The food fulcrum

A billion are underfed and a billion are overweight. People, that is. Publication of an excellent report on food security by Alex Evans, The Feeding of the Nine Billion, offers an occasion for reflecting on how food sits at the fulcrum of many of the outstanding concerns of today – climate change and conflict, poverty and wealth, deprivation and privilege, power and exclusion. Food prices, which had been rising steadily for a few years, started to inflate more quickly around the beginning of 2006 and then spiked from September 2007 for ten months. The crisis in food prices became visible in the first half of 2008 as it sparked widespread social unrest and violence. This was only a sample of what could happen. Prices have since declined but Evans advances some solid evidence to show that the end of the food price crisis is only temporary and policy makers should not be heaving a sigh of relief.

Indeed, as global population continues to grow and with the amount of new land that can be brought under cultivation much more limited than in times past, solving the food problem is one of the great challenges of this century. Get it wrong and there will be an unending supply of fuel for violent conflict. Severe and chronic food shortages map all too perfectly into the “perfect storm” scenario (see my last post). Get it right and, as long as a lot of other things work out as well, we stand a chance of a decent degree of prosperity spreading more widely than ever before.

Getting it right includes recognising the importance of what New Labour used to call “joined-up policy”. One step towards achieving global food security is to get a deal on climate change. The physical consequences of global warming in the poorer regions of the world are largely negative for agriculture – increased climate variability, changes in timing of monsoons, more frequent and intense extreme weather events and lengthening droughts. All of this makes growing food harder and though a central component of food security is access to food, as Evans shows, an irreducible requirement is adequacy of food production to which to have access.

The aim is to agree a new treaty on climate change at the Copenhagen climate summit in December. As well as ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions, the deal must include measures to help communities in poor countries adapt to the unpreventable effects of climate change. But how carbon emissions are reduced is also crucial.

It is by now well documented, including in an unpublished World bank report, that 30 per cent of the spike in food prices  in 2007/8 resulted from using cropland for biofuels. Oxfam reckon this pushed about 30 million people into poverty and threatened the livelihoods of 100 million more. A climate deal and, more broadly, the shift towards a low carbon economy that is in principle essential, could quite easily harm the well-being of the world’s poor, however good and world-saving the intentions behind it. How the deal is shaped and how it is implemented, how targets are expressed and how they are met – these will matter as much to most of the world’s population as the broad political terms of the deal. The technicalities are crucial.

One of the complicated things about these issues is that while the technical details are key, so are the politics. The question of power sits at the core of the climate/food/conflict set of issues. The system of power in poor societies is part of what keeps them poor. This is part of the problem that development agencies – both government departments and the non-governmental agencies – are often really bad at addressing, because it would be so much easier if politics were not a problem. The unjust distribution of power between the world’s ruling elites and the marginalised majority, both in the international context and in serial national contexts the world over, means that policy will always be tilted to favour the rich. It’s obvious, it’s even a banal observation, but crafting policy to beat the problem has proven to be extremely difficult because, of course, it is the elites – or their representatives – who must ultimately bless the policy.

These are, however, issues on which it is possible that elite groups in many countries could see good reason for policies that support the well-being of the majority for the sake of social stability. This would be a major departure in essentially clientelist systems of power that reward short-term policies favouring narrow groups. It would mean taking a longer and broader view and recognising that social stability is threatened by food insecurity and the lack of social protection and social resilience, and that the consequent instability threatens everybody’s interests and well-being. There are doubtless elite groups and leaders who are incapable of thinking and acting on the basis of a common interest – but there are many others for whom it would be no great stretch as long as practical support is available to help it along.

This suggests that there are interesting international political coalitions to be made on these issues, bridging gaps between many different players – governments, interest groups, progressive activists, inter-governmental organisations. There could be important developments and initiatives in 2009 on a range of issues, and not just because there is a new dispensation in Washington DC. There could be movement on climate change (because of the Copenhagen climate summit in December), conflict and peacebuilding (because of the UN Secretary General’s report on early recovery expected in May), the world economy (because of the crisis) and development (because of the G20 summit in London in April). So this could also be a year for forging new alliances.


Alex Evans, The Feeding of the Nine Billion: Global Food Security for the 21st Century, A Chatham House Report (London, Royal Institute of International Affairs, January 2009).

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