’s access to food and adopt safety measures to meet needs of differently needy citizen. Political commitment with clear short- and long-term vision is needed to optimise management and use of productive resources, prioritisation of investment sectors, creating an enabling environment, and inclusive and accountable governing mechanism to ensure food security.

Developed countries have identified economic potential of agriculture sector. At the global level, increasing interest for bio-energy has guided political decisions. For example, the US decided to invest in bio-energy to limit its dependency on fossil fuel. Likewise, EU investment in bio-fuel is aimed at mitigating effects of climate change. The worldwide investment in bio-fuel increased from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005 and is expected to reach $100 billion by 2010. At the same time, in case of food crisis experienced globally, resourceful countries are in a position to adopt immediate measures to mitigate the crisis. For instance, US cattle feed industries started to produce bio-fuel from maize and use the residue for cattle feed. EU is to adopt a measure to set aside agricultural land to produce food grains. China decided to discontinue production of bio-fuels from agricultural crops.

Food is considered a tradable commodity. The increasing trend of globalisation, liberalisation, privatisation and alignment of national economy towards regional and global requirements, people’s mobility from rural to urban areas, regulatory frameworks to attract people to remain in agriculture sector have altered the production, marketing and consumption pattern in developing countries including Nepal.

An emergency like the current food crisis hits the developing countries the hardest. The current food crisis will affect the 34 most food insecure countries and socially and economically lowest strata of citizens. At the global market, as the price of wheat has tripled and those of rice and maize doubled, it will impact food aid mechanism and supply procedure. Payment of food import bill will be another big challenge for the Net Food Importing Countries like Nepal.

Food price is expected to rise further due to increase in demand for cereals, water shortage and climate change. In the developing countries, almost 70% of earning in spend on food. One per cent increase in food price has already forced a 0.75% cut in food expenditure in developing countries. It will ultimately impact health of women and children, leading to family stress, social tension, communal conflict and unwise exploitation of natural resources.

Dependency may sometimes hamper adoption of alternative plans during emergencies. For example, small farmers in Mexico could not compete with subsidised maize imports from the US. But when US decided to use more maize for bio-fuel, it affected the market price of maize and supply to Mexico. Via Campesina, a peasant’s movement group thus advocates food as a human right. The current global trend also poses great threat to meeting Millennium Development Goals to halve the number of hungry by 2015. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has appealed to all global actors to increase investment in agriculture.

Food security can be achieved by fulfilling past commitments and adopting multiple approaches. The recently concluded 7th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues identified and discussed the theme of “Climate change, bio-cultural diversity and livelihoods: the stewardship role of indigenous peoples and new challenges” and urged to deal on global issues with people in the centre. Likewise, the World Bank’s World Development Report 2008 clearly emphasises the need to invest more in agriculture. The assessment of other actors like UN, OECD, Asian Development Bank, and New Partnership for African Development are similar.

Nation states abiding by the provisions in Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respecting rights of indigenous communities, increasing women’s access to productive resources, benefit sharing mechanism, ensuring farmer’s rights and ensuring consumer’s access to quality food - will all help. A joint effort of all global actors, nation states, private sector and citizens is a must.

Ghale specialises in food security