South Africa’s most famous cleric, Desmond Tutu, in his inimitable style, once said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” His blunt speaking has particular relevance to important negotiations taking place in Rome this week at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, which will define principles for “responsible agricultural investment” (known as RAI) in the context of an ongoing food crisis and an unprecedented wave of land grabbing.
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When it comes to agriculture and food, the elephant is agribusiness. Just three companies control 50% of the commercial seed market; only four companies control 75% of the global trade in grains and soya. Their argument is that the state’s role should be that of a neutral broker, encouraging primarily private investment in agriculture. They are willing to accept guidelines for “responsible investment,” but within a model that sees ever increasing levels of foreign direct investment and the deepening and further integration of national agricultural sectors into global commodity chains and markets. Theirs is essentially a business-as-usual approach which seeks to retrofit the RAI principles to existing agribusiness initiatives.
While such principles will boost the profits of some corporations, the evidence shows that it will not deliver on the CFS mandate to realise the right to adequate food for all. One in eight people in the world are currently undernourished—and this has worsened in recent years. In fact, reliance on global markets led to global food prices in 2007 rising to levels in real terms not witnessed since 1846. This has not only added between 130 to 150 million people to those living in extreme poverty, it has also fueled an unprecedented wave of land grabbing across the global South by governments seeking security from food riots and corporations seeking profits from perceived scarcity.
The mice in this case are the small-holder farmers who often had their land seized or appropriated. But they are not just victims; they also provide the most progressive solutions for food security. There are an estimated 500 million smallholder farms in the developing world which provide livelihoods for 2 billion people and produce about 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. It is these small farmers who truly contribute to global food security.
Any international negotiation that looks at “responsible agricultural investment” should start with how to support rather than dispossess these small-scale food producers. A report by Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Agricultural Investment, recently studied working alternatives of state-peasant collaboration from Brazil to Ghana, the United States to Thailand. The studies show that when the state sets the right policies and provides investment in support of small-scale food producers, it can have remarkable results.
Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme, which combines elements of public health, nutrition, social protection, education, and livelihood promotion, has been one of the major factors behind the country’s impressive improvement in the standard of living over the past decade. The Zero Hunger programme successfully opened up new markets for smallholder farmers and championed national food security. Under the School Meals programme for example, each Brazilian municipality receives a daily subsidy for each student with the requirement that 70% of the municipalities’ procurements should be staple, non-processed foods, with 30% of the food coming from local family farms.
Government support for sustainable, agro-ecological farming techniques, practiced by small farmers, can also reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment and climate. Indian government support for the system of sustainable rice intensification (SRI), which involves the use of organic fertiliser and a diversified set of agro-ecological practices, has led record yields. Despite this, SRI has been ignored by the conventional rice research establishment and the private R&D industry, as it threatens the interests of agribusiness suppliers.
It is often presumed that state support for small-scale food producers entails higher prices and costs for consumers. However, using public policy tools in a flexible manner can ensure that both groups benefit. Some of the most effective strategies for dealing with the food crisis, for instance, have involved the use of public stocks and the setting of minimum farm prices for producers and maximum consumer prices for key staple commodities. In Indonesia, these measures ensured that the price of rice actually decreased in 2008 while it was escalating in neighbouring countries.
Business as usual is not an option. It is time for states to end a false neutrality and take sides. Instead of investing in a model which is at its core anti-democratic and likely to further entrench a state of “agropoly” in which a handful of the largest processors, traders, and retailers control the world food system, governments should commit to RAI principles that strengthen the position of the world’s family farmers and advance the cause of food sovereignty.