coming global food fight
John Cavanagh and Robin Broad
aggression mounts with the rise of food prices worldwide, small-scale
farms rooted in local markets could avert international disaster ---
and lead the way to "food democracy."
prices around the world are surging. Between July of last year and
this January alone, the price of wheat has doubled. Indeed, the cost
of food has now passed the record levels of 2008, when angry citizens
staged huge protests in dozens of countries. Currently, protesters
across the Middle East include lowering food prices among their
demands. When prices go up even a bit, millions more people starve.
local organic farmers with whom we have been spending time in the
Philippines and elsewhere are less affected by these price swings
precisely because they consume much of what they harvest, and they
sell the rest to local markets. These farmers have achieved at the
household level what Frances Moore Lappé terms "food
democracy," and what the small farmer coalition, Via Campesina,
calls "food sovereignty" at a national level.
country has "food sovereignty" when its people consume safe
and nutritious food largely grown by their own small farmers.
Significantly fewer countries sustain this sovereignty today than a
generation ago. The reigning development model pushed by World Bank
and other experts has left many countries exporting more cash crops
like flowers and gourmet vegetables, and importing more of their
there is more to food sovereignty than freedom from imports. In
richer countries, food purchases make up a relatively small percent
of household budgets. Here in the United States, we spend an average
of only seven percent of our budgets on food, although that number
rises in poor urban neighborhoods.
Tunisia and Egypt, however, the average person spends more than a
third of their household budget on food, and thus more people feel
food price hikes daily in the pits of their stomachs.
in most countries, Egyptians used to grow what they ate domestically.
Today, Egypt is one of the world's largest wheat importers ---
bringing in over half the wheat it consumes from elsewhere. As a
result, ordinary Egyptians are now extremely vulnerable to
catastrophic global weather events and manipulative trading by
speculators on commodity futures markets. Wheat prices are spiking in
part because of recent droughts in China and flooding in Australia.
The food markets in poorer nations feel the consequences of these
price hikes immediately.
snapshot of global grain dependence
the majority of people get the bulk of their calories from basic
grains. In almost all countries, this means wheat, rice, or corn. We
decided to look at the degree to which countries have become
dependent on importing these critical foods. We were stunned by the
imports more than 80 percent of its number one grain: rice. Tunisia
and Morocco both import about three-quarters of the wheat their
people consume. In Mexico, the birthplace of corn, the North American
Free Trade Agreement ripped open the market. Mexicans now buy most of
their corn from the United States.
nations are usually more resilient. They tend to grow the vast
majority of this staple, making import dependence low.
in the Philippines, where we have spent considerable time on local
farms, imports account for as much as a sixth of rice consumption. In
2008, rising rice prices set the entire nation on edge. Responding to
citizen concerns about such intense vulnerability to global markets,
the new government has set ambitious goals on eliminating rice
imports within three years. They project much lower rice imports this
solutions from small-scale farming
are food sovereignty lessons to be learned from sub-Saharan Africa,
made up of those countries that lie south of the protest belt in
Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Most of these nations
are less import-dependent when it comes to food than nations in Latin
America and Asia, and so are less affected by spiraling prices. In
addition, there is evidence that, as food costs have risen in several
of these sub-Saharan countries, people are returning to native-grown
cassava and sorghum in place of expensive imported food.
mainstream pundits are now counseling these countries to further
enmesh themselves in the global economy. While the World Bank
continues to push trade-dependent agriculture, hundreds of groups
from ActionAid to the Oakland Institute and Food First are promoting
UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food has been gathering evidence from
57 poorer nations where innovative non-chemical techniques have been
used to boost food production. Special Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter
sums up the findings: "We won't solve hunger and stop climate
change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution
lies in supporting small-scale farmers' knowledge and
experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to
contribute to rural development."
is a ray of hope that penetrates the crisis for import-dependent
countries: While millions are suffering as the result of volatile
development models, the food emergency of 2011 can convince more
countries to reject conventional "wisdom" that says
exporting and importing more is the right path to food security.
many countries like the Philippines, local farmers growing healthy
and chemical-free foods are on the rise and are taking over
increasing shares of local and national markets.
is a great deal that governments can do to boost such rooted,
sustainable farms, from investing in irrigation and retraining
agricultural extension workers, to rejecting trade agreements that
pry open food markets.
thousands of people in the streets of Morocco and other Middle
Eastern nations are demanding lower food prices as well as democracy.
It is time to say "no" to food vulnerability and to
reinvigorate rooted farms all over the world.
Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a
national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with
practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development
at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an
international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S.
Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy
Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy
Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global
economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to
write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of
Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has
worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where
Robin first lived in 1977-78.