Global Policy Forum

Africa and Global Food Crisis


By Olivier De Schutter

September 3, 2009

AFROLINE: In 2007 and 2008 Africa was subject to growing riots, due to the booming food prices. In the second semester of 2008, prices registered a 40 per cent decrease, but in the last few months they have started going up once more. Is Africa protected from another food crisis?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: We cannot understand the tragedy of hunger based only on the evolution of food prices on international markets. By focusing on these aspects alone, we ignore all the problems related to the production chain and to the distribution of food. Poor people in African countries do not buy rice or manioc on the Chicago Stock Exchange, but in local markets or village shops; producers sell the goods to intermediates, and not to the international market.
Therefore, even when prices do go up, few producers may in fact enjoy an increase in revenues. Similarly, the decrease of prices on the global markets does not automatically lead to lower prices for consumers: in April 2009 FAO [the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations] published a report made in 58 developing countries showing that in 80 per cent of the countries being looked at, foodstuffs were being sold at higher prices compared to April 2008, and 40 per cent of those surveyed had seen price increases from January 2009. In January 2008, hunger affected 923 million people, but today the hungry amount to 1.02 billion people worldwide. The crisis has never been this strong. That being said, the increase of prices does weigh a lot on the balance of payments and on the trade balances of poor countries, among which are many African net food-importing countries.

Due to this dependence - resulting where for the past 30 years, investment has been in crops for the export market to raise foreign currency rather than growing food - countries remain extremely vulnerable.

Finally, it is obvious to all that the link between agricultural production and oil is an intolerable situation. To date we have not acted on the root causes of price volatility and other jolts are inevitable.

AFROLINE: The United Nations has several agencies to alleviate the problems of global food shortages, in particular among poor countries, the FAO and the WFP (World Food Programme). What more can a UN special rapporteur on the right to food do to help the world's poor access food?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Hunger is usually seen by the international agencies either as a production problem or one of availability - the FAO seeks to encourage more production, and the WFP to deliver food where it is needed, for instance following bad harvests or resulting from conflict situations... The root causes of hunger are discrimination and marginalisation, lack of accountability of governments to the needs of their population, or in adopting of policies that aggravate hunger instead of alleviating it. A framework based on the right to adequate food obliges us to include these questions - questions of governance if you like, or of accountability - into our answers to the hunger issue. Without this - without accountability mechanisms and a protection of the entitlements of the poorest - our solutions will remain short-term, insufficiently targeted, and ultimately ineffectual. It may result in increased production but completely fails to reduce the scourge of hunger. The right to food is therefore a vital part of the panoply of answers we have to develop against hunger.

AFROLINE: In a recent article, The Economist claims that until agricultural productivity in poor countries increases, the balance between supply and demand will remain precarious. Do you agree?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Although not false, this assertion is over-simplified. Firstly, it focuses on supply side without taking demand into account. For instance, the desire of Northern countries for animal protein, and more recently our thirst of agro-fuels, have a responsibility in the reduction of stocks and mounting tensions between supply and demand in the international marketplace. It is dangerous, however, to diminish the issue of hunger to an issue of just supply and demand.

In 2008 harvests were excellent, but the number of hungry people increased. Why? Of course, the answer does not lie in a lack of production. The problem is that 80 per cent of families do not have access to social protection, the purchasing power of poor countries did not increase sufficiently and smallholders are not being helped out. And we cannot consider production without also considering distribution: it is a very important sector. Many production systems now do not minimise the problem but, by accelerating the duplication of the sector, the system is creating rural exodus and poverty as towns grow.

AFROLINE: Why have poor and rich governments as well as international institutions abandoned agriculture over the last decade?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Since the 1980s, agriculture has increasingly been ignored in many developing countries. This has happened both in development cooperation policies - where the share for agriculture dropped from 18 per cent in 1980 to 4 per cent in 2007 - and in national budgets. There are three main reasons.

Firstly, looking at the huge supports - such as export subsidies - to agricultural producers in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) area - US$258 billion in 2007 - and the high competitiveness of agriculture in nations such as Argentina, Thailand or Uruguay, the agricultural sector came to be seen as unprofitable in the majority of developing countries, particularly the least developed countries (LDCs).

It seemed easier to export raw materials such as minerals, oil, diamonds or crop cultivations such as cotton, coffee, tea and tobacco, and to import foodstuffs which were often already transformed, rather than strengthen family and subsistence agriculture.

Then structural adjustment plans of the 1980s stimulated a production fall-off, for instance through either the organisation of production processes or of mechanisms that would allow to maintain price levels, with the aim of favouring the emergence of 'the truth of prices' - but the private sector has not taken up the relay and agriculture has been deserted, sometimes in a literal sense. Finally - and this third reason explains, at least partially, the two preceding ones - small farmers displaced in the countries are relatively marginalised on a political level. Their demands do not have clout compared to inhabitants of cities, for whom it was decided that less expensive imported foodstuffs bought on international markets should be encouraged with the use of food aid, at the expense local production, which accelerated the rural exodus. All the ingredients of the disaster we are now paying for were in the making.

AFROLINE: On a political level, good governance has become a fashionable word, but it has been discredited by African leaders who rarely practise political transparency. Do you think that the current generation of African leaders is up to the challenge of dealing with the current food insecurity?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: From what I have seen during my meetings with African leaders, a definite change is on course. A new consensus is forming around the need to sustain agriculture and additional, new re-investments in the public rural sectors. There is often a lack of discussion on the ways to promote a green revolution which means failing to take up all the opportunities of agro-ecology and participative production, and this happens despite their potential, which has been widely proved.

