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June 2012 Number 7
Summary: The political will and capacity to prevent widespread global hunger often falls short. Seeking greater efficiencies from existing agricultural settings will not avert serious shortfalls on a global basis without major restructuring of infrastructure, market access and foreign investment opportunities. The motivation for increasing “food security” should not be just a matter of assuring adequate sustenance to populations vulnerable to famine and malnutrition. As the global impacts become more obvious, we must shore up political capacity at both local and global levels and take steps both to increase overall global output and to build the global “political resilience” to combat the negative fall-out that heightened insecurities about food reliability could provoke almost anywhere. The views expressed here are the views of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the stance of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Global Food Insecurity and “Political Malnutrition”
By Frederick S. Tipson
The most important political distinction among countries is not their form of government but their degree of government. (Emphasis added.) — Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) Pervasive malnutrition and outright starvation may be the biggest stain of all on the record of humanity in the early 21st century. The world in 2012 produces enough food in absolute terms to reduce substantially the scale of this suffering and mortality, if not to prevent it altogether. Doing so was the objective of the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 by a summit of world leaders: namely, that of “eradicating extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015. And the challenge of making major strides toward “food security” is the focus of the Obama Administration’s important “Feed the Future” initiative, and several counterpart efforts in Europe.1 The moral imperative of preventing widespread global hunger is difficult to debate. But the political will and capacity to execute often falls short. The general
1 See the remarks of President Obama at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs’ Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security, May 18, 2012.
goal of “food security” is too ambiguous to guide the hard decisions of the officials, investors, and farmers who must actually make them. As the world’s population moves from 7 billion people toward more than 9 billion in 2050 (with seven out of ten of them living in urban areas by then), the globe will require 50 percent more food than we currently produce.2 It is difficult to understand how we can achieve that scale of increased productivity without substantial changes in the pervasive patterns of small farm holdings, huge subsidies to inefficient farms, and the vastly uneven marketing, storage, and transportation networks that characterize global agriculture. If we approach the problem on a local or country-by-country basis, seeking greater efficiencies from existing agricultural settings, but accepting the political realities that limit wholesale restructuring of agriculture and overall global output, the target of global food security will almost surely elude us. The latter approach may be a more practical and politically realistic way to go about increasing local food security, but only the former will avert
2 Goering, “’Green Bullet’ innovations aim to feed world of 9 billion,” Reuters, May 2, 2012.
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serious shortfalls on a global basis. Yet few governments have the political capacity to organize and support such major adjustments, even if they decided to do so. Meanwhile, the political dimensions of “food insecurity” go well beyond our compassion for people in the poorest countries who are most vulnerable to famine and malnutrition. Even during the remainder of this decade, we face a transition from localized food shortages and insecurities toward a more pervasive environment of global “food shocks” that have serious political consequences even for the richer world.3 The combined effects of population trends, climate changes, water shortages, soil erosion or contamination, increased meat consumption, fisheries depletion, major livestock epidemics, or serious crop failures in overlapping and cascading ripple effects will strain already-vulnerable economies and political systems. Sudden price increases or shortages could prompt volatile popular reactions, especially if citizens even in “well-fed” locations lose trust in markets and governments to assure their access to adequate food supplies. There have already been politicized reactions to higher prices and scarcities that cut against the need for greater global production. Export quotas, land seizures, resistance to foreign land purchasers and investors, and prohibitions on genetically modified seeds and breeds (that otherwise increase crop resilience and output), and other political responses may seem tangential to outright food shortages, but they could become the primary preoccupations of decision-makers and diplomats trying to prevent such crises in the future. Just as some observers credit the spread of the Arab Spring of 2011 to the spike in food prices that followed the disastrous Russian drought of the prior summer, other kinds of food-related impacts could change the global political climate in significant ways. The overall point is that the motivation for increasing “food security” should not be just a matter of assuring adequate sustenance to populations vulnerable to famine and malnutrition. As the global impacts become more obvious, we must shore up political capacity at both local and global levels and take steps both to increase overall global output and to build the global “political resilience” to combat the
3 For an innovative discussion of potential “global shocks,” see Future Global Shocks: Improving Risk Governance by the OECD at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/24/36/48256382.pdf
negative fall-out that heightened insecurities about food reliability could provoke almost anywhere. Local Political “Supplements” All farming, like all politics (so the saying goes), is local. The conditions that affect agricultural productivity begin with the water, climate, soil, diet, community and family structure, land tenure system, and other localized factors that account for the distinctive farming cultures of particular locales. But they also depend on those “public goods” that effective governments facilitate, including regional infrastructure, reliable land transfer systems, available credit options, and some minimum level of public order — not to mention, in the best cases, schools, clinics, and municipal services.
All farming, like all politics, is local.
