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Feeding the world, one tidy profit at a time

Food aid being delivered

British Red Cross under a Creative Commons Licence

The Feeding the World 2014 conference took place in the halls of an 18th-century mansion on 13 February. It saw industry representatives, politicians and NGOs discuss the food security challenges the world faces in the run up to 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion. The ‘farmer and student’ rate for tickets for the event were priced at $1,160, $500 cheaper than the ‘standard’ rate of $1,660.

The conference, held at the HAC Armoury House in London, was organized by The Economist as part of a series of annual events that aim to tackle the world hunger crisis – the 841 million people on the planet who are undernourished. Corporate giants Elanco, Monsanto and Nestlé proudly sponsored the event.

Of the 150 speakers at the meeting, only two of them were small-scale farmers. This is an astonishingly low number, considering that they provide 70 per cent of the world food supply. There was a similar trend in the last Feeding the World conference in Amsterdam, where 88 per cent of the audience were director level or above.

The food giants have the power to make large-scale investments and influence policy, but most of them have not had the hands-on experience of running a family farm. They may be less familiar with the techniques used to ensure the maximum yields and so may not cover all bases when discussing food security.

The steep price of the conference seemed designed to deter many key players in food production and distribution, too. Coughing up over $1,000 is bound to put a lot of the farming community off attending, even when within financial reach. As a result, voices at a corporate level are heard loud and clear while voices at a community level are snuffed out.

The sponsors of Feeding the World 2014 all have their fair share of skeletons in their closets. Nestlé demanded nearly $6.2 million in compensation from famine-stricken Ethiopia in 2002, which was then the poorest state in the world. They later had to withdraw their financial demands due to huge public backlash. Hold that thought for a minute while you’re breaking your next Kit Kat.

Monsanto hasn’t had the greatest track record, either. The GM giant was one of the main producers of Agent Orange, the ‘rainbow herbicide’ known for defoliating forests and killing and deforming millions of people during Vietnam War. The negative affects of Agent Orange still resonate through the generations, nearly 40 years after the war ended. To what extent would you trust companies like Nestlé and Monsanto to lead the world through its battle against mass hunger?

These corporations are often more motivated by PR strategies, the company’s reputation and making profits rather than acting in the public interest. Take Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chair and former CEO of Nestlé, for example. When appearing in the 2005 documentary ‘We Feed the World’, he infamously dubbed water as ‘not being a human right’. He later went on to label water as a ‘foodstuff’ which should be privatized. The slogan ‘We feed the world, but only if we can make a tidy profit’ somehow doesn’t have as much of a ring to it.

The conference was not all bad – there was a wide variety of topics discussed by the delegates including malnutrition, climate change, the global food market and technology. And there were many executives of companies that specifically deal with world hunger such as Ertharin Cousin. Executive Director of the World Food Programme, which claims to be ‘the largest humanitarian agency tackling hunger’.

But still, there is a huge imbalance in representation. CEOs and managing directors advocating support for smallholder farmers looks good on paper, but will they keep to their promises? Resolutions made at conferences on big issues such as world hunger have a tendency to become self-serving, if corporate interests are allowed to dominate them. The food giants need to listen and to lead by example. Food security is too serious an issue for gesture politics.

Jack Dutton is freelance journalist who is currently studying an MA in journalism at City University. His interests lie in music, film, psychology and humanitarian reporting. 

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