Thursday, February 19, 2015

GM or No GM - Hunger is caused by capitalism

Sub-Saharan Africa, hunger is a tremendous problem — and an ironic one. The region is home to abundant arable land; 70 percent of the population there farms. But the prevalence of hunger there is also the highest in the world — one in five people are undernourished. Chronic malnutrition has stunted the growth of 40 percent of children under the age of five, according to UNICEF. That’s 25 million kids. Africa was a major food exporter, sending out coffee, cocoa, and spices — but the price of commodities dropped in the 1980s, and imports have outpaced exports. Food production has mostly been stagnant since then, while consumption has grown, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Today, African countries spend $35 billion to $40 billion a year on imported food. Relying heavily on imports raises the price of regionally produced food, contributing to a cycle of poverty.

The Gates Foundation suggests that by using better fertilizer and more productive crops such as GMOs, African farmers could "theoretically double their yields." (The average yield per acre in Africa is one-fifth of that in the US.)  "With the right investments," the Gates Foundation goes on, it may be possible for farmers on the continent to "increase productivity by 50 percent overall." But even if GMO crops yield more produce, will that translate to less hunger?

Increasing food production may be a red herring: according to the World Food Programme, the planet actually produces enough food to feed everyone alive more than 2,000 calories a day. But global funding priorities remain "heavily focused on increasing agricultural production," according to a 2013 report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. "The perception that there is a supply-side problem is, however, questionable," the report reads. "Hunger and malnutrition are mainly related to a lack of purchasing power and/or the inability of the rural poor to be self-sufficient. Meeting the food security challenges is primarily about the empowerment of the poor and their food sovereignty." In other words: the primary problem isn’t technology, it’s distribution.

Farmers can’t afford the seeds they plant to feed their families; some are too poor to even feed themselves well, limiting their ability to work. During the famine in Ethiopia drivers delivering aid would come back saying that they drove through fields full of unharvested produce on their way to the drop off points. "In a lot of famines, you have food leaving the famine areas, because buying power has collapsed," says Gawain Kripke, the director of policy and research at Oxfam America. "It’s not supply or availability of food. There’s just no buying power.

Of the 54 states within the African Union, only 10 have allocated at least a tenth of their public investments to agriculture — that is, to infrastructure, irrigation, research, and development. About 30 percent of crops produced in Africa are lost after harvest, says Agnes Kalibata, the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an agricultural organization. \
"All the infrastructure we take for granted in a modern agricultural supply chain doesn’t exist in Africa," says Oxfam America’s Kripke. "So where do you start? Seeds? Roads?"

Roads are a safe bet, according to International Food Policy Research Institute. In fact, they’re one of the best investments governments can make. Not only do they get seeds and other agricultural products and technology into an area, roads are crucial for trade. Without access to roads, farmers tend to buy seeds at high prices and sell produce at lower ones, which exposes them to more risk from food price fluctuations. Sometimes, farmers are unable to sell their crops at all. And when that happens, farmers become apathetic about adopting new technology: what’s the point of increasing yield if most of it will rot, anyway? The introduction of roads in 15 rural villages in Ethiopia increased consumption by households by about 16 percent, while lowering poverty about 7 percent, according to a 2008 IFPRI study. More roads may also mean more information: currently agricultural extension programs — which help train farmers and educate them about the marketplace — can be tough for farmers to reach. That’s particularly true for about half of African farmers: women, who are less able to travel because of familial responsibilities or the hazards of the road. Uganda suffers from a dearth of infrastructure. Though the country is only slightly smaller than the UK, it has only 22,028 miles (3,264 km) of paved roads, compared to the UK’s 245,068 miles (394,428 km). That makes trade and transit quite difficult, especially since 85 percent of Uganda’s 36 million people live in rural areas. A quarter of the population is below the poverty line. As a result, almost 40 percent of children there are undernourished, according to the US government’s Feed the Future initiative. Without infrastructure — roads, granaries, markets, irrigation — and policy changes, more food won’t eliminate hunger. According to the Brookings Institute, Uganda should expect inflation in 2015 — the result of government borrowing, a depletion of foreign currency reserves, and cutbacks on essential supplies — that will "widen the income gap" and "reverse the gains made in poverty reduction." In other words: the economic situation in Uganda is set to reduce the purchasing power of the impoverished.

1 comment:

ajohnstone said...

Fuller’s farm, northeast of Emporia, is full of examples of how food can be produced, with no-till, cover crops, organics, crops and livestock. Fuller farms on 1,500 acres, all rented, growing non-GMO corn and soybeans and pasture-raised cattle, hogs, sheep and chickens. “Some snub their noses at us because we still use some chemicals, but those who know us like what we do.” He said a lot of organic farming was built for the right reasons, but has steered more toward money, “selling fear.” “We grew enough calories in the last few years to feed 9 billion people,” he said, noting the number of people expected to be living on the planet by 2050. “There’s no reason farming like this can’t feed 9 billion.” “We’ve let the government talk us into being commodity farmers. We’ve lost contact with our customers.”