Global food security, a ticking time bomb | #HelpUsFeedYou
The Peoples Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS)’s medium-term policy recommendations to ensure people’s right to food amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s another looming crisis – food security. Unless there is a radical change in policies including a guarantee to the people’s right to food and prioritizing food sovereignty, the current global health crisis can potentially become a hunger crisis.
The coronavirus disease that has claimed 75,000 lives and has infected more than 1.3 million people across the globe has sparked a global health crisis unprecedented in recent history. More than a third of the world is now on lockdown, and more countries are taking more stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus.
While the spread of the coronavirus is in itself a global health crisis it is perpetuating an equally gigantic economic crisis that will certainly aggravate the already dire state of global food security – especially for the poor in the Global South. Already, there are reports of food price spikes and volatility in Africa and Asia – which comprise 90% of the world’s most hungry. In Uganda, Kenya, and all across the continent of Africa, the price of major food staples including cereals, vegetables, and fruits are rising – potentially plunging more people in the region to extreme hunger. The same is seen in Asian countries with prices of vegetables and meat escalating sharply.
While global neoliberal institutions are quick to blame panic buying and hoarding, in reality, the global pandemic is only exacerbating a crisis that was long in the making.
Even before the pandemic and the control measures it has triggered, more than 2 billion people around the world did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food. This figure will likely go up as unemployment increases given the halt of economic activities; the poorest of the world with little to no income will be worst impacted. The pandemic will also aggravate the situation sharply for those living under protracted conflicts. In West Asia alone, almost 12% of the population suffers from extreme hunger brought about by constantly increasing prices and disruptions from conflict.
Rural hunger may skyrocket
Global hunger is, to a huge degree, rural hunger and poverty. Around 80% of the extreme poor live in rural areas and 65% of them work in the agricultural sector. Today, a lethal combination of speculative activities in the market and disruptions in production can push rural poverty to the brink. It needs to be emphasized that among rural communities, women and children suffer the most from malnutrition and hunger.
Farmgate prices have already fallen, even with staple crops in some countries in Asia, while market prices of food prices are increasing.This acute position is brought about by decades of neoliberal policy reforms that have eroded measures that protect small producers for instance measures like selective tariffs and prioritizing high-value crops that are more often than not cultivated for export.
Today, high value crops will be hit the most by the combination of trade slowdown and economic recession triggered by the pandemic. Greed for biofuels led to massive land grabs in Asia and Latin America and resulting deforestation. Sugarcane a key biofuel crop has devastated the livelihood of small and landless farmers. Of these, women agricultural workers have really borne the brunt with neither food crops to harvest nor daily wage earnings. Farmers and farmworkers are left to either deal with extremely low farmgate prices or stop farming altogether – leaving most of them not just landless and hungry but also jobless and extremely hungry.
One cannot ignore the fact that climate change, which has had a humongous impact on agriculture and food production is the result of industrial mode of production driven by capitalism; the greed for super-profits has pushed for corporate farming. The pandemic is not the only factor impacting farmer’s lives and livelihood; they continue to deal with climate vagaries suffering from unusual cold waves, winds, hailstorms and rain damaging ready harvest.
The extreme measures taken in countries of the Global South–tightening police state for repression – have also disrupted food production. In India, Colombia and the Philippines, countries with most cases of human rights violations against farmers, these concerns are also heightened as reports of state-backed harassments come in with the lockdown. Without recognizing farmers and food producers as essential workers, interruptions in food production are inevitable.
Conditions are worse in conflict-stricken countries where two-thirdsof those facing acute hunger – around 74 million – reside. Proxy wars and occupations were key drivers of food security crises especially in the West Asia and North Africa region in recent years, and these have also hampered and stunted the capacities of suffering nations to weather health crises. These military aggressions, along with economic sanctions and blockades, continue even amid the pandemic.
Eroding ‘right to food’
The huge disconnect of export-oriented domestic production and overreliance on food imports now come to a great focus. The highly globalized food trade environment brought about by the series of neoliberal policies pushed by agreements under the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade-World Trade Organization (GATT-WTO) and other regional trade agreements have left poor countries vulnerable to price shocks and trade disruptions. This much is evident from the growing concern over the food export bans from exporting countries like Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Serbia, and Russia among others.
Food security of countries hinged on food imports and agricultural exports are most at risk in trade bottlenecks and market disruptions. The slowing demand for agricultural products exported for manufacturing are now grinding to a halt – leaving thousands of hectares of lands to waste. Meanwhile, food scarcity for domestic consumption is haunting policymakers as weakened strategic national grain reserves and privatized buffer stocks prove inadequate to stabilize prices.
All across the Global South, many workers and urban poor communities which are already struggling to access food regularly, are now faced with the loss of formal jobs and livelihood opportunities for the informal sector. Women domestic workers, a majority of whom were landless farmers have migrated from rural to urban centers in search of a livelihood once again are without work. Under lockdown and social distancing measures domestic workers have been laid off mostly without pay; they have lost their livelihood and food support for themselves and often their children.
