Tuesday, October 04, 2011

its not drought and its not over-population

Macalester College geography professor William Moseley has conducted research into food insecurity and violence in the famine-stricken Horn of Africa and spoke to Minnesota Public Radio.

Moseley: I think you have to be very careful not to just assume that famine is a natural consequence of some meteorological event. I think a great comparison is in the U.S. In Texas and Oklahoma right now we're experiencing a terrible drought but we don't have a famine there because there are government programs in place to prevent that from happening.

Moseley: I think there's a lot of misunderstanding in the U.S., we've already discussed one, that this is a result of drought. I think a lot of Americans attribute this problem to overpopulation. I've argued elsewhere that many parts of Africa are not densely populated, including this area. There's about 13 Somalis per square kilometer, which is much lower density that what we're seeing in our own drought-stricken state of Oklahoma. Yet we tend to focus on the population issue, and I don't think that's what's really driving this issue

Moseley: Once we get beyond this crisis in the short term, we have to think longer term: How do we prevent this from happening again? The U.S. Agency for International Development has been very focused on increasing food productivity and through a new "green revolution" approach, so using improved seeds, insecticides, chemical fertilizers to increase food production. That may make sense in some areas of the world but I'm very skeptical of that working in the Horn of Africa. And that's largely because the poorest of the poor, the people who are hungry, don't have the resources to sustain that strategy. I think added on top of that, that type of approach is highly linked to energy prices, which are forecasted to keep increasing. What I favor is a much more locally focused approach, one that works on enhancing traditional techniques to increase food production.

Moseley: People have farmed grains in this area for centuries. One could try to enhance productivity through increasing use of manure to better fertilize their fields. Or to be mixing creatively different crops together that complement one another, so mixing legumes with grains, for instance — the legumes fix nitrogen and increase grain productivity. But one that is not so dependent on fossil fuel inputs from outside of the area.

Moseley: Since 2007-2008, when global food prices spiked, prices went up about 50 percent and for some commodities, like rice, they went up 100 percent. So in that period there were a lot of food riots around the world, especially in developing areas of the world. There's very much a concern on the part of the U.N. about social unrest, which is connected to food scarcity, high food prices. I'm skeptical of the way that's been framed. I'm skeptical of calling this social unrest "food riots." I think it gives an image of this violence spontaneously erupting, a bit like dog fighting over scraps of meat. I prefer to call them food demonstrations, because what the public is really upset about is government policies that have often resulted in these high food prices. I think there are people that want to bring the attention of their government to the fact that there are a lot of vulnerable urban people who are having trouble accessing food.

Moseley: ...I'm going to present a study that we published in 2010 in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on this social unrest that occurred in West Africa. What we showed is that you had policies through the '80s and '90s which were pushed on these countries by the World Bank for free market reform. What that meant is that they ceased to provide subsidies to their own farmers and they removed import duties on food that was imported. What you see during this period is a decrease in food production and an increased reliance on food imports. That was fine as long as global food prices were cheap, but global food prices have been rising since 2007. They spiked in 2007-2008 and they're spiking again in 2011. So you're exposing your population to volatile global food prices and that was a result of a series of policy decisions.

Full interview here

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