However, there is a real consciousness of the danger linked to a strong dependence on imports to guarantee food security: crops cultivation is coming back into fashion. At long last, the threat of climate change is being taken seriously: Agriculture has to transform radically and ready itself for an upcoming revolution, breaking its bonds with fossil energies and increasing its resilience.

The current generation of planners is conscious of the challenges ahead, and Northern countries have to help them. I have made concrete proposals in this respect on development aid, food aid and international trade reform, but the considerable efforts that have been deployed on the national level will only be reaped if the international atmosphere is favourable. The contrary is also true: without positive policies at a national level, international aid - useful in the short term - will be inadequate to improve the situation in the long run. We have to cease with palliative measures.

AFROLINE: A growing number of foreign investors are planning to use land for cultivation in Mali, Madagascar and other African countries. Do you foresee any problems arising from this? On the other hand, considering that governments have neglected such land, could this be rather an opportunity for poor nations like Madagascar? A lot of land cultivated during colonialism has since been neglected, depriving the country of a valuable source of income.

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Many of us have regretted the disinvestments in agriculture since the early 1980s. Public and private investors have once more started to take an interest in agriculture, which should be good news.

However, the pace at which cultivable lands are currently sold to public investors or, more frequently, to private ones, the size of the arable lands that are involved in this process and land speculation which started during the food crisis in 2008, leave many questions unanswered.

Farmers and nomadic breeders' rights of access to the land are at risk of not being taken into account; frequently they do not have property titles to the land upon which they depend for their survival and well-being and they do not have possibilities of legal recourse in the event of expropriation.

It is necessary to be cautious about talks concerning land that is 'available' or 'not used' or 'not exploited' which, even though not used intensively, is very often useful to semi-nomadic agriculture or to livestock breeding, which can insure support and help maintain local populations.

Furthermore, investors are not forced to generate local employment, the transfer of new technologies or the respect of the environment; negotiations are often unbalanced, because they are made without transparency and without the local population on board.

Thirdly, this approach could very well increase the dependence of these countries for investments on the international markets; it seems like a paradox, but as these countries are showing that they will be able to increase their production capacity, their dependency upon external forces will increase, and this could occur when they start re-exporting agricultural produce to foreign countries.

With global markets now being less reliable, prices will climb and be subject to fluctuation. That is why investors want to buy lands instead of foodstuffs on international markets; it appears to give more guarantees. However, there is fourth problem: we do not have any guarantee that the earnings made through the handover of lands will benefit the local population, in terms of new infrastructures, schools and hospitals.

In this context, I drew up 11 principles that come from the applications of the international laws on human rights. Early reactions are very positive, and they strengthen my vision: human rights laws do not just contain obligations, but opportunities too. Land represents not only the most important means of access to food for millions of small farmers and their families; it is also part and parcel of the identity of certain people and communities, but if the agreements for investing go against these realities, it could lead to the opposite effect.

AFROLINE: Non-food growing countries with a bounty of oil riches are currently obtaining lands in poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Obviously, where there is the supply, those with the demand are moving in. The UN is one of the multilateral organisations against this new development, which it describes as 'land grabbing'. Why?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: Various positions have been taken within the UN system on this issue. In June, I drew up 11 principles which, based on human rights, should ensure that these large-scale leases or acquisitions of land benefit the local population, rather than undermining their livelihoods and increasing inequalities within countries. In my view, if those principles are complied with, 'land deals' can work for the benefit of both investors and local communities, and I am therefore delighted that Mr Taro Aso, prime minister of Japan, has more recently proposed that such principles form the basis of an international consensus on this issue - which he hopes to achieve at the September session of the UN General Assembly.

We must view the recent interest of investors in agriculture as an opportunity. But we must also be aware of the risks, which are considerable. It would already be an immense step forward for negotiations to be made more transparent, and involve local communities, so as to ensure that the arrival of foreign investors creates local employment, while at the same time respecting the environment and strengthening local food security.

AFROLINE: Africa is preparing for the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. Since 2006, some experts have been saying that this is the last chance for the continent to put across a clear common position. What can the continent expect from the conference? And in what way does the climate question influence food security?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER: The impacts of climate change on food security are clear: it could have negative impacts, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The frequency and timing of rain will change for example, both crucial for agriculture.

Even if it is hard to measure with certainty the impact it will have on every region, an increase in arid and semi-arid zones by around 60 to 90 million hectares is possible. Research of the GIEC (Groupe d'Experts Intergouvernemental sur l'Évolution du Climat) predicts a halving of agricultural productivity in rain-related agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is more difficult to evaluate what the African continent can expect from Copenhagen. Most people know now that financing for the adaptation of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change is a sensitive and unresolved question. Developed countries have a historical responsibility when it comes to climate change, and they must take initiatives to draw up an equally historical agreement in Copenhagen.

On the other hand, the choices that African states have with regards to their own resources, or those over which they have an influence, are not neutral from a climate point of view.

By slanting the agricultural re-launch towards the use of chemical fertilisers, the risk is run of contributing to climate change and strengthening dependence on fossil fuels. The manufacture of these fertilisers is highly energy consuming. On the other hand, investing in sustainable agricultural models can not only reduce greenhouse gasses, but also bring to the fore the development of more climate change-resilient systems, and even stock carbon, as seen in the case of agro-forestry systems.

This is why the crucial question today is not only the amount reinvested in African agriculture - in terms of billions of dollars or percentage of GDP (gross domestic product) - but in the direction in which it is heading and in the earmarking of funds for specific activities. This is what I developed in my 'green African revolution', a position I reiterated in my letter to African heads of states.



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