Hunger summit: What legacy is the UK government leaving?

Hunger summit: What legacy is the UK government leaving?

Date: 15 August 2012

The hunger summit that took place on Sunday was the UK government’s attempt to address the issue of malnutrition among the world’s poorest people. Its aim was to alleviate the suffering of the ‘bottom billion’ by securing commitments to reduce the rate of stunting among the world’s poorest children between now and the next Olympics in 2016.

With changes in production, consumption and the climate prompting greater concern for food security in the coming years for countries both impoverished and affluent, it is great news that the UK government is paying attention to this issue. However despite well evidenced and strong proposals for tackling hunger being put forward by the food sovereignty movement, for the most part the government’s focus is on techno-fixes, such as scientific innovations in the food industry, and the role of the private sector.

But is this really the answer for the ‘bottom billion’, or is it instead an opportunity for large companies to develop hi-tech intensive farming techniques to tailor to foreign demand?

The promotion of ‘solutions’ like fortified foods and GM seeds seeks to perpetuate a food system based on large-scale intensive monoculture production dominated by processing and retail giants. The UK’s Department for International Development has a long history of funding research into agriculture but their programmes have been criticised in the past for being ‘top down’, not farmer-led, and hence for failing to deliver real long-term benefits for the poor farmers whom they are intended to help.

Programmes that DFID is supporting include Farm Input Promotions Africa, African Agricultural Technology Foundation, HarvestPlus and CIP (International Potato Centre). Critics such as campaign group GM Freeze reported that these programmes promote intensive farming methods that rely on oil-based artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and focus on short-term returns. These methods have hidden environmental and social costs, including soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, water pollution and disruption of the rural economy. What’s more, GM Freeze also criticised these DFID programmes as lacking full assessment of the long-term risks or analysis of their superiority over other agroecological approaches, which rely largely on renewable resources available on the farm or locally. The policy is all the stranger they say because it comes at a time when even wealthy countries cannot afford prices of agricultural inputs, and the prospect of it being a solution for poor farmers in the global south is thus very slim.

Moreover, David Cameron has entrusted the private sector “to make nutritious food available to poor families at prices they can afford”. The three corporations that DFID mentions are GSK, Unilever and Syngenta. It failed to point out however that GSK was fined in January 2012 by Argentina for irregular documentation of clinical testing of their vaccines on children and fined in July 2012 for bribing doctors to sell their products. Unilever was fined by the European commission in 2011 for price fixing and along with P&G and has been criticised by Greenpeace for its role in deforestation, while Syngenta was condemned in 2010 in Brazil for human rights violations.

So how should malnutrition be tackled?

What we should be looking for instead is concrete commitments to stop land grabs in poor countries by large international companies, for example, or tackling the perverse impact of bio-fuels which causes hundreds of thousands of small farmers to be removed from their land and diverts much needed arable land to feed cars instead of people. All of this aggravates hunger. We need greater investment in the 500 million small farms that 2 billion of the world’s more vulnerable people rely on for their sustenance, and we desperately need to reform the international tax system that allows western tax havens to actively encourage capital flight and tax evasion, taking away billions of dollars out of poor countries’ economies.

Without such progress, the hunger summit will not only fail to address the issues facing the world’s poorest people but might even damage outlooks in the long run. Highly technical food supplies, which rely upon provision by foreign companies concerned with growing profits as much as livelihoods will only serve to subordinate already desperate communities to ulterior interests.

Investment in techno-fixes, in this light, is using the hunger of the ‘bottom billion’ to justify securing supplies to the already burgeoning minority. Hunger is a social and political problem which we cannot throw technology at in the hope that it will yield a miracle crop. The world produces sufficient food supplies to feed everyone, the main barrier to all eating is the way they are distributed.