Organizing International Food Security
ARTICLE | November 8, 2011
At the time of this writing, more than 10 million lives are at risk on the Horn of Africa due to food shortages arising from poor rainfall and a consequently dismal harvest. But the source of their food insecurity in the region is also related to conflict, environment, education, governance, health and other issues. Famine has reoccurred in spite of a doubling of development aid and tripling of humanitarian aid over the past decade. In this day and age, is global food insecurity really unavoidable?
During the 19th Century waves of immigrants flocked to America for refuge from war, political oppression, religious persecution, and famine. They came seeking freedom of action, the opportunity to acquire land and employment, and the sense of security engendered by a new continent’s boundless natural riches and booming economy. Over the last 100 years, the dream of freedom, opportunity and security has circled the globe and ignited the aspirations of people everywhere. Soaring expectations have driven ever higher the standards by which humanity assesses its rights, opportunities and secures possessions. The measures by which the social collective conceives its responsibilities to individual citizens have risen correspondingly.
This relentless quest continues today as legal and illegal migration of the skilled and unskilled across international boundaries and in the magnetic attraction of rural families to urban life. It is a compelling force for the spread of democracy and the accelerated development of productive capacities around the world. Where it has been too violently suppressed or given insufficient scope for expression, the resulting frustration is a catalyst for violence and revolution. Peace, opportunities for gainful employment, and food security are the key variables in the formula for social stability and prosperity. Whether by a revolutionary individual effort or an evolutionary general progress, the process continues undeterred.
The quest for food security springs from this movement. During the age of Malthus, hunger was conceived primarily as a problem of insufficient food production. While the world’s population has increased nearly six-fold during the past two centuries, the capacity to produce food has grown even faster. During the last half century world food production has tripled. Today the world possesses the capacity to produce more than sufficient food to feed its burgeoning population. But mere production of more food is not sufficient to eradicate hunger. In most countries access to gainful employment is now the single greatest challenge to achieving food security. Even in the most prosperous nations, employment opportunities and income security are subject to market forces and cannot be considered a source of absolute security. Unless the right to food is legally enshrined and enforced, the specter of insecurity will remain. This realization has prompted the Government of India to introduce unprecedented legislation to guarantee access to gainful employment for the poorest sections of the population that are most susceptible to hunger. The country is now in the process of introducing a national food security act to assure both economic and social access to adequate food for all persons in the country at all times.
The Tsunami that devastated South Asia in 2004 leaving five million homeless and three million without food illustrates the challenge. In a heartbeat fertile farm lands were washed away in the flood. Entire fishing villages that had been producers of food for other families were suddenly bereft of the capacity to feed themselves. The inability of society to mobilize and distribute sufficient food during times of national calamity can deprive even the relatively well-to-do of true food security.
There is a great distance between granting individuals freedom to exercise their own capacities, creating opportunities for them to fulfill their aspirations, and ensuring them the means to securely possess and enjoy what they have thus acquired. Freedom implies a permissive atmosphere supported by laws and an organized capacity for enforcement. Opportunity implies an expansive and creative environment supported by an efficient organization of productive activities. Security implies protection of that which has been acquired supported by an organization for emergency relief in the face of any contingency.
True food security is not just a state of capacity for production or economy where-with-all to purchase. It is in essence a psychological state of confidence in which the very possibility of deprivation has been removed. Such a state is difficult to conceive in the world today, but that does not mean it is unachievable. There is a certain irony in the fact that most societies compel their citizens to become educated while still leaving them largely responsible for fulfilling more basic human needs such as food, housing and employment, without which the capacity to acquire education, indeed even to survive, is placed in question.
This evolutionary advance, while highly commendable on humanitarian grounds, has been propelled by the practical consideration that the greater the number attaining rights and benefits, the stronger, more resilient and successful the society becomes. The converse principle, as illustrated by the Great Crash of 1929, is that the unwillingness or failure to push benefits down obstructs and ultimately destroys the potential for greater advancement among those at the top. The same principle that has led governments to ensure bank deposits against the errors and malpractices of bankers compels us to extend the security umbrella to encompass all the most precious achievements of modern society.
Nor can any country safely confine its interest to within its own borders. In today’s world, violence, hunger, unemployment, disease and pollution know no boundaries. Unemployment begets hunger and hunger begets violence that can spill over and touch the lives of people anywhere. Of the 100 plus new conflicts that have broken out around the world since the end of the Cold War, most are concentrated in regions heavily dependent on agriculture. Very few have occurred in food-secure environments, but their consequences threaten security throughout the world. No one can be fully secure unless and until everyone has obtained a modicum of security, both physically and psychologically.
Organization holds the key to global food security. The present, unorganized functioning of global agriculture, like the present global approach to military security, engenders insecurity and generates new threats by the very act of trying to eliminate existing ones. Nations today live in a competitive security system, wherein each nation is largely responsible for its own defense and the very act of strengthening its capacity for defense increases the real or perceived threats and insecurity of other nations. Similarly, the competitive food security system results in wasteful overproduction, unremunerative prices and unsustainable subsidies.
A cooperative security system would be one that by including all nations would eliminate potential threats to all its members at the lowest possible cost. A cooperative organization for food security needs to be put in place at all levels – local, national and international. It is only through such a mechanism as an international food corporation that the huge overproduction of food crops within and between countries that results in collapsing market prices, farmer bankruptcies and huge subsidies can be avoided. It is only through better organization internationally that the need for maintaining costly national buffer stocks can be minimized through creation of an international buffer stock and food security system. It is only through improved organization that the huge waste of food due to poor storage and handling – estimated at 20 percent of agricultural GDP in India – can be eliminated. As the international organization of credit card transactions—involving thousands of banks, millions of companies, hundreds of millions of individual users, and trillion dollars of business—provides accurate and instantaneous exchange of information on credit transactions, an international food organization would have to provide accurate, up-to-theminute information on supply and demand for food worldwide together with a foolproof system for rapid transfer of resources wherever and whenever they are required.
An international organization for food security will not eliminate healthy competition. Indeed, it will foster it. In the case of bank credit cards, organizations such as Visa International both promote and secure cooperative competition among thousands of banks, while minimizing the risks to all parties. But it will provide all players with access to the essential information required to make intelligent decisions regarding what and how much food to produce to meet projected demand nationally and globally. It will substantially reduce the risks of agriculture as a business, thereby encouraging banks and insurance companies to extend the credit and insurance coverage needed to protect producers, while ensuring stable supplies and prices for consumers. An effective organization for food security will necessarily require the opening of markets and elimination of export subsidies by industrialized nations.
Global food security requires the capacity to produce a physical abundance of food; the capacity to create a responsive organization to link production, distribution and consumption; the capacity to create an integrated communications network for information and transactions; and the capacity for legal enforcement. The world possesses all these capacities at the present moment. But to achieve world food security, they must be founded on and driven by the global recognition of food security as a fundamental and inviolable human right and the enshrinement of that right in law and treaty.
The world community possesses the technological, financial, organizational and human capabilities required to eradicate world hunger and assure a modicum of real food security to its entire population within a decade. It is not a matter of charity or aid. As in the case of universal education, it is a question of ensuring to all citizens the essential requirements for self-reliance and self-development. It requires a shift in emphasis from managing food to developing human beings. It requires the will and determination to accelerate the natural progression of human development that has so dramatically enhanced human security for so many over the past 50 years and must inevitably tackle this issue which is so essential to the future peace and stability of the whole world.