Food price crises and healthBMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d2474 (Published 26 April 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d2474
All rapid responses
Joachim von Braun is right, we are already into our second food-price crisis in four years. Worse, such crises will be a recurrent feature of 21C life, as climate change desiccates swathes of the planet, spreading food insecurity.
He proposes a comprehensive, long-term programme to cope --- improve agriculture in developing countries, reform trade, increase reserves, regulate commodity markets, control speculation, end export bans, provide safety nets for the poor and preventive health care for mothers and children.
It would work --- on some more blessed planet. But in the venal contemporary world we actually inhabit, full of gross income inequalities, nationalist agricultural subsidies, and inadequately regulated global markets, it is just a laundry list of desiderata.
We are moving in the opposite direction. Consider what has happened in just the last month alone.
* Talks of reforming world trade have failed --- again. The WTO Doha round is about to expire, and with it better terms of trade for the Least Developed Countries.
* OECD has reported that developed countries have failed to fulfil their aid pledges at Gleneagles, especially for Africa, which was partly intended for agriculture.
* The UK and the US have both flinched at effective reform of financial markets and derivatives.
* G8 agricultural ministers decided not to control speculation in commodities, but merely to “monitor” price volatility.
* They also said they might consider “international stockholding” at some future date --- which is to say that von Braun’s own imaginative proposal for “virtual” grain reserves still has no takers.
* Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trader, decided to become a public company --- which means its 485 partners will receive windfalls of $100-million each. Yes, each! Commodity trading is extremely profitable. Why? How?
* Glencore’s IPO document reveals some of the techniques for making it so lucrative. They include:
--- successfully lobbying of Russia last summer to impose an export ban on wheat, thereby raising the price, and allowing Glencore to make a killing on its futures contracts;
--- withholding supplies from the market in times of shortage, hoarding them in storage, until the price rises;
--- diverting scarce supplies to richer countries who can pay the highest price, instead of sending them to poor countries whose starving people need them most.
Nabarro, in his companion podcast, articulates the logic behind von Braun’s and many other economists’ proposals for food security, “The key requirement is to make certain markets work”.
Faced with last month’s failures of the international great-and-the-good to do just that, what developing country politicians would ever trust global commodity markets to feed their people?
Happily, some of them are taking matters into their own hands, with a different agenda for food security. Actions include:
* Raising domestic food production targets to meet a higher percentage of national needs. This is not the economists’ straw bogey man of “self-sufficiency”, but a rational strategy to ensure that their people always have access to at least minimum requirements for food, so that they do not starve when commodity traders hold them to ransom during food-price crises.
* Guaranteeing necessary food imports through secure bi-lateral trade deals with supplier countries. This is not the economists’ straw bogey man of “ugly protectionism”. It is a rational response to the failures of their international betters, to the inability or unwillingness of rich countries to get the global, multi-lateral trading system in food under humane control.
* Increasing national food reserves, so that during food-price crises, they have adequate stocks, not only to feed their people, but also to put enough extra supplies onto the national market, and hence defeat local and international hoarders and speculators. Because the WTO and G8 cannot, or will not, set up an international system of reserves, they are doing it national level.
* Raising the nutritional quality of their food supply, through the use of bio-fortified seeds for staple crops, whether through conventional breeding or nutritional modification.
The Philippines has actually already implemented all four of these strategies. They are a better model for how food security will be guaranteed in the 21st century than anything von Braun or the 17 UN organisations involved with food have created.
While economists theorise, international agencies dither, governments compromise, and “world leaders” back down before financial interests, those who actually have the responsibility for stopping starvation have taken action.
And the reason is that they are more concerned with feeding people than making markets efficient. They have taken some measure of control over production, trade, reserves and nutrition.
If international economists do not like it, then they had best stop theorising about markets and start reforming them effectively. Otherwise a very different food system will emerge in this century of climate change.
Competing interests: The Nutrition Policy Unit is an independent consultancy focussed on practical action to improve public health through dietary change. It works primarily with public interest organisations. I was Professor of Nutrition Policy at London Metropolitan University until 2010.