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A Time to Rethink the Global Food Regime

Summary of published paper1

By Tom Marchione, George Mason University

Until his recent death, Tom Marchione was an adjunct professor in the George Mason University Department of Global and Community Health. He served as an evaluation officer and food security and nutrition advisor to the Bureau for Humanitarian Response at USAID until 2006. He was also editor of 'Scaling Up, Scaling Down: Overcoming Malnutrition in Developing Countries (1999)'.

Since the food crisis years of the 1970s, premier development agencies have promoted comparative advantage, export-driven economic growth, market liberalisation and biotechnology as the keys to preventing another food crisis in developing countries. Economic development experts have looked askance at any policy proposing to strengthen national food self-sufficiency in a developing country. Under the rubric of the Washington Consensus, the tools of structural adjustment and conditional lending prevailed as UK and US leaders embraced Fredrik Hayek and Milton Freidman's neoliberal economics. Lost was the notion that food deserves a privileged place among marketed commodities because it is life-giving, that food and agriculture systems represent successful biocultural human adaptations to unique local environments, or that food systems are a part of context-specific social processes. In Hunger and Public Action, even Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, dismissed the notion that a country's nutritional condition had anything but an accidental connection to a country's degree of food self-sufficiency2.

Peddling the Medicine

These prescriptions were, however, for export only. While subsidised fertiliser, credit and agricultural extension programmes were being dismantled in Sub- Saharan Africa in the 1980s, Europe, North America and some market savvy, unheeding Asian countries successfully resisted attempts to radically liberalise their food sectors and dismantle inward-looking food security policies. As productivity languished in the least developed, food insecure countries, their markets were penetrated by foods from productive, subsidised food exporters. The US Department of Agriculture's food security analysis of 50 least developed countries (32 being in Africa) found that from 1980 to 2005, import dependence sharply increased for sugars, vegetable oils and grain, especially wheat. Calorie intake stagnated as these imported foods replaced indigenous foods in the diet. Well before fuel and food imports began their meteoric price rise in 2006, these economies were hard pressed to meet their food import bills, given their massive debt and deepening negative agricultural trade balances - unlike the Asian countries that resisted the 1980s food sector liberalisation.

For decades, the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had offered developing countries trade and foreign direct investment as a substitute for direct agricultural assistance, particularly disregarding assistance for the large majority of farmers, the subsistence and semisubsistence smallholders who produced local foods for local consumption. The agricultural assistance that survived focused mainly on larger export earning elite producers in the most fertile areas. Fostering food production by the smallest farmers was not only out of fashion with influential donors, it became unpopular among developing governments. As late as 2006, only four of 28 governments in the New Partnership for African Development managed to meet their modest goal of investing 10% of their budgets in the agriculture sector. Comparative advantage experts had argued successfully that food did not have to be produced where it was needed and that countries could produce whatever goods brought in the highest export revenues. Food could be purchased or donated cheaply from the breadbaskets of the world. Thus, the world's food market share concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, while worldwide official development assistance for agriculture halved from 1980 to 2005, dropping to 7% of overall development assistance.

Collapse of the Cheap Food Regime

Two years ago, this cheap food regime was considered a success because of three decades of falling international food prices -only punctuated by the price crisis of the 1970s. According to the IMF, a dollar's worth of food in 1947 in constant dollars could be purchased for about 50 cents in 2005. Until recently, the regime helped ease pressure on low-income food purchasers, especially in restive cities such as Cairo, Dhaka, Abidjan and Port-au-Prince. Amartya Sen was right, but only partially. Food security is not a matter of where food originates, it is a matter of exchange entitlement; but in the less developed world, profitable local food economies provide the basis for this entitlement. Most of the world's poor and undernourished people live in rural areas, depending on farm production and agricultural labour for their incomes. The prevailing food regime, using Deborah Bryceson's term, tended to "depeasantise" rural areas before it offered viable, alternative livelihoods. Under this regime, small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia remained the most impoverished workers in the world. Not surprisingly, from 1975 to 2000 urbanisation accelerated in the cities of less developed countries, where food prices are now soaring. This dislocation was increasing at the same time that emergency food shortages, state failure, civil war and the phenomenon of the child soldier became widespread. Since 1998, global expenditures for emergencies have exceeded development assistance for agriculture.

