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Food security & agriculture: an overview


The escalating crisis of volatile food prices and food insecurity is the result of an industrial development model based on large-scale, export-orientated agriculture tied to international competition, self interest and stock market speculation. With over a billion people going hungry each day despite a huge surplus of food production, a reorientation towards more localised, smaller scale and sustainable agriculture is urgently required. Below is a brief overview, some key facts and further resources that relate to the many complex issues around food security and agriculture. 



The concept of food security for all people, or the state of physical and economic access to safe and nutritious sustenance, has remained a pledged but distant goal of governments since the late 1970s.  In 1996 the World Food Summit renewed a global commitment to reducing by half the ‘proportion' of people experiencing hunger by 2015, followed up by the Millennium Declaration of 2000 which applied the same target to the ‘number' of chronically hungry people.  Despite enshrining food as a universal human right in 1948, the international community continues to fail in its modest promises; by 2005, the extent of hunger was increasing at 4 million people a year, and current prospects for the Millennium Development Goal on hunger remains pessimistic.  Meanwhile, as a global food crisis deepens with the escalating price of staples causing widespread riots in developing countries, world leaders are being forced to seriously re-examine the international approach to food distribution. 

The Hunger Equation

Of more than 800 million people currently suffering from chronic hunger, around 75 percent live in rural areas, with half of them living as smallholder farmers on limited areas of land.  Research makes clear that hunger is not caused by food shortage or scarcity, but by the inequitable distribution of food, land and other productive resources.  An analysis of food insecurity therefore demands an analysis of the current neoliberal approach to international development, or the longstanding conflict in philosophies between the presiding belief in large-scale, export-orientated agricultural markets, versus an alternative model that prioritizes local ownership of production and pro-poor policies for rural communities.

The term ‘food sovereignty' was coined in 1996 as an alternative policy framework by La Via Campesina (Peasant Way), an umbrella body that encompasses more than 120 small farmers' and peasants' organizations in 56 countries.  With working farmers excluded from the UN's ‘World Food Summit' on global hunger of that year, the fight for ‘food security' or the amount of food people are able to access is not enough, they argued.  What is more important is how people access this food.  A growing grassroots movement in favor of a rights-based approach to ensuring universal access to food has since led to a broader questioning of the deeper causes of hunger and malnutrition.

In the final declaration of the World Forum on Food Sovereignty agreed in Cuba, 2001, the current process of economic globalization was directly blamed for the ongoing crisis of food insecurity.  In a sharp debunking of neoliberal theory, the use of intensive industrial agriculture and trade liberalization was related to a "veritable food imperialism" that uses food as a weapon of political and economic pressure against sovereign countries.  In completely rejecting the role of the World Trade Organization in determining national food policies, the Forum called for "the implementation of radical processes of comprehensive agrarian reform" in order to develop sustainable food systems and prioritize the needs of local and national markets.  In this wider analysis, the grassroots battle to achieve food security is at the heart of a greater struggle against the globalization of free markets.

Biopiracy or Green Devolution

Another key issue in a cause commonly termed ‘food justice' is the patenting of life forms under WTO agreements.  Academic activists such as Vandana Shiva have catalogued in detail how the ‘biopiracy' of turning basic agriculture products into corporate property has devastated the livelihoods of indigenous communities and countless farmers in the developing world.  Many critics have described how the so-called Green Revolution from the 1970s, which transformed agricultural productivity with the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and technology, effectively deepened the divide between rich and poor by empowering large agri-businesses and leading to the loss of biodiversity and the nutritional value of foods.

The prospect of a second or ‘doubly green revolution', with support from Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation to develop genetically-modified (GM) crop technology initiatives in Africa, is expected to further increase transnational corporate power through agricultural privatization, thereby embedding the poverty of African rural farmers who are already devastated after three decades of neoliberal structural reforms.  In India, the country with the highest number of undernourished people, a farmer committed suicide around every 30 minutes from the late 1990s as a result of mounting debt, failed crops, and increased competition after years of export-oriented economic policies.

The use of plant crops as ‘biofuel' has also become a highly controversial government policy response to the threat of climate change and the global dependency on fossil fuels, further threatening food security in an inevitable competition between land to provide food for the hungry, or for the production of transport fuel to satisfy rich Western lifestyles.

Without a fundamental turnaround in the organization of international food systems, the future prognosis is less than optimistic.  Newspaper reports already forewarn a global food crisis caused by oil price rises, the switch to growing biofuel crops, extreme weather events, population growth, and rising demand from countries like China and India.  In 2007 the price of wheat doubled within a year, whilst global food reserves reached their lowest level for 25 years.  Boycotts, shortages and price rises are now commonplace, with violent food riots taking place in several developing countries.  It is inevitably the poor who will suffer most if food continues to be priced out of their reach, compounded by the threat of bad harvests and diminished food supplies following serious floods, droughts and heat waves that are already taking place as a result of climate change.

