domingo, julio 19, 2009

The other “pandemic”


The food crisis that exploded in 2007–8 has not gone away. It is tightening its hold in many countries and threatening to rear its ugly head in the form of new price hikes later this year, according to experts. The United Nations estimates that more than one billion people are now permanently hungry. [5] That’s one in six people, every day – most of them in Asia (62%). According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the financial crisis alone added 104 million people to this pit. [6] And, in the words of their Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 80% of the hungry are either farmers or farm labourers, those who produce our food. How can this have come about?

When you look at what has been done to address the food crisis, more than a year on, the picture is rather depressing. It is true that some governments have been open enough to invite farmers and social organisations into a planning process that would achieve some plurality of thinking. But in most places, the responses have been one-sided and top-down. As GRAIN documented amply last year, the food crisis has been misrepresented as basically a production problem, and all the answers amount to the same imperative: produce more food. In monopoly capitalist thinking, that means commercial seeds, vast uniform lands for monoculture, lots of chemicals and unfettered trade and investment routes. As a result, a lot of money is being thrown at this recipe to “feed the world”, even though that recipe got us here in the first place.

Throughout the latter part of 2008, donors and UN agencies called incessantly for “more investment in agriculture” as the solution to the food crisis. A lot of conferences were held and some pledges were made. [7] This year brought more of the same, though the funds are becoming more sophisticated. The French government has just set up, through the African Development Bank, a new private equity fund to invest in African agriculture. With a starting capital of €200 million and a goal of €500 million, the Agence Française de Développement will channel money from private investors and sovereign wealth funds into the new fund against a guaranteed rate of return of at least 5%. The African Development Bank is putting its own capital into private equity funds, such as Agri-Vie, to spur agribusiness ventures on the continent; the Asian Development Bank is doing the same. [8] The World Bank is increasing its agricultural spending from US$4 billion in 2008 to US$12 billion in 2009–10. [9] At the same time, its commercial arm, the International Finance Corporation, has teamed up with Altima Partners to create a US$75-million fund to invest in agribusiness “to increase food supplies”. [10]

It is true that more donors are talking about the importance of small farmers and family farms in this new investment rush. A number are aware that large-scale plantation-type agriculture is likely to bring environmental and socio-economic problems. A few are even specifically concerned about threats to biodiversity from monocultures and genetically modified (GM) seeds. But the big picture is that most of this food crisis money is being targeted to develop agribusiness in developing countries, not family farming or local community-oriented markets, which many believe are the only way forward if people are to feed themselves well. The same is true of the massive land-grab deals being pushed to produce basic food crops abroad. [11]

With all of this going on, the impression may linger that these official initiatives to end the world food crisis amount to public money for public benefit. This impression should be dispelled. In reality, most of the investment is going into agribusiness development. There’s a barrage of new agribusiness funds and investment vehicles that do things like channel pension savings into farmland across the world, drawing in the big pool of dollars desperately seeking alternatives to stocks. The agricultural adviser to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) recently stated that foreign investor interest in African farming is so strong today that it is “almost a social movement”. [12] Overall private sector figures are hard to come by, but in the meantime we can see that official development assistance itself is increasingly going private. All these funds and programmes emphasise getting corporate seeds, a handful of Western livestock breeds, and crop chemicals (especially fertilisers) on to the fields, so it is not hard to see who the big winners are. The agricultural input suppliers must be rubbing their hands with glee over these new indirect subsidies.

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