GROWING CALAMITY: AN IN-DEPTH REPORT ON GLOBAL FOOD INSECURITY In The 21st Century
Food prices and the global demand for food have been on the rise in recent years. The catalyst for riots worldwide and food insecurity has caused widespread disturbances in agricultural industries. Food insecurity exists when people do not have adequate physical, social or economic access to food (FAO, United Nations 2009). It is captivating and noteworthy to mention that there is enough food to feed twice the earth’s population yet, food is not being equally distributed. This renders a high percentage of the world’s population poverty-stricken and hungry. Local governments, food rights activists, international trade institutions, and non-governmental organizations are becoming increasingly concerned with food distribution and food sovereignty (Schanbacher, 2010). Neoliberal processes that control distribution and consumption are dominating policies regarding food production. International trade institution and multinational corporations dominate the entire food chain, and as a result the global food system has encountered a crisis. The food crisis that persists today is by no means a sudden disaster that has struck the agricultural industry. It is the manifestation of a long-standing crisis in agriculture. Neoliberal global food systems have significantly modified the dynamics of agricultural production and farmers no longer have control over the food they produce and are subjected to volatile markets (Borras, 2009). Data collected by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization between 2004 and 2006 shows that the number of undernourished people in the world has been steadily increasing for almost two decades. The report showed that there was little or no progress being made towards World Food Summit targets to reduce hunger and that most of the countries were suffering from undernourishment (FAO, United Nations, 2009).
While lesser-developed countries do benefit from some aspects of neoliberal globalization, it must be said that the same processes put marginalized societies at risk; impoverished farmers are no exception. These vulnerable farmers endure diminished technological resources and face stiff competition from capital-intensive foreign producers (Friedman, 2005). For decades the food industry’s hegemonic agents have perpetuated liberalized and unsustainable food systems that have resulted in many countries to falling victim to food insecurity. Such a grave and widespread problem warrants an in-depth exploration, to be carried out within this report. Beginning with a probe into the historical and contemporary challenges of food insecurity, this paper contends that structural changes at an international level are necessary to improve global access to sustenance. Case studies and multifaceted conceptualizations of the issue culminate in the identification of viable solutions to eradicate food insecurity forever.
Although food insecurity is not a new phenomenon, the term was only coined in the mid-1970s, following a food crisis in 1972, which lasted for one year (Fulton, 2012). The magnitude of that crisis caused many to remark it, as the advent of food insecurity itself. Although it is often thought that food insecurity is a result of food scarcity, Friedmann (1982) explains that food insecurity should be conceptualize as “a structural turning point” in the globe’s food production and distribution. Friedmann considers this first global food crisis to be the initial breakdown of the world’s food economy; which sustained grain surpluses and depressed prices (1982). Fulton also attempts to draw our attention to the heart of the matter by referring to the paradigm shift within the international food security discourse. Fulton (2012) contends that the analytical focus of the issue changed from food supply management, to the assessment of people’s ability to safely and consistently access food in a timely manner. In retrospect, the invention of new seed technologies, investments in rural agriculture, modern fertilizers and irrigation, caused many to be surprised by the catastrophe (Timmer, 2010). A variety of complex events, such as the oil crisis, rendered developing nations vulnerable and triggered the 1972 food crises (Friedmann, 1993). While some scholars regard oil’s radical price increases as the key catalyst to the food crisis, others interpret it differently (Fulton, 2012). Timmer for example, suggests that the high food prices led to soaring crude oil prices and that environmental catalysts were at the core of the 1972 food crisis (2010). Timmer goes on to explain that during the dry season in 1972 a severe drought, caused by El Nino, caused rice crops in Indonesia, Thailand and, the Philippines to be drastically reduced (Timmer, 2010). Soon after, domestic prices and demand for rice skyrocketed. To meet domestic demand Thailand, the world’s leading rice exporter, banned rice export in April 1973. What followed was a nine months standstill in world rice markets. Countries were left to depend on rice imports to fulfill domestic demand for food. Residual effects of El Nino spread far across the globe and had devastating ramifications.
