Dear Friends and Colleagues

Current Food System is Starving the World

In an analysis of world hunger, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter explains how the framing of hunger and malnutrition primarily as quantitative problems in the 60s started a trend that has lasted several decades, driven by governments and big agribusiness.

He cites that the absolute number of hungry people has hardly reduced since the early 1970s, oscillating around 850 million, and that from the viewpoint of health, poverty alleviation, and environmental protection, the food systems inherited from the 20th century have failed miserably. De Schutter pinpoints the current model of overproduction driven by large corporate agrifood interests as "both what ails humankind and what starves it".

He brings to the fore a solution which lies in the global food sovereignty movement in which both consumers and producers seek to reclaim or reinvent food systems from the bottom up; a gradual revolution that has been pushing governments and corporations to put the power of production and distribution back into the hands of local farming communities. On the production side, farmers increasingly are embracing agroecology, which treats the complexity of nature not as a liability, but as an asset.

Well-documented threats such as peak oil, genetic erosion from monocropping schemes, soil degradation and climate change will mean a future with more volatility and the need to quickly invent more solutions to food problems, solutions that use more local resources. According to De Schutter, devastating threats could however lead us to gradually favor resilience over efficiency. He puts forward the concept of an increasingly interdependent world with new types of alliances at the national and international levels to support local markets and systems. 

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Producing too much food is what starves the planet

by Olivier de Schutter

Fifty years ago, many people believed the world was on the edge of disaster. In the mid-1960s, the annual rate of population growth peaked at an estimated 2.1 percent. In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich predicted in his best-selling book, The Population Bomb, that entire regions would soon be facing starvation as agricultural output failed to catch up with demographic growth; after all, in much of the developing world, yields per surface—that is, the amount of food produced on a given piece of land—had been stagnating for decades. Before long, the neo-Malthusians’ doomsday predictions seemed to be turning into reality. In 1972, bad harvests in the Soviet Union, combined with the first global oil shock the following year, led the real prices of food to skyrocket suddenly.

The answer, governments decided, was to produce more food—much more food. The specific responses varied, but the general approach was similar everywhere: Technological advances and public policies, including subsidies to farmers, would raise outputs and drive prices down. This vision shaped the Common Agricultural Policy of the fledgling European Economic Community, while in the United States, it inspired President Richard Nixon’s agriculture secretary to launch a massive program encouraging grain production. Farmers were told not to worry about the risk of gluts in the markets; if prices were insufficient to cover costs, the government would make up the difference. In South Asia, where the perils associated with overpopulation were considered to be highest, the Green Revolution attempted to boost agricultural output through new high-yielding crop varieties, particularly wheat and rice; the extension of irrigated land; and a massive increase in the use of chemical fertilizers and me chanization.

This framing of hunger and malnutrition primarily as quantitative problems—the results of a remediable mismatch between supply and demand—didn’t just shape policy choices in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It inaugurated a trend that has lasted for several decades almost without interruption, driven by governments and big agribusiness. Judged by their own standards, the revolutions in food systems have been tremendous victories. As population growth rates have declined, agricultural output has grown steadily—about 2.1 percent annually over the past 50 years—and without a significant expansion of cultivated areas. In 1961, food grown on 1.37 billion hectares of land fed 3.5 billion people; by 2011, when the world’s population had doubled to 7 billion, only 12 percent more land was being used.

Was looming disaster thus averted? Not exactly.

The absolute number of hungry people has hardly been reduced since the early 1970s, consistently oscillating around 850 million—that is, when including such things as short-term undernourishment, inequalities in food distribution within the household, among other things, that the United Nations overlooks in its annual State of Food Insecurity reports. While the proportion of undernourished people has declined—today, it’s about 12 percent of the world’s population—hunger is far from eradicated. In fact, when assessed from the viewpoint of their contributions to health, poverty alleviation, and environmental protection, the food systems inherited from the 20th century have not been a spectacular success. Rather, they have failed spectacularly.

It might appear that the world is hopelessly stuck with a dysfunctional behemoth of a global food economy. From storage facilities to processing plants and transportation routes, infrastructures have been built in support of large-scale production. As a result, today’s food systems are in the hands of large agrifood interests—the commodities brokers, the food processors, the increasingly concentrated retailers—whose dominance only breeds dominance. Because they have the logistics, control the networks, and capture the subsidies, they can easily crush competitors. These large actors, in turn, have reason to oppose a transformation in the food systems, and their economic heft allows them to veto change. In the meantime, they continue to flood the markets with processed foods, manufactured from the mountains of soy and corn that governmental subsidies encourage.

These interconnected systems of overproduction won’t feed the world. In fact, it is both what ails humankind and what starves it. Although its Goliath-like scale might make it appear invincible, its very ungainliness and failure to meet human needs could yet be its undoing. Indeed, big food has already been met with resistance in the form of an idea steadily gaining traction at the grassroots level: food sovereignty.

