Year of living dangerously

The global food crisis threatens to spread in the wake of economic chaos. *Richard Swift* sees both peril and promise in the future.

Suicide watch for a farmer in India’s Maharashtra State: the escalating food prices of 2008 have done little to ease the distress of the world’s small farmers.


2008 – what a year! First the price of petroleum doubled, then a global food crisis, now a complete financial meltdown. People can be forgiven for wondering ‘what next?’ The runaway cost of basic foodstuffs hit hard earlier in the year. The Western media played it as an unfortunate, but far away, tragedy. Most people in the industrial world barely noticed as the prices on the supermarket shelves edged up. But for those in the Global South living on $2 or less a day – about one in three of us – it was catastrophic. Figures vary, but most estimates, including that of the Food and Agriculture Organization, hold that the runaway price spiral of basic foodstuffs (rice, grain, corn) pushed another 100 million people into situations of life-threatening malnutrition. This is on top of perhaps 900 million people already in this position. That’s a billion people without the means to survive. How many actually died? Or are dying? No-one really knows.

The global financial crisis is a much bigger media story. The nightly TV news, most of the main sections of the newspapers, rumours and analysis whizzing around the internet – it was as if people could think of little else. Everyone was worried. Some you could sympathize with – pensioners worried about their future, mortgage holders about their homes, workers about their jobs. It was rather more difficult to muster up any sympathy for the bankers and politicians who had presided over and benefited from this bubble economy built on mystification and dubious credit. Yet, to my knowledge, few people have as yet died as a result of this crisis. So why the difference in coverage? As the late Chicago folksinger Steve Goodman put it: ‘It ain’t hard to get along with somebody else’s trouble.’

Two sides of the same coin

But aren’t these crises two sides of the same coin? In both cases the public world has become dependent on private corporate interests to provide the essentials of life, and agriculture in the South has either collapsed or been deformed on the promise that cheap food from the industrial North would feed all. In the credit crisis, stagnating real incomes have been supplemented by a huge boom in personal credit, in the belief that the stock- and real-estate markets could be the basis of economic security. Relying either on big agribusiness corporations and global food traders or investment banks and real-estate speculators is proving a very slippery slope indeed. In both cases, short-sighted profit-seeking has outstripped stable and sustainable development. The view that ‘you can rely on us’ is proving as empty as an African rice bowl or a vacated Las Vegas condo.

Ultimately, the sharp end of any kind of economic crisis is hunger. That’s the way it was in the ‘Dirty Thirties’, and that may well be where we are heading today. Still, for the better-off, hardship now amounts just to cutting back on discretionary spending – delaying a big purchase such as a car or vacation. Even the most vulnerable in the industrial North can fall back on (admittedly poorly funded) government programmes of income support. Real hardship is involved, but rarely does it mean immediate life-threatening hunger. This is not the case in the slums of Monrovia or Managua, where a couple of cents on the market price means there is no dinner.

Rural areas too are hit hard. In countries like Bangladesh or Mozambique or Haiti, hard times and escalating food prices can lead to a life-threatening situation almost immediately. Chronic malnutrition worsens. The body weight of newborns drops perilously;  mothers lack the capacity for proper breastfeeding. The death rate of under-fives shoots up. This year’s food crisis will result in eight million more stunted children in India alone.

Whether in Central America or West Africa, the pre-harvest ‘hungry season’ becomes a fearful, desperate time. The old die younger. So do the young. Vulnerability to disease rises dramatically. Every resource is geared to basic survival. Forget the future. Be it Indonesia or Brazil, children (particularly girls) get pulled out of school by desperate parents who can no longer afford the fees, or who need the extra labour. Our vaunted high-tech agriculture fails to provide for those who need it most. Further proof, if any were needed, that turning the provision of food over to transnational agribusiness, traders and speculators is a very bad idea indeed.

Crisis and opportunity

The insecurity and hardship that accompanies these crises is palpable. But where there is crisis there is also opportunity. In ordinary times it is more difficult to put forward a sane alternative to the dictates of transnational business because it is delivering the goods, even if in a partial and perverted fashion. But in a period like this, it is clear that ‘the emperor has no clothes’ and there is a void that needs filling. 

Our industrial food system is made up of two overlapping markets. One is the large, if shrinking, group of farmers (mostly in the South where a majority of people still survive in this way). This market is catered to by agrochemical and fertilizer giants such as Monsanto, Syngenta AG and the Potash Company of Canada. They provide a range of agrochemicals, infrastructure, technology and now seeds – the basis of high-tech farming. They have managed to convince governments and the international development community that this ‘progressive’ high-tech approach is the only way forward. But, as this magazine spells out, they are following a path fraught with ecological and economic pitfalls. And there is big money at stake: these companies have made staggering profits out of the world food crisis. Small farmers, on the other hand, barely get by.

