Scandal of hunger
Andrew Hogg explains why development agencies are demanding changes to the systems that exacerbate hunger in a world of plenty
The word “agflation” – a new addition to the English language – not only looks and sounds distinctly unprepossessing, it conveys an unpleasant reality too.
Coined by investment analysts in recent years to describe how shortages of particular crops can impact more generally on food prices, there are warnings it is about to make its presence felt on a global scale.
A Dutch bank specialising in “sustainability-oriented banking” (Rabobank) predicts that in the next few months food staples will reach record prices after the worst drought in more than half a century in the US, and poor harvests in Russia and South America which have hit a number of crops, particularly corn and soybeans.
As food stocks fall, the bank warns, prices will rise, possibly by as much as 15 per cent. With corn and soybeans used extensively for animal feed, hard-pressed farmers will then be forced to slaughter stock, causing meat and dairy prices to start climbing. Stockpiling and trade restrictions by governments anxious to safeguard supplies will exacerbate matters further.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation is also alarmed. After sharp increases in corn, wheat and soybean prices in September, it called for urgent action “to make sure that these price shocks do not turn into a catastrophe hurting tens of millions over the coming months.”
A joint statement from FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva and his counterparts at the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the UN World Food Programme warned it would be the poorest people in food-import dependent countries who would suffer most, for they spend the highest proportion of their incomes on food.
A joint report published by the three organisations in October, noted that although there had been “significant improvements” in food security in recent times, progress has slowed and levelled off in the past five years.
It added: “868 million people continue to suffer from undernourishment, and the negative health consequences of micronutrient deficiencies continue to affect around two billion people.
“In today’s world of unprecedented technical and economic opportunities, we find it entirely unacceptable that 100 million children under the age of five are underweight… and that childhood malnutrition is a cause of death for more than 2.5 million children every year.”
It is this disconnect between the advances the human race has made and the hunger that endures, that has prompted major development organisations in the UK, including Christian Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD, ActionAid, Save the Children, Oxfam and World Vision to combine forces in a joint campaign next year to tackle the problem.
The aim is to highlight the scandal that even though the world produces enough food for seven billion people to enjoy the 2,000 plus calories that we all need daily, so many still go hungry.
The campaign, the most ambitious mass movement since Make Poverty History in 2005, will demand action from governments, companies, international organisations and individuals to change some of the factors that underpin food shortages. With Britain hosting the G8 next year, the UK government is ideally placed to take a lead.
Numerous factors globally affect food supplies. They include droughts and floods, crop and livestock disease (each of which can with increasing frequency be attributable to climate change), biofuels, land grabs, conflict, tax-dodging by multinationals in the developing world, speculative trading in commodities and lack of investment in smallholder farming.
One that is of particular interest to Christian Aid is the question of tax justice. At present, we estimate that developing countries lose a staggering $160bn a year because of tax-dodging by multinational and other companies trading internationally, who manipulate their accounts to reduce their liability. That is more than poor countries receive in aid each year.
Among the services governments can fund through tax revenue is agricultural investment – an essential given the reliance of millions of people in poor countries on smallholder farming for survival.
That’s why change is essential. Greater transparency is needed, including a requirement that UK tax payers report the use of any tax-avoidance schemes that could impact on developing countries – and another requiring tax havens to share information about just who is using their services.
Andrew Hogg is head of media at Christian Aid
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.