Food and the FAO’s Insecurity with the Two-thirds World

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report advocates #NeoLiberal solutions that serve interests of #AgriBusiness rather than critical smallholder farmers

By Rahul Goswami

In its State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014 report (SOFI 2014), which has just been released, the ‘world’ according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) excludes North America, Europe (not just western Europe but the entire 28-country Eurozone), and countries that are members of the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 34 countries).

So, at the outset, we learn from the FAO that when it says ‘world’ together with ‘food insecurity’, it means the world minus all these countries. We must ask the first question to the three who have together signed the foreword – José Graziano da Silva (director-general of the FAO), Kanayo F. Nwanze (President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD) and Ertharin Cousin (executive director of the World Food Programme, WFP). Why is the FAO’s ‘world’ the so-called ‘low income’ and ‘developing’ countries of Asia, Africa and South America? Is the FAO together with IFAD and WFP claiming that food insecurity exists only here and not in the European Union, in the USA and in the richer countries of the OECD? And if so, what value at all does such a document have?

The ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World’ series is one of the FAO flagship publications. This year’s edition is the 15th in a series which began in 1999, and which the FAO has described as raising “awareness about global hunger issues, discusses underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition and monitors progress towards hunger reduction targets established at the 1996 World Food Summit and the Millennium Summit”.

Of the 805 million undernourished people in the world (the hungry), 790 million according to the calculations of the FAO, IFAD and WFP are not in the ‘developed’ countries. But amongst the countries home to the 790 million there is an “encouraging trend” to be found as in 1990-92 their combined number of the hungry was 995 million, and with that diminishing by 205 million of what the FAO (and associated UN agencies, and associated multilateral lending banks, and divers and sundry foundations all dedicated to the abolishing of poverty) has for years called “unacceptable” and “shameful” hunger, some kind of victory is claimed.

And thereafter follows the curious pitch of a relatively short (a mere 57 pages in total, no dense tables and no denser academic prose) document. The three food agencies have emphasised that “accelerated, substantial and sustainable hunger reduction is possible with the requisite political commitment” accompanied by “relevant policy options”. The SOFI 2014 is designed to show that “access to food” (note that this is only access – not sound agro-ecological smallholder cultivation, of which there is no mention, and not organically produced and community-based cultivation) has “improved rapidly and significantly in countries that have experienced overall economic progress”.

And with that one of the several dominant strains of the neo-liberal / unfettered market capitalism arguments is linked to the troubling and disturbing evidence of chronic hunger – economic growth. Every country that is mentioned in the SOFI 2014 employs, in government positions and in advisory capacities, macro-economists who have been trained in the deceptive monetary and financial arts to prove to their struggling populations that GDP growth is necessary to reduce poverty and remove hunger, and they will employ this document for precisely such purposes.

The second argument is that access to food has improved “mainly in countries with adequate safety nets and other forms of social protection including for the rural poor”. This provides a second policy cudgel with which to bind communities to the privatisation of welfare (such as direct benefit transfers, mobile money and mandatory enrolment without which already flimsy entitlements will be beyond reach) and the imposition of various types of ‘austerity’ measures.

The Millennium Development Goals have been mentioned, and the relevant goal is the first, of halving the proportion of undernourished people by 2015 which SOFI 2014 has said is “within reach” but only “if appropriate and immediate efforts are stepped up”. What are the measures considered appropriate? The three authoring agencies have dispensed with camouflage. They want to see “an enabling environment and an integrated approach” adopted in the countries of the South – the ‘developing’ ones which are home to 98% of those measured as being hungry. This pressure supports the FAO’s insistence that Asia and the Pacific “must increase food production to meet future demand”, which contradicts the assertion that regionally, there is enough per capita food to feed Asia’s population, but of such contradictions are industry futures built.

How, in their view, can such an environment be carved out from under the noses of the smallholders that the FAO claims to admire and protect? How, in their view, can an approach – outside the ken of small farms and their short routes to local markets – be rolled out through diverse rural land mosaics? Here is their list: public and private investments to increase agricultural productivity; access to land, services, technologies and markets; the promotion of social protection programmes; the strengthening of resilience to conflict and natural disasters; the importance of specific nutrition programmes, particularly to address micronutrient deficiencies of mothers and children under five.

This prescription unrolls the gamut of measures that are demanded every month, from every ‘developing’ country government [pdf of SOFI 2014 here], by the food and agri-business multinationals and their collaborators and brokers (only two weeks ago, the head of PepsiCo was in India, to brazenly claim to the minister of food processing industries that PepsiCo has the experience required to provide, pack and distribute mid-day meals to schoolchildren, this from a company skilled only in vending sugary drinks and synthetic junkfood snacks).

The ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World’ must be seen for what it is – a blunt weapon in the hands of the multinational food and agri-business consortia whose products are responsible for globally widespread mis-nourishment, for deforestation, for the deliberate dismantling of public sector and socially vital food procurement and distribution programmes, for the grabbing of land, for the globally widespread alteration of diets and the disastrous shrinking of grain and vegetal biodiversity in diets. And because this latest trick by an FAO – which now seems inseparably wedded to the balance-sheets of the food and agri-business multinationals – is a cudgel and not an uplifting essay (which the FAO of even the 1980s still encouraged), the 2014 edition includes seven case studies not one of which is from the European Union or North America.

