Saturday, November 10, 2012

Access for Food

History is riddled with examples of the poor dying of hunger when food was plentiful. Classic amongst these is the famine which wracked the West African Sahel during the early 1970s. While people were dying of hunger in Senegal, Mali and Niger, peanuts — a key sauce ingredient and source of protein across the region — were being exported to Europe.

Central to the philanthrocapitalist worldview is a belief that private enterprise is the fundamental agent of progressive change and that business acumen trumps other forms of expertise. It is also very convenient when a company’s profit motive lines up nicely with an initiative promoting the end of African hunger. The G8, the world’s richest democracies, launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN) last May. This $3 billion commitment by the G8 plus 21 African and 27 multinational companies aims to lift 50 million people in Africa out of poverty by 2022. Nearly 30 companies are involved with the NAFSN initiative (from Syngenta to Monsanto).

Cargill is a US-based large agricultural, financial and industrial corporation. Greg Page, Cargill’s chairman and chief executive, has been particularly active on the talk circuit and in the op-ed pages of American newspapers, articulating his support for NAFSN and similar initiatives. Cargill is a massive company, with revenues of $133.9 billion in 2012, which would rank No. 8 on the Fortune 500 list if it were publicly traded. It operates in 66 countries with some 133,000 employees. In voicing his support for the NAFSN approach, Mr Page outlines the need for free trade, growing crops where there is a comparative advantage to do so, property rights reform, and access to fertiliser, quality seed and mechanised equipment.

In a July 2012 speech in Minneapolis, US, Page compared Zambia and Mozambique. Cargill does a considerable amount of business in Zambia, which allows 99-year land-use permits that can be transferred between buyers and sellers, or transferred from one generation of farmers to the next, Page said. This type of policy encourages agricultural investment, spurring food production in the country, he argued. Last year Zambia produced a million more tonnes of maize than the country could eat — and Zambia is now a ‘net exporter in a continent of food shortage,’ he added.

In Mozambique, however, land-use rights are conferred for half the length of time and permits are non-transferable between parties, Page said. ‘If you look at the soil types, the rainfall patterns and everything else, there is no demonstrable reason that Mozambique should not produce more food than Zambia, and yet in the absence of the right legal frameworks, they’ve not been able to do that.’

What Page fails to understand is that producing more food in the aggregate is not synonymous with improving household food security. While Zambia may now be a food exporter, this does not necessarily mean that Zambia’s historically food insecure groups are better off. Instead, food insecurity remains a major issue for certain segments of the population, including child-headed households and those taking care of orphans (largely due to HIV/AIDS), the unemployed in urban areas, and smallholder farmers in the drought-prone, southern and western parts of the country (where an overreliance on drought-vulnerable maize has made the situation even worse). Furthermore, the Zambian government, because of its market-oriented land tenure legislation, has leased 8.8 percent of its agricultural land to foreign entities, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation. These companies and foreign governments are primarily interested in producing food for export. Their interventions have done little to improve household food security amongst poor Zambians.

The best way to address food insecurity for the poor is emphasising access and not production.  The big money, for input providers, agro-processors and traders, is in building more capital-intensive and market-integrated African farming systems. There is little to no profit to be made from eradicating hunger.

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