Global Food Security Needs States to Ally with Family Farmers

Posted on by

Yves here. If you live in an advanced economy, and are at least middle income, you probably don’t give much thought to the availability of food. These countries, on the whole, suffer more from the consequences of excess, in the form of diabetes and orthopedic issues among the aging that are exacerbated by being heavy, than from hunger or nutritional deficiencies. Yet food prices are rising. With weather and even seasons moving considerably out of line with historical norms, and with the oceans already suffering from overfishing, access to food and the relative cost in the form of inputs of various types of food is likely to become a much bigger political issue than it has been for decades. The driver of the Arab Spring revolts were rising food and fuel costs that pushed significant numbers from being on the right side to the wrong side of survival. Even in the sheltered US, the drought in California means more costly meals or trading “down” in terms of finding cheaper substitutes.

One of the issues that is seldom discussed is food security. I find it curious the degree to which national leaders have become comfortable with making their countries less self-sufficient in the name of promoting trade. That is not to say that trade is bad, but neither is trade inherently virtuous. The gains from trade need to be weighed against costs and risk. Small countries, or ones in regions with short growing seasons may never have been self-sufficient, particularly in food (Jared Diamond in his book Collapse uses Montana as an example of an society inherently dependent on imports from the rest of the world). But for ones that were reasonably close to self-sufficiency, the choice to accede to the demands of agricultural exporters like the US and hollow out domestic food production may prove to have been short-sighted. Our house Japan expert Clive points out that Japan’s long-standing insistence of protecting most of its generally uncompetitive agricultural industry isn’t simply about catering to a powerful voting block. Japan still remembers the “starving times” of the later days of World War II and its immediate aftermath and does not want to take any more risk on the food front than it needs to.

This post focuses on agribusiness as a driver of food insecurity. Many studies have found that even with global population at its present level, the driver of hunger isn’t the amount of food production but its distribution. And as NC readers regularly point out, more emphasis on local food production also reduces the use of other resources, like fuel for transport and often packaging.

By Sylvia Kay, a researcher at Transnational Institute (TNI). She works on a wide range of issues including land grabbing, water, and agricultural investment. Cross posted from Triple Crisis

South Africa’s most famous cleric, Desmond Tutu, in his inimitable style, once said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” His blunt speaking has particular relevance to important negotiations taking place in Rome this week at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, which will define principles for “responsible agricultural investment” (known as RAI) in the context of an ongoing food crisis and an unprecedented wave of land grabbing.

When it comes to agriculture and food, the elephant is agribusiness. Just three companies control 50% of the commercial seed market; only four companies control 75% of the global trade in grains and soya. Their argument is that the state’s role should be that of a neutral broker, encouraging primarily private investment in agriculture. They are willing to accept guidelines for “responsible investment,” but within a model that sees ever increasing levels of foreign direct investment and the deepening and further integration of national agricultural sectors into global commodity chains and markets. Theirs is essentially a business-as-usual approach which seeks to retrofit the RAI principles to existing agribusiness initiatives.

While such principles will boost the profits of some corporations, the evidence shows that it will not deliver on the CFS mandate to realise the right to adequate food for all. One in eight people in the world are currently undernourished—and this has worsened in recent years. In fact, reliance on global markets led to global food prices in 2007 rising to levels in real terms not witnessed since 1846. This has not only added between 130 to 150 million people to those living in extreme poverty, it has also fueled an unprecedented wave of land grabbing across the global South by governments seeking security from food riots and corporations seeking profits from perceived scarcity.

The mice in this case are the small-holder farmers who often had their land seized or appropriated. But they are not just victims; they also provide the most progressive solutions for food security. There are an estimated 500 million smallholder farms in the developing world which provide livelihoods for 2 billion people and produce about 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. It is these small farmers who truly contribute to global food security.

Any international negotiation that looks at “responsible agricultural investment” should start with how to support rather than dispossess these small-scale food producers. A report by Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Agricultural Investment, recently studied working alternatives of state-peasant collaboration from Brazil to Ghana, the United States to Thailand. The studies show that when the state sets the right policies and provides investment in support of small-scale food producers, it can have remarkable results.

Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme, which combines elements of public health, nutrition, social protection, education, and livelihood promotion, has been one of the major factors behind the country’s impressive improvement in the standard of living over the past decade. The Zero Hunger programme successfully opened up new markets for smallholder farmers and championed national food security. Under the School Meals programme for example, each Brazilian municipality receives a daily subsidy for each student with the requirement that 70% of the municipalities’ procurements should be staple, non-processed foods, with 30% of the food coming from local family farms.

Government support for sustainable, agro-ecological farming techniques, practiced by small farmers, can also reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment and climate. Indian government support for the system of sustainable rice intensification (SRI), which involves the use of organic fertiliser and a diversified set of agro-ecological practices, has led record yields. Despite this, SRI has been ignored by the conventional rice research establishment and the private R&D industry, as it threatens the interests of agribusiness suppliers.

It is often presumed that state support for small-scale food producers entails higher prices and costs for consumers. However, using public policy tools in a flexible manner can ensure that both groups benefit. Some of the most effective strategies for dealing with the food crisis, for instance, have involved the use of public stocks and the setting of minimum farm prices for producers and maximum consumer prices for key staple commodities. In Indonesia, these measures ensured that the price of rice actually decreased in 2008 while it was escalating in neighbouring countries.

Business as usual is not an option. It is time for states to end a false neutrality and take sides. Instead of investing in a model which is at its core anti-democratic and likely to further entrench a state of “agropoly” in which a handful of the largest processors, traders, and retailers control the world food system, governments should commit to RAI principles that strengthen the position of the world’s family farmers and advance the cause of food sovereignty.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. John

    The food cartel led by Cargill, ADM and others have such a strong hold on the food industry — from raw material to processing — prices will only go up. In fact, companies such as DuPont, known for chemicals is getting in the food processing business in a big way. There is lots of money to be made. Everyone needs to eat. Other players are getting in trying to patent seeds.

    Although there is a lot of public apprehension, GM plants will be more plentiful. Because there is a lot of money to be there as well. Food processors get away with it because science has not caught up with possible long term outcomes. In lab tests they show common pests don’t survive. Great, right?

    Yes, food is taken for granted but there is a large industry trying to conquer it by charging beaucoup bucks at different levels of the process.

    Then there are the Goldman Sachs of the world who bid up futures prices on commodity exchanges so as to ensure that next hamburger you eat will be like eating gold.

    1. 12312399

      I’m generally left-of-center as there is but… is cheaper (and better quality) now than ever in human history—even when you consider the Doritos, industrial-raised chicken and GMO grain.

      Now yes, it’s a deal with the devil in the sense that at the expense of the quality/quanity of food, Cargill, ADM, Monsanto, etc. have their hands in every aspect of food production.

      Yes, I’m concerned and poo-poo Round-Up GMO modified grains.

      Yes, there are billions of undernourished.

      Nevertheless, every human being is better off being alive now than in 1914 or 1814.

      I shall now take off my Panglossian hat and return to my usual grumpy old man.


      1. diptherio

        Cheaper and better quality? Got any data to back that up? And what, pray tell, do you mean by “better quality?” And this is true everywhere, around the world? wow…

        Every human being is better off living today than 200 years ago? That’s quite a statement, especially given that those of us living in the “most developed” parts of the world have lower levels of contentment than those living in “less developed” parts. If more development equals less happiness, are we really sure that we’re better off than 200 years ago? Can we even make that comparison meaningfully?

      2. MtnLife

        In terms of quality or price I’m not sure your 1814/1914 (dependent on location) example totally pans out and I think you are missing the effect of food exacerbating inequality. Food prices bottomed out around 2000-2002 and have risen ever since. This also hides the “hidden” cost of a food system highly dependent on petroleum (transport, fertilizers, pest/herbi-icides, and automation of the industry) such as aggressive incursions into countries rich in resources based on false pretenses. Tack a military tax on there and it is much less affordable. Might also want to add a climate change “tax” on for the rampant destruction of the rainforest that enables us to eat bananas year round. Food now is much prettier, larger, and shippable than before yet is less nutrient dense and devoid of actual flavor. Yes, there is high quality food grown but it tends to be very expensive. Up until roughly 1940, the poor in this country had the healthiest diet because they couldn’t afford sweets. Subsidies have changed this and effected a downward spiral in health among the poor. This along with longer working hours just to get by leaves very little time for healthy meal preparation or growing one’s own food. Decreased health outcomes among those who can least afford health care is a part of the rigged system to extract blood profits from the stone poor consumer.

      3. trish

        Better off?
        The rise in industrial farming (1950s?) led to the billion dollar pesticide/herbicide industry and who knows all the deleterious long-term effects on human health- not to mention the health of the planet and all its other inhabitants.
        And while these odious chemicals may work initially, ultimately “pests” evolve to tolerate them and so another chemical is developed and marketed.

        When studies suggest harm to humans, the corporations often ship ’em off to the third world. Or