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Justice, not Philanthropy

This week José Graziano da Silva, the Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, announced that the famine in Somalia has ended. A combination of good rain, the most successful harvest in seventeen years, and the effective dispersal and deployment of food and agricultural aid means that most Somalis now have adequate access to food. But this is likely to be a temporary reprieve: it’s uncertain if food stocks will last until April, when the next rainy season begins and the main planting is done.

This already fragile situation is compounded by Somalia’s complicated politics: the southern part of the country is still controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which banned the Red Cross from operating in the area this week, and has disrupted food supplies in the past. Tellingly, around half of the 2.34 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance and seventy per cent of the country’s acutely malnourished children are in southern Somalia.

The end of the famine is no cause for celebration, then. Thirty-one per cent of the Somali population remains reliant on food aid, famine looms in another three months, and there are the after-effects of the famine to cope with: the plight of the refugees scattered around Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; and the generation of malnourished children.

It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine, half of them children.

Clearly, something isn’t working.

And as one famine comes to an end – or, at least, a halt – in East Africa, another one seems to be developing on the other side of the continent. Niger, and, indeed, its neighbours Chad and Mali, is both drought- and famine-prone. Even in good years, it struggles to feed itself. Fifteen per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in Niger. But poor rainfall at the end of 2011 and a spike in global food prices means that the country’s population faces famine.

Niger’s last famine was in 2010, when the World Food Programme provided food to 4.5 million people. But things seem to be more hopeful there than in Somalia, and largely because Niger has a government which functions relatively well. Realising that it needs to store its food supply properly, provide jobs so that its population can afford to buy food, and also limit the growth of its population, the government of Niger is introducing measures to improve people’s access to food. One new piece of legislation will make it compulsory for children to remain in school until the age of sixteen, partly because of the strong link between girls’ education and declining family size.

Somalia’s weak and ineffectual government can’t do anything to prevent famine from occurring there again. With all the will in the world, there is no way that Somalia’s food crisis will end until its political situation stabilises.

The comparison of Niger and Somalia is particularly useful for demonstrating the extent to which responses to famine – from the media, NGOs, charities, and other international organisations – are heavily politicised. Reporting on the Niger famine in 2010 was fairly muted and I’ve only seen a couple of references to its most recent food crisis. Somalia, though, never seems to be out of the news. The reason for this is depressingly simple:

Niger, the large West African country whose name is best known for being just one unfortunate letter away from a pejorative racial insult, has a few terrorists, but not enough to really matter. Elements from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wander across Niger’s border every now and then, taking advantage of the large desolate areas which characterise most of the country, but for the most part its contribution to the War on Terror is minimal.

Al-Shabaab is loosely affiliated to al Qaeda and the United States fears that the Horn of Africa could prove to be a useful base for planning future terrorist activities. It probably also helps that Somalia has media-friendly pirates too.

So all famines aren’t equal. All famines are complicated. Indeed, the whole question of ‘hunger’ is complex. I was amused to note that Monday marks the beginning of the WFP’s Free Rice Week. The project encourages individuals to play a game on a website. For every correct answer, Free Rice Week’s sponsors donate ten grains of rice to the WFP. The aim of the project is to ‘provide education to everyone for free’. Hmm…. ok – it includes some basic, if vague, information about ‘hunger’. And also to ‘help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.’

Huh?

So this is going to end world hunger by giving all hungry people rice?

Seriously?

Other than the fact that it would be as – or even more – effective for the project’s sponsors and participants to skip the cute competition and simply donate rice to the WFP (or, even better, to a local feeding scheme or food bank), this really isn’t going to end world hunger.

I know that this seems like a soft target to shout at, and, really, there’s nothing wrong with donating food or money to the WFP, but my annoyance with projects and competitions like this one, stems from the fact that they’re dishonest. There is no way that Free Rice Week is going to end world hunger. It’s a pity that the WFP sees fit to inform people that by taking part in it they’re contributing to solving the food crisis.

In fact, I think that Free Rice Week and other, similar projects actually contribute to the problem.

Firstly, they fudge the meaning of ‘hunger’.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become familiar with the FAO’s horrifying statistic that one billion people go hungry every day – that one sixth of the world’s population does not have adequate access to food. But there are problems with this statistic:

it is not the only way to measure food insecurity. Over the years, it has been criticised on many fronts: for the poor quality of underlying data; for the focus on calorie intake, without consideration of proteins, vitamins and minerals; and for the emphasis on availability – rather than affordability, accessibility or actual use – of food. Some say we’d be better off focusing on improving household consumption surveys, opinion polls, and direct measures of height and body weight.

These figures need to be accurate because they ‘are also used to help guide where to send foreign aid, track progress towards international development goals, and hold governments to account for promises made.’

Moreover, it glosses over the fact that there are many kinds of hunger: the extreme events – the famines – which are the products of natural disasters, conflict, and state collapse; the hunger which is the product of poor diets and an inability to buy or access enough food; and the hunger in developed nations. In Britain and the United States, the numbers of people now reliant on food stamps and food banks has spiked during the recession.

