After a lull in public attention over the last couple of years, rising food prices are back in the spotlight. A spike in prices triggered in part by the Russian export ban, and a deadly food price riot in Mozambique have rekindled the debate on global food security. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) convened a special meeting on global grain prices last Friday, concluding that measures are needed to increase market information and transparency in agricultural trades. Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, released a new report on the need to address speculation on commodity markets. He called for regulation and the establishment of food reserves, along with a renewed focus on agroecological methods to increase food production in developing countries.
The last food crisis in 2007-08 highlighted some of the underlying problems of the broken global food system: decades of neglect of investment in agriculture; the foolhardiness of relying on trade for food security; and the vulnerability to wild swings in prices caused by deregulated speculation on commodities. World leaders have made some important new commitments to increase spending and attention to agriculture. And there have been some important first steps toward a new approach in the United States.
The recent financial reform legislation increases transparency and puts new limits on commodity speculation. The Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative and bills under consideration in Congress would increase spending on agricultural development, emphasizing production by small-scale farmers, especially women farmers. The Global Food Security bill sparked a vigorous debate on the kind of research needed to strengthen local food production. Family-farm, faith, environmental and social justice organizations slammed the initial emphasis on GMOs, insisting on agroecological approaches that protect and build upon local knowledge and reduce dependence on imported inputs. Compromise language now broadens the approach to include research on technologies “appropriate to local ecological and social conditions, including ecological agriculture, conventional breeding, and genetically modified technology, as appropriate.” Of course, how this will all eventually play out on the ground in developing countries is what really matters.
In addition to how food is produced, it is also vital to ensure that people have access to it when and where they need it. Feed the Future and the Global Food Security Act are silent on the question of food reserves. They do provide for some increases in local and regional procurement of food aid. The USAID budget for local food aid expanded to over $280 million last year. This is a breakthrough in U.S. food aid programs, which up to now have overwhelmingly supported in-kind shipments of food purchased in the United States, transported by U.S. shipping companies, and distributed by U.S. agencies and NGOs. Several GAO reports have documented how much more in-kind food aid costs than locally procured food.
The USAID humanitarian assistance program is an important step. Unfortunately, it is still dwarfed by the in-kind food aid programs which continue at about $2 billion a year. There is no doubt that food aid saves lives in times of disaster, and that droughts and flooding and the consequent crop failures could become even more frequent as global warming destabilizes production. There will clearly be times when it makes sense to ship U.S. food to respond to a crisis. But the current approach to food aid skips any assessment of whether it would be cheaper or faster to buy food locally or regionally in developing countries. And it is unlinked from the root causes of food crises, including the vital importance of local production of food in markets controlled by local people. The default is in-kind aid because that’s what we’ve always done. Never mind the fact that the U.S. no longer holds public food reserves. Or that nearly all other countries providing food aid made the transition to local and regional procurement years ago.
These first steps towards increased investment in agriculture and experiments with locally procured food aid matter. They just aren’t nearly enough.