The resurgence of global agriculture on the international agenda has led to calls for renewed investment. Governments and the private sector alike have marshaled funding for agricultural development programs. In pushing for new initiatives, these discourses overlook how there are so many things the global community can stop doing to address the structural roots of hunger.
Here are the top 3 things we can stop doing:
1) Diverting cropland to ethanol production.
The use of farmland for ethanol rather than food production, aimed at meeting renewable fuel standards in the U.S. and Europe, has contributed to higher world food prices, hurting the world’s poor. Vast amounts of African farmland are being purchased by foreign investors for export biofuel plantations, resulting in the displacement of small-scale farmers. Such communities are then rendered dependent on food produced by outside markets, leaving them susceptible to the same high food prices that triggered a global food crisis in 2008.
Even when the biofuel production takes place on land that was already held by export farmers, it serves to benefit those farmers who have long benefited from access to the markets of industrialized nations, thereby widening the gap between rich and poor farmers, writes UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter. And, De Schutter warns, confining ethanol farms to the cropland of the U.S. or Europe may do little to shield the developing world: it can lead to imports of the crops displaced by ethanol. “The increased production of rapeseed for biodiesel especially in Germany, for instance, has led the EU to import more vegetable oils,” he writes.
2) Eating any fruit or vegetable we want, at any time of the year.
This may strike many American as odd, since fruits and vegetables are an essential (and often lacking) part of our diets. But think for a second how you’re able to get a banana 365 days a year, when it’s not even grown in the U.S.! Several of our nutrient-rich foods come from export plantations in developing countries, and they’re controlled by major agribusiness companies with linkages to wealthy countries’ markets. Little, if any, of these fruits or vegetables are accessible by the communities located in the regions where they’re grown.
Why is that so? It’s because the companies controlling the supply chains know that they can reap a far greater profit by selling to wealthier consumers in the global North.
So, the solution is to eat fruits and vegetables that are in season in your region of the U.S. And if we lower our demand for foods cultivable in climates outside the U.S., it could pave the way for farmland to be used not exclusively for export year-round, but also for local food consumption. By expecting certain foods in our supermarkets at all times of the year, we are solidifying export agriculture at the expense of local food security.
3) Relying on cheap labor.
Globalization has created a mass of cheap urban labor to produce items consumed by the wealthiest countries. Low wages are sustained by the availability of cheap, globally-traded food. But the low price of food serves to mask the inequalities faced by these workers; as long as they and their families have enough to eat — the so-called “reproduction of the labor force” — the world can conveniently turn a blind eye to the enormous wealth gap that leaves such workers at the bottom of the global hierarchy.
And the cheap labor/cheap food model collapses when world food prices skyrocket, as in 2008. The occurrence of urban food riots in over 30 countries marked a repudiation of industry’s reliance on cheap labor. Ultimately, it may be governments themselves — even the most entrenched regimes — that have to bear the consequences of a global food system whose stability is shattered by food price spikes. After all, that is precisely what triggered the historic Arab Spring.