openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Time to change aid to give people sovereignty over their food

The world has more than enough food, but current UK aid policy helps concentrate power over it in corporate hands.

Preet Gill
5 December 2019, 12.20pm
Members of Abrono Organic Farming Project (ABOFAP) in their organic chilli farm. Near Techiman, Ghana
Global Justice Now, CC 2.0.

The world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people, which is far more than our current population of 7.7 billion.

So why, half a century since the right to food was recognised as a basic human right by the UN, do nearly a billion people across the world go hungry at the same time as huge proportions of food are routinely wasted?

A root cause of this situation is that our food production system is controlled by a small handful of globally dominant companies - and the solution must involve changing this.

Between 75% and 90% of the global grain trade is now controlled by four companies, and only 10 companies own every large food brand and beverage in the world.

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This concentration of the food system into a few corporate hands is the consequence of years of deliberate government policy that continues today. This is evident in the British government’s approach to smallholder farming in the Global South. DFID’s agricultural strategy sees the continued existence of small-scale farmers as outdated work, and that food should instead be produced for international markets by a small number of intensive farms that employ fewer people, often bound into contracts for seeds and fertilisers with global food giants. This approach has devastating consequences for people’s ability to access land, water and resources needed to produce food.

The Department of International Development’s (DFID) mantra of “step up, step out, hang in” is shorthand for its policy of spending aid to replace smallholder farmers with industrial agriculture. It dictates that small-holder farmers should either ‘step-up’ to industrial-scale agriculture, ‘step-out’ of agriculture altogether or merely ‘hang-in’ as a temporary measure.

This is wrongheaded. Small-scale farming, which feeds 70% of the world’s population, is as efficient as it is ancient. It uses less carbon and water to produce food and has evolved practices to conserve seeds and soil year in, year out. By contrast, large scale, corporate-run farming is far more inefficient in its resource use, its intensive methods worsen the climate crisis while degrading the soil, often blighting entire landscapes and displacing communities by clearing massive areas for monocultures.

Technology of course plays a vital role in limiting the drudgery of farming, and will play an important part in feeding the world’s growing population, but it should not be simply used to scale-up unsustainable intensive farming.

Crucially, the commercialisation of farming has opened the door, often through binding trade agreements, to international corporations exclusively owning and providing seeds and fertilisers - and, shockingly, in some cases even allowing companies to own patents on plants and animals.

The G7’s New Alliance project - which was launched in 2012 and has since been dropped - used British aid to incentivise 10 African countries to produce tobacco, palm oil and biofuels for export to international markets. The scheme, which was supposed to be about improving food security and nutrition, instead effectively supported huge global companies including Monsanto, Cargill and Unilever to increase their control of the world’s seeds and food. It was rightly criticised by the aid watchdog as being “little more than a means of promotion for the companies involved and a chance to increase their influence in policy debates”.

DFID’s more recent approach to tackling global hunger comes via its support to the Nutrition for Growth programme, a scheme which aims to end childhood malnutrition. It proposes to do this by mobilising £7 billion annually from donors worldwide.

Yet the scheme overlooks the role of food producers and pays no attention to the underlying problems in the food system that results in hunger levels increasing year-on-year at a time when the world produces more food than ever: it fails to address the root causes of the problem we must solve.

Tellingly, the scheme focuses heavily on the economic rationale for ending hunger, encouraging donors to invest because “for every $1 spent by donors on basic nutrition programs, $16 is returned to the local economy”. Prioritising the economic returns of feeding a hungry child undermines the hard fought for rights-based approach to development. Every parent should have the right to feed their child nutritious food as an end in itself, not a means to achieve economic goals.

A Labour government will ensure that DFID upholds the human right to food, and in doing so will go much further than endorsing food security - which speaks the limited market language of ‘access’ and ‘availability’ - and instead embrace the principle of food sovereignty in our international development work. Only by doing this will we be able to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goal of ‘zero hunger’ by 2030.

‘Food security’ is the principle that has guided how billions of pounds of British aid has been spent on food and agricultural projects across the world for decades. It is one of the reasons why droughts no longer inexorably lead to famines.

But although food security has been important in keeping people alive, its narrow focus on getting calories to people has created new problems that threaten us all.

Under this rubric, the government has used UK aid and trade to push policies that outsource feeding the poorest people in the world to corporations at the expense of people’s sovereignty over their land and water, the efficiency of the system itself and our fight against the climate crisis. In a world where agriculture is under strain from global warming and rising populations, it is a shameful abdication of responsibility to hand power of the world’s food system to a small number of multinational corporations.

Farmers, communities and nation states should control the food they produce and consume. This is what underpins the principle of ‘food sovereignty’ and is what the global network of small-scale farmers, La Via Campesina, has long called for.

That is why Labour will establish an aid-funded Food Sovereignty Fund that will support small-scale farmers in the Global South to gain access to land, seeds and finance, as well as support sustainable local food and agriculture markets.

If we are to tackle the challenge of growing global hunger while also addressing the impact that agriculture has on climate change then we need a transformative approach to the world’s food system. We urgently need to create real change to deliver the most basic of rights so that people have the food they need.

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