Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Food crisis? Yeah it’s complicated.

If you’ve been keeping up with the papers you will be aware that we are in the midst of a mounting food crisis. The World Food Program calls it a “Silent Tsunami”. Many people have asked me if I have seen the affects….The outright answer is Yes! Food is costing more now than it did 4 months ago and everyone is bracing, hoping for good rains and sizeable crops.


Food prices have increased by over 40% since October 2007, with the World Bank estimating 100 million vulnerable people teetering precariously on the verge of hunger. The recent increases since 2005, follow 30 years where food inflation-adjusted prices decreased approximately 70%!

The reasons why the food crisis is happening NOW is the result of several conditions culminating in a Perfect Storm. Poor harvests from last year have caused many countries to limit their exports lowering supply, rising oil prices are making it more expensive to move cargo, steep growth from China and India are increasing demand, and the US’s race to produce maize based ethanol are all contributing factors. What is most frustrating about this situation is that it could have been avoided if more time, and more effort were spent on helping countries reach food sovereignty.

Got Local Rice?

On my 3rd day in Ghana, we were sent out onto to the streets of Tamale to learn as much as possible about rice. The exercise, part of our in country learning, served multiple purposes: get us used to asking strangers questions, familiarize ourselves with Tamale and its various markets and provide a colleague of mine (Sarah Grant) with some valuable information in her quest to promote local rice consumption.

What I found amazed me: Huge quantities of rice from Vietnam, Thailand, and the USA. All of them packaged in colorful 25 or 50KG sacks, with smart marketing and beautiful, white, polished rice inside. In order to sell to the average consumer market women and stores alike would have to repackage the rice into 2.5Kg units with labels often being limited to “Thai”, or “Texas”.

As part of the exercise we were also sent out to learn about the local rice value chain. Only one “supermarket” sold high quality local rice that they processed themselves, the rest did not. Local rice was readily available in the market but not of the high-quality variety. Many people we spoke to said that they preferred the foreign rice as it was whiter and more modern. While most people admitted local rice tasted better and, the main barrier expressed to why they were not eating local rice was the stones that are often present due to the lack of high quality processing and that caused longer preparation time.

But what I found most surprising is that the high quality local rice cost the same as the foreign rice! Sarah Grant later informed me that the US was subsidizing their rice farmers and as of 2003 rice was being exported from the US at a price 26% below the cost of production. She went on to explain that this often results in a surplus which is either given as food aid to developing countries or dumped in these countries in times of surplus production. Thus the protectionist policies of countries skew the market and prevent local production from competing on fair terms. My conclusion: Eat Ghana Rice! Moreover, support African food production. I read every label and look for a Ghana or African alternative.

Support President Bush!

While I don’t always agree with Bush’s policies, I strongly support Bush’s quest to untie US food aid. Tied aid is aid money that has restrictions placed on it. Current US legislation stipulates that all food aid be bought from US producers. The Senate recently rejected President Bush’s appeal to allow up to 25% of US food aid money to be untied. According to an April 2007 report from the Government Accountability Office, transportation and overhead consume 65% of US food aid dollars. Untying this aid would allow the program to purchase the lowest cost alternative on the global market.

Canada moves in the right direction

In May of this year the Canadian government took a step in the right direction by officially untying all of Canada’s food aid. While we still have a long ways to go to untie ALL of our aid, this IS a start. I am particularly proud of this moment as it was the realization of hundreds of volunteer hours that my colleagues at Engineers Without Borders Canada, as well as other great organizations across Canada, spent raising awareness and lobbying the government. If you ever doubted the force of signing a petition or participating in an outreach activity…think again. Never underestimate the power of thousands of energetic and overactive youth.

So where to now?

The reality of the food crisis is that in order to avert disaster we have to increase food aid. While we risk having some mismanagement of this aid, and may not reach all of the vulnerable people, it is the only thing we can do to help presently.

But there are many ways we can work together to reduce global dependence on food aid, and hopefully reduce the likelihood of recurring food crises. Oxfam has come up with a laundry list of things that governments and international donors should do to help the cause. Here is a partial list of the recommendations.

National governments and international donors should:

1) Reform the food aid system to be faster, more flexible, cheaper. Instead of dumping surplus domestic production as ‘in kind’ food aid, donors should provide cash for governments and aid agencies to buy locally. This is usually more efficient and better for local agriculture.

2) Stop adding fuel to fire by pushing biofuels. Large-scale growth in biofuels demand has pushed up food prices and done little to reduce carbon emissions. Natural carbon sinks such as rainforests and grasslands are being destroyed to make way for new biofuel plantations and biofuel crops are displacing food production.

Countries driving biofuel demand (e.g. the EU and US) must monitor the impacts of their policies on global food security and provide financial support for affected countries. Mandatory targets should be reassessed in terms of likely impact on emissions and negative social and environmental side effects in developing countries, including higher food prices, land grabs and labour rights abuses.

Developing countries need to integrate their biofuel strategies with food security policies to address issues such as land allocation and crop use.

3) Increase donor and national government investment in small-scale agriculture in developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Most African governments have failed to meet their 2003 promise to allocate at least a tenth of their spending to agriculture and they are now reaping the consequences. Countries such as Malawi and Zambia have shown the way, moving from dependence on food aid to become cereal exporters in recent years. Greater international support is needed. All actors must ensure that women can access the opportunities that are created.

4) Ensure financial services such as insurance and credit are available to poor farmers. In Thailand, for example, small producers are going to the wall because banks will not lend them money to manage between harvests.

5) Eliminate rich countries’ trade-distorting export agricultural subsidies. This will correct distortions in world markets and pave the way towards a long-term solution to unstable food prices. The potential negative implications for Net Food Importing Developing Countries can be addressed through safeguards and national policies