The concept emerged 20 years ago from the mobilization of small-scale farmers, or campesinos, in Costa Rica, and from the protest marches of small-farm holders in the Indian state of Karnataka. The message was simple: Agricultural policies should not be held hostage to the exigencies of international trade. This idea was central to the establishment in 1993 of La Via Campesina, which is now arguably the world’s largest transnational social movement, spanning 164 local and national organizations in more than 70 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas; it represents an estimated 200 million farmers. Initially rural, the movement focused on the needs of small-scale farmers who took pride in their identity as “peasants”—very much a reaction to big-food geopolitics. By 1994, when the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations concluded, and at the request of major developing countries, agriculture had become a key bargaining chip in the establishment of the World Tr ade Organization. Food was set to become the next frontier of the great mill of commodification, and farmers the world over were asked to compete, even if this meant that the least competitive would disappear.

The early food-sovereignty activists of La Via Campesina were quite prescient when it came to understanding how international trade could—and would shape food systems: standardizing farmers as well as the commodities they produce, encouraging the unsustainable growth of long-distance trade controlled by the agrifood behemoths, and neglecting local and regional markets. Resilience requires diversity, these activists campaigned, including a diversity of markets. The 2008 food-price crisis showed how right they were. The dramatic spike in commodity prices hit the countries that depended the most on food imports particularly hard, and it did not benefit farmers, who were squeezed between rising costs for inputs upstream and large buyers downstream whose commanding position allowed them to capture most of the value of the food chain.

Food sovereignty has now left its rural origins and become a movement in which both consumers and producers seek to reclaim or reinvent food systems from the bottom up. Indeed, in all regions, groups of ordinary citizens are developing ways to gain autonomy and bypass the dominant industrial food systems.

On the consumers’ side, today food-policy councils in North America invoke sovereignty; examples from Toronto to Oakland are increasingly influencing experiments elsewhere. Sovereignty has given rise to farmers markets in Mumbai and Beijing, among other cities, and to school gardens and urban agriculture as citizens seek to reconnect to local farmers and, more broadly, to the food systems on which they depend.

On the production side, as a way out of the fossil fuel-based model, farmers increasingly are embracing agroecology. In this approach, biological control—the use of the right combination of crops on any single field—replaces the use of pesticides. Leguminous plants serve to nourish soils, reducing the need to use nitrogen-based fertilizers. Trees, which in the past had been banished from fields in the name of maximizing yields, are being planted again alongside crops; their roots allow soil to capture moisture better, and their shade reduces evaporation, making it possible to save water for irrigation. Integrated cropping and rotation allow the replenishment of soils that monocropping had been quietly destroying over decades.

Agroecology aims to reduce the use of external fossil fuel-based inputs, to recycle waste, and to combine elements of nature to maximize synergies. It treats the complexity of nature not as a liability, but as an asset. The farmer learns by trial and error, even when the ultimate “scientific” explanation may remain elusive; long at the receiving end of technological developments, he or she will now determine what works best in a local context.

Agriculture’s Food and Water Web

Over the past two decades, food-sovereignty movements have tirelessly pushed governments and corporations to put the power of production and distribution back into the hands of local farming communities. The fact remains, though, that the world’s food systems are still dominated by international trade. Two years after the 2008 crisis, food prices rose again almost as dramatically as they had fallen; that year, in 2010, the United States exported nearly $30 billion worth of corn, soybeans, and wheat—major staples on which the world’s poor largely depend—just in the trade routes shown here. Global trade networks have become busier as developing countries struggle to keep booming populations nourished. The United States, for instance, exported nearly $1 billion in soybeans to China in 2000; by 2010, that figure had increased to $12 billion. Meanwhile, as countries export crops, they also, in a sense, export water: Globally, the agricultural sector accounts for roughly 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals, according to the United Nations.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. Well-documented threats—peak oil, genetic erosion from monocropping schemes, soil degradation, climate change—will mean a future with more volatility and the need to quickly invent more solutions to food problems. Still, there is room for optimism: Devastating threats, in fact, could lead us to gradually favor resilience over efficiency.

If nimble, location-specific innovation is the best way to build that resilience, the paradox of an increasingly interdependent world requires creating alliances at the national and international levels to support local markets and systems—even partnerships long unthinkable. Environmental groups can team with parents organizations, as both worry about the impacts of industrialized food production on the planet and on their children. Politicians of all stripes concerned about public deficits might join forces with health-care practitioners to address the mounting costs of treating diet-related illnesses. Development NGOs may discover that their concerns about the impact of subsidies, which result in dumping on local markets in the global south, are echoed by taxpayers associations, which complain about the huge sums of public money that go to farmers to grow commodities—not food, but raw materials that serve as inputs to the food-processing industry.

The more I have worked with governments operating from the top down, the more I have come to believe in the strength of social movements to make change happen from the bottom up. Solutions that can be designed using local resources (in addition to, not instead of, external resources that may provide backup) are less vulnerable to outside market or energy shocks. The more diverse these solutions, the better local systems will be equipped to deal with contingencies.

Is this revolutionary? Perhaps not if we think of a revolution as an event in history when a group overthrows a regime and takes power. That view of revolution however, as German political philosopher Hannah Arendt once remarked, sounds more like a coup d’้tat. Changing society without seizing power is what food-sovereignty movements are about. The revolution they propose is a silent one. It is gradual. But it is already happening all around us, proposing an alternative to low-cost, big-food systems with which we’ve been saddled for far too long.

Olivier De Schutter (@DeSchutterUNSR), a legal scholar focusing on economic and social rights, served as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food from 2008 to 2014.