In November 1996, the World Food Summit held at FAO headquarters set the target of halving by 2015 the number of people suffering from chronic undernourishment, to bring it to 400 million from 800 million. With only three years to go, the situation cannot be contested: World hunger has not declined, quite the contrary. In 2009, following soaring agricultural prices and a global food crisis, the number of people suffering from hunger has exceeded the sadly symbolic threshold of one billion, and is still around that level today. In this respect, we highly recommend reading the transcript of the debate1 coordinated by the Agro-bioscience Mission2 this past November, and are publishing below an excerpt. It reminds us that global food insecurity primarily results from the collapse and high volatility of global agricultural prices in the 20th century, leading to an under-investment in agriculture and increased impoverishment of farmers, who are the first victims of world hunger3.
momagri Editorial Board
Mission Agro-bioscience: As far as the causes of persistent hunger and malnutrition are concerned, we heard it all or almost all: They would be due to the lack of reserves, price volatility, speculation, rising demand from emerging nations, competition with agro-fuels, the abandonment of agricultural policies, political instability, and the list goes on and on. We will therefore first work around the table and ask each one what you feel could be the most crucial reasons, and maybe also point out the false problems? Let’s start with a question to Philippe Chalmin: In the end, is it a case of too low prices––or too high prices as shown by price spikes since 2008––that are leaving farmers starving the world over?
Philippe Chalmin, Economics Professor at Paris-Dauphine University: Of course, prices that are too low are causing starvation. And what we are currently observing results from the collapse of global agricultural prices between 1990 and 2005, in a context of neglect of agricultural concerns almost throughout the world.
It is a fact that towards the end of the 20th century, we went through a kind of delusion of abundance. The new economy reigned as engineer of technology revolution, and we had the feeling that production––whether in agriculture or manufacturing¬¬––was becoming an afterthought. As a result, when structural adjustment crises were occurring in the Third World, the first policies to suffer were agricultural policies. It must be underscored that toward the end of the past century, agriculture was totally neglected, whether in major international circles or in daily investment decisions.
In fact, we were then benefiting from the previous years’ achievements, from the green revolutions of the 1960s/70s, and were consequently in situations of surpluses, also intensified by the break-up of the USSR, and with it the desertion of the largest client on global grain markets.
Over time, this neglect generated a decline in production growth, while we were confronted to a population growth and to the major impact represented by the emergence of a number of countries. Today, almost half of the world population lives in countries known as emerging nations. Today, a total of 3.5 billion people are taking off economically. Yet in such situations, the first improvement is the food diet. Consequently, the food demand became more pressing––both in terms of quantity and quality––especially regarding animal proteins.
Put together, this has triggered a decline of reserves, situations of tensions and an increasing dependency when faced with the slightest climate mishap. And the result was soaring prices. Ironically, it was the very same time we heard about food crises. It is a totally mistaken view. Because in 2008 and 2011, the food riots were actually poverty and poor governance riots: The rioters were urban residents used to live in the framework of prices guaranteed by the welfare state. […]
Moving around the table with Michel Merlet, who might point out another reason for malnutrition…
Michel Merlet, Agronomist and Director of the AGTER (Association for the Improvement of Natural Resources Governance around the World): I am not totally opposed to Philippe Chalmin’s statements, far from it. The genuine cause of permanent malnutrition throughout the world is really, as he stated, prices that are too low and do not compensate the work of farmers.
The area where my analysis slightly differs from his assessment is that this agricultural price decline did not occur yesterday. It is about one hundred year old. When we consider price trends in constant currency, we see that the price of key agricultural and food products, compared to staple products for farmers and rural individuals, has drastically dropped worldwide during the past decades.
And then there were times when prices skyrocketed. That was the case in the 1970s and during the past few years. Such phenomena of price spikes are mostly due to a supply and demand imbalance and to the systems’ inability to meet existing solvent demands.
In fact, we must draw a distinction between solvent and insolvent demands. All those who are dying of hunger are potentially seeking grain and food products, or the means to produce them. The problem is that they do have the first cent to buy these goods. So, this insolvent demand has no bearing on supply. Yet, it concerns one billion people. And there again, I agree with Philippe Chalmin: The food riots were poverty riots.
This was extremely well explained by Marcel Mazoyer, who shows how any small Central American or African farmer, without any change of his production system, progressively finds himself unable to survive, while that had been possible for generations. The devaluation of agricultural surplus selling prices meant that it was no longer possible for small farmers to purchase basic necessities, tools or crop protection products.
The root of the problem lies in competition, in the same markets, between farming activities with extremely different work productivity levels. This represents a “poverty machine” that took shape worldwide with the development of international trade. This is also why land grabbing is a key issue. Because large farms, with tens of thousands acres of soybean or grain crops and the most advanced machinery, are the main cause of lower international prices. Land grabbing thus destroys not only the companies that farmed these areas until then, but also low productivity family farming that is sometimes located thousands miles away.
2 The Agro-bioscience Coordination Mission (MAA) is a government policy debate center financed by the Midi-Pyrénées Regional Council and the French Ministry of Agriculture.
3 Please see momagri’s Key Figures Fact Sheet, “More than one in two people suffering from hunger worldwide is a farmer”, http://www.momagri.org/UK/agriculture-s-key-figures/More-than-one-in-two-people-suffering-from-hunger-worldwide-is-a-farmer_1054.html