Food for All

Despite these insurmountable challenges ahead, the goal of achieving ‘food for all' has never been such a viable possibility.  Countless books, reports and eminent bodies stress that we have everything necessary to end hunger immediately, as notably argued by the FAO and the outspoken former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Zeigler.  Food production and distribution capacity is abundant, there exists a 10 percent surplus of food per capita, and according to the FAO's Agriculture: Towards 2015/30 report, global demand for food can easily be met through 2030 despite a forecasted population growth to 8 billion.  Based on current trends, however, there will still be 580 million chronically undernourished people in 2015. 

As world powers march onwards with free trade and the creation of ‘special economic zones' in the countryside, a protest movement has long been forming against the expropriation of resources belonging to small-scale farmers and fishermen.  From a million landless peasants in Brazil to rallying farmers in the US, Mexico and India, a common stance against the policies of economic globalization is firmly set in motion. The only barrier to achieving food security and ending hunger in a world of plenty, as popularly argued for many decades, is a lack of political will and skewed government concerns in favor of national security, corporate power and economic hegemony. 

To understand how to begin the necessary and monumental reordering of world priorities, a source of hope can be found in the values of the food justice movement.  According to a broad coalition of voices, the foremost and basic goal of governments must become food security for all as a basic human right, requiring an international and collective approach to achieving a fairer distribution of food regardless of the recipients' ability to pay.  A first step, which is powerfully opposed by the overbearing influence of transnational agribusinesses, is a worldwide acceptance of the current system of agriculture's failure and incapability of delivering global food security and environmental sustainability. Secondly, with around 850 million people going hungry each day, the global community must coordinate efforts to redistribute available food to avoid starvation, whilst ensuring export-oriented agricultural trade does not affect local food security in developing countries.  Only then can the current obsession with ‘efficient' large-scale production for an ever more competitive global market become subordinated to the primary objective of meeting basic human needs.

Key facts

Food security basics

It is often quoted that enough food is produced in the world per capita to feed almost twice the population of planet Earth - dispelling the myth that there is not enough food in the world.[1]
The question of food scarcity is well established as a misnomer: the world is wealthier today than ever before, the knowledge and resources to tackle hunger have never been more at hand, and still more food could be produced without excessive upward pressure on prices.[2]
Still one in seven people do not receive enough sustenance to lead a healthy and active life.[3]
Two internationally-agreed targets are held to monitor hunger reduction, beginning with the World Food Summit (WFS) pledge of November 1996 which seeks to halve the number of undernourished people by 2015.  More than a decade since the WSF target was set, which would also leave 412 million people with chronic hunger in 2015 if reached, virtually no progress has been made toward the objective.[4]
The less ambitious Millennium Development Goal 1, aiming to halve the proportion of those suffering from hunger compared to 1990 levels, will still leave around 580 million people hungry in 2015 even if achieved.[5]


Today, hunger and malnutrition remains the number one risk to health worldwide - greater than Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.[6]
Almost the same amount of money is spent annually on pet food in these same rich countries as could eliminate world hunger and malnutrition.[7]

Urbanisation and rural livlihoods

Although 80 percent of the hungry and food insecure currently live in rural areas,[8] the global countryside has reached its maximum population and is expected to shrink after 2020.[9]
Urban areas of the developing world are expected to absorb 95 percent of a predicted population explosion of approximately two billion between 1990 and 2015, forewarning a trend towards food insecurity in the least developed cities.[10]
The worst scenario is predicted to occur in sub-Saharan African, the only region where food security has worsened in recent decades.  Prevalence of hunger across the region is expected to account for 30 percent of the developing world in 2015, compared to 20 percent in 1990-92 - while already holding the highest prevalence of undernourishment, with one in three people denied access to sufficient food.[11]
However, still three out of every four poor people in developing countries live in rural areas-2.1 billion living on less than $2 a day and 880 million on less than $1 a day-and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.[12]

Causes of food insecurity

In Africa, decreasing investment by donors and African governments in agriculture over the past 20 years is also established as a major reason for food insecurity.[13]
The reasons for decades of inexcusable political inertia are rooted in a biased system of economic distribution that typically causes a net outflow of essential resources from those regions most in need.  Huge quantities of fish caught in less developed countries suffering from food deprivation, for example, is exported as pet food to Europe and North America.[14]
Between 1997 and 2005, food insecurity resulting from trade liberalisation under a corporate-driven economy caused an average of one Indian farmer to commit suicide every 32 minutes across just four states.[15]
Many countries have been prevented by donor countries and international financial institutions from implementing economic and trade policies that would support local producers and their markets, a critical factor in averting widespread hunger.[16]
Food security in rural India has deteriorated over the last 10 years with wheat production falling and the largest number (212 million) of undernourished people in the world - this in a country trumpeted as a modern economic powerhouse.[17]
Agriculture is no longer a major source of economic growth, contributing on average only 7 percent to GDP growth, but poverty remains overwhelmingly rural (82 percent of all poor). This group, typified by China, India, Indonesia, Morocco, and Romania, has more than 2.2 billion rural inhabitants.[18]

