Rising food prices threaten health of poor

  • March 16, 2011
Small farmers must be given the land, water and technology to be successful, says Development and Peace. (CNS photo/Imelda Medina, Reuters)Money that the Catholic agency Chalice used to spend helping kids go to school, helping adults acquire basic literacy, helping communities organize around income-producing projects is now going to feed people who can no longer afford rice and beans.

Commodity food prices, particularly for wheat and rice, have risen to their highest levels since 2008. The World Bank’s food price index shot up 15 per cent between October and January. The bank estimates price increases have driven another 44 million into extreme poverty.

“The impact in the beginning was initially a reduction in the quantity of food being served (at parish-run feeding programs). Now it’s transitioned into a change in diet,” said Suzanne Johnson, Chalice’s international manager for Africa, Haiti and Ukraine. “With rice being so expensive and wheat, they’re now pretty much based on cassava and maize... Our feeding programs are trying to deal with the same amount of money, but the dollar is not buying as much.”

For the Catholic foster-sponsorship program, it’s a big step back. The new diet in parts of Eastern Africa is heavy in starch and low in nutrition. The basic health of the community is threatened. Pathways to a better future are being cut off.

“Even if it’s adult literacy classes, they’re being sacrificed because we need that money to buy the food,” said Johnson.

“We are going into a situation in which the cost of food is becoming a major component of international development aid,” said Gilio Brunelli, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace manager of international programs.

There was a time when food was a diminishing part of the problems facing poor countries.

“Until about 10 years ago in the international community, the community working on international development, there was kind of an assumption that a number of the problems in international development were behind us. One of them was food and famine,” said Brunelli. “Now in 2008, with that spike in prices, it’s come back to us.”

While there have been several major events that threaten to constrict world food supply — flooding in Australia and Pakistan, drought in eastern China and parts of Brazil — speculators gaming the world commodity markets in recent years have led to even more volatile prices.

“One of the things you are seeing in soft commodities is the entrance of free money and free capital that didn’t used to play in this game,” said John Heimbecker, vice president of Winnipeg-based Parrish and Heimbecker, one of Canada’s larger agrifood companies.

“You used to see that nobody was in the soft commodities with money other than money that should be there for hedging purposes.”

Sudden spikes in prices can be bad for subsistence farmers who have to buy food, often with borrowed money, while they wait for their own crops to come in.

“Volitility is what can get a farmer big time,” said Heimbecker.

“He needs to manage his business like we manage our lives. He needs some kind of predictability.”

As bad as unpredictable markets can be, there are worse things for small-scale farming in Africa.

“The issues about farming in Africa go well beyond the commodity prices and markets,” Heimbecker said. “There are fundamental issues about land ownership and water and the predictability of governments.”

A shift away from investments in farming by both international aid donors and poor-nation governments in the 1990s has made it difficult for farmers to take advantage of rising prices or to maintain stable livelihoods, said Canada Foodgrains Bank executive director Jim Cornelius.

“There’s a potential opportunity here for small holder farmers to actually get a decent return for all the work that they do,” Cornelius said. “That would encourage them to actually invest in improving their productivity, invest in improving their land and see this as a way of developing a viable livelihood.”

The church-backed Canada Foodgrains Bank is one of the NGOs contributing to international discussions aimed at renewing the Food Aid Convention. Cornelius believes strategic grain reserves, largely abandoned after the Cold War, could be revived in a way that “could just put a dampening effect on price volatility.”

Making a living off a two-hectare plot of land can be tough when commodity food prices suddenly dictate that the prices of seed and fertilizer nearly double.

“You can’t afford to pay school fees for your kids. You can’t afford medical treatment for yourself or your kids. You may have to be borrowing to get by, and therefore you get into debt problems with loan sharks,” said Cornelius.

Ironically, the situation has made farm land an attractive investment for corporate players.

“It kills me sometimes when I’m driving by big Dole farms (in Africa) that are growing all these lovely bananas and things, and none of it is going to the population surrounding it and working on it,” said Johnson.

Land grabbing by foreign capital dominates headlines in much of Africa.

“In Kenya land remains the number one issue,” said Johnson. “It is part of their day-to-day discussions in terms of the political makeup of the country, the peace between tribes and between the indigenous population and the foreign population, between the large corporate sector and the small scale farmer. It’s the number one issue.”

Rather than pushing small farmers off the land so agribusiness can farm more efficiently, Development and Peace believes a better future depends on giving small farmers the land, water and technology they need to be successful. If some farmers are seeding plots too small to yield a decent living, they need to be given access to land, said Brunelli.

“Strong evidence suggests that the future of food security is not in the hands of big companies, big plantations,” he said. “It’s in the hands of small farmers. The question being, how small is small?”

If small farmers are organized so they can collectively bypass middlemen and sell directly to markets, so they can buy better seed, tools and fertilizer, then they can be very efficient food producers, said Brunelli

“It matters who owns the land,” said Cornelius. “We’ve seen over the last 30 years that the world is producing more food than is needed. We see lots of situations where there is lots of food available, lots of food being produced, but people still going hungry because they can’t access that food.”

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