Oxfam on food justice: clearheaded and admirable

by Bryan Walker on June 22, 2011

I thought of Oxfam’s recent report on food justice while I was reviewing Christian Parenti’s book Tropic of Chaos. He wrote of how climate change impacts are compounding the existing economic and political problems of many poorer populations. This is also very evident in Oxfam’s report on the alarming new surge in hunger as higher food prices hit poor countries. Time for a post on the report, I thought.

The message that climate change is already having bad effects on the welfare of poor populations needs to be hammered home. The fact that it intertwines with other causes doesn’t mean that it can be downplayed. It is clearly a significant part of the combination of factors threatening the food supply of many.

Overarching all the factors is one supreme element, as Oxfam sees it: “power above all determines who eats and who does not”. That’s the power of the status quo and the special interests that profit from it, the power concentrated in the hands of a self-interested few.  The report speaks of a broken food system constructed by and on behalf of a tiny minority – its primary purpose to deliver profit for them. “Bloated rich-country farm lobbies” gain subsidies that tip the terms of trade against farmers in the developing world.  Self-serving elites amass resources at the expense of impoverished rural populations. Powerful investors play commodities markets like casinos. Enormous agribusiness companies, hidden from public view, function as global oligopolies. Dominant minorities are imposing paralysis on tackling climate change. Concentrations of greenhouse gases are already above sustainable levels and continue to rise alarmingly. Land is running out. Fresh water is drying up.

It will catch up with us all in the long run, but in the meantime it’s the poor and vulnerable who are suffering first from extreme weather, spiralling food prices, and the scramble for land and water. Ominously, food prices are forecast to increase by something in the range of 70 to 90 per cent by 2030 before the effects of climate change, which will roughly the double price rises again.

The report calls for a redistribution of power from a handful of companies and political elites to the billions who actually produce and consume the world’s food; for a shift in the share of consumption to allow adequate, nourishing food for those who live in poverty; and for a shift in the share of production from polluting industrial farms to smaller, more sustainable farms, including an abandonment of the subsidies which prop up the former and undermine the latter. The report adds that the vice-like hold over governments of companies that profit from environmental degradation – the peddlers and pushers of oil and coal – must be broken.

Strong words, and no less welcome for that. But the report doesn’t stop at generalised statements. It goes on to detail three specific challenges presented by the failing food system. The first is the sustainable production challenge. The dramatic yield increases of last century are drying up, but within the developing world there is huge untapped potential for yield growth in small-scale agriculture.  However investment in developing country agriculture has been pitiful. It has declined by 77 percent over the past 25 years, at the same time as rich country governments increased support for their own agriculture to be 79 times as large as the agricultural aid to developing countries.

Climate change plays its part in the decline of yield growth.  Estimates suggest that rice yields may decline by 10 per cent for each 1°C rise in dry-growing-season minimum temperatures. Modelling has found that countries in sub-Saharan Africa could experience catastrophic declines in yield of 20–30 per cent by 2080, rising as high as 50 per cent in Sudan and Senegal. Climate change will also increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and floods which can wipe out harvests at a stroke. Meanwhile, creeping, insidious changes in the seasons, such as longer, hotter dry periods, shorter growing seasons, and unpredictable rainfall patterns are making it harder and harder for poor farmers to know when best to sow, cultivate, and harvest their crops. The International Food Policy Research Institute has recently calculated that 12 million more children would be consigned to hunger by 2050, compared with a scenario with no climate change.

In addition to sustainable production the report highlights two other challenges, of equity and resilience. Equity is to do with access to land, to markets and to technology. Resilience includes adaptation to climate change, and it’s sobering to read that the rich countries have so far pinned down no details of the $100 billion a year pledge for future climate financing. Nor is current financing measuring up – the report says that most of the $30 billion of Fast Start Finance agreed at Copenhagen has turned out to be old aid money, recycled, repackaged and renamed. There is much to substantiate the report’s acid observation: “History shows that justice tends not to come about through the benevolence of the powerful.

The report may be outspoken about why the the food system is failing, and go so far as to talk of a “dance of death”, but it is primarily an appeal to make the changes which can solve the crisis and set us on a more hopeful road. There are three big shifts we need to work for. The first is developing new forms of governance both nationally and globally in which attention is more closely focused on reducing vulnerability to disasters. The second is changing the shape of agriculture by prioritising the needs of small-scale food producers in developing countries and reversing the current misallocation of resources whereby the vast majority of public money for agriculture flows to agro-industrial farms in the North. The third is building the architecture of a new ecological future; a global deal on climate change will be the litmus test of success.  The report follows these three shifts into details which there is not space here to describe. Suffice to say they add up to a realistic and hopeful programme well within human capability.

There must of course be an immediate caveat to those last words. It is not clear that our moral and political capability will have a clear run. That’s where the issue becomes clouded. Which I guess is why, in a concluding statement which draws attention to the organisations, businesses, and movements which are growing and connecting with vigour and hope for a better future, the report finds it necessary to repeat its frequent warnings against the vested interests which will strongly resist the needed changes. “Governments must renew their purpose as custodians of the public good rather than allowing elites to drag them by the nose.”

“Some hope,” the cynic in us might say. But the abandonment of hope is too terrible to contemplate. Oxfam may seem quaintly idealistic to some. Not to me. The organisation is morally right to keep advocating justice for the poor and vulnerable. It is intellectually clearheaded in its delineation of the forces that are impelling us towards disaster. It is admirable in its determination to continue sounding uncomfortable truths which we’re so ready to ignore.

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