Food is the most basic of all human needs and collective food security governance has been with us since the dawn of human society. Failure to perform it effectively has inevitably engendered social unrest. The riots in capital cities around the world in late 2007 are reminiscent of the hungry crowds that threatened the life of Roman Emperor Claudius in AD 51 and the bread riots that helped to spark off the French Revolution in 1789. History and common sense tell us that a functioning food system is an indispensable pillar of a stable economy and a society capable of reproducing itself.
Food governance is an increasingly difficult task in a globalised world. On the one hand, it involves multiple layers of decision-making. The capacity of single households to ensure an adequate supply of food for its members is affected by developments from local to global. Increasingly, even nation states are losing control over the factors that determine the food security of their populations. The range of imponderables has widened from acts of God, like the droughts or locusts that appear in the earliest narratives of the human race, or coups by political or military powers, to the impalpable workings of globalised economic forces.
At the same time, food security governance has become increasingly complex. For most of the 20th century, it was mainly focused on issues of agricultural production. Today access and ecological concerns are understood to be equally relevant. Governance needs to consider not only how food is produced but also how it is processed, distributed, and consumed. Food governance has become a complex web of often overlapping or contradictory formal policies and regulations, complicated by unwritten rules and practices that are not subject to political oversight.
The governance of food security is a much-contested terrain. It is no coincidence that agriculture has been the stumbling block of the Doha Round of the WTO negotiations. Decisions that affect the food security of the population of a country will involve and alert many social forces: the state, businesses, and civil society. The outcome of negotiations is affected by the power relations among these groups and by the degree to which states manage to mediate in the common interest. Power relations are often very lopsided and government mediation is frequently insufficient.
Getting a better handle on the global governance of food, then, is by no means an easy task. However, without a doubt, now is the time to make the effort. Over the past three years, a series of interrelated crises has unmasked the systemic flaws in the current world food system and highlighted its tendency to reward a small club of privileged economic actors and their political allies. These very crises have opened up the political opportunity to reform the world governance of food security fundamentally. Let us look at some of the evidence that is accumulating in favour of a substantial and substantive change.
A better understanding of who are the hungry in the South
Global food output has expanded over the past fifty years, keeping up with population growth despite neo-Malthusian predictions from some quarters. Although the productivist discourse is still very much with us, it is increasingly evident that the problem is not so much a technical one of producing more food as a political one of ensuring that food is available to those who need it. Moreover, we have a better idea of who those most in need are: The majority of the hungry are poor rural food producers. This finding has dispelled the myth that there is a divide between the interests of producers and consumers. Thus, fighting hunger in the developing world has to begin with supporting smallholder food producers’ capacity to feed their own families.
The North is far from exempt
At the same time, burgeoning problems of obesity and unsafe food are sensitising public opinion and policy-makers to the fact that there are problems with the food system in the North as well as in the South. Globally, more people suffer from over-weight and obesity than from hunger; diabetes type 2 kills some 3.8 million people a year. Mad cow disease in the UK, salmonella in US eggs, and dioxin-affected Belgian chickens are just some of the recent examples of the food risks engendered by insufficiently and inappropriately regulated industrial food production and processing in the North.
Climate change, energy, and land grabbing
The food crisis does not travel unaccompanied. Climate change and the energy crisis have shown that a food system based on the intensive use of petrol products and chemicals is not sustainable. According to recent UNEP publications the conventional agriculture model that is strongly subsidised by both the European Common Agricultural Policy and the US Farm Bill accounts for 14% of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions. This is mostly due to use of nitrogen fertilisers derived from rarefying petrol. Yet, UNEP maintains, the agricultural sector could be largely carbon neutral by 2030 and produce enough food for a growing population if localised agro-ecologic systems proven to reduce emissions were widely adopted. In addition, the entire globalised distribution process of the world food system is dependent on being able to discount the energy and petrol cost of whisking food around the world. The rapine popularly termed “land grabbing” is converting large areas to the production of crops that are processed into agrifuels or food and exported to rich countries. In the process, local producers and pastoralists are frequently expelled.
Price volatility – not a fleeting phenomenon
During 2008, many observers predicted that the food price peaks would simply melt away after enjoying their moment of stardom and cede the headlines to the next crisis. Now, on the contrary, it has become evident that price volatility is likely to be with us for the near future. Prices of major commodities soared in the last months of 2010, and the FAO Food Price Index for January 2011 was the highest (in both real and nominal terms) since the index began in 1990. The World Bank has predicted at least five more years of volatility. The role that financial speculation on food commodities has played regarding food price volatility has shown that current regulatory mechanisms are unsatisfactory if not inexistent. The effects of volatility will continue to constitute a source of social unrest throughout the world, as the food riots in Mozambique in September 2010 demonstrated.
During the financial crisis, governments have transgressed against traditional policy precepts in order to save banks and financial institutions. There is every reason to hope that such exceptions to neo-liberal governance may also come into play for food – if only the stakes are high enough. Unaffordable food helped set off the popular revolts In the Maghreb. To such developments, no government can be indifferent, as President Sarkozy underlined during the French Presidency of the G20 and G8 in 2011. The window of opportunity is open.