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Exporting protein from Brazil to feed the pigs, cows and chickens of Europe and beyond: Cargill's soya terminal at Santarem, between Rio Amazonas and Rio Tapajos. Photo: Sara y Tzunki via
Exporting protein from Brazil to feed the pigs, cows and chickens of Europe and beyond: Cargill's soya terminal at Santarem, between Rio Amazonas and Rio Tapajos. Photo: Sara y Tzunki via
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Ending hunger - the rich world holds the keys

Olivier De Schutter

25th March 2014

Food - and the land we grow it on - are much too important to be left to 'free' markets, writes Olivier De Schutter. And all the more so when those markets are not really free at all, but grossly distorted in favour of the rich.

Wealthy consumers are able to command the resources that will allow their lifestyles to continue unchallenged, even as others are deprived of basic calories and the environment is imperilled.

I took on the role of UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in 2008, just as food prices were soaring to unprecedented heights on global markets.

Food riots ensued and hunger deepened in poor, food-importing countries - but there was one silver lining. The imbalances of our food systems, which had been building up over the past forty years, suddenly became visible.

We learned that summer that the global food supply was only a few spoiled harvests away from failing to meet global demand.

But we also glimpsed the unjust logic at the heart of our globalized food systems: populations with widely divergent purchasing powers have effectively entered a bidding match for limited - and ultimately finite - resources.

The brutal efficiency of the food market

The global marketplace is brutally efficient at allocating resources to the highest bidder - as opposed to where they are needed.

Its simple magic allows large areas of farmland in developing countries to be used to cultivate feedstocks for fuelling cars, or for feeding the livestock that will satisfy burgeoning meat consumption in the West.

According to some estimates, as much as six million hectares of African land were bought up by EU biofuels companies alone between 2009 and 2013. The 'virtual land' embodied in the EU's imports of protein crops to feed animals represented 20 million hectares in 2010 - the equivalent of almost 10% of the EU's own farmland.

Meanwhile, rather than be consumed directly by local populations, smaller species of fish are shipped thousands of kilometers to fish farms where they command more money as feed for the salmon and trout rich consumers will buy.

Throwing food away

And this food can be wasted in huge quantities in wealthy countries - the average European or North American consumer throws away more than 100kg per year - because food expenditure represents a slither of their household budgets.

Overall, wealthy consumers are able to command the resources that will allow their lifestyles to continue unchallenged, even as others are deprived of basic calories and the environment is imperilled.

Indeed, food systems are failing spectacularly on these counts: close to one billion people are still hungry and 1.4 billion are overweight or obese, while food systems contribute almost one third of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

It is estimated that the livestock sector alone is responsible for a staggering 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions, when livestock respiration and the loss of forests and woodlands for pasture and feed crops are taken into account.

Yet many believe that the main challenge for the future is simply to raise global food production and make the sector freer still to respond to market signals and boost aggregate supply.

The whole system needs reform - beginning in the global North

The problem with this approach is that it ignores the gaping failures of the present, and prescribes more of the same - with an extra bucket of fertilizer and an extra storey on the factory farm.

We badly need an alternative paradigm for the 21st century. There is much that can be done by developing countries themselves to support small-scale farmers with the land, credit, technology and market access they need.

Environmentally-sustainable and potentially high-yielding agroecological systems can be promoted, and efforts can be made to link up these producers with local consumers.

However, these reforms cannot be made in a vaccuum. In our globalized food systems, patterns are locked in by signals from the wealthy countries. The success of reform in the global South is contingent on reforms in the global North.

By reining in their demand for animal products and agrofuels, and by cutting back their food waste, wealthy countries would be able to reduce their bloated claims on global farmland, allowing those with lower purchasing power to command the resources they need.

Rich countries' farm subsidies are an attack on the poor

Change must also occur on the supply-side, and here it is a question of how we produce, not merely how much. Thanks to huge subsidies to farmers in wealthy countries, the meat and food processing industries have benefitted from a glut of cheap grains over recent decades.

This has made it tempting for developing countries to rely on food imports. But it has not been sufficient to put enough nutritious food on the plates of the poor.

And it does not compensate for the loss of genuine income-earning opportunities by small-scale farmers whose efforts to supply their local markets have been undercut.

By gradually cutting back their farm subsidies, wealthy countries would give small-scale farmers in developing countries a fair shot at sustaining their livelihoods and feeding local communities.

The luxury of the rich - or the survival of the poor?

Only when this model is given a chance to succeed will developing countries have a real alternative to selling off their land to large-scale export-oriented production units, in the hope that global prices will be kind enough to allow them to import back enough food to cover their basic needs.

Six years on from the 2008 food crisis, there has been a 'reinvestment in agriculture', but too little thinking has taken place outside the productivist box.

Without reform in the North and the South, and without a new paradigm, globalized food systems will remain an auction house where the luxury tastes of the rich world compete against the basic needs of the poor - and win every time.



Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. his second three-year mandate comes to an end in May 2014. This editorial article represents a summary of the key messages he would like to leave behind.

He will be Keynote Speaker at the Forum on the Future of Agriculture (FFA) in Brussels on 1st April, speaking on the topic: 'From Feeding Countries to Supporting Countries' Ability to Feed Themselves: Trade and Investment in the Service of Resilient Food Systems'.




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