Secondly, these projects ignore the fact that responding to various kinds of hunger requires far, far more than throwing money at the problem. In fact, the WFP’s website even acknowledges this: ‘People can go hungry even when there’s plenty of food around. Often it’s a question of access – they can’t afford food or they can’t get to local markets.’ Famines in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries occur as a result of a collapse of distribution systems, usually caused by conflict or a crisis in government. Famines tend not to happen in stable democracies. The WFP must receive money for food aid – that is absolutely non-negotiable – but long-term change, as we’ve seen in the cases of Somalia and Niger, can only occur once stable, effective governments are in place. No amount of free rice is going to end famine in Somalia.

In other cases of hunger, it’s clear that people are simply too poor to buy food: employment, education, good health systems, and higher wages will go far in remedying this situation. But even then, we have to accommodate the choices that poor people make when spending their money. In an article for Foreign Policy’s special edition on food last year, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo took a closer look at the lives of the ‘one billion hungry’ and came to some interesting conclusions:

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

We asked Oucha Mbarbk [a Moroccan peasant] what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, but television is more important than food!’

We need to take people’s choices about how they spend their limited funds, more seriously.

Thirdly, by focussing on raising funds, the WFP transforms itself into a philanthropic organisation. Donations of food and other forms humanitarian aid are absolutely necessary to alleviating food crises, but they won’t end these crises – or end ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that). In an excellent article for the Guardian, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter argues:

our global food system…is in crisis. Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, and the current woes in the Sahel, are the surface cracks of a broken system. These regional outbreaks of hunger are not, as such, extreme events.

Beyond semantics, this is a crucial distinction. In viewing these events as extreme and unexpected, we fail to acknowledge the regularity and predictability of hunger. This flaw is fatal, for it means failing to acknowledge that the food system itself is broken. It means failing to build readiness for persistent famine into international development and humanitarian policy. And it means waiting until people starve before doing anything.

Food aid doesn’t address the deeper, structural problems underlying the food crisis. It doesn’t consider bad governance; the impact of food speculation on rising food prices; and agricultural efficiency, particularly in the light of climate change.

By appealing to people to donate money to fund their response to food crises – which could have been avoided – the WFP and others cast hunger as something which can be remedied with old-fashioned philanthropy. It’s certainly true that philanthropic organisations can do immensely good work – like reducing rates of polio and malaria in the developing world. But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problems which give rise to these crises:

the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.

Precisely. The world’s poor should not be dependent on the goodwill of wealthy people who have the time and inclination to play games on the internet.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Which Formula?

So this is my blog’s thirty-sixth post. And, wow, what a year it’s been. Thank you, dear readers, for staying the course, and I promise more for 2012. This, though, is going to be the last essay for 2011. I’ll be spending December eating, cooking, researching, and teasing the cat. Really, it’s going to be wild. But before the fun begins, I’ll be in the UK for ten days, to present a seminar paper and to do a little research at the amazing Wellcome Library.

My real, live academic research pertains to the history of childhood in the British Empire. My PhD thesis traces the ways in which ideas around childhood and youth changed in the Cape Colony during the second half of the nineteenth century. It pays particular attention to the role and impact of Dutch Reformed evangelicalism in this process. But my postdoctoral project – which is being funded by the National Research Foundation (peace be upon it) – looks at the work of the Mothercraft movement within the British Empire between 1907 and 1945.

Mothercraft was pioneered in New Zealand in 1907 in response to concerns about the very high child mortality rates among the country’s Pākehā population. Dr Truby King devised a twelve-point programme to teach specially-trained nurses – known as Plunket nurses in New Zealand and Athlone nurses in South Africa – how to encourage mothers raise healthy babies. The success of Mothercraft was such that King was invited to establish a Mothercraft Training Centre in Britain in 1917. First called the Babies of the Empire League, it sent its nurses around the Empire: to Canada, Australia, India, east Africa, the Caribbean, and South Africa. My project focuses on the work the South African Mothercraft Centre and League, which were established in the mid-1920s.

But what, I hear you say, does this have to do with food? Well, a surprising amount. One of the main emphases of Mothercraft was on the proper feeding of babies. King was an enthusiastic promoter of breastfeeding.

We have a misconception that most babies were fed by wet nurses during the nineteenth century. It bolsters the view we have of middle-class Victorian ladies who were so terrified of their own bodies that feeding their babies was simply beyond the pale. This wasn’t strictly true, though. To begin with, wet nurses were expensive to hire and only the very wealthiest families could afford them. Most middle class women fed their own babies, as did many working-class women too.

In fact, the majority of women who relied on others to feed their babies were poor. In a time when working hours were yet to be properly defined by law, long days in factories or shops were the norm for female urban workers. Those without relatives, paid ‘baby farms’ – a house run by a woman who would care for babies and young children – to care for their offspring, often for weeks at a time. The quality of the care in these early crèches was variable: some were good, but many neglected the babies kept there. All over the world, baby farms had astonishingly high mortality rates.