In 1972 the world’s grain production decreased by 16 million metric tons (mmt), rice production dropped by14mmt and, wheat production diminished by 8mmt. Cumulatively, the total shortfall in world grain supply amounted to approximately 70 tons and represented an 8% reduction in global food supply. As a result of the shortage of food grains, prices rose. As a means of guranteeing their domestic food supply, oil-rich food-importing nation-states, reacted with an oil embargo against the United States and the former Soviet Union. Following the increase in oil prices, fertilizer prices also went up. The international community responded to the crisis and the countries in dire straits, by formulating what Friedmann terms a “temporary, elegant and dangerous” solution (1993). The solution was to offer lavished transnational bank loans, financed by oil-rich nations (Friedmann, 1993). The global food crisis originated due to severe weather conditions that were exacerbated by financial turmoil. Together with the Cold War, these issues aggravated the socio-political and economic conditions which eventually lead to explosive grain prices. CONTEMPORARY
CHALLENGES: CASE STUDIES
Since the food crisis in the early 1970s, humanity has witnessed a variety of countries declaring food emergencies, such as famine. In the year 2006 alone, twenty-five of the thirty-nine serious food emergencies were caused by the aftermath of violent conflicts, natural hazards or, a combination of the two (Alinovi, 2007). Of these thirty-nine serious food traumas, several of these crises were on-going for years and, in some cases for decades (Alinovi, 2007). The intensity and severity of a nation’s political conflicts dictates the impact that that conflict has on the food security. In certain instances it is impossible for some developing nations to overcome such dismal conditions. Since 1986, at least five African countries have been in a constant state of food insecurity for fifteen years, or more. A country that best embodies this is Somalia. Recent occurrences in the Horn of Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people died due to starvation, have been well publicized and are well-known by the general public. Without looking at the broader context, the mainstream media was quick to assert that the famine in Somalia was caused by severe drought. While it is correct that the region received the lowest rainfall that it had in sixty years, the famine was compounded by neglect. Two years prior to the famine, Islamist rebels prohibited most aid agencies from working in Somalia and the rebels only rescinded the ban when the food situation there was officially labeled a ‘famine’. Famines are declared when, a third of the child population is acutely malnourished and when two adults or four children per 10,000 people die of hunger each day (Chossudovsky, 2011). Before and during the famine in Somalia, the atmosphere was one of lawlessness, gang warfare and anarchy; all of which contributed to the famine (Chossudovsky, 2011). It is noteworthy to mention that this was not the first time that conditions were severe in Somalia. In fact, in 1992 thousands of citizens starved to death and far-reaching famines prompted international intervention. When President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, Somalia effectively became a failed state and politically driven civil-wars led to impoverishment. United Nations peacekeeping forces were eventually pulled out of the country after two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in 1993.
Another nation that exemplifies contemporary food insecurity is Sudan. In the case of Sudanese, the major catalyst for the crisis was the conflict between the central government and a rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) (Alinovi, 2007). When a country endures a civil war, an extraordinary amount of stress is placed on the civilian population. Not only are hospitals, clinics, schools and agriculture services diminished, or closed altogether, trade links and communication networks are disrupted indefinitely (Dodge, 1990). The policies enacted by the Sudanese government are directly related to the level of food insecurity experienced in the country’s Nuba Mountains. The Unregistered Land Act of 1970 resulted in a grab for farming land and displaced peaceful Nuba villagers. In addition to disrupting the Nuba people’s agro-ecology, humanitarian aid in SPLA controlled areas was blocked (Pantuliano, 2007). These measures successfully disrupted the villager’s conventional farming systems in favour of large-scale mechanized corporate agriculture (Pantuliano, 2007). These two case studies are prime examples of nations that have suffered from food insecurity due to political conflicts, lawlessness and anarchy. It is clear that given the multidimensional nature of the problem, short-term humanitarian aid will not yield successful results. Consequently, a complex issue such as food insecurity requires multifaceted solutions.
