By Joseph Purugganan
The Global Food Crisis, this time
A dossier by Focus on the Global South
A perfect storm is brewing in the global food system, pushing food prices to record high levels, and expanding hunger. The continuing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine War, climate-related disasters and a breakdown of supply chains have led to widespread protests across the global South triggered by the spiraling food prices and shortages.
As international institutions struggle to respond, some governments have resorted to knee-jerk ‘food nationalism’ by placing export bans to preserve their own food supplies and stabilise prices. While this is an understandable defensive response, the solution lies in a more systemic, transformative approach.
In this dossier, researchers from Focus on the Global South write about various aspects of the current crisis, its causes, and how it is impacting countries in Asia. These include regional analysis, case studies from Sri Lanka, Philippines and India, the role of corporations in fuelling the crisis and the flawed responses of international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Bretton Woods Institutions and United Nations agencies. We also attempt to present national, regional and global aspects of a progressive and systemic solution as articulated by communities, social movements and researchers at multiple levels.
Articles will be published every week till mid-October. Other articles included in the dossier can be found under this tag here.
The World Food Programme attributes the “seismic hunger crisis to a ‘deadly combination’ of four factors: conflict including the war in Ukraine, climate shocks, covid 19 pandemic, and the rising food costs. While these factors characterize the present dimensions of the crisis, focusing on these factors alone belie the systemic issues underpinning the global food system that make it vulnerable to perennial shocks and crises.
The International Panel of Experts on the Sustainable Food Systems for instance pointed to how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of the global food system on three fronts.
Firstly, industrial agriculture is driving habitat loss and creating the conditions for viruses to emerge and spread. The risks of pandemics are intensified by industrial agriculture through intensive livestock production and increased human-wildlife interaction exacerbated by habitat destruction due to commercial agriculture, unchecked urbanization, and land and resource grabs.
Secondly, a range of disruptions are testing the resilience of food supply chains and revealing underlying vulnerabilities. Food chains-both long and short- are proving vulnerable to various logistical bottlenecks brought about by travel restrictions,transport interruptions and export restrictions. The report also pointed out the precarious situation of food and farm workers who continued to do their work even in the face of major health risks and often without the benefit of hazard pay. The situation of workers underscore the precarity of the global food supply.
Thirdly, hundreds of millions of people are living permanently on the cusp of hunger, malnutrition, and extreme poverty, and are therefore highly vulnerable to the effects of a global recession. Globally, women and girls are more vulnerable to economic shocks and bear the brunt of hunger in poor families. The report stressed that these risks come on top of the generally poor conditions and low pay faced by food system workers. Farmers are also highly vulnerable to economic disruptions with more than 50% of farmers and rural workers in several countries in the global south living below the poverty line.
The transition to a new more resilient food system in the wake of the multiple crises has now become a contested battleground. As the world struggles to respond to the current food crisis, the third in a span of 15 years (2007-2008; and 2010-2011), powerful agribusiness corporations enabled and supported by multilateral institutions are advancing market based solutions to the crisis that ignore these systemic issues and vulnerabilities, strengthen the stranglehold of the old system of industrial agriculture, and could further entrench corporate control of the global food system.
Transformation of the Food System in Whose Interest?
The recent United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), provided a big boost to further advance the Big Food agenda. In the name of multistakeholderism a global consensus was pushed around the idea of transformation of the global food system.
Led by the Private Sector Guiding Group (PSGG, convened to represent the private sector at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit a Business Declaration on Food Systems Transformation was drawn up outlining private sector ambition to scale investments, enhance collaborations and ensure that business is part of the solution.
The declaration underscored the plan of business leaders to lead the food system transformation by implementing, actions in their companies, value chains and sectors on among others pushing to scale up science-based solutions (adoption of regenerative and climate-smart technologies and practices); investments in research and innovation (access to digital technologies and innovations); contribute to improved livelihoods and wellbeing across food value chains; incentivize consumers as agents of change; and create transparency by integrating environmental and social risks and impacts in governance, through the principles of true value of food to provide greater clarity to capital markets.