They are instead from Bolivia, Brazil, Haiti, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malawi and Yemen and chosen for they “highlight some of the ways that countries tackle hunger and how external events may influence their capacity to deliver on achieving food security and nutrition objectives”. Yet we know that in the USA just over one in six persons survives under an official poverty line, one in five of American households with children is food insecure and more than one in four black American households is food insecure.

Consider: “In 2013, households that had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average included households with children (20%), especially households with children headed by single women (34%) or single men (23%), Black non-Hispanic households (26%) and Hispanic households (24%).” This is what Feeding America, a hunger relief charity has said, quite starkly. We know also that Britain, the seventh richest country in the world, is deeply unequal, with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty reporting that “millions of families across the UK are living below the breadline”, with Oxfam having estimated that the number of free meals given to people in food poverty in 2013-14 by the three main food aid providers went up by 54% compared with 2012-13.

Nor is Germany, the so-called economic motor of Europe, different. The book ‘Who owns Germany? The real power holders and the fairy tale of national wealth’ (by Jens Berger, a fifth edition of which has been published this year) shows that the upper tenth of 1% of German households has about as much money as the bottom 85%, that the wealth of the 80,000 richest Germans is 16 times greater than the wealth of the poorest 40 million, and that the lowest 20% of Germany’s population have no assets at all.

Would the FAO, IFAD and WFP have us believe, through this pamphleteering flagship publication, that the many dimensions of food security play no part in whether a family and a household have enough to eat, safe and locally produced, free of chemicals and free of Genetic Modification, at a cost they can afford? So it appears, even while major studies on social injustice in Europe, such as the detailed study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation, prove otherwise, “Social security systems have been badly undermined by austerity measures in many countries… Particularly in southern Europe, youth unemployment has climbed to ever-new record highs. The risk of poverty has also increased further as a result of the crisis”.

The factors that singly and together contribute to deep and lasting food insecurity are clear to see in the ‘developed’ world, and the populations (households and families) thus affected are in numbers very much larger than the countries singled out in SOFI 2014 with case studies: Bolivia has 11.02 million in 2014, Haiti 10.60 million, Madagascar 24.23 million, Malawi 17.30 million, Yemen 25.53 million. The USA has 50 million under its official poverty line, a number greater than the populations of all these countries, but SOFI 2014 ignores their hunger and their mis-nourishment and their undernourishment.

If SOFI 2014 is a slim pamphlet (but weighty in the cunning hands of food free-marketeers) the methodologies it relies on are portrayed as being broad and deep. “All available data on each dimension of food security have been compiled and on changes in these dimensions over time analysed,” the report has said. Our final question therefore is: why has the claimed reduction in the number of undernourished not been balanced by the carefully documented growth in the number of obese and overweight populations in the world?

For all the saddening reasons pertaining to the rise in the number of poor households in the ‘developed’ countries, the incidence of obesity in their populations is directly attributable to the inability of those households to buy healthy food and subsist on a nutritious diet that is locally produced. Instead, what passes for social security – whose provision is considered a mandatory enabling provision elsewhere by the FAO – in the USA, Britain and a number of countries in Europe will allow households to purchase only the cereal-heavy, calorie-dense and fully processed products that the chemical food industry supplies.

The impact of this food and diet transformation has been felt in every country, and particularly in those countries exhorted by the FAO to grow economically as a means to reducing poverty. Instead, one malady – that of malnutrition – has been replaced by a far greater one in the form of adults and children suffering from obesity and being overweight as the very form and substance of their food staples has changed. The comprehensive study by The Lancet and released this year examined this trend over the period 1980 to 2013. From 1992 onwards – using the trend of worldwide obesity uncovered by the study and placing it in parallel with the period of ‘reducing’ malnourishment claimed by SOFI 2014 – the number of overweight and obese people rose by about 792 million, which is four times the reduction in the number of malnourished worldwide that is being celebrated by the FAO, IFAD and WFP.

“In developed countries, more men than women were overweight and obese, whereas in developing countries, overweight and obesity was more prevalent in women than in men, and this association persisted over time,” the Lancet study had explained. “Rates of obesity seem to be increasing in both developed and developing countries, and in 2013, the prevalence of obesity was higher in women in developed and developing countries than in men.”

The FAO has evolved a definition for food security that must reasonably include every ill effect of mismanaged and misdirected nutrition, but the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014 reports one side and not the other. The mismanagement of nutrition – referenced often in FAO statements that bemoan undernourishment while enough per capita food supplies exist – is called hunger and the FAO labours to connect this with ‘access’. The misdirection of nutrition – as primary crop staples are industrially re-converted into low-cost formulations such as the ready-to-eat noodles and ‘enriched’ biscuits that are the mania amongst the labour in Asia and Africa, for that is all they can afford – just as often is seen in overweight working age populations, fed every day on cheap cereals reconstituted with palm oil, sugars and spiced flavourings.

The health effects of both food insecurities, especially for low-income households, demand a response from country governments that goes far beyond the industry-friendly prescriptions of the FAO, IFAD and WFP, biased as they now visibly are towards the finance-and-technology suite of ‘solutions’ so readily provided by the welter of international foundations and their transnational food industry funders. For national and sub-national governments which take seriously their responsibilities towards cultivators and food consumers, the State of Food Insecurity reports may be treated as advertisements for food globalisation, full of false promise and dubious claims.

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