We need to stop thinking about food security as an economic problem.
Food security is largely discussed in terms of increasing demand pressures and worsening constraints on supply. These discussions miss the fundamental problem of food security today: around 1 billion people go hungry while up to 40% of food production is wasted.
Certainly the pressures and constraints are undeniable. Population continues to grow. Economic development means exploding demand for red meat and processed foods from the burgeoning Asian and Latin American middle classes.
At the same time, arable land is rapidly being consumed by urbanisation and development. Agricultural productivity is further threatened by soil erosion and the devastation of biodiversity - crops don’t thrive in a monoculture.
Fresh water resources are threatened by damming, pollution and the depletion of non-renewable fossil aquifers.
Increasing production is not enough
These supply constraints are not new issues: most have been recognised since the early 1970s. Food production yield increases have long outstripped population growth, but more people — in number and proportion — are going hungry now than were back then.
Economic prosperity has also boomed in the intervening decades. So much for the “rising tide that lifts all boats”.
We must find a way to break the cycle of poverty and inequality. Otherwise all the technological solutions to increase food supply and meet the needs of growing populations will fail to solve the shame of widespread hunger.
At a conference in Singapore last month, experts from around the world joined to discuss the future of food security in Asia.
Most of the discussions focused on the supply side of “the problem” and how to fix it by increasing productivity. The solutions include industrialising agriculture, combining smaller farms into larger ones, expanding the use of hydrocarbon-based pesticides and fertilisers and developing genetically modified crops.
This view of food security undoubtedly feeds the global food corporations, agri-industrialists and capital investors with profits. But it forgets those who are going hungry.
Higher productivity can mean more hunger
In many Asian countries, these very same “solutions” are impoverishing people and making them go hungry.
The stories of farmer suicides in India due to debt over the costs of corporate seeds, pesticides and fertilisers are well known.
In Cambodia, the government grants economic land concessions to commercial investors to develop industrial-scale agriculture. These frequently lead to communities being evicted from their lands, leaving them without food, homes, income or livelihoods.
In the Philippines, farmer co-operatives are being encouraged into long-term contracts with foreign investors. At first glance these appear to offer new markets for the farmers and their produce.
On closer inspection they indenture the farmers’ land and labour to the companies for 25 or 50 years and exclude the farmers from the profits, productivity, and even subsistence food crops from their own land.
These “solutions” increase food insecurity.
These situations can’t be solved only by fixing supply and demand or increasing productivity. They need us to think about corruption, governance, policy, enforcement and corporate responsibility.
It’s not about drought, but how we deal with drought
These situations — and the human beings suffering from them — implore us to remember that food security should not be about corporate profits, but about addressing hunger.
Famine has returned to Africa. Some say this renewed African tragedy reflects over-population in marginal environments. This is difficult to countenance.
Many millions of people live fat and happy lives in the arid deserts of North America and the Arabian Peninsula. Certainly there is drought in the horn of Africa, but there is also drought in China, Texas and, until recently, Australia. No famine occurred in Texas or Australia or appears likely in China.
The crisis in Africa is terrible enough, but what makes it particularly appalling in today’s world is that more than enough food is grown. We have the technical and logistical capacity to get it where it needs to go. But we do not.
There are three parts to this problem. In the developing world as much as 40% of produce is lost to spoilage, pests or just plain wastage from inadequate storage, refrigeration, packaging and transportation.
In the developed world, a similar proportion of food is lost from supermarkets, shops, cafes, restaurants and homes when it is thrown away, un-consumed. Food waste in Australian households is worth more than $5 billion per year (and this excludes commercial food waste).
Finally, the world’s food supply chain is hostage to the profit motive. Simplistically, food is a commodity that is produced and sold for profit.
The profit motive excludes people from food
Corporations whose primary objective is the generation of profit prefer to sell (relatively) expensive and profitable foods to wealthy consumers than (comparatively) cheap, low-profit produce to poorer ones.
Few businesses want to sell products to consumers with no money. Fewer still want to work in environments — such as the Horn of Africa — which are dangerous and corrupt.
Yet we have no alternative to the commercial distribution of food except for a strained and straining food aid system.
The famine in the Horn of Africa is less about drought than about the exclusion of people from food. The region is beset by conflict and politicians who survive by oppression and coercive deprivation.
Impoverishment has become so bad that people simply can’t afford to eat. Without customers, few providers will come to sell.
Agri-industrial technological solutions cannot solve these problems. Nor can they be explained by supply and demand curves.
Beyond food aid: getting food to the hungry
Food security, instead, needs to focus on the hungry, impoverished and vulnerable. It needs to recognise that systems of governance and the profit-centric economic systems of distribution play crucial roles in perpetuating impoverishment and hunger.
Certainly when thinking about food security in this way some of the problems are intractable: Somalia’s warlords or Cambodia’s endemic corruption. But it also opens up new solutions that protect the poor and vulnerable from hunger while increasing overall food availability.
One example is investing in smallholder productivity in developing countries rather than facilitating land aggregation and industrialisation which dispossesses and impoverishes rural communities.
Another is investing in ways to help the agrarian poor reduce their post-harvest losses. This has the effect of increasing their incomes and reducing their poverty and vulnerability to hunger.
Closer to home it should make us not only wonder why we waste so much food, but also if we, as Australian consumers, are really happy about paying our supermarkets and food retailers $5 billion that we simply throw away.
None of this is to say that markets are not important, that supply constraints should be ignored, or that there is some magic bullet around the corner. But when we think about food security we must prioritise those that are truly food insecure — those going hungry or who are gravely vulnerable to hunger — and not wealthy countries or transnational corporations.
Moreover, it is essential to recognise that food insecurity is as much a product of bad governance, failing policies and old fashioned corruption and greed as it is of pressures on supply and demand.