The second market is that of those who need to eat. This is controlled by a series of intermediaries – processors (like Kraft Foods or Nestlé), wholesalers (like Cargill or Tyson Foods) and retailers (Walmart, Tesco or Carrefour). These companies make their money by adding on to the low price paid to farmers. They are now spreading from the industrial North into the South. They too have made out like bandits during the world food crisis, posting record profits.

Despite the usual ‘there-is-no-alternative’ proclamations, there are saner ways to provide food (see Fooda Saner Way pages 4/5). It is to the much-abused small farmer we must look for a fair and sustainable food economy. Otherwise the future will continue to be marred by corporate price blackmail and junk food.


Food – A Saner Way
Here are a few   guidelines for an alternative food future.


Food must be treated like other human rights. It can no longer be used as a source of speculation for profit or as a political and economic weapon. In emergency situations it should be made immediately available to those in peril. Its distribution should be taken out of the market entirely if the market cannot provide it at a reasonable cost. Food is essential to life, and productive food-growing land should not be devoted to biofuels, extractive industries or urban sprawl just because they make more money.


The global food system must be re-geared so each country prioritizes its own agricultural potential rather than relying on trade controlled by global corporations. For many years Southern agriculture has been starved of resources, outreach services and appropriate research. The World Bank has led the rest of the development funders in abandoning the farmer in the South over the last two decades. While international trade in (fair trade) foodstuffs should continue, it must take a backseat to a more self-reliant approach. More emphasis on local and regional markets will make domestic consumers less subject to the manipulation of grain and rice prices on the Chicago Futures Exchange.


Agriculture needs to be significantly de-industrialized. The current high-tech approach is squandering soil fertility and a scarce water supply, turning what should be renewable resources into non-renewable ones. We cannot replace the building blocks of life with nitrogen fertilizers, toxic agro-chemicals and manipulated seeds for long. This approach gobbles up a third of the world’s scarce fossil fuels, making it a major source of climate deterioration. Instead of following the dictates of corporate high-tech, agricultural science needs to focus on approaches which support small farmers, the soil and other resources on which agriculture depends. We cannot afford another ‘green revolution’ based on the centralization and privatization of the very basis of life.


Driving farmers off the land is no way to produce food. In the South it is far better to have someone producing food than eking out an existence in an urban slum. The diseconomies of scale which accompany large corporate farms are neither economic nor ecological. It is by now a commonplace that small-scale intensive agriculture (long practised in places like Japan) makes more efficient use of land and often produces higher yields. A farmer working on a small-scale holding is much more likely to have an intimate, caring knowledge of their land than the poorly paid agricultural workers of an absentee landlord. Optimal farm size will vary depending on crops and ecosystem, but we can no longer afford the large-scale monocultures of recent times.Healthy diets

Fast-food restaurants, instant meals, factory farms, junk food – all have come to make up an industrial diet associated with a number of dietary diseases. We need to rethink this diet, place meat – which gobbles up so much of the world’s grain supply – more at the periphery and be willing to pay farmers to grow good organic produce. We need more choice in our diets: monoculture is endangering biodiversity by reducing the varieties of fruit, vegetables, grain and meat we eat to a few standard varieties. Here we can learn from the South, with its wider range of edible goods, many of which are still taken from the wild.


*The seeds of a movement to change the way we produce and consume food are already in place. In almost every community one can find farmers’ markets, fair trade shops, food co-operatives, direct buying schemes, organic food stores, urban gardens, poor people’s protest and self-help organizations, farmers’ and peasants’ unions, and increasingly local food security organizations, sometimes embedded in local government. Together they are reshaping the food system from the bottom up. In addition there are also some important national and international organizations which provide the analytic tools and resources for the movement. Here are a few of the most useful.*


GRAIN – excellent analysis of global food issues.

Via Campesina – international organization of small farmers and peasants.

Pesticide Action Network

Focus on Trade E-newsletter (food trade analysis) from the Center for the Global South.

World Food Programme – official UN organization.


Seed Savers’ Network – maintaining seed biodiversity.

Anti-GM Foods


Practical Farm Ideas

Corporate Watch – analysis of agribusiness and other food corporations.

Soil Association – organics and fertility.


Forbes Wild Foods – Jonathan Forbes puts biodiversity on the menu.

Stop Centre – combining healthy food and social action.

National Farmers’ Union – Canadian farmer organization.


The Honeybee Network – alternative technologies to improve rural life.

New Zealand/Aotearoa Green Party – currently running a ‘food revolution’ campaign.

The Safe Food Campaign – against pesticides and GM foods.

United States

The Food Security Learning Center of World Hunger Year – World Hunger Year (WHY)

The Community Food Security Coalition

Food First – advocacy and analysis of the international and US scene .

Rodale Institute – sustainable agriculture around the world.

Center for Concern – Agribusiness Accountability Project

Organic Consumers’ Association