Thursday, February 19, 2009

Policies for the global food crisis

The food crisis may have slipped from the headlines, but almost a billion people face starvation in 2009. Drought and high prices, along with a diversion to bio-fuels and higher costs in the West, will reduce production in most of the world's major grain producers.

A report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) this week warns that food shortages are growing. In Eastern and Southern Africa, almost 30 million people face hunger due to three years of drought caused by global warming, combined with political conflict and the market system imposed by corporate globalisation.

Half of China's winter wheat harvest has been hit by drought and India is experiencing low rainfall. In Argentina, a year-long drought has killed nearly one million animals and destroyed half the grain. It is the same in Paraguay and in Uruguay average rainfall fell by more than third in the last twelve months.

The FAO report says that not only are the poor getting poorer, but formerly better off people are eating less. They are cutting back on education and health costs to buy food, and selling the assets they rely on for the future, such as land, tools, livestock.

Richer countries are not immune. In Australia, the coastal areas where agriculture thrived are now marginal for production, due to drought. In California a third year of drought is adding to an economic crisis that has Governor Schwarzenegger trying to balance the books with a tax increase, which the state legislature won’t pass.

California has the highest increase in unemployment and the largest number of home repossessions in the US. Things can only get worse – the melt water which is the basis of its agriculture, is coming to an end as rapid melting shrinks the mountain glaciers.

Meanwhile, the global chemical corporations continue their programme of trapping every farmer – large and small – in their net. The UN is desperately trying to win support for a new legal regime that stops patenting of crop varieties, but the powerful elites will ensure they don’t succeed.

And while drought resistant varieties are urgently needed, if developed in the current profit-driven system only the largest industrial farms will benefit. Small and medium sized farms will disappear.

However, there is another way forward. Here are some proposals:
  • The whole chain of food production is taken out of the hands of profit-driven corporations – both agri-business and supermarket chains.
  • Working democratically, farmers, distributors and consumers develop a holistic, sustainable, not-for-profit system that feeds everybody. 
  • Land is brought into common ownership and producers are supported with fair prices.
  • To counter the immediate crisis, drought resistant varieties are developed with public money diverted from weapons production.
  • A new system of fertilisation is introduced, with composting carbon waste a legal requirement. Crop rotation is reinstated and a focus on local food reduces the need for mono-culture.
  • Farmers in very marginal farming areas are helped to sustainably grow bio-fuels, to power their own homes, schools, hospitals and earn a livelihood.
What does everybody think? For years the system of “aid to poor countries” has failed and under the impact of global warming is collapsing altogether. The poorest in every country – even in California – are facing hunger in 2009. We have a chance to prevent it – but we need to act now.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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