Unfortunately, under the strain of population growth and economic competition, it is exactly these kinds of political support systems that are lacking in many of the communities that need them most. Political capacity therefore often becomes the “gating factor” in determining how ambitious an agricultural reform agenda can be undertaken. Even the best combinations of seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, and crop rotation will not succeed in enhancing yields and resilience without the political underpinnings (and “readiness” to change)4 that enable their implementation. One promising approach for increasing local political capacity is to expand and supplement the resources and capabilities of “agricultural extension” agencies. The traditional channels for technical assistance to farmers have centered around extension agents, who are generally employees of local, provincial, or national governments, but who may also be experts employed by suppliers, international development agencies, or NGOs. The ideal agent has the knowledge and skills to assist local farmers in increasing their productivity and reducing their risk
4 One innovative effort to gauge a country’s ability to manage change politically is the 2012 Change Readiness Index developed by KPMG with the Overseas Development Institute. See http://www.kpmg.com/global/en/issuesandinsights/articlespublications/changereadiness/pages/default.aspx
of crop or financial failure. Drawing on the latest science to improve crop varieties, create safer fertilizers and pesticides, reduce losses both before and after harvests, and apply more productive farming methods, extension services may be the best hope for achieving the scale of increases necessary to feed the planet. In many locations, however, the principal impediments to increased productivity and profitability are not technical or economic but political — problems of land tenure, water access, ethnic hostility, community organization, or corruption. Up against these broader challenges, even the best extension services can only go so far. Without progress in addressing the political factors, the prospects for substantial improvements in agricultural performance can be severely limited. may benefit from additional training and support in order to analyze the “non-agricultural” dimensions of their work and be able to call on outside experience and assistance. At a recent USIP/NAE workshop on these issues, experts highlighted the need for these supplementary services and explored possible applications of technology — such as mobile phone imaging, satellite mapping, and text-or-call centers — to enable them. Global Political “Sustenance” Political capacity and reform at the local and national levels, however, must be matched by increasing attention to the risks of food shocks on a global scale. Yet many wellintentioned multilateral initiatives to forecast and prepare for famine and natural disasters are literally “starved” by inadequate resources — both financial and diplomatic. As a recent World Bank/UN has highlighted, natural hazards are unavoidable, but the scale of most “disasters” could be substantially reduced by adequate early warning and systematic preparation.6 Donors have been far more generous in their “heroic” responses after disasters, than in supporting the “stoic” efforts of local entities to reduce the risks in advance. Climate change is only one of the factors increasing these vulnerabilities. As indicated above, the growth of population alone in many parts of the world has heightened the vulnerability of large numbers of people to the potential disruptions of food shortages and natural disasters — whether or not the dire predictions about global warming come to pass. While the global population is forecast to reach more than 9 billion people by 2050, in less than two decades, global population will already have increased to 8 billion. And the figures for key countries in that same time frame are even more indicative: Egypt will increase from 81 million to 106 million people; Pakistan from 174 million to 234 million; Tanzania from 45 million to 82 million.7 It is reasonable to assume that a higher portion of these enlarged populations will have to live in places more vulnerable to natural disasters and water shortages and with far less capacity to deal with food crises when they occur.
In many locations, the principal impediments to increased productivity and profitability are not technical or economic but political
No single model or historical example will translate to all the diverse agricultural settings of the developing world. However, the U.S. experience with local farm bureaus, land-grant agricultural colleges, and extension agents in the early 20th century illustrates the decisive importance of combining technical assistance with political organization in assuring that the interests of farmers and rural communities are effectively represented.5 In collaboration with the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) is exploring ways of supporting extension agencies to identify the collateral dimensions of agricultural productivity and enlist help in addressing them. While it is unrealistic to expect local extension agents to become experts in land reform, mediation, or other “peacebuilding” skills, they
See the account of these developments in the United States by David M. Kennedy in Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980).