EXPLORING FOOD INSECURITY
The causes of food insecurity are as unique as the countries that are impacted; therefore conceptualizing the issue requires that it be examined from varying angles. An inability to access adequate and nutritious food inevitably results in malnourishment. This section will examine whether the Malthusian theory can assist in obtaining a greater understanding of the emergence and persistence of food insecurity. The Malthusian Theory of Population refers to works by Robert Malthus. Malthus’ theory relies on the premise that two fixed factors are the driving forces of human existence: food and passion between the sexes. Further, Malthus contends that unchecked populations grow exponentially, while food supplies increase arithmetically. These differing growth rates are what Malthus believed caused populations to grow faster than their food supply; according to him, this in turn causes food insecurity. Appendix A represents this concept visually. Malthus believed that when a high population is strained due to a lack of food, naturally occurring ‘preventive checks’ keep the population from getting out of control (Drysdale, 1878). Essentially he believed that food insecurity itself was caused these checks (Drysdale, 1878). There are however many critics of the Malthusian Theory. Ester Boserup believed that a small population actually restrains technological innovations and keeps agriculture at subsistence levels. Boserup asserts that major innovations in agriculture only occurred when food insecurity was a factor because it forced large populations to find any means of sustaining its populace. Julian Simon was equally as critical of Malthus and regarded people as resource creators rather than, resource destroyers. Simon believed that population growth has a positive, and not a negative impact on development. Both Boserup and Simon contend that the Malthusian Theory of Population fails to sufficiently explain the causes of food insecurity (Malthusian Crisis, 2009).
Critics go on to highlight another of Robert Malthus’s shortcomings; he did not take into account human ability to intentionally control birth rate. The Malthusian theory states that food insecurity results in population controls such as: food shortages, epidemics, pestilence and plagues. It is therefore possible for humans, given a lack of food, to simply decide to limit their reproduction. Malthusian theory also underestimates the possibility that food can increase at an exponential rate. Scientific advancements in the last few centuries have made the exponential growth of food production a reality (International Society, 2009). Neo-Malthusian theory, despite accepting human being’s ability to control fertility and therefore the population growth rate, still fails to account for the progress being made towards increasing global food supplies (Acselrad, 2006). Many of the areas that experience food insecurity are in third world countries, which are characterized by very high birth rates. The concern now is to find out why food insecurity continues to exist. If Malthus’ theory has been disproven and there truly is enough food for everyone in the world it is extremely important, now more than ever, to examine other possible causes of continued international food imbalances.
EXPLORING FOOD INSECURITY: THE ROLE OF CORPORATIONS
While Malthus was correct in his emphasis on technology and the environmental burdens associated with food production, in relation to the effects of food insecurity, he could not have conceptualized the far-reaching impact of large multinational agribusiness corporations. Contemporary industrialized society’s agricultural economies are characterized by the commodification of food products, engineered from the farm to the dinner table (Drabenstott, 1995). This industrialized approach applies principals of economic efficiency to cultivation and, has resulted in a slippery slope of revenue prioritization achieved through the technological alteration of food itself. Biotechnology has enabled the food industry to increase crop yield and revenues through the isolation and incorporation of specific traits from other plants or animals, into food products (Drabenstott, 1995). While Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO foods superficially appear to be reducing shortages, and by extrapolation food scarcity related deaths; environmental damage caused by intense corporate farming and the high toxicity of GMO foods, actually work to undermine the world’s food security. Intensive farming by agribusinesses degrades the soil and increases the industry’s reliance on chemicals. Fiscally sound, the application of pesticides during the food cultivation process produces greater yield and assures better storage and distribution of the product (Court, 2006). Generally applied aerially using helicopters or airplanes, herbicides such as Atrazine are estrogen disruptors and increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease (Aiyelaagbe, 2011). Herbicides often transported via surface runoff, leeches into the ground where it contaminates distant water sources and, can cause cancer after increased exposure (Aiyelaagbe, 2011). Toxins applied during production are inevitably transferred to the produce and have adverse effects on human populations worldwide. Genetically engineered or modified foods have similar, unpublicized, adverse effect.
