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Hunger, Food Security, and the African Land Grab

By Richard Schiffman | Ethics & International Affairs | September 26, 2013

CREDIT: CIAT/Neil Palmer (CC).

If you were organizing dinner parties for the world, you would need to put out 219,000 more place settings every night than you had the night before. That is how fast the Earth's population is growing. But global agricultural production is currently failing to keep pace. A June 2012 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sees trouble looming ahead, warning that "land and water resources are now much more stressed than in the past and are becoming scarcer."

Many global analysts predict that the biggest security threats in the twenty-first century may center on disputes over water and the food that Earth's dwindling water supply is able to produce. The greatest threat to our common future, writes Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, "is no longer conflict between heavily armed superpowers, but rather spreading food shortages and rising food prices—and the political turmoil this would lead to."

Hunger, of course, has been a perennial cause of political instability. Food riots were a contributing cause of the French Revolution and countless other upheavals throughout history. More recently, the increasing globalization of the world's volatile food market has led to new threats to the global poor. Inflation in the price of wheat, rice, and soy during the world food crisis of 2007–2008 doubled the cost of these staples, in some cases virtually overnight. This was due only in part to actual food shortages. A lot of the "agriflation" was driven by commodity speculators—investors in hedge funds, pension funds, and other financial institutions betting on future food prices.

Michael Greenberger in the George Washington Law Review calls this kind of speculation "gambling," and argues that it distorts commodity prices by decoupling them from real-world market forces like supply and demand.

Commodity speculation in food staples has created huge profits for companies such as the American investment firm Goldman Sachs, which is regarded as one of the world's leaders in the trading of crop futures. Many other international banks are also heavily involved. The United Kingdom–based public interest group World Development Movement (WDM) estimates that Barclays for example, has made up to £340 million a year from speculating on food prices. In February, bowing to public pressure, Barclays followed the lead of several German, Austrian, and Scandinavian banks in severely reducing its involvement in the food futures market.

Yet, despite these voluntary withdrawals by a few big players, the food futures market continues to expand. In a 2010 report, "The Great Hunger Lottery," the WDM found that financial speculation on food had nearly doubled in the preceding five years, from $65 billion a year to $126 billion a year worldwide. This spike in investment has resulted in a highly volatile market where prices for farmers and consumers alike are no longer dependable. Since 2007, global food prices have surged twice—in both cases leading to rises of more than 50 percent in the cost of wheat, to name one commodity, in less than a year.

Another factor that is contributing to local food shortages in some areas is the shift from growing food crops to the production of biofuel—mostly for export—in regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Oil palms, jatropha, and sugar cane are being grown in the Philippines, Indonesia, Guinea, and elsewhere to feed Europe's appetite for a cheap and sustainable replacement for gasoline (and to a lesser extent the United States). But in places like Sumatra—where Asia's last great rainforest is being razed to make way for massive oil palm plantations—the current biofuels boom is anything but sustainable. Nor is it sustainable for the Guarani of Brazil, who are fighting a losing battle to maintain their tribal lands against the U.S. food giant Bunge, which is buying great tracts to produce ethanol from sugar cane.

Biofuels production has been a cash cow for many developing countries. But its effect on the poor has been more problematic. In a report published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Indur Goklany estimates that the increase in biofuels production may be responsible for as many as 200,000 deaths per year from hunger and hunger-related illnesses. He argues that this massive shift in land use has decreased the amount of food available for human consumption, and consequently raised the prices of vital staples. There are now millions who can no longer afford to buy these staples in sufficient quantities.

The debate over the ethics of biofuel production underscores the fact that decisions made in wealthy countries often have unintended consequences in the global South. In a world of limited and in many cases diminishing natural resources, how do we ensure that these resources are equitably distributed? Nowhere is this question more urgent than when it comes to food.

Many international bodies and philanthropic organizations have recognized the critical need to help poor countries enhance their food security, but there is considerable debate over how to achieve these goals. When large international agencies talk about eliminating hunger in the developing world, the discussion usually turns to boosting production through the spread of industrial agriculture, with its efficiencies of scale and high-yield genetically modified seeds. This has been the thinking of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, which have joined forces to create the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which has largely taken a technology-based approach.