The impact of biofuels

Biodiesel production in the EU reached a record 3.2 million tons in 2005 and was set to increase to 4.5 million tons in 2006. According to the European Commission, in order to meet the 2010 agrofuel target (of 10 per cent agrofuel use in transport by 2020) without imports, the EU would need to switch an estimated 20 per cent of its almost 100 million arable hectares to the production of agrofuel crops.... (I)t is clear that a large share of the agrofuels needed to meet the EU target will be imported from countries in the Global South.[19]
"Biopiracy refers to the use of intellectual property systems to legitimize the exclusive ownership and control over biological resource and biological products and processes that have been used over centuries in non-industrialized cultures. Patent claims over biodiversity and indigenous knowledge that are based on the innovation, creativity and genius of the people of the Third World are acts of ‘biopiracy'" - Vandana Shiva[20]
With Swaziland in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid (late 2007), forty per cent of its people faced acute food shortages. So what did the government decide to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava.[21]
Even the IMF have acknowledged and warned that using food to produce biofuels "might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further."[22]
"If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry" - George Monbiot[23]
EU proposals will make it mandatory by 2020 for ten per cent of all member states' transport fuels to come from biofuels. In order to meet the substantial increase in demand, the EU will have to import biofuels made from crops like sugar cane and palm oil from developing countries.  But the rush by big companies and governments in countries such as Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, Tanzania and Malaysia to win a slice of the ‘EU biofuel pie' threatens to force poor people from their land, destroy their livelihoods, lead to the exploitation of workers and hurt the availability and affordability of food.[24]
According to a major report on biofuels by UN-Energy, the global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants will drive deforestation, push small farmers off the land and lead to serious food shortages and increased poverty unless carefully managed.[25]

Further resources 





[1] ‘World's hungry swell to 852 million despite promises to eradicate hunger: UN expert' (Report on press conference with Jean Zeigler - UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, UN newswire, 26th October 2006)

[2] see State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006, and State of Food Insecurity in the World 2005 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2005-6) p 6.

[3] Source: World Food Programme

[4] According to the FAO, the number of undernourished people in the developing countries declined by a mere 3 million compared with 1990-92, a number within the bounds of statistical error.  See State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006 p 4.

[5] The Challenge of Hunger 2007 (International Food Policy Research Institute, October 2007)

[6] Ibid.

[7] State of the World 2004: The Consumer Society (WorldWatch Institute, January 2004)

[8] ‘World's hungry swell to 852 million despite promises to eradicate hunger: UN expert' (Report on press conference with Jean Zeigler - UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, UN newswire, 26th October 2006)

[9] Mike Davies. Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006), p 2.

[10] State of Food Insecurity in the World 2005 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2005)

[11] State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006)

[12] see World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (World Bank, October 2007)

[13] Achieving food security: What next for sub-Saharan Africa? (id21 insights magazine #61, April 2006)

[14] see George Kent. The Political Economy of Hunger (New York, Praeger, 1984), chapter four.

[15] P. Sainath. ‘Farm suicides rising, most intense in 4 States' (The Hindu, November 12th 2007). See also Vandana Shiva et al.  Seeds of Suicide: The Ecological and Human Costs of Globalisation of Agriculture (Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, January 2002)

[16] Frederic Mousseau. Food AID or Food SOVEREIGNTY? Ending World Hunger in our Time (The Oakland Institute, October 2005)

[17] ‘UN report slams India for farmer suicides' (Times of India, 24 September 2006)

[18] World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (World Bank, October 2007) p 4.

[19] Paving the way for Agrofuels: EU policy, sustainability criteria, and climate calculations (Transnational Institute, Sep 2007) p 9.

[20] Vandana Shiva. Wheat Biopiracy The Real Issues the Government is Avoiding (CounterCurrents.Org, November 2007)

[21] Quote from George Monbiot. The Western Appetite for Biofuels is Causing Starvation in the Poor World(The Guardian, November 2007) - see source at IRIN Africa. Swaziland: Food or biofuel seems to be the question (25th October 2007)

[22] Valerie Mercer-Blackman, Hossein Samiei, and Kevin Cheng. Biofuel Demand Pushes Up Food Prices. (IMF Research Department, 17th October 2007)

[23] George Monbiot. The Western Appetite for Biofuels is Causing Starvation in the Poor World (The Guardian, November 2007)

[24] ‘Biofuelling Poverty - EU plans could be disastrous for poor people, warns Oxfam' (Oxfam report, 6th November 2007)

[25] John Vidal. Biofuel Boom Brings Famine Risks, says UN Report (The Guardian, 9th May 2007)

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