Business leaders also called on governments to exercise leadership towards more policy coherence and support, policy reforms to accelerate food system transformation, and co-design policies and redirection of subsidies supporting regenerative and nutritious agricultural practices, healthier consumption and reduced food loss and waste.
The UNFSS was widely criticized as a space dominated and captured by corporate interests. Over 300 civil society organizations and social movements signed the declaration People’s Autonomous Response to the UN Food Systems Summit asserted that : “Corporate food systems, and the increasing influence of corporate actors in political decision-making on food and nutrition at the local, national, regional and global levels, pose a universe of threats and harm to human rights and the rights of workers, women, peasants, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, pastoralists, migrants, consumers and the urban poor.”
Questions were also raised on the seriousness (and sincerity) of Business in addressing the crisis in the food system particularly those related to climate issues and how the declaration falls short of making significant strides on three key objectives vital for transforming the food sector over the next decade: (1) meaningful commitments which enable accountability for business; (2) clear action plans for improvement which align with existing international standards, and reflect what companies can do to drive change; and (3) good corporate governance which eschews undue influence over public institutions and allows them to play their role in food systems transformation.
Financing Market-Based Solutions
The mainstream view of the crisis and the recommendations advanced by business however seemed to have resonated among international financial institutions.
In May 2022, International Financial Institutions–the African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Inter-American Development Bank, International Fund for Agriculture Development, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank group released their collective action plan with a pledge to pour in billions of dollars to address food insecurity in the wake of the crisis.
Six priority goals were drawn up and commitment expressed to “step up, surge, and scale their work across the goals to support vulnerable peoples through the (1) provision of emergency relief; (2) promotion of open trade to combat food protectionism; (3)mitigation of fertilizer shortages through financing through investments in fertilizer production; (4) supporting food production finance to increase supplies of seeds and fertilizer; (5) investing in climate-resilient agriculture for the future: IFIs must increase green investments in agricultural capacity, adaptation, smallholder farmers, food systems and climate-smart technologies to boost client/partner countries’ food production and resilience in the longer-term; and (6) coordinating for maximum impact: While focusing on their areas of expertise, IFIs will coordinate closely to strengthen the collective response for maximum impact.
On the goal to support open trade to combat protectionism, IFIs pledged to ramp up financing for the purchase of food and agricultural inputs, and encourage partner countries to maintain open trade policies and avoid export restrictions. They also pledged to invest in logistics and rural infrastructure.
Among the projects to be financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for example are those aimed at supporting government efforts to promote investments in agribusiness like the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Climate-Friendly Agribusiness Value Chains Sector Projects ($130 million), Lao PDR Climate-Friendly Agribusiness Value Chains Sector Project ($40.5 million), Cambodia Agricultural Value Chain Competitiveness and Safety Enhancement Project ($103 million), and Philippines Mindanao Agro-Enterprise Development Project ($100.4 million).
Innovation and Techno-fixes
The transformation through innovation agenda will be supported under the goals of increasing production as well as push for wider adoption of climate-smart technologies. The ADB for example has expressed its commitment to explore digital transformation initiatives that can be applied to agricultural production and value chains including blockchain, internet of things, and satellite imagery to create a more transparent and efficient agriculture value chain.
The utilization and adoption of innovative technologies has been a consistent agenda of big businesses engaged in food and agriculture and the food crisis is seen as an opportunity to push this agenda forward.
From genetic engineering technology that produced the first generation genetically modified organisms (GMOs) commercialized in the late 1990’s to new gene editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9 technology behind gene drive organisms (GDOs), the adoption of technologies has been advanced as game changers in agricultural production helping to address the increasing demand for food. Despite criticism that the vast majority of GMO crop production does not go towards direct food consumption but rather for the production of animal feed and ethanol, the United Nations Food Systems Summit’s Scientific Group has recognized gene editing as a key tool that can help transform global food systems to end hunger by 2030.
These technologies are often in the hands and control of corporations.