Some food activists, however, counter that increasing agricultural efficiency is less important than supporting sustainable local agriculture and indigenous food markets. The crucial questions, they say, are what kinds of crops are being grown, who is growing them, and for whom are they being produced. The rapid expansion of biofuels plantations and cattle ranching in the global South has been a boon for agribusinesses and their wealthy customers in the developed world. But it has also siphoned valuable land and water resources away from producing food for the people who need it the most.

Ironically, three-quarters of the world's hungry live in farming areas. Many are former small farmers who have been pushed off their land by a variety of economic forces. According to Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, "small-scale family agriculture, on which most of the world's rural poor still depend, is threatened by large-scale plantations, export-led agriculture, and the production not of food but commodities."

The consequences of this process have been profound, and have threatened millions with starvation. Some development experts have argued that the spread of large-scale industrial agriculture in Africa and across the global South will ultimately lower food costs and benefit the poor. But recent price increases call this view into question. When local food prices become locked into highly unstable global commodity prices, it is often the people at the bottom of the economic ladder who are the first to feel the pain. The poor, many of whom already spend upwards of half their income on food, can ill afford to pay more for staple goods.

There is a debate about whether the number of hungry people has actually increased over the past decade or essentially remained stable as a percentage of the global population. (The FAO puts the current figure at 870 million—more than the combined population of the United States, Europe, and Canada.) Nobody disputes that the recent downturn in the world economy and the rise in food prices have hit the poor hard. The slowdown in progress in lifting people out of hunger over the past five years should "sound alarm bells around the globe," says the activist group Oxfam.

This slowdown effectively reverses the trend initiated by the so-called Green Revolution, which introduced to the developing world high-yield grain varieties and such industrial farming techniques as mechanical irrigation, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. During the second half of the twentieth century agricultural yields grew, and hunger diminished in many parts of the globe. But much has changed over the intervening years, and today some agricultural scientists fear that we are entering a period of growing food insecurity during which demand for food will outstrip supply.

One fear is that rapid population growth will outpace the projected increases in production. Another is the earlier-than-predicted impact of climate change, which is blamed for an increase in extreme weather events, such as flooding, drought, record heat waves, and the spread of destructive insect infestation into new areas. In the summer of 2012, drought in the bread baskets of the United States, Ukraine, and Russia, and crop-wilting heat waves in Europe, Australia, and other regions cut world wheat production significantly. In the U.S. Midwest a heat wave combined with the worst drought in over a quarter-century to depress grain production to its lowest levels in decades, raising food prices steeply for American consumers.

Ironically, some biologists believed that the glut of carbon dioxide emissions would have a stimulating effect on plant growth, as well as increase the length of the growing season in temperate areas, thus boosting crop yields. The consensus among most scientists was that global climate change would disrupt rainfall patterns and dry out many agriculturally productive areas, especially in the global South—but not until the latter part of the twenty-first century.

These assessments, however, are now widely acknowledged to have been overly optimistic. The growing instability in the climate system has already dramatically cut crop yields in many areas. According to Lester Brown, "for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields."

These declines have far-reaching political consequences. Not coincidentally, the Arab Spring occurred at a time when grain prices were soaring. With the disappointing wheat harvest in the summer of 2012, the price of wheat rose to nine dollars a bushel on the global market—an all-time-high—leading some to predict renewed trouble in the region in the coming months and years. Domestic wheat production in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq has been in a free fall in recent years, as aquifers in these desert regions are becoming exhausted, making such countries increasingly dependent on expensive imports to feed their populations. Bread riots in 2010 and 2011 in the Middle East may have been a harbinger of worse unrest to come.


To prevent the trouble that many see looming on the horizon, several countries are buying up vast tracts in other states to feed their own burgeoning populations. Both India and China—which face the prospect of severe water shortages in the years ahead—are purchasing prime agricultural land in already food-stressed areas in Africa to ensure their own fut...

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