It’s been a whirlwind few days on the campus of North Carolina State University, where I attended “The Politics of Food,” a conference organized by the Environmental Leadership Program. There’s lots to report on: Panels during the three-day event ranged in topic from the role of business in a sustainable food system to the role of government in the growth of factory farms (the panel I spoke on) to ag workers’ justice. And I owe you all a thorough write-up of the bus tour we took through the nation’s most CAFO-dense counties, an eye-opening experience if I’ve ever had one. Yes, I took lots of pictures.
But first, I’d like to report on my favorite part of the event: The panel on the food crisis. I know, I’m a wonk. But it was really impressive. The three speakers — Alexandra Spieldoch from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Daniel de la Torre Ugarte from U. Tennessee’s Ag Policy Analysis Center, and Thomas Forster of International Partners for Sustainable Ag — pulled off a feat of Pollan-esque proportions by tying a neat bow around the issues of global ag policy, the food crisis, biofuels, and international financial institutions. It was one “a-ha” moment after another. Even the ag economist’s graphs gave me a rush. (Please don’t tell anyone that I said that, though — it’s embarrassing.)
Spieldoch led it off and summed up the panel’s main theme: The food crisis is not just a blip in history. It reflects a larger structural problem in ag that leads to a lot of volatility and insecurity for the world’s poor. And those forces can’t be distinguished from the impacts of climate change on our food system, so we’d better do something about both while we’re at it.
Her talk and Forster’s were both great, but for the sake of space, I want to focus on Daniel de la Torre Ugarte’s presentation. He’s perhaps best known for co-authoring what sustainable ag folks lovingly call “The Blueprint,” a far-reaching guide to a new ag policy. And — yep, embarrassed again — he kind of blew my mind.
Why ag matters
Ugarte started off by making the case for caring about ag when we think about poverty. Of the 5.5 billion people living in the developing world, 2.5 billion of them are involved in agriculture, 1.5 billion as small farmers. 80% of food-insecure people are rural. Investing in ag has proven to be the single most effective anti-poverty intervention, largely because it stimulates job growth in other sectors (providing inputs, sorting and processing, selling, cooking): When a country increases the share of its gross domestic product (GDP) that comes from agriculture, poverty rates fall twice as fast as they do when the same thing happens in any other sector.
Yet developing country governments haven’t been investing in agriculture at nearly the rates one might expect given this fact. They actually invest much less than developed countries do. In developing countries where ag accounts for at least 40% of the GDP, governments are reinvesting, on average, 4% of that amount in the ag sector. Highly urbanized countries like the United States, where ag accounts for less than 1% of GDP, reinvest an average of 12% of that back into agriculture. The disparity has a lot to do with the pressure that developing countries have received from institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, which have conditioned their loans on shifting ag funding into private hands. The result has been pretty bleak: Less credit and training available to small farmers in developing countries, more control of the food system by foreign corporations, and the substitution of imports for regional products.
To add insult to injury, governments have left the poor vulnerable to huge price fluctuations by changing the way they manage stocks of commodities — the corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans that flood the markets each year at harvest time. Historically, governments have bought some of the surplus grain produced at harvest, stored it in reserves, and released it slowly into the market when supply declines. It’s kind of like what the Federal Reserve does with money, and like that intervention, it’s aimed at keeping prices fairly stable. That tradition more or less ended in 1996, though, when free-marketeers encouraged world governments to release their reserves into private hands. Speculators now hold and trade almost 11 billion bushels of grain, about the same amount that is used in biofuels production. The result looks a lot like — hey! — the financial crisis. Tons of volatility, chronic insecurity, and a bunch of poor people left holding the bag.
That brings us to framing. News coverage of the food crisis has focused on the global poor as consumers whose lives are thrown out of whack by rising prices. The obvious solution, as they frame it, is to do anything necessary to make food prices low again. But in many cases, the poor are actually farmers or workers in the ag supply chain — or they used to be. If they were farmers still, they’d be making pretty good money right now. Ugarte was asking a profound question: Is the food crisis really about prices? Or is it, at its core, about policy and ownership?
A new way of thinking
“The problem,” said Ugarte, “is that the agricultural sector is currently shaped by power relationships that won’t change regardless of the price.” The goal is not necessarily to push food prices down, then, but to increase food security at every price point. (Here’s where he put up a graph of food security vs. price, and I swooned.) In other words, governments around the world need to start making the kinds of investments that will increase the share of the food dollar that returns to their own farmers. Some ideas: Investment in farmers’ access to markets, improving their marketing and distribution systems and product quality. Investment in funding for research and extension. Investment in programs that ensure access to food for the poorest. Investments that reduce the need for purchased inputs — fuel, fertilizers, pesticides — and reduce environmental costs. Payments to farmers for environmental stewardship. And the democratization of access to land, water, and seeds, so that foreign firms can’t control the resources needed to produce food.
“If we do nothing or focus only on high prices as the problem,” he said, “we run the risk of going back to where we were before.” Which, in case you hadn’t noticed, wasn’t a particularly functional system. “We have to see this crisis as an opportunity.” Those were the most hopeful words I’d heard all day.
Photos of rice fields, a Nepali man holding trail mix, and a woman at a Kathmandu market courtesy of my dad. Used with permission.