Most of the popular childrearing manuals of the 1800s recommended that women breastfeed their babies. Thomas Bull, the author of the very popular Maternal Management of Children, in Health and Disease (1840) recommended breastfeeding on the grounds that it benefitted both mother and baby.

The period of suckling is generally one of the most healthy of a women’s life. But there are exceptions to this as a general rule; and nursing, instead of being accompanied by health, may be the same cause of its being materially, and even fatally, impaired. This may arise out of one of two causes, – either, a parent continuing to suckle too long; or, from the original powers or strength not being equal to the continued drain on the system.

If the mother could not breastfeed, then the best alternative was to hire a wet nurse. Only if this was an impossibility should the child be raised ‘by hand’:

To accomplish this with success requires the most careful attention on the part of the parent, and at all times is attended with risk to the life of the child; for although some children, thus reared, live and have sound health, these are exceptions to the general rule, artificial feeding being in most instances unsuccessful.

Bull acknowledged that the various concoctions fed to babies tended often to undermine, rather than fortify, their health. Popular recipes for baby formulas usually included corn or rice flour mixed to a paste with water or milk. This had little or no nutritional value, and would have been very difficult for immature digestive systems to process. Other popular substitutes were cows’ or goats’ milk, tea, and thin gruel.

It’s little wonder, then, that the Mothercraft programme placed such emphasis on breastfeeding. Many Mothercraft Centres provided beds for new mothers, who could spend up to a fortnight there, learning how to feed their babies.

At around the same period, infant formulas were beginning to improve in quality and producers, most notably Nestlé, began to promote them as a healthy – even the healthier – and clean alternative to breast feeding. Nestlé is credited – rightly or wrongly – with the invention of formula milk in 1867. The popularity of powdered baby milk only began to grow during the 1940s and 1950s. Nestlé promoted Lactogen through recipe books, pamphlets, and free samples. Problematically, these were usually distributed at hospitals and clinics – at precisely the places where women would be taught how to breastfeed. By the middle of the twentieth century in the west, it was increasingly the norm for babies to be bottle fed.

I don’t particularly want to address the fraught debate over whether women should breastfeed or not. I am, though, interested in the politics of bottle feeding in the developing world, where big companies – like Nestlé – have promoted formula assiduously since the 1950s. Here, the issue with bottle feeding is not so much the quality of the formula, but the fact that it’s mixed with dirty water or fed to babies in unsterilized bottles. Also, many of the women who use formula can’t afford it, so they water it down, meaning that their children don’t receive adequate nutrition.

In 1974, War against Want published a pamphlet accusing Nestlé of profiting from the deaths of millions of children in poor countries. Three years later, an international boycott of Nestlé began, causing the World Health Organisation to proscribe the promotion of Lactogen and other formulas in its 1981 International Code for the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes.

But the Code has been poorly policed, and even in developed nations, compliance has been slow. In Australia, for instance, the advertising of baby milk powders only ended in the mid-1990s. There is much evidence to suggest that Nestlé and others continue the practice, albeit under different guises. In the United States, for instance, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Programme for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) distributes more than half the formula sold in the US every year. Companies provide this formula to the WIC at a discount.

All over the world, governments are endorsing breastfeeding in the first six months of life as the best – the healthiest and the cheapest – way of feeding a baby. Companies like Nestlé are actively undermining this, despite the best intentions of the WHO. The implications of the continued use of formula in the developing world are devastating:

According to Save the Children… infant mortality in Bangladesh alone could be cut by almost a third – saving the lives of 314 children every day – if breastfeeding rates were improved. Globally, the organisation believes, 3,800 lives could be saved each day. Given that world leaders are committed to cutting infant mortality by two thirds by 2015 as one of the Millennium Development Goals, protecting and promoting breastfeeding is almost certainly the biggest single thing that could be done to better child survival rates.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post which criticised the World Food Programme’s decision to go into partnership with a range of exceptionally dodgy multinationals – Cargill, Vodafone, Unilever, Yum!Brands – to reduce world hunger. I really don’t have anything against public/private partnerships, and am an enthusiastic supporter of corporate social responsibility (when it’s done well, though). But it’s deeply concerning that the WFP is providing unwitting PR to a group of particularly nasty businesses.

In a recent article for the Guardian, Felicity Lawrence discusses growing concern about big food companies’ decision to shift their focus to developing markets:

As affluent western markets reach saturation point, global food and drink firms have been opening up new frontiers among people living on $2 a day in low- and middle-income countries. The world’s poor have become their vehicle for growth.

SABMiller, Unilever, and Nestlé have developed campaigns to target poorer markets:

The companies say they are finding innovative ways to give isolated people the kind of choices the rich have enjoyed for years and are providing valuable jobs and incomes to some of the most marginalised. But health campaigners are raising the alarm. They fear the arrival of highly processed food and drink is also a vector for the lifestyle diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and alcoholism, which are increasing at unprecedented rates in developing countries.