Avert another 2008 food crisis: Take urgent action
The ultra-liberalized global food trade isn’t compatible with the current needs of the people, especially the most vulnerable sectors in the Global South. That’s an invaluable lesson paid for by the poor families pushed to extreme hunger in the 2008 food price crisis. Yet measures taken by national governments to abate the food crisis have been either restructured to neoliberal schemes or dismantled in the past few years.
In addition, the subsequent global economic meltdown in 2008 prompted global landgrabs, which have continued until last year. This was driven by investors’ speculative demand for safe havens, biofuel production and national food supplies at the expense of indigenous peoples, rural populace and food producers in the Global South. Coddled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) guidelines for “Responsible Agricultural Investments” or ethical landgrabbing, companies mostly from developed countries have wrestled control of at least 160 million hectares of land from farmers and indigenous peoples across the globe.
Today, we are faced with yet another global economic meltdown more acute than the 2008 financial crisis. The extreme volatility of the global food regime amid the COVID 19 pandemic is all too redolent of the 2008 food crisis.
There is no guarantee that the food price shocks will halt even after the coronavirus has been managed. In our previous statement, we have outlined immediate demands that will guarantee human rights amid the pandemic. In the spirit of upholding the right to food, here are our medium-term policy recommendations:
Guarantee the right to food amid lockdown. States should guarantee the right to food is included in the measures being taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus by direct food subsidies to the most vulnerable sectors; unconditional cash transfers; and staple food price control policies. Urban poor communities and homeless people must be given adequate, safe, and nutritious food if self-quarantine is to be observed.
Prioritize local food production. A robust and farmer-led domestic food production is the best safeguard against market price volatility. Input subsidies must be directly given to smallholder farmers to ensure adequate domestic food supply. Investments in irrigation, soil conservation, and farm subsidies must be expanded to ensure sustainability of production. Imports of staple food crops that countries can grow domestically must be progressively reduced to shield both producers and consumers from global market shocks.
Recognize and extend support to farmers as essential workers. Farmers and rural peoples are at the frontlines of producing food for the world. States must ensure that they are given adequate support, including the landless farmers, women farmers, farm workers, indigenous peoples, Dalits and pastoralists, fisher folk as essential workers – without which food supply would be decimated. Policies that curtails their right to produce and displaces them from their areas of production should be discontinued immediately.
Set up and support local markets. States should give utmost support to local markets led by food producers and create frictionless links with urban and peri-urban consumers. Encourage the setting up of local trading centers to facilitate exchange in agricultural goods in a decentralized manner. In addition, small farmers and small producers should be facilitated to access small towns and other urban centers so that they can bring their produce to the market.
Strengthen strategic national reserves. States must establish and/or strengthen substantially their strategic national reserves in order to ensure price control. Privatized grain buffer stock must be nationalized to protect public interest in food security. Commitments in the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) must be bypassed to ensure that vulnerable countries have the range of policy measures against market shocks. States canal so establish and/or strengthen national food purchasing agencies to ensure fair farmgate prices while stabilizing consumer prices. Priority should be given at all times to locally produced food for buffer stocks.
Review and revise national land use policies to reflect the increased need for domestic food production. Introduce a moratorium on the production of biofuel and export non-food crops.Transform large-scale farmlands that are foreign owned and private companies into domestic food production hubs. Subsidies targeted on export crops must be realigned towards domestic food production.
Provide unconditional food aid. Countries that are most at-risk of food supply shortage must have access to institutional support from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and South-South Cooperation mechanisms without conditions. Especially in West Asia and North Africa and other countries in conflict and fragility, food aid must be unconditional and decoupled to expedite access and distribution.
Lift sanctions and end all military aggressions. Lift sanctions on international trade in food and agriculture for countries like Palestine, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Increase transparency and accountability. A human rights-based approach should be taken when tackling food security to empower those who are food insecure. The approach takes the principles of transparency, accountability, non–discrimination, equality and equity, rule of law and good governance. States and public officials must be put accountable in addressing the urgent needs of the people amid the COVID-19 crisis. Stringent policies should be placed against commercial activities that lead to price-gouging, hoarding, or the impediment of people’s right to food. Tighter corporate control and accountability should be enacted to ensure that they are in line with the broader goals of food security and social justice. Participation of vulnerable sectors especially the rural poor, rural women, and indigenous peoples in crafting emergency response, relief, and rehabilitation should be guaranteed.
In the long-term, food sovereignty is key in preventing another ‘black swan’ from disrupting the peoples’ right to food. The fact that the COVID 19 pandemic is unraveling the unjust, unsustainable, and inequitable character of the current global capitalist food system should be a wake up call for a global rethink about the way our global food system is organized. Furthermore, addressing the root cause of rural poverty – landlessness – will create favorable conditions for self-sufficiency and widespread poverty reduction. To be succinct, equitable just distribution of land and other productive resources is the most foolproof method of avoiding pandemics, food, climate and economic crises.
The signs are clear that food security amid the global pandemic is a ticking time bomb if not addressed with strong resolve to uphold the right to food and peoples’ welfare. It’s time to put local, farmer-led, and ecologically sound farming at the center of agriculture policies for a just, sustainable, and equitable food system. ###