The world’s food insecurity

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 April 2008

The food crisis is now affecting many countries across the world. Millions of people in dozens of countries are unable to afford the food they need, and malnutrition is on the rise. From Egypt to Indonesia, Haiti to Thailand, and across many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, increasingly vociferous public protests over food prices or shortages have exploded; some governments even fear for their survival (see Marc Lacey, "Across globe, hunger brings rising anger", International Herald Tribune, 18 April 2008).

United Nations analysts and other research specialists describe this as the worst crisis since the early 1970s. They blame many factors:

  • increased demand for meat diets in richer countries

  • climatic factors, especially the kind of drought that has cut Australia's rice production by 98% (see Keith Bradsher, "A drought in Australia, a global shortage of rice", New York Times, 17 April 2008)

  • the diversion of agricultural land to grow crops for biofuel (see James Painter, "Indonesia: the biofuel blowback", 30 August 2007)

  • the steep increases in the price of oil (see Paul Krugman, "Running Out of Planet to Exploit", New York Times, 21 April 2008).

The 1970s precedent

What is extraordinary about the current situation is that it echoes in so many respects an earlier world food crisis: that of 1973-74 (it also remains fresh in the memory, as I worked in tropical-agricultural research in the late 1960s and attended the world food conference of 5-16 November 1974 as an observer for Britain's World Development Movement). In comparing the two moments, what is truly astonishing is that - despite all the supposed progress of the globalised world Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001 economy, all the much-lauded economic growth, and all the scientific and technological developments in the interim period - so little has changed (see Heidi Fritschel, "The price of food: ingredients of a global crisis", 9 April 2008).

The crisis came to a head in the winter of 1973-74. It caught most agronomists and food-policy specialists by surprise, especially as the decade beforehand had seemed to show much promise. The first fruits of the "green revolution" in crop-breeding - the new "miracle" rice varieties such as IR8 and IR11 among them - were giving hope that radical advances in tropical agriculture would enable the poorest farmers to become much more self-reliant. The world still had over 400 million people suffering from malnutrition (in a total population of 3.7 billion in 1970), but there was optimism that substantial progress to address the roots of their condition and improve their lives was possible.

In only a few years, this mood dissipated. The terrible famine in Bangladesh in 1971 (related to the disruptive effects of its war of independence from Pakistani rule) contributed to the shift. By early 1974, one senior United Nations source was warning that 40 million people in thirty countries were at risk of starvation - a catastrophe that could be ten times worse than the appalling Bengal famine of 1943-44. The immediate problem was that those countries most at risk needed at least 10 million tons of additional food grains within a year - yet most could not afford to pay for them. A further problem was a world shortage of fertilisers (amounting to around 1.5 million tons), which had to be addressed to avoid further bad harvests (see Paul Rogers, Food in Our Time - But Not Just Yet, World Development Movement, London, 1975).

The United Nations system, then led by (the later discredited) secretary-general Kurt Waldheim - responded by convening a world food conference in Rome in November 1974, under the auspices of the UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It hoped both to galvanise richer countries into paying for these immediate needs and to establish procedures and institutions that would prevent a repeat of the crisis.

A major concern at the gathering was that the crisis was complex and multi-causal. Three long-term trends had collided with a series of short-term events to produce a dangerous situation that required a thorough and sophisticated approach in response.

The first trend was that most countries had not yet started to go through a demographic transition, yet many were experiencing population growth-rates of 3% per year or above. Moreover, such countries typically had a large proportion of their population under the age of 14 - a category that clearly could not contribute much to food production but had high nutritional needs.

The second long-term trend was the relative neglect of rural development throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when most development emphasis was on urbanisation and industrialisation, in an effort to transform the lives of the great majority of people in the "third world" who lived off the land.

The third trend was that economic growth in industrialised states in the 1960s had resulted in a move towards more meat-rich diets, with all the inefficiencies of ecological conversion rates that this involved - typically ten kilos of plant protein to produce one kilo of animal protein.

