Binkley on hunger

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is www.alex.binkley.com. Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ... 

The Binkley Report

Hunger and other food failings

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

We’ve all been disturbed by images of starving kids and chronically hungry people in developing countries or heard the disturbing reports of food shortages in North Korea.

When Per Pinstrup-Andersen talks about these and other shortcomings in world food supplies, he leaves the audience feeling even more uncomfortable.

Pinstrup-Anderson teaches food, nutrition and public policy at Cornell University and draws on his extensive experience in international food organizations. 

One of every seven people in the world doesn’t get enough to eat while obesity is an expanding challenge in many developed countries, he told a recent gathering in Ottawa of MPs and farm and food industry representatives organized by CropLifeCanada.

Despite all the hand wringing that usually accompanies such observations, Pinstrup-Andersen fears the world has got used to the nutritional imbalance. “We may not be doing enough about it even though it raises a lot of questions about whether we can produce sufficient food to feed 9 billion people (the world’s projected population in 2050).”

World food prices were relatively stable until 2006, which let the world coast when it came to dealing with food supply problems even with some major heart-wrenching famines in Africa. During the last six years, two mini-global recessions, greedy speculators and climate change have pummelled farmers and swamped consumers around the world with higher food costs. Staggering food prices led to riots in many countries and likely played a major factor in triggering the Arab spring of 2011, which is still trying to take hold in Syria.

Climate change may be the most insidious influence because weather is no longer predictable for farmers, Pinstrup-Andersen notes. “This is a serious issue that is grossly overlooked by governments even though it has disrupted agriculture everywhere.” Climate change makes the weather wildly unpredictable so farmers can’t count on the rain at seeding time and face greater risks of drought and flooding. Prairie farmers have had first-hand with this uncertainty during the last few years.

Farmers around the world have to cope with climate change and this should consumers everywhere.

Meanwhile commodity speculators, in their lust for a quick buck and fuelled by irrational expectations, have ruined the ability of the futures market to serve as a dependable indicator for farmers of international food requirements and future prices, he continues. As a result, countries have taken to hoarding food stocks, which penalizes their farmers and adds to the price distortions in international markets.

Pinstrup-Anderson said countries like Canada should push the World Trade Organization to establish clear export rules to prevent arbitrary export bans. The Russians did that two years ago with wheat, sending prices soaring, but discouraging their farmers from increasing wheat production.

The trade body also needs to track the growing interest in many emerging countries in promoting food self-sufficiency policies instead of pushing for meaningful international food policy reforms. “Exporting countries like Canada need to watch this closely.”

To cope with these uncontrollable influences, countries with large farm populations should be helping farmers with business risk management programs, which could help them cope with unpredictable weather and the shortcomings of the futures market, he recommended.

The world also needs to pay more attention to the plight of small farmers in the developing world, he adds. They suffer from inadequate on-farm food storage which means 30% of the food they grow spoils before it reaches a dinner table. They also lack the transportation and energy infrastructure needed to get their products to a growing urban population. Most don’t make enough money to improve the efficiency of their operations or expand them so they could feed more people. Yet it is these producers who are needed to play a big role in feeding the growing global population.

They also face land grabs by their own governments, depressed state-dictated domestic prices and the absence of laws to protect them from monopolistic supply and food buying companies. They need research aimed at helping small farmers improve yields and measures to ensure access to adequate water.

Pinstrup-Andersen’s prescription for solving the world food problems is quite lengthy. Until the world gets serious about the issue, he says we can expect food prices to remain volatile and hunger widespread.  

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