In 2006-8, the failure of this food regime has become tragically clear. Commercial food and oil imports threaten to collapse developing economies, and consumer food prices are undermining the nutrition of the urban poor and rural land poor. International targets to halve 830 million hungry by 2015 were already off track before the present crisis, and now appear to be entirely out of reach. Clearly, to treat food as if it were a commodity no different than gold or oil - with no inherent human value, subject to the whims of global traders and commodity fund speculators with only peripheral interest in human needs -is a recipe for food price shock in poor households. The same US interests that have given the developing world subsidised food, such as Archer Daniel Midlands, Cargill and ConAgra, have found another way to profit from food: selling it as feedstock for the fuel business. Yet, even as the US and European biofuel solution for fuel self-sufficiency aggravates world food problems - with 40 countries sinking into food crisis - steps to assert any degree of food self-sufficiency by developing countries are considered unthinkable. One can hardly fault developing countries for losing confidence in the world's breadbasket, as validated by the recent collapse of the Doha trade talks. It is time to rethink the global food regime, but how?

Rethinking the Global Food System

The world's alarmed development establishment responsibly and aggressively seeks to buffer the current acute food insecurity crisis by providing more emergency food aid and social protection programmes. Development agencies, like USAID, the UN World Food Programme, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), associated think tanks, and others, propose medium- and long-term approaches to improve agricultural assistance. However, none of their hastily cobbled proposals address the deep global flaws in the world food regime that gave rise to the crisis, no doubt because these same institutions were a party to them. To construct a new food regime we must ask several crucial questions. First, what position should human food occupy in global trade policy by virtue of its unique biocultural relationship to human health, human culture and human rights? More specifically, (1) how can we buffer poor food consumers from international food price volatility, (2) what tariff protections should be allowed to guarantee reasonably favourable farm gate prices for poor food producers, and (3) how could nutritious and environmentally suited local crops be protected from export and substitution with inferior imported foods? Second, what menu of public policies (including fair price market policies) and conditions of local governance could revitalise the productivity and especially the livelihoods of the small subsistence and semi-subsistence farm sectors in the least developed countries and the poorer farm sectors of other countries? Third, what technologies would stimulate small semi-subsistence farm productivity? Is a new biotechnology 'green' revolution for Africa needed, or are neglected and under-funded technologies already at hand, such as fertiliser subsidies and agricultural extension services? Finally, and most importantly, who should be involved in designing a new global food regime? What new players with alternative experiences and fresh visions - such as food policymakers from developing countries, non-governmental agencies, community food and nutrition researchers, and representatives of the poor - should join the usual players in planning the next global food regime?

The answers, of course, are contingent on factors outside the food domain and should not reject all the sensible food policies shaped over the past three decades. One can not expect a tabula rasa on which to write a new food regime. We must contend with the fact that dominant self-serving interests and short-sightedness are not confined to the global summit of food policymaking; they can be found at many levels in developing countries as well. There will not be, nor should there be, a mindless return to selfsufficiency policies without taking this fact into account. Further, the economic drivers of rural to urban migration, growing affluence in emerging markets, soaring global energy demands and globalisation of cultures are, so to speak, "toothpaste out of the tube." These will shape the contours of food policymaking, but they should not distract us from learning the 30- year lesson that we will do damage unless global food security policymaking adheres explicitly to the core purpose of lifting up those who have been left behind.

Show footnotes

1Marchione T. 'A Time to Rethink the Global Food Regime' Anthropology News, 49 [7]: 5- 6. Reproduced by permission of the American Anthropological Association from Anthropology News from volume 49 [7], 2008. Not fo sale or further reproduction.

2Drèze and Sen 1989:165-70

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Reference this page

Tom Marchione (2008). A Time to Rethink the Global Food Regime. Field Exchange 34, October 2008. p25. www.ennonline.net/fex/34/time