The roots of crisis

In addition, the crisis of 1973-74 had four immediate causes:

  • Poor weather conditions in many parts of the world. These began with the devastating cyclone that hit Bangladesh in November 1970; and were followed by the impact of a long drought in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, the partial failure of the Soviet winter cereal crop in 1972-73, and serious floods in northern India

  • A substantial increase in fertiliser prices. This was partly due to the behaviour of a notoriously "pendulum" industry, and partly to Morocco's decision to seek to improve its earnings from rock phosphate (a key compound constituent of fertiliser) by trebling its price between January and July 1974

  • A huge increase in oil prices. The price of oil rose by nearly 450% from October 1973 to May 1974. The trend started with Opec action around the time of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war in October 1973, but it merged into an all-time bull-market that rapidly affected the economies of many "third world" countries as they struggled to pay for oil imports

  • The partial failure of the green revolution. Many of the new miracle-plant varieties were indeed remarkable, but they depended on the ability of the farmers growing them to afford the fertilisers, pesticides and adequate irrigation that they so often required. When prices of fuel and fertiliser were high, the miracle-plant varieties were starved of precisely those inputs needed to maximise yields.

    The world community's response

    The crisis was reaching its peak at the very time of the FAO's world food conference. The concluding declaration was resounding enough: it pledged that "every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties." In pursuit of this large aspiration, the conference proposed a three-point plan to prevent similar crises in the future:

  • The establishment of a world food bank. This would maintain continual access to around 10 million tonnes of stored grain that could be made freely available in time of need

  • A new International Fund for Agricultural Development that would commit $5 billion a year for ten years to improve tropical agriculture, not least at the level of subsistence farmers. This was more than three times the worldwide investment at that time (though it also represented barely 2% of annual global spending on the military)

  • A new food forecasting system that would provide early warning of future crises.

  • The twelve-day congress in Rome was prominently reported in the world's media; leading figures (including Henry Kissinger, then United States secretary of state) jetted in to speak fine words, while promising little action. Nonetheless, emergency funding in 1974-76 (not least by some of the newly oil-rich countries of the Gulf) helped improve the situation in some of the worst affected countries, including Bangladesh.

    This reaction helped avert the potential of famine or ameliorate its effects. But little was done to invest in improved food production over the longer term. A food forecasting system was developed by the FAO, which remains effective to this day; but the idea of a world food bank made little progress, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development has never received the resources it needed.

    Perhaps most revealing of all was that even at the height of the crisis, world food reserves were still adequate to meet all the demands - the problem was that the food was simply too expensive for the poorest to afford it. The important work of Amartya Sen helped transform understanding of this point, and of the connections between food insecurity, markets and poverty. The logic of Sen's pathbreaking argument was to highlight the importance of political freedom and the free flow of information as a crucial factor in the avoidance of famine (see Development as Freedom [Oxford University Press, 1999]).

    The new agenda

    The lessons of the early 1970s - both policy and intellectual - are still far from being learned. The problems of food insecurity today, albeit widespread and serious, are not yet of the scale of the early 1970s; but the very fact that they are happening, and on a global scale, is itself a severe judgment on In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here the world's institutions of governance at both national and international levels (see World Bank, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, October 2007).

    What makes the current crisis even more worrying is the presence of two trends that were either absent or less pressing in the 1970s. First, the role of the now-globalised financial sector, where hedge-fund and other forms of speculation in the food-commodity markets have fuelled the price rises and in effect, intensified hunger, poverty and instability. This is an unexplored aspect of the world's food problem that demands to be on the agenda of those attempting to solve it (see "The silent tsunami", Economist, 17 April 2008)

    Second, the crisis of 2007-08 is unfolding in an era when the effects of climate change are intensifying - but where the full range of the impact of global warming is yet to be felt (see "A century on the edge: 1945-2045", 29 December 2008). Even the existing adverse weather phenomena that have been experienced in recent years, that may relate to longer-term climate change (hurricanes, floods, droughts) are likely to be exceeded over the next decade or more. The consequences for food production and human livelihood will be enormous (see the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development [IAASTD], 15 April 2008).

    The one possible source of optimism in present circumstances is that citizens around the world will use the information and understanding at their disposal to work together to help create the momentum for serious, sustained action (both emergency and long-term) that can help put food in hungry stomachs. The absence of such action after the crisis of the early 1970s casts a shadow over the present. The fact that the challenge now is in key respects even higher makes the need to find a coherent and effective set of answers all the more pressing. The global public is indeed at the centre of this quest. As Amartya Sen has written:

    "To eliminate the problem of hunger, the political framework of democracy and an uncensored press can make a substantial contribution, but it also calls for activism of the public. Ultimately, the effectiveness of public action depends not only on legislation, but also on the force and vigour of democratic practice. There is a need to move ahead on different fronts simultaneously to eradicate hunger in the modern world. The public is not only the beneficiary of that eradication, but in an important sense, it also has to be its primary instrument. The first step is to see the public as the active agent rather than merely as the long-suffering patient."

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