October 16, 2011 designated as “World Food day” has come and gone – or has it? For too many of the billion hungry people the world over, most days are “no food day”. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) promoted the theme “Food Prices – From Crisis to Stability” to highlight a worldwide trend that is “hurting the poor consumer, the small producer and agriculture in general” because “food prices which were stable for decades have become increasingly volatile”. They concluded that “controlling prices was key to the fight against hunger”.
FAO further lamented that “Agriculture cannot respond fast enough with increased food production because of long-term under-investment in research, technology, equipment and infrastructure”.
The statement by the FAO Director General, Dr. Jacques Diouf, leaves several unanswered questions: Why did FAO emphasise the volatility or fluctuation of food prices and not the fact that the prices were higher although fluctuating? How do higher prices hurt producers and agriculture in general? Why does FAO concern itself with the hungry? Since when are the interests of food producers the same as those of consumers? Could the high price of energy be a contributing factor to high food prices? and Why is there under-investment in agriculture?
It is unfortunate that the FAO statement does not distinguish between the food producers and distributors. Promoting more investment in agriculture is like “pushing rope” since it deals with an effect and not the cause! Food producers around the world have repeatedly increased their production when they are adequately rewarded for their investment. Our experience in Barbados supports this. When our government in 1971 taxed all of the nasty profits out of our highly efficient sugar industry (over $50 million between 1974 and 1981) the result was dwindling capital investment in the industry with productivity falling by 50% from a high of over ten tonnes of sugar per hectare to the five tonnes per hectare currently being achieved.
Our people supposedly abhor agriculture but several are reputed to be cultivating marijuana in discreet nooks and crannies around the island despite the risk of imprisonment. Why are they not growing sweet potatoes and yams? Could it be that cultivation of the latter is not lucrative enough?
We need to stop expecting the food producers to feed the poor and hungry – this is society’s responsibility not the food producers who are trying to earn a living!
I strongly recommend that FAO focus on its mandate to promote food production and leave the job of feeding the hungry to those with that conflicting mandate. In the process FAO should ensure that OXFAM and other food-aiders feed the hungry with fresh, healthy food from their poor countries like rice, yams, sweet potatoes, vegetables and coconut water instead of over-processed and unhealthy wheat flour and powdered milk. This would promote food production in the very countries where most of the hungry are located. Unfortunately, such action would put the food-aiders out of work and we cannot have that, can we?
I recall hearing President Bush (the son) admit in the dying days of his Presidency (October, 2008) that the USA had made a mistake in providing food-aid to poor countries. He concluded that the USA should have helped the countries to produce their own food instead. At the time I thought “Wow! I wonder how many people have heard and will remember this”. Obviously not many!
FAO also supports the “elimination of trade-distorting agricultural subsidies in rich countries”. Rubbish! Agricultural subsidies have been practiced by the rich countries for centuries. It is one of the reasons why they are rich! Their economies are not bled by having to import billions of $ in foreign food. Subsidies promote their agricultural industries, maintain their producers’ standard of living and contribute significantly to their economies by providing value added opportunities which amount to more than the value of their agricultural industry. They also promote their countries’ food security. Such subsidies only distort trade in agricultural commodities when the surpluses they tend to produce are dumped on the world market at less than their real cost of production. It is the act of dumping that distorts the trade not the subsidies!
Governments the world over subsidise housing, health, education, transport, and utilities for the poor but are not supposed to subsidise the most basic and important item needed by the poor – food ! Logic seems to be lacking. Furthermore, if the subsidies are eliminated where would the food-aiders get their cheap food to feed the hungry? Round and round we go….!
NB: Peter Webster is a retired Portfolio Manager of the Caribbean Development Bank and a former Senior Agricultural Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture.