International food prices have fallen since 2008, when agricultural commodity prices doubled, pushing millions around the world from bare subsistence to hunger and raising the number of food insecure people to nearly one billion.
Is the crisis over, then? Far from it, according to Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. As he told the UN Human Rights Council earlier in March, global policymakers have yet to address the structural causes of the crisis. In particular, they have failed to recognize that industrial agriculture is not the ultimate solution to global hunger — and that it is, instead, part of the problem.
In part, De Schutter drew his conclusions from his official mission to Malawi last year. As I toured the country last month, it was easy to see what he saw: the promise and allure of hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizer, as well as their limits.
Unfortunately, most global policy responses to the 2008 food crisis have strayed little from business as usual. They have been too influenced by business — particularly multinational agribusiness — which profits from a food system that is over-reliant on fossil fuel-based agricultural inputs.
To his credit, during his tenure, De Schutter has been willing to ruffle some corporate feathers while arguing for greater investment in small-scale farmers who produce food sustainably.
In his final report as Special Rapporteur, De Schutter calls for a 21st century approach that replaces last century’s focus on increasing yields with high inputs of improved seed, synthetic fertilizer, and other technologies with one that stresses equity, resilience, and sustainability.
Promising alternatives: In 2009, international donors launched the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), which pools international donor contributions for agricultural development. Recipient countries and civil-society representatives help set project priorities. One of the top priorities they’ve set is supporting sustainable smallholder food production, particularly by women, who represent the majority of developing country farmers.
So far about $1 billion has come into GAFSP, with strong US support. The Malawian government will soon launch a $46 million GAFSP project to build and rehabilitate irrigation for small-scale food production.
This type of work couldn’t look more different from New Alliance projects. It involves small-scale farmers, the majority women, in producing not export crops but food. The project promotes food crops like rice, beans, and cassava that enhance diversity in both diets and fields. Diverse crops help rebuild natural soil fertility, reducing the need for imported fertilizers.
An explicit aim of the project is to encourage the self-organization of farmers into cooperatives, a prerequisite for achieving both economies of scale and infrastructure management.
When one of the project’s coordinators told me about integrating farmers into “value chains,” he was not talking about those dominated by multinational firms. He was talking about Malawian businesses involved in processing and distributing foods in the domestic market.
This is not business as usual. It is the kind of public investment that can sidestep the development treadmills, ensuring that the impressive efforts by Malawian farmers and their government move the country forward.
And it is a concrete step toward what the De Schutter calls “food democracy” — a model that focuses more on farmers and their governments and less on business.
Timothy A. Wise
Director, Research and Policy Program
Global Development and Environment Institute
Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155