6 Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention (United Nations & World Bank, 2010). 7 World Urbanization Prospects : The 2011 Revision, File 5: Total Population by Major Area, Region, and Country, 1950-2050 (thousands) http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/CDROM/Urban-Rural-Population.htm
The growth of earthquake-prone mega-cities may be most telling of all: by 2025, metropolitan Jakarta will have 12.8 million people, Mexico City 24.6 million, and Delhi 32.9 million.8 The challenges of producing and distributing food to concentrations of that magnitude will strain the political, commercial, and health systems of these countries as much as their agricultural outputs. And these three cities, as well as such other urban concentrations as Istanbul, Islamabad, and Tehran, are high on the list of major earthquake risks. Severe quakes in one of these locations, followed by food and water shortages and likely epidemics, could provoke reverse relocation pressures on millions of homeless and jobless people from urban slums to fragile rural locales. Likewise, increasingly urban concentrations of people are more exposed to other kinds of natural disasters — drought, crop disease, flooding, epidemics — and the likely food shortages that follow. Mass migrations from low-lying islands and coastal areas, or from prolonged droughtMap 1 Where Hazards have Struck stricken regions, are a foreseeable consequence of predicted trends in climate patterns. These, in turn, could have cascading economic impacts far beyond the affected areas. The chart below from the World Bank/UN report highlights the areas most vulnerable to quakes (purple), storms (green), and drought (orange). In short, as the scale of populations feeling impacts increases, the ripple effects of natural disasters and food shortages could take on serious political dimensions. Major crises (particularly in combination) could produce ever-wider impacts that provoke protective, competitive, counter-productive reactions by governments or political movements. The worldwide failure of a major food crop from a new fungus, for example, could lead to export cut-offs, hoarding, cartelized supply arrangements, or investment “red-lining,” which could stimulate new zones of instability, isolationist reactions, hostile alliances, and populist pretexts for conflict. Perhaps even more ominous
Source: Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention (United Nations & World Bank, 2010) Earthquakes above magnitude 6 on the Richter scale for 1950 to February 2010 (from Northern California Earthquake Data Center, www.ncedc.org); tropical storm tracks for 1975–2007; droughts based on standardized precipitation index (SPI, larger values indicate a higher probability of precipitation defi cits) compiled for the Global Assessment Report 2009 (from www.preventionweb.net/english/hyogo/gar).
8 World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision Highlights (Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations NY) http://esa.un.org/unpd/ wup/pdf/WUP2011_Highlights.pdf
is the increasing likelihood that terrorists, criminals, or deranged insiders could take advantage of these insecurities by wreaking further havoc at the most damaging moments. Digital media has introduced not only the rapid dissemination of information but also the potential for incitement of panic — the danger that sudden disasters and food shortages will be seen as the start of slippery slopes and a scramble for necessities. Conclusion and Recommendations Highlighting worst-case vulnerabilities should not be seen as fear-mongering, but rather as the impetus for greater collaboration — to consider the risks objectively and to plan to reduce them systematically. The G8 focus on food security, beginning at the L’Aquila Summit in 2009 and rebooted this year, is a major initiative for reducing the element of surprise and the dangers of panic and protectionism. The “New Alliance to Increase Food and Nutrition Security,” announced just before the recent G8 gathering at Camp David, emphasizes the role of private sector investments and focuses on three countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Ghana) where governments are trying to encourage investment through innovative partnerships and improved governance. Likewise, the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development seems to be more about solutions and risk reduction, thankfully, than ideological stances or impossible agendas. Other recent multilateral initiatives could help to reduce the resistance to foreign investment in agriculture or genetic modifications in livestock and crops.9 But these steps at international collaboration remain too modest and incremental to achieve the substantial increases needed to avoid the Malthusian curse of a major mismatch between food and population growth. Major governments and international organizations need to take a hard look at the global opportunities and impediments affecting the growth of overall production and distribution. Countries that have produced comprehensive agricultural productivity plans need to be supported.10 And efforts at greater donor collaboration to maximize resources, such as
9 See, for example, the standards recently proposed by the multilateral Committee on World Food Security to assure that transfers of ownership over land and agricultural resources do not disregard the rights of indigenous people, who fear “land grabs” by foreign governments and investors. Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (May 11, 2012, Committee on World Food Security) 10 By one account, these countries include Bangladesh, Benin, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Uganda, and Zambia. See Andrew Quinn, “Cash-strapped G8 looks to private sector in hunger fight,” Reuters, May 18, 2012, on AlertNet.
the Busan Aid Effectiveness meeting in December, need to be implemented. Mere multilateral hand-shakes and backpatting will eventually be seen as gestures of impotence and futility. And the private sector, as crucial and fundamental as it is to any large-scale improvements in production, is not some coherent force that can overcome the shortcomings of governments.11 Around the world, ever-larger concentrations of people are living in exposed locations under compromised conditions, with increased dependence on the effective performance of global markets for food, energy, and medicines, and for the local availability of water, sanitation, and shelter. “Politics as usual,” at the local, national, and global levels, will not suffice in preventing major casualties and disruptions — if not outright panic and even major conflicts.
As Oxfam America noted, the “New Alliance” between governments and private sector companies announced by the G8 leaders is a promising direction only if governments also maintain their previous financial commitments rather than simply pivot the problems to commercial initiatives.
About the Author
Frederick S. Tipson is special advisor to the Center for Science, Technology and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he was a 2011-12 Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow. He worked previously for the UN Development Programme, Microsoft, the Markle Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, Hongkong Telecom, AT&T, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the University of Virginia School of Law.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.
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