A giant step back in the fight against world hunger

Brian Stewart on the food crisis that is always being overlooked.
Belgian riot police shield themselves against hay sprayed by milk farmers, protesting a drop in European milk prices, in Brussels in October 2009. (Reuters)

It has been one of those exasperating decades — two steps forward, one giant step back — in the world's fight against poverty and hunger. 

At times, there have been reasons to cheer, reasons to groan, reasons to fear.

Remember, the decade started with the historic Millennium Declaration by the UN that set many spectacular targets for world progress. The boldest was to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015.

That meant finding a better life for at least half the estimated 1.4 billion humans who live in poverty so severe — living on no more than $1.25 a day — that malnutrition is a constant and survival is always iffy.

But with only six years to go, we are not on track for victory. After some early gains, those in extreme poverty have soared back above 1.1 billion. Hunger, semi-starvation even, is more intransigent than international organizations imagined.

As the UN has just reported: "Progress towards the goals is now threatened by sluggish — even negative — economic growth, diminished resources, fewer trade opportunities for the developing countries, and possible reductions in aid flows from donor nations"

Food riots

What is most difficult to accept about this situation is that there was a very encouraging trend towards the eradication of hunger in the 1990s and the early part of this past decade.

A woman organizes onions to plant in her yard outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where food riots in the spring of 2008 brought down the government. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

But it has now evaporated with the worldwide rise in food prices.

The result is that now "more than one quarter of children in developing regions are underweight for their age, stunting their prospects for survival, growth and longer term development," says the UN.

This is a direct result of the most recent food crisis, which occurred when a combination of bad weather, hoarding, speculation and a basic lack of agricultural production hurtled a good part of the world into panic.

By early 2008, government intelligence agencies were warning that in a at least 27 nations across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean food riots and the panic-hoarding of grains or rice could lead to social chaos and the rise of violent new movements.

As it turned out, 61 countries experienced serious food riots while the fear over the supply and price of food revealed profound flaws in the international agricultural system, flaws that are still undercutting critical production needs.

As the decade ends, many aid agencies are now warning that we're on the verge of an even greater, global frenzy over food.

Price shock

Over a 20-month period in 2007 and '08 the planet's three staples — wheat, maize and rice — soared to peaks not seen in decades.

By early 2008, wheat and maize were trading at triple the rate of five years earlier, while the price of rice had had gone up five-fold. Dairy products, beef and poultry also shot up in price.

This surge in food prices was caused by many complex factors — the price of oil, weather and harvest failures, and declining investment in agriculture — but all led to one stark conclusion: That much of the world simply has little capacity to withstand such price shocks.

Inflation on this scale pushed hundreds of millions in the developing world back into malnutrition, even borderline starvation.

For many governments, what was even more worrisome was that the situation also meant serious hardship for the more politically potent urban middle classes.

Filipinos queue to buy government subsidized rice in Manila in April 2008. (Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters)

Civil unrest struck not only the world's poorest nations, such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Haiti, Bangladesh and Yemen, but also those classified as middle income, including Mexico, Egypt, Morocco, Thailand and the Philippines.

The ensuing social unrest increased the strain on the whole international trading system to the point that it appeared on the verge of a classic "each against all" meltdown.

Faced with the need to calm frantic populations, 31 food exporting nations, including key rice producers such as Vietnam, India and Thailand, imposed export restrictions, which led to shortages elsewhere.

At the same time, an even larger group of countries, fearing future price rises, leapt into the turbulent commodity markets to try and shore up dwindling stocks while they still could afford to.

Panic buying, which became all the more intense because of the lack of transparency over the true state of food stockpiles, bred natural distrust across the globe.

Western misconceptions

What was most striking about the food crisis of these last few years is how quickly it reversed the most encouraging results of the past two decades, particularly the decline of poverty as new middle classes arose in the booming Asian economies.

In recent years, extreme poverty has been seen increasingly as an African problem. But the food crisis began to strip away some of these Western misconceptions.

In fact most of the world's poor are not in Africa, but in Asia and the Pacific region.

There are almost three times as many poor — 642 million — in countries such as China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines than in sub-Saharan Africa with its 265 million.

These numbers are sobering especially when viewed against the potential risk to world security should civil unrest threaten these large Asia-Pacific nations.

Nor is significant poverty only contained in low-income countries.

The number of people in serious poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean hit 71 million in 2009, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, a rise of three million in just one year.

Not enough production

Another misconception that was brought to light is that poor farmers in developing countries would inevitably benefit for rising food prices.

They can if the increase is significant and steady. But in this situation of price surges, the benefits went to the better-off and corporate farmers, with their higher productivity.

For those trying to survive on tiny plots or as farm labourers in Southeast Asia or Africa, higher prices more than wiped out any gains.

Add in the droughts and floods in recent years, and tens of millions were forced to sell off the little they owned, including tools and livestock, effectively leaving them destitute and dependent upon whatever relief is available

The final insult was the global economic meltdown — a crisis largely for the developed world — which pushed world hunger from the headlines and, for many, even from memory.

The food crisis went into remission, not because the world had sorted it out but because of the economic crisis, which affected rich and poor in different ways.

With oil prices plummeting late in 2008, agricultural production and transportation costs declined. Within a few months, food prices had dropped 30 to 40 per cent — but this was still well above the mid-decade average.

For the world's poor, the relief was offset by a rise in unemployment and the fact that they had already sold off much of what they had been able to acquire, whether tools or financial resources, just to get through the economic downturn.

These are sobering facts to end a decade on.

But the underlying one is that the world is not producing enough food with today's methods and storage.

In fact, global production per capita is falling, not rising. And, as it falls, poverty rises; so does social unrest and trade wars.

This has been a decade full of wake up calls, hasn't it? But this is one that shouldn't be ignored.