This is Nestlé’s strategy in Brazil:

Nestlé’s floating supermarket took its maiden voyage on the Amazon last year and has been distributing its products to around 800,000 isolated riverside people each month ever since. Christened Nestlé Até Você, Nestlé comes to you, the boat carries around 300 branded processed lines, including ice creams, and infant milk , but no other foods. The products are in smaller pack sizes to make them more affordable. The boat also acts as a collection point for the network of door-to-door saleswomen Nestlé has recruited to promote its brands. Targeting consumers from socioeconomic classes C, D and E is part of the company’s strategic plan for growth, it says. Nestlé has also set up a network of more than 7,500 resellers and 220 microdistributors to reach those at the bottom of the pyramid in the slums of Rio and São Paulo and other major Brazilian cities.

Even if Nestlé does respect the terms of the International Code for the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, and I hope it does, not only is it selling unhealthy processed non-foods, but it also gains legitimacy via its partnership with…the United Nations. Earlier this year, Nestlé supported the UN’s ‘Every Woman Every Child’ initiative, which aims to improve child and maternal health. So an organisation implicated in contributing to the high rate of child mortality in the developing world, and in facilitating a global obesity epidemic, is working with the UN…to improve child health.

Merry Christmas.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Thomas Bull, The Maternal Management of Children, in Health and Disease (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1840).

Christina Hardyment, Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford. Revised ed. (London: Frances Lincoln, 2007).

Virginia Thorley, ‘Commercial Interests and Advice on Infant Feeding: Marketing to Mothers in Postwar Queensland,’ Health and History, vol. 5, no. 1 (2003), pp. 65-89.

Other sources:

Linda Bryder, ‘Breastfeeding and Health Professionals in Britain, New Zealand and the United States, 1900-1970,’ Medical History. vol. 49, no. 2 (2005), pp. 179-196.

Linda Bryder, ‘From breast to bottle: a history of modern infant feeding.’ Endeavour, vol. 33, issue 2 (June 2009), pp. 54-59.

Linda Bryder, Not Just Weighing Babies: Plunket in Auckland, 1980-1998 (Pyramid Press, Auckland, 1998).

S.E. Duff, ‘What will this child be? Children, Childhood, and the Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony, 1860-1894’ (PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London, 2010).

Nancy Rose Hunt, ‘“Le Bebe en Brousse”: European Women, African Birth Spacing and Colonial Intervention in Breast Feeding in the Belgian Congo,’ The International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 21, no. 3 (1988), pp. 401-432.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Futures

One of the funniest articles I’ve read recently was Robert Webb’s account of his experience writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. He describes – for gleeful readers of the New Statesman – his battles with the commentators on the newspaper’s online edition. The internet’s equivalent to the ‘green Biro brigade’ of usually right-wing newspaper letter-writers, these ‘Ghouls’ as, Webb calls them, used the Telegraph’s comment function to heap scorn and ridicule on Webb.

These guys love Britain so much that they all seem to live in Gibraltar. Their ‘comments’ were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip. There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell.

The problem was not that they disagreed with Webb, but that their comments were aimed solely at reminding him what a ‘worthless bastard’ he was.

I hadn’t realised that these internet trolls had moved beyond the places I’d usually expect to find them – news sites, mainly – and on to food sites as well. In a post which seems to have gone viral this week, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten Free Girl explains the extent to which she’s been subjected to internet bullying:

Every day, there is some nasty, vituperative comment on a post, something I skim quickly then delete. It could be comments about my husband (‘He’s obviously retarded. Look in his eyes. There’s something wrong.’) about our life on Vashon (‘Oh that’s right, everything is perfect on  your fucking ISLAND.’), about our food (‘That looks like dog vomit. Why does anyone pay you to do this?’), and mostly about me (my weight? my writing? my hair? my mere presence in the world? take your pick).

I want to make this clear: criticism and debate are absolutely vital – even on food blogs. I have no truck with writers who believe that any form of critical thinking is ‘mean’ or ‘negative’. But I have no time whatsoever for bullies. I had a small brush with one (or two?) this week after publishing a post critical of the Toffie Food Festival’s Menu magazine. A few commentators using dodgy Hotmail accounts and a suspiciously identical IP address sent comments which were fairly personal and meant only to tell me and the world that my ideas are stupid.

But a decade in academia has helped me to grow rhino hide for skin and it takes more than a few bullies to stop me. So troll who lives at IP 41.133.175.4, you know who you are. As do I.

Troll at IP 41.133.175.4 did, though, ask a good question, and one which is worth answering. He (or indeed she) responded to my point that the authors of Menu have a profoundly problematic conception of food as a consumer product – like jewellery or clothing – which can be used and thrown away at whim, by asking: ‘where do you live where you don’t have to buy food’?

Yes, dear troll at IP 41.133.175.4, you’re quite right: food is a product or commodity which has to be bought (unless, of course, you grow or rear it yourself). But there’s an important difference between food and bed linen, perfume, cutlery, or clothes, for example. Only one of those products is absolutely essential to human life – only one has a significant impact on people’s incomes and the ways in which they live. Only one can cause ordinary people to protest when prices become too high.