There is also a strong push for investment opportunities in the so-called Internet of Things (IoT), and its potential for more efficient use of automation and optimization of overall farming practices. IoT seems to be gaining ground in Asia with increasing demand for so-called smart farming technologies like new agricultural equipment (auto-guided tractors, combines, tillers, robotic sprayers and weeding robots) to automate and optimize their activities.
Smallholder farmers however have not been too keen to embrace these digital technology solutions.Al Jazeera reported on a study by Grow Asia, a partnership platform established by the World Economic Forum and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat, that found that out of the 60 proposed digital technology solutions just 2.5 percent are used by the 71 million smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia.
Resilience to Risks and Food Philanthropy
On the goal of addressing the emergency relief for the most vulnerable, corporations support and advance this in the name of building resilience to risks. Cargill for example has developed what it calls Holistic Agriculture Risk Management Project, a three-year pilot initiative in Songyuan, Jilin province of China undertaken in partnership with the UN World Food Programme that aims to reduce and mitigate the risks and enhance resilience of corn farmers.
As Pilar Cruz, “Chief Sustainability Officer” at Cargill and a member of the World Food Program USA Board of Directors, pointed out “Cargill has a crucial role to play, addressing emergency hunger issues as well as long-term food security through our work across supply chains and through our corporate giving efforts. We know we can have more impact when we partner with organizations, like WFP, who are working to feed people around the globe every single day. This $10 million contribution reinforces Cargill’s commitment to continuing our 20-year partnership with WFP. ”
In 2021 the private sector donated funds to the World Food Programme amounting to over 200 billion dollars. According to the WFP, private sector partnerships facilitate corporate support for the programme not just in terms of financial resources but also technical expertise and use of technology.
Crisis of Industrial agriculture
These solutions ignore the long standing issues levied against industrial agriculture that continue to undermine long term sustainability of the food system. Among these are the increasing use of pesticides and water pollution, and the negative impact these have on the health of people and the environment.
A 2019 study estimates that approximately 2 million tonnes of pesticides are utilized annually worldwide, where China is the major contributing country, followed by the US and Argentina, and that the global pesticide usage is projected to increase up to 3.5 million tonnes in 2020,
The report further noted the rapid increase in pesticide use in developing countries, especially in Southeast Asia. An annual increase in import of pesticides is reported as 61% for Cambodia, 55% for Laos and 10% for Vietnam.
The corporate-driven solutions also ignore what the international panel of experts call the underlying vulnerabilities and rigidities in terms of food production patterns and import dependencies. In their special report Another Perfect Storm, IPES-Food pointed to a number of these structural weaknesses which were already identified following the 2007-2008 food price crisis, but were essentially left unaddressed. These include: food import dependencies, path dependencies in production systems, opaque, dysfunctional,and speculation-prone grain markets; and vicious cycles of conflict, climate change, poverty, and food insecurity.
The ascendance of industrial agriculture and fisheries has also come at the expense of peasant agriculture and subsistence fisheries. Small-scale food providers were systematically eased out through “get big or get out” policies pushed by multilateral institutions and adopted by governments.
The irony as the People’s Autonomous response pointed out is that those who contribute most to world food security, the smallholder producers, are the most threatened and affected by corporate concentration of land, seeds, markets, natural and financial resources, and the related privatization of commons and public goods.
The current food crisis driven by the perfect storm of conflict, Covid, climate, and rising costs has provided new impetus to the calls for the transformation of the global food system to one that is more resilient to shocks and one that addresses the existential issue of hunger. There are, however, diametrically opposed approaches. Agribusiness proposes solutions that would intensify the application of genetic engineering, chemical-intensive production, and advanced digital technology that critics feel would only intensify food insecurity since its primary objective is to enhance corporate profitability. The opposite approach relies on the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices such as agroecology, by small farmers and small farming communities that provide some 70 per cent of the world’s food. Achieving genuine food security while contributing to the mitigation of multiple environmental crises is the goal of the latter.
On this struggle between the two paradigms rests the fate of billions of people and the planet.