Food Equality and the Building of Community

Charles W. Elliott

It is impossible to consider food without considering the complex web of interconnections in which every aspect of food is now embedded. And because of our increasingly globalized economy, discontinuities in one place are quickly magnified and ripple through the entire global system of food production and distribution. The notion of a “globalized economy” is often invoked as a truism without understanding or articulating the scope of the human problems posed by the scale of these interrelationships.

We recall why food prices globally exploded in 2007‒2008:

“[In the fall of global stock markets], hedge-funds had collapsed and the financial market had moved from the hedge-funds to commodities markets. As a result, the prices of basic food products, such as rice, corn and wheat (representing 77 per cent of the annual consumption), exploded in 2007. When prices exploded, hundreds of millions of people were pushed to hunger. A United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report indicated that, on average, the speculative gain for the three basic food products had led to the hedge-funds making incredible fortunes. Speculation was responsible for the situation the world was witnessing now where hundreds of millions of peoples were dying because they did not have access to the food they needed.”

Mr. Jean Ziegler, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Human Rights Council Advisory Committee discusses Right to Food, 19 January 2011.

Ms. Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), recently recounted a remarkable story about the rippling effects of this food price volatility:

“I remember in 2008 going around the world to try to understand how globalized food prices played out at a local level, almost overnight and in concert, even if they were localized food markets. In Ethiopia, for example, I went to the grain market and walked around and spoke to the traders. Where I was, there was no electricity, the food was moved on the back of donkeys and I went up to one booth and asked the trader, “how did you set the price of your teff and your other grains this morning?” They were pretty much reflective of what we were seeing globally. And he said it was very easy. I wake every morning and I go on the internet, I go on the Chicago Board of Trade, I set the prices. We are a poor nation so I discount them 10 percent. And I think what we saw was a globalization of a market phenomenon that was happening at a macro level playing out in villages around the world.”

Committee On World Food Security,Thirty-Seventh Session, Rome, 17-22 October 2011, Final Report, Annex G, Statement By Ms Josette Sheeran, Executive Director, World Food Programme (WFP).

It may be fairly asked: why are global commodities trading rules constructed in a manner which permits—no, facilitates—an explosive jump in food prices for speculative gain by a few, while threatening the health and survival of millions? Why are such rules not instead constructed in a manner which encourages stability and serves the basic human need for food security? A system that allows the greed of a few to override the human need for something so basic to survival as food represents a crisis of community: a failure to recognize how our actions affect others, a deep lack of awareness of the needs of others, and an unwillingness to accept personal limits for the common good.

Scarcity of resources such as food and water is a significant cause of destructive human conflict. We sometimes hear heartbreaking stories of such conflicts at the most basic human level: village women fighting over water; the theft of food supplies in times of famine. Food insecurity is more than a robber of nutrition and health; it robs human dignity and destroys community. While this may simply restate the obvious, we appear to live in a time which requires the obvious to be restated as a bulwark against the ongoing deterioration of values which has led us to a system of governance which permits the suffering from hunger of one billion fellow humans.

While others will need to grapple with the problem of reconstructing global trading rules, we can take steps to encourage local food production and distribution in a manner that helps insulate local communities from price shocks caused by the greed of those 10,000 miles away and also facilitates resilience, self-reliance, and independence. Especially important is the protection and development of “smallholdings,” small-scale farms that support families with a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming.

Mr. Kanayo Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (www.ifad.org), recently stated to the United Nations Committee on World Food Security that the biggest challenge is to “to make food production less insecure and more profitable for the majority of poor people, in other words, smallholders and family farmers in developing countries….Smallholders hold the key to food security and feeding the world in the years to come.”

Buddhist Global Relief embraces this truth in determining the projects it supports. For example, we provide village-scale training in intensified rice cultivation to rural farmers in Cambodian villages. This helps rural farming families build their capacity and confidence in applying sustainable agriculture techniques, dramatically increasing their yields without incurring additional expenses from purchasing external inputs. We fund the provision of tools and seeds to impoverished families to establish cash crops and home vegetable gardens. Each family then “pays it forward” at the end of their harvest and gives the same amount of seed they received to another local family, thus establishing a chain of mutual support.

A continent away, we help train villagers in Africa in sustainable, small-scale agricultural techniques that nurture healthy soil fertility, produce high yields, conserve resources, and meet the basic need of people to feed themselves. The people we help then train others as well, passing along both knowledge and a sense of caring about the fate of the members of their community.

In this way, we follow the wisdom of philosopher and activist Lanza Del Vasto: “Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands, and the mouth.” And in the process we foster self-reliance, encourage a sustainably ethical way of life, and build community in its best sense.

Note: On 22-23 February 2012, the International Fund for Agricultural Development ’s Governing Council provided a forum for Member States, partners and the public to discuss and debate what needs to be done to enable smallholder farmers to contribute to raising food availability by 70 percent by 2050. See, http://www.ifad.org/events/gc/35/index.htm. World leaders, policymakers, NGOs, academics and, most importantly, farmer representatives participated.  More information can be found at: • Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ ifadnews • Blog: http://ifad-un.blogspot.com/ • YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/IFADTV • BlipTV: http://ifad.blip.tv • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/IFAD • Slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/ifad

Charles W. Ellliott is a lawyer practicing environmental, land use and human rights law. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Buddhist Global Relief. 

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2 responses to “Food Equality and the Building of Community

  1. I for one I’m grateful to the speculators. They are the ones who lubricate the futures markets by which a farmer is able to lock in a price for his product even before he has planted the crop. This greatly reduces the risk to the farmer who has enough putting up with the vagaries of the weather.

    Two things to remember: 1) there have been commodity price spikes and troughs as long as we can remember; they are not the result of “globalization”. 2) Speculators don’t evaporate when prices are dropping. So if they are (erroneously) blamed for making prices spike, they can also be (also erroneously) thanked for making them drop.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read the post and for your thoughtful comment. I agree with two of your points: (1) Indeed, there have been historical commodity price spikes and troughs, which have been caused by a variety of factors including basic conditions affecting supply and demand, such as drought-induced crop failures; 2) speculators do provide risk-mitigation services for food producers and participate in the market throughout varying cyclic conditions. However, neither fact is a counter-argument to the role which speculation played in food price spikes in 2007-2008. It is true that commodities speculation was not the only driver of price spikes; for example, demand for grain for biofuels production also played a role. And, as for most complex multifactorial phenomena, the magnitude of the role of any given factor can always be debated. Nonetheless, a fair reading of the available data has led a variety of food experts, economists and policy analysts to conclude that such commodities speculation played a material role in the particular food price shocks experienced in 2007-2008. I note that one of the specific measures proposed by the FAO’s Council on World Food Security in its 37th Session Final Report (Nov. 2011) was “Tightening up speculation on the futures market to avoid price manipulations.” On February 24, 2012, just three days ago, CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton issued a statement decrying price distortions in commodities (oil, particularly) caused by non-commercial speculative activity. See http://www.cftc.gov/PressRoom/SpeechesTestimony/chiltonstatement022412 Note that food prices, with industrialized agriculture’s current reliance on petroleum-based inputs, are sensitive to oil prices.

      For more information, the reader is directed to the information and resources available at: http://triplecrisis.com/food-price-volatility/. In particular, there is a detailed report at http://accidentalhuntbrothers.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/accidental-hunt-brothers-080731.pdf

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