Food is, then, is bought by consumers and treated as a consumer product even though it’s significantly different from other products. Our understanding of food as a consumer product is a relatively recent phenomenon: it’s only a century or two old, and linked strongly to the industrial revolution and mass production, as well as the development of a very powerful advertising industry.

Why should we care about this? Given that the mass production of food allowed greater numbers of people to eat better and more cheaply than ever before, surely these processes could only be considered a Good Thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the industrialisation of food production as long as it is environmentally sustainable, humane to animals, respects workers’ rights, and produces safe and uncontaminated food – which, as the industry functions at the moment, is not always the case.

Moreover, as I wrote last week, this conception of food as a consumer product means that we understand food differently. Food moves from being something we associate primarily with nourishment to being a commodity which has the same meaning for consumers as other, less essential goods. This means, for example, that they are more willing to throw away large quantities of food. As the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation reported a few months ago, the average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year – and wealthy countries are responsible for half of the total amount of food wasted every year.

There are many other implications for seeing food as a consumer product – not least the foodie worship of food since the early eighties – and I’ll consider these more carefully in the next few weeks. For the moment, I’d like to take a quick look at food speculation.

Of the many causes of the current global food crisis, food speculation is the most contested and seems to be the most complicated to understand. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter as well as Oxfam and other organisations have argued recently, the deregulation of commodities markets in the West during the mid-nineties have had catastrophic implications for food prices.

Let me explain: farmers have long traded in food futures to secure their incomes. Farmers protect themselves against bad harvests by selling their produce in advance to traders. They use the profits they make in bad years – when they have less to sell – to protect themselves against future losses. This works well for traders, who do particularly nicely in good years. Writing about the United States, Frederick Kaufman explains how well this tightly regulated system worked:

The result: Over the course of the 20th century, the real price of wheat decreased (despite a hiccup or two, particularly during the 1970s inflationary spiral), spurring the development of American agribusiness. After World War II, the United States was routinely producing a grain surplus, which became an essential element of its Cold War political, economic, and humanitarian strategies – not to mention the fact that American grain fed millions of hungry people across the world.

But things changed at the end of the twentieth century. Partly because of intensive lobbying from hedge funds and banks, like Barclays, governments in the West deregulated commodity derivatives markets. Banks and investors became interested in trading on the commodities market – once the preserve of specialists like Glencore – when bankers at Goldman Sachs (yes, they really do their best to be the embodiment of venality) devised new investment products which included speculation in food futures. Investors which hadn’t before been involved in the commodities markets, like pension funds, were, then, willing to play the futures markets.

As a result of this, food – grain, cocoa, fruit, rice, and meat – can be traded in exactly the same way as other commodities, like gold, timber, and coal. Brett Scott writes:

The controversy can be broken down into two separate issues. Firstly, are financial players in commodity derivatives markets causing derivatives prices to disassociate from what the price ‘should be’ if it were reflecting the fundamental balance of supply and demand in the underlying commodity? Secondly, does such a disassociation in futures prices get transmitted into the real price of food people end up paying?

The answer from the UN and a range of other charities is a definite, ringing ‘yes’. Irresponsible banks are driving up the price of food, they argue. John Vidal cites two well-known examples of food speculation causing price spikes:

Last year, London hedge fund Armajaro bought 240,000 tonnes, or more than 7%, of the world’s stocks of cocoa beans, helping to drive chocolate to its highest price in 33 years. Meanwhile, the price of coffee shot up 20% in just three days as a direct result of hedge funds betting on the price of coffee falling.

But what role does speculation play in causing food prices to rise more generally? This is more difficult to pin down, as Scott implies. De Schutter argues, convincingly in my mind, that even if speculation was not responsible on its own for causing the spike in food prices in 2008, it was a major contributing – and new – factor. I think it’s worth quoting him at length:

a number of signs indicate that a significant portion of the price spike was due to the emergence of a speculative bubble. Prices for a number of commodities fluctuated too wildly within such limited time-frames for such price behaviour to have been a result of movements in supply and demand: wheat prices, for instance, rose by 46% between January 10 and February 26, 2008, fell back almost completely by May 19, increased again by 21% until early June, and began falling again from August. The 2008 food price crisis was unique in that it was possibly the first price crisis that occurred in an economic environment characterized by massive amounts of novel forms of speculation in commodity derivative markets.

The particular area of concern is speculation in derivatives based on food commodities. A study conducted by Lehman Brothers just before its bankruptcy revealed that the volume of index fund speculation increased by 1,900% between 2003 and March 2008. Morgan Stanley estimated that the number of outstanding contracts in maize futures increased from 500,000 in 2003 to almost 2.5 million in 2008. …the changes in food prices reflected not so much movements in the supply and/or demand of food, but were driven to a significant extent by speculation that greatly exceeded the liquidity needs of commodity markets to execute the trades of commodity users, such as food processors and agricultural commodity importers.

