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Q&A: Raj Patel talks about the food crisis

— Facing ever-rising and sometimes skyrocketing prices for basic foodstuffs, everyday people are pondering how to put food on their families’ tables. Meanwhile, policy makers are debating institutional changes to try to ensure that food is plentiful and affordable, and businesses are assessing how to keep agriculture profitable.

Raj Patel, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, is one of dozens of scholars on campus who are exploring the substantial challenges of modern agriculture. Last week, he testified at the U.S. House of Representatives' Financial Services Committee hearing on the contributing factors and international responses to the global food crisis.

Author of the newly-released book, "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System," Patel recently shared a few of his opinions and insights about the food situation with UC Berkeley Media Relations. (Patel is among those listed in Media Relations’ online list of campus food experts.)

Q. The term "food crisis" is being used a lot lately. How do you define a "food crisis," and is there really a food crisis in the United States as well as around the globe?


Raj Patel. (Jan Sturmann photo)
 

A. There's something a little arbitrary about any situation being called a "crisis." There isn't, for example, a widely accepted definition for "famine." Instead, we have definitions ranging from "where the number of people dying is between two to four people per 10,000 population per day" to "a catastrophic food crisis that results in widespread acute malnutrition and mass mortality."

Bear in mind that when all seemed well with the world in 2006, 854 million people were "food insecure," 35.5 million of whom lived in the United States. This, however, didn't qualify as a crisis. Certainly, it would have been a crisis for millions of people, but not for policy makers.

Food insecurity, technically, is the situation that arises when at some point in the year, you were uncertain about whether you'd be able to have your next meal, due to the availability of food or poverty.

What makes the current situation different is the rapidity of the change, with food prices doubling and tripling, but incomes remaining static. That means that many more people are now unable to afford to feed their families. And throughout this process, it has been women rather than men who have been hit hardest, being the ones who skip meals so the rest of their family can eat. That's an everyday crisis that has been ignored for decades.

Q. Did this food crisis just happen all of a sudden, or has it been developing for quite some time? 
A. The figure of 854 million food insecure people points to the fact that the current crisis sits atop a much longer and painful chronic history of hunger. There are five factors — the price of oil, biofuels, unsustainable levels of meat consumption, poor (possibly climate change-related) harvests, and financial speculation — that have driven up the price of food recently.

But there have been 20 years of mistakes, authored mainly by institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which, in turn, take their political-economic cues from the United States and European Union (EU). Those mistakes have resulted in a plummeting level of investment in developing country agriculture, which has harmed food production and exacerbated poverty. At the same time, developing countries have been forced into competing on a very un-level playing field on which the poorest farmers are not allowed state support, but on which the European Union and United States get to pay their farmers billions of dollars a year. What we're living through right now is a consequence of these policies, which have promoted inequality, rural poverty and, now, hunger.

Q. What should international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, do to deal with this situation?
A. My testimony in Congress this week outlines some of the ways that the World Bank has been responsible for "creating" the systemic vulnerabilities in the global food system, removing agricultural protections and transforming economies in profoundly anti-democratic ways. In terms of what it should be doing to help the situation, it should certainly be involved in unconditional debt forgiveness to allow developing countries to shape their economies in a democratic way.

If the World Bank continues to exist at all, it should be subservient to sovereign governments, rather than dictating to them. And one of the ways it might do this would be to support the findings of the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report, which was sponsored by the World Bank. This report asks the question: "How will we feed a world of 9 billion people?" It answers with the scientific solution of local, sustainable, non-industrial, non-genetically modified agriculture, with "maximum local policy flexibility." That's the very opposite of the regime the World Bank has been responsible for.

Q. What are some of the more likely solutions to the global food crisis?
A. There's nothing set in stone. If the World Bank gets its way, there'll be more liberalization, and a continuation of the policies that have got us into this mess. Some developing country governments are talking about restrictions on exports so that they can feed their own populations.

What would be nice to see is a way of dealing with the crisis in which developing country governments can cooperate and are given funds to transfer and distribute food by the United States and the EU.

At the moment, the United States is in the business of buying U.S. grain and shipping it on U.S. carriers dispatched half a planet away to reach the hungry, and flooding the local markets in foreign countries with cheap food, which has the unfortunate effect of wiping out domestic food producers there. This has been the policy since the end of World War II, but it does look as if the tide is turning on it, and this is to be welcomed.

Q. What can be done on an individual level?
A. There is a range of political actions that individuals can, and should, get involved in, not only for the sake of developing countries, but to ensure that Americans eat, too. In 2006, 35.5 million Americans went hungry. That figure is going to be much higher now.

Certainly, demanding that our elected representatives institute immediate and unconditional debt forgiveness for developing countries is a good first step. The only sustainable way to feed America's poor, like feeding the world's poor, is through fighting poverty. And that requires political will.

Q. Do you sense that once-booming support for biofuels may be shifting or waning?
A. Well, the Farm Bill just passed with a marginally reduced tax credit for ethanol (down 6 cents to 45 cents-a-gallon beginning in 2009), but there's a $1.01/gallon credit for cellulosic ethanol through 2012, which suggests a sustained amount of legislative enthusiasm for biofuels. But politically, it's getting harder for the presidential candidates to support a policy which every report on the subject has found to be contributing to higher food prices, which is why there have been a couple of wobbles recently. The EU support for biofuels policy is certainly on the retreat, though not as far or fast as good sense and sound science would demand.

Q. How is this quandary likely to influence international affairs and politics?
A. Country after country is backing away from the pernicious influence of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), if they can afford it. Four of the IMF’s main debtors have announced that they will not be accepting loans or advice from the fund, thus reducing its influence over their economies.

I'm certain that we will continue to see conflict around the key components of modern food — oil, water, and land. But given the United States' reluctance to take progressive leadership in solving this problem, I can't see many alternatives for developing countries but to re-engage with their own domestic agricultural systems unilaterally. Cuba went through this experience in the 1990s, and it's a trajectory that more and more countries seem to be entertaining (Mali being the most recent example). This will no doubt further weaken U.S. global power.

Q. Your forecast for one year down the line? For five?
A. The price of food seems temporarily to be falling. But the big structural constraints aren't going away — high demand for meat and dairy, high oil prices, high prices for fossil fuels, and profiteering around the uncertainty in food prices —all of this is happening right now and shows no sign of abating. I expect high food prices to continue certainly for the next year.

In five years, everything depends on whether we've instituted shifts away from the kind of unsustainable agriculture we've got in place right now, replacing it with sustainable agriculture and supplementing it with the kind of social policy that actively fights poverty, or whether we're wedded to industrial agriculture and don't care about poverty.