Global leader in agribusiness ingenuity, Monsanto Corporation’s modified “Bt” corn was engineered with a bacteria bacillus thuringiensis. This bacterium produces the pesticide Bttoxin aimed at killing insects during production. Appendix B illustrates this process. Monsanto Corporation told the public that the Bttoxin was entirely safe because it would be completely destroyed in the human digestive system; however that was not a true statement. Studies have shown the pesticide to be present in the fetal blood of 80% of pregnant Canadian women tested (Smith, 2013). The full effects of the toxin are still unknown nevertheless preliminary research indicates that ‘Bt’ may cause deformities in unborn children (Smith, 2013). Without speaking to the morality of the subject, technological changes to alter the biological processes of plants and animals for the purposes of increasing crop yield, is actually counter-productive to the goal of sustaining life. Corporations such as Monsanto facilitate modern industrial society’s commodification of life sustaining nourishment. In short, the western corporatization of agriculture has left the world with a food system that no longer functions to provide safe, wholesome and nutritious food for all people.
SOLUTIONS & CONCLUSIONS
Food insecurity can be found in every corner of the globe and is usually caused by drought, famine, natural disasters, war, political instability, economic upheaval and most recently, global warming. Although developed and developing countries alike suffer from varying degrees of the problem, the former suffers less often than the latter. As is the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, USA; food insecurity can be a short-term problem, that if effectively tackled, can be rectified (Huffingtonpost, 2012). Food insecurity can also spiral into a long-term problem, as is the case in Sudan North Africa where political instability has fostered food insecurity in the region (Mensah, 2013). Food insecurity in most cases is caused by natural disasters (ie. earthquake in Haiti, tsunami in Thailand) where there is little or no warning. Natural disasters destroy infrastructure and food supplies; therefore it is a necessity that nations be ready in the event of any emergency. The first step to take when the problem of food insecurity arises is to evaluate local needs. Need is determined by the causal factors of the crisis in a particular area. Conducting a comprehensive evaluation, by examining key data on local assets, resources and, livelihood strategies is key to minimizing damage. For example, response teams could be sent out to meet directly with community members to better understand local conditions and create a collaborative plan of action to end food insecurity. The solutions to food insecurity can be classified into two categories: short-term and long-term solutions. Short-term solutions usually precede long-term solutions; and are the first responses to emergency situations. Short-term strategies include the distribution of food, cash and other items to prevent food insecurity in smaller timeframe. An example of this can be observed among the poor in the United States on food stamps and as well as in Haiti. Haiti received food aid and cash gifts from organizations and people around the world after an earthquake struck the island nation. Haiti has had a long history of food insecurity, brought about by political instability and poor governance. Long-term solutions to food insecurity are devised with a more stable future in mind.
Technological innovations have proven to be the main source of hope for future food security. Through technological innovation we can and have been able increase crop production to fight food insecurity and build stability internationally. Through sophisticated methods like genetic engineering, scientists have been able to modify the DNA of crops in order to increase agricultural output. ‘’An example [of this] can be observed in the case of an apple; ‘’an apple is about the size of a little pea, it started somewhere in Russia and it was inedible at the time of discovery. The domestication of the plant has resulted in twenty thousand different varieties of the fruit, all originated from one plant species (Despommier, n.d.). This report, above all things, demonstrates that augmented crop yield does absolutely nothing to increase marginalized people’s access to food. Technologically driven agriculture is unsustainable and damages poorer populations’ only tool of self-determinism: the land. Genetically modified foods and seeds contain diminished nutritional value and are toxic to human beings. Food insecurity in actuality, directly relates to socio-political issues that exacerbate the neo-liberal dilemma of unfair food distribution. Each country must therefore resist hegemonic policies and take their population’s survival into their own hands. This report calls for return to subsistence farming. Importing food to meet domestic need, in constantly fluctuating and volatile markets, adds to the problem of unreliable food supplies. Neither entirely correct nor incorrect, Malthus had no way of accounting for globalizations’ impact on absolutely every facet of contemporary life. Unless the international community abandons “equality” in favor of equity, rampant food insecurity will continue.
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