Food speculation is a manifestation on a very grand scale of a shift in thinking of the value and significance of food: here, food is simply another commodity to be bought and traded, often very lucratively. We know the futures are useful and important to farmers, but the unregulated speculation of food means that food prices are no longer linked to what people can afford to pay. When the UN and other organisations call for a greater regulation of commodities markets – to a return, to some extent, to the derivatives trading of the twentieth century – they are also pointing to the fact that food cannot be understood in the same terms as other commodities and consumer goods.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 10.08.2011

‘the discerning and liberal media consumer prefers: ginger and chocolate cookies; amaretti; shortbread; butter thins, and almond florentines.’ This is the study of the year.

Take a look at urban farming around the world.

On the rise of ‘White People Food’.

These are the five best and five worst proteins for our and the planet’s health (although I assume the study is US-based).

Jay Rayner asks if farmers’ markets will really change the world.

High food prices have caused an increase in the numbers of Americans eligible for food stamps.

Close-ups of food.

Here’s more on bread prices and the Arab Spring.

Will placing a tax on junk food change eating habits?

Olivier the Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, argues after a visit to South Africa that the country must ‘build a food economy that benefits the majority of the population.’ The report is really worth a read.

High food prices won’t be dropping anytime soon.

Hippy kitchens.

Russia has now classified beer as alcoholic. Better late than never.

Another study shows up the link between high food prices and food-based biofuels.

No Famine is Inevitable

Last week there was a flurry of excitement as commentators compared the R1 million pledged by the South African government to aid the victims of the famine in the Horn of Africa, and the potential billion rand loan which it is currently considering for Swaziland. Not only could Africa’s economic powerhouse donate considerably more than a million rand (about £90,000 or US$150,000) to Somalia, but granting a conditions-free loan to King Mswati III’s dysfunctional kingdom would serve only to prop up the continent’s last absolute monarch.

Although I was as outraged by my government’s apparent indifference to the plight of Somalis, I did begin to wonder if that money could be used more wisely. Of course, South Africa must – and can – contribute to the international effort to distribute food in Somalia. Given the scrutiny of aid agencies working in the region, as well as the awareness of how aid money has been channelled to elites over the past few decades, it’s likely that South Africa’s donation will go to those who need it. But giving money to alleviate the famine is a short-term fix.

Possibly because of the way it echoes Africa’s other best-known famine, the Live Aid-engendering Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985, the famine in the Horn of Africa has generated an enormous amount of coverage in the international press. More information and analysis can only ever be a good thing, but much of the discussion around the famine suggests that it’s a crisis which emerged suddenly and without any warning. As the Guardian’s John Vidal put it, ‘A massive drought, as if out of nowhere, has settled over the Horn of Africa’. Moreover, some commentators, like Vidal, have blamed the famine on only one or two factors, usually climate change or Western indifference to African suffering.

The causes of famines are complex, but they are never entirely unpredictable. Counterintuitively, they are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but are, rather, the result of long-term systemic failure: in agriculture, trade, and, most importantly, in government. By suggesting that South Africa’s paltry million rand donation would be better spent, my point is that South Africa’s involvement in the Somali crisis should go beyond giving money for food. It needs to stop famines from happening in the first place, and that is not impossible.

We have managed largely to eradicate famine in the twentieth century. Before then, food shortages and famines were part of the rhythms of everyday life. In societies where food production was inefficient both in terms of labour and technology – and until the eighteenth century, eighty per cent of the population of Europe was engaged in agriculture – frequent crop failures meant that famine occurred often. But during the 1700s, an agricultural revolution allowed greater, more regular, and, crucially, more reliable yields to be produced by smaller numbers of people. International trade also meant that countries could buy food to supplement local shortfalls. For example, during the 1870s, the failure of the European grain crop boosted Canadian and American wheat exports, as these two countries fed Europe for almost a decade.

Although initially developed in the Netherlands and Britain (and there is a strong link between the development of capitalist economies and efficient food systems), the methods pioneered during this green revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spread around the globe. By the early 1900s, famine was caused increasingly by people, rather than only by nature. That said, the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852) was certainly the product of the potato blight, but it also occurred at a time when Ireland was an exporter of wheat: there was enough food to go around, it was just that those who were starving couldn’t afford to buy bread. The Cattle Killing Movement in South Africa (1856-1857) caused widespread famine among the Xhosa. Around 40,000 people died of starvation, 33,000 moved away from the eastern Cape to seek work, and the authority of the Xhosa polity was fatally undermined. But this was caused by a decision to slaughter cattle and destroy crops on a mass scale.

