Security and Insecurity
Food for Thought
Food security is one of the
raging topics of discussion in to-day's globalised world. It can be defined as availability of and accessibility to food at all times as per the dietary requirements and preferences of the people. (World Health Organisation)
It is estimated that close to one billion people are chronically hungry. The problem has assumed enormous proportions in the developing world where ninety-eight percent of those suffering from hunger reside. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) calculates that "Around half of the world's hungry people are from small holder farming community, surviving off marginal lands prone to natural disasters like drought or floods. Another twenty percent belong to landless families dependent on farming and about ten percent live in communities whose livelihoods depend upon herding , fishing or forest resources. The remaining twenty percent live in shanty towns on the peripheries of the biggest cities of the developing countries."
Food security of a nation is largely dependent upon domestic production of food, price stability, emergency food stocks maintained by the government and people's ability to buy food. Governments have always formulated policies to maintain food stocks, provided price support to farmers, imposed quantitative restrictions on import and export to ensure food security. It is also the responsibility of the international organisations to see to it that the conditions to ensure food security are met.
Agriculture has traditionally been a community activity based on co-operation rather than competition between farmers. And it is because of this co-operation they have been able to grow crops, improve them through careful selection and develop farming systems to suit their environment. Farming was mainly for subsistence and any surplus was traded.
In the past few decades subsistence farming has been increasingly taken over by industrial agriculture, especially in the developed nations. In the developing countries however people are still dependent on farming for subsistence.
Large scale agricultural corporations have changed the way agriculture is practised. Mechanised farming has replaced manual labour , large lands have replaced small holdings, monoculture has replaced genetic diversity and 'systematic plant breeding' programs have replaced development of seeds by farmers. This large scale corporate farming combined with agricultural trade policy of World Trade Organisation (WTO) has sounded the death knell of small farmers everywhere with its impact being severe in the developing countries.
The global free trade policies in agriculture have taken the shape of Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) in the WTO. It encourages free trade of agricultural commodities which means import of cheap food. It allows disbursing of subsidies which is trade distorting in effect as it can result in overproduction and bring down the prices of food crops to such a low level that it is highly difficult for developing country farmers to compete in international markets. To add to the woes of small farmer is the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) which allows patenting of life forms.
The WTO was established in the year 1995 as a forum for negotiating rules for international trade. Its objective was progressive reduction of tariffs and other barriers with the aim of increasing world trade. WTO's predecessor GATT was working in this direction, only with respect to goods trade since 1947. With the establishment of WTO the scope of GATT was enlarged to include not just trade in goods but also agriculture, services and intellectual property rights.
The objective of AoA is reduction of all kinds of barriers to trade in agricultural goods, progressive reduction and elimination of trade distorting subsidies.
Agriculture has been one area where the developing countries have had comparative advantage. It is precisely for this reason it was excluded from the ambit of GATT. The developed countries bought time to liberalise their agriculture sector. Even after its inclusion in WTO the balance remains strongly tilted in favour of the developed countries.
The developed countries have always been providing domestic support and export subsidies to their farmers for a long time. The AoA stipulates that all trade distorting subsidies should be reduced but in reality has allowed the developed countries to continue with their subsidies. According to OECD statistics the producer support estimate for the OECD countries was as high as $227.2 billion for the year 2010. The provision of farm support leads to overproduction, resulting in lowering of prices in the world markets. Farmers in developing countries who do not receive support in the form of subsidies cannot offer their produce for sale at such artificially low prices which prevail in the world markets as they won't be able to cover even the cost of production. Hence they are unable to compete with the developed country farmers. It is not only in the international markets that the developing country farmers are losing. Due to removal of barriers on agricultural imports the domestic markets are being flooded with food products which are much cheaper than the domestic produce. The reason again being subsidies provided by the governments of developed countries. These cheap imports drive away the domestic farmers from markets. Once this happens the farmers give up agriculture as it does not ensure them a decent living anymore.
TRIPS is another agreement that has endangered the livelihood of farmers. The TRIPS gives the right to patent life forms including plants and seeds. Farmers all over the world have, by careful observation, selected better crops, bred them and have been saving seeds for the next season. This has been a collective work over which there is no claim of ownership. Nevertheless it is an intellectual property developed by, and rightfully belongs to the farmers.
With the coming into force of TRIPS, the farmers are fast losing their basic right to save seeds. The right to save seeds is a fundamental right of farmers and their very livelihood depends upon this right. Giant agribusiness corporations which have become the order of the day, are involved in every step of agricultural production, from seed to sapling as they say. They supply seeds, fertilisers, insecticides, pesticides, farm equipments and in the end even buy the produce from the farmers. This sort of agricultural production is highly prevalent in the developed countries where the farmer has been reduced to being a tool. In the developing countries where small holding farms are still prevalent, the entrance of agribusiness corporations have made the farmer dependent on them. Previously farmers used to save their own seeds from one harvest to the next planting. But they cannot do so with seeds bought from agribusiness corporations. If they do so they are liable to be accused of intellectual property theft. Farmers have to shell out money year after year to buy the seeds.
Seeds are the first in the chain of food production. If farmers cannot save seeds they cannot begin planting. Poor farmers in developing countries cannot incur this recurring expenditure of buying them year after year. If they cannot save seeds they will have to give up farming.
Once farmers are driven out of lands the country will have to depend upon the imports for food needs. Imports may be cheap today, but prices of food crops tend to vary due to variety of factors. If a country's food production is reduced and it is solely dependent upon imports and price of imports rise, food insecurity will be looming large in its face. This is what has happened in the case of Haiti. Oxfam reports that Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere was once self-sufficient in the production of rice, the staple diet of its people. In 1995, pressured by World Bank and IMF, Haiti reduced import tariff on rice from 50% to 3%. This resulted in flooding of their markets with cheap rice from US causing the national rice production to plummet. Now Haiti imports 80% of its requirement even as the price of rice has doubled. It is estimated that 83000 jobs have been lost in agriculture sector due to liberalisation and half of its population is malnourished. This might be the story of not just of Haiti but also other developing countries which have opened up their markets under the WTO regime.
It is abundantly clear that the WTO policies can cause food insecurity in developing countries. Going back to the FAO report, half of the world's hungry people are from small holder farming community. This means that if their food security is taken care of, the number of people who are suffering from hunger will be reduced by half. For this, it is necessary that the policies of WTO are reformed to address their interests and not put them at disadvantage. It is imperative that the developed countries reduce their trade distorting subsidies completely so as to create a level playing field for the farmers of developing countries. There is a need to give flexibility to developing countries so that they can protect their farmers from competition on a tilted playing field. It is highly important that the collective wisdom of farmers all over the world is recognised and given its due. It is only when all these concerns are taken care of, that food security of developing countries can be assured.
Vol. 45, No. 11, Sep 23 -29 2012
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