Equally, some twentieth-century famines were caused partly by crop failure, but were also the product of bad governance and ineffective systems of food distribution. As Cormac Ó Gráda explains:

Wars, blockades, poor governance, and civil unrest can also lead to famines; panics about the food supply and poorly performing markets can exacerbate them. In such cases…factors other than crop shortfalls reduce the purchasing power or ‘entitlements’ of vulnerable sections of the population: the size of the loaf matters less than its distribution.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued in Poverty and Famines (1981) that – contra Thomas Malthus who suggested that exponential population growth would result inevitably in famine – famines can occur in times of peak food production. Why? I think it’s worth quoting Sen in full:

In every society that exists, the amount of food that a person or a family can command is governed by one set of rules or another, combined with the contingent circumstances in which that person or that family happens to be placed vis-à-vis those rules. For example, in a private ownership market economy, how much food a person can command will depend on (1) what he owns, and (2) what he can get in exchange for what he owns either through trade, or through production, or some combination of the two. Obviously, in such an economy a person may suddenly face starvation either because his ownership bundle collapses (e.g., through alienation of land to the money lenders), or because the ‘exchange entitlement’ of his ownership (i.e., the command of what he owns) collapses (e.g., through his becoming unemployed and not being able to sell his labour power, or through a decline in his terms of trade vis-à-vis food).

In other words, people starve when they can’t buy food – either because they no longer have the money to exchange for food (as a result of unemployment, for example) or because food prices become prohibitively high. Peaks in food prices could be due to droughts and other ecological factors, conflict, and speculation.

The crisis in Somalia demonstrates particularly well how state intervention can prevent or cause famine. In 1960, British Somaliland and Italian Somalia became the independent Republic of Somalia. Nine years later, Major-General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup and ruled Somalia through a military dictatorship until the collapse of his government in 1991. Somalia’s experience of food shortages and famine must be understood in this context of Barre’s government (or lack thereof) and economic policies. In 1970, he announced the implementation of ‘scientific socialism’, introduced strict central planning, and viciously stamped out all forms of opposition. Peter T. Leeson writes:

The government slaughtered civilians who posed threats to the government’s plans or political power, used coercive intimidation to create artificial support for its activities, and forcibly relocated others to further the political or economic ends of Barre and his cronies. ‘Both the urban population and nomads living in the countryside [were] subjected to summary killings, arbitrary arrest, detention in squalid conditions, torture, rape, crippling constraints on freedom of movement and expression and a pattern of psychological intimidation’. The state ruthlessly suppressed free speech and controlled all forms of information reaching Somalis. Newspapers (only one was officially permitted by the government), radio, and television were fully censored and dissent in any form squelched with force. Under Somalia’s National Security Law No. 54, ‘gossip’ became a capital offense. Twenty other basic civil freedoms involving speech, association and organisation also carried the death penalty.

Funds were diverted from public works, education, healthcare, and infrastructure to the military, on whose support and ability to terrify and brutalise the Somali population Barre depended. The nationalisation of land and industry in 1975 was, predictably, a disaster. The abandonment of socialism at the end of the 1970s in order to attract assistance from the International Monetary Fund made very little difference either. Somalia was heavily dependent on international food aid during the 1970s and 1980s. The Horn of Africa is prone to drought, but it’s worth noting that despite catastrophic droughts in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, Somalia managed to avoid famine – unlike its war-torn neighbour, Ethiopia, whose government ignored the plight of its population.

As Abdi Ismail Samatar notes,

Somalia’s last major famine was in 1992 and was not caused by drought. Nearly 300,000 innocent people starved to death because of sectarian politics. The epicentre of that famine was in Bay, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions, and starvation was induced by warlords who used food as a weapon against farmers and pastoralists.

Barre’s government collapsed in 1991, plunging Somalia into civil war and a chaos from which it has yet to emerge. It’s telling that a country which had managed to avoid famine for over half a century, despite drought, food shortages, and incredible food insecurity, saw widespread famine only after food supplies were disrupted by war.

So why famine now? Over the course of sixteen years, Somalia has been the subject of fourteen reconciliation conferences, none of which managed to produce a stable government. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an anti-Islamist, pro-Ethiopian political grouping, was put into power in Somalia under the leadership of Abdullahi Yusuf and with the support of the United Nations. However, the TGF was neither popular nor effective as a government. In the absence of effective leadership, a number of attempts were made by Islamic groups, war lords, civil society organisations, and others to create some sort of order in Somalia, and particularly in Mogadishu. One of these, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, was formed by a group of war lords in February 2006. They were backed by the United States who saw them as allies against Islamic groups in the region.

Armed clashes between the Alliance and Islamist groups soon broke out and developed into a war which the Islamists won decisively. By the middle of 2006, they had taken control of Mogadishu as well as central and southern Somalia. Not only was this an embarrassment to the United States and its ally Ethiopia, but for the first time it seemed that Somalia was offered the possibility of a relatively popular and effective government in the hands of the Islamists, who quickly organised themselves into the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). However, an invasion by Ethiopia at the end of 2006 caused the collapse of the CIC, the reinstallment of the almost entirely ineffective TFG, and the beginning of a new civil war between the Government and opposition groups. The most successful of these was Al-Shabab. Originally the CIC’s youth wing and affiliated with al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab is an Islamist group which now controls most of southern Somalia.

Years of political uncertainty, conflict, and chaos (best exemplified by the way piracy has flourished along the Somali coast) have left Somalis particularly vulnerable to drought and the less predictable effects of climate change. A combination of a US- and UN-backed blockade of the parts of Somalia controlled by Al-Shabab, as well as this organisation’s unwillingness to allow the World Food Programme to deliver food to southern Somalis has caused the famine. Samatar explains:

Normally, societies have three lines of defence against mass starvation: local capacity, national government and the international community. When a disaster hits a region, the first help comes from local administrations and the communities themselves. If events overwhelm the first responders, then the national government takes charge of operations; and when the crisis exceeds the wherewithal of the nation, international actors come to the rescue.

It is clear that all three levels of livelihood protections have failed in Somalia. Al-Shabab has prohibited the local population from organising their municipal governments and charities to fend off the disaster. Similarly, Somalia’s national government, which is beholden to sectarian leadership and international patrons, has been oblivious to the emerging calamity, and has thwarted the international community from coming to its aid

This was a famine which could have been avoided had order been established in Somalia. Here, Somali politicians and war lords are as much to blame as the international community, East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the UN, and, crucially in my view, the African Union. This famine is not the result solely of dastardly foreign countries plundering Africa, nor can blame be laid entirely on Somalis themselves. But after the effort to feed Somalis has ended, reconstruction needs to begin. And it’s here where South Africa must – and I think is obliged to – take a leading role.

Somalia also demonstrates the extent to which food security is linked to strong, functioning governments. Countries which are badly run, have weak economies, and, most importantly, are authoritarian, are the most strongly disposed towards famine. Last year’s narrowly-avoided famine in West Africa was due largely to the incompetence of Niger and Chad’s malfunctioning, undemocratic political dispensations. Only the spread of democratic and open government, with, crucially, a free flow of information, will prevent famines from happening in Africa. As Sen remarked, ‘There is, indeed, no such thing as an apolitical food problem.’

Note: I try to use sources which are easily available, but for this post I’ve relied on articles from academic journals. Unfortunately, these are securely behind paywalls. If you’d like copies of them, let me know.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York and London: W.W. Norton, [2010] 2011).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 27.07.2011

Ever wondered what it’s like to intern at El Bulli? Here are two articles which describe the experience.

The glory of eggs.

I can’t wait to read this: Frank Dikötter’s Samuel Johnson Prize-winning new account of the 1958-1962 Great Famine in China.

Why industrial agriculture won’t feed the world – and why we need to stop industrial farms from denying us access to their operations.

The American Dietetic Association – an organisation providing supposedly objective and scientific advice on diet – has been accepting money from Coca-Cola and Pepsico. Not good.

The amazing ‘jellymongers’ Bompas and Parr organised a Rabbit Cafe in Brighton to celebrate Easter. It’s partly in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the first Futurist restaurant. The Cafe, though, isn’t the first homage to Futurism’s fascination with food – this is an account of one recreation of the Futurist aerobanquet.

Food Links, 20.07.2011

How will fracking impact on our food supply?

Partly because of its emphasis on increasing yields, the Gates Foundation, in partnership with the evil empire Monsanto, is pushing genetically engineered crops in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Malawi.

Seven food and drinks trends in the US for 2011.

Famine looms in the Horn of Africa. This is why.

Sarah Lohman cooks ‘temporal fusion cuisine’ and keeps an amazing website called Four Pounds of Flour. Here she plots changing tastes in America.

Chefs go wild about Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

Tom Philpott discusses the link between catastrophic flooding and industrial agriculture.

Consider corn.

There’s recently been a gloriously self-important spat between (some) South African food bloggers and food writers. This is Mandy de Waal’s excellent article for the Mail and Guardian which started it, and this is the hilariously bonkers response from one blog.

Jay Rayner considers the latest research into the relationship between meat consumption and cancer.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that the world wastes or loses 1.3 billion tons of food per year – that’s a third of the total supply.

Donald Paul for the Daily Maverick discusses South Africa’s food security.

How to make Cornish pasties. (And flapjacks – crunchies to South Africans.) And in praise of sandwiches.

Food Links, 18.05.2011

If you’re in South Africa, go out and vote. Right this minute. Immediately.

In the US, some restaurants are now turning their leftovers into compost.

Are a billion people hungry? This brilliant article from the recent food edition of Foreign Policy examines the complex factors which determine diets.

The World Development Movement explains why it’s targeting Barclays over food price speculation.

Consider the aubergine.

The Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit specialises in providing cheap, high quality education to pregnant girls. The school is built around a food-producing garden (the girls grow vegetables and care for chickens, goats, and bees) and seems to have achieved some amazing things since its founding. And now it’s threatened with closure. Madness.

‘There’s more to salt than the taste.’ So there is.

This is an excellent overview of the origins, nature, and impact of the food industry in the United States.

Starbucks is now the third biggest chain restaurant in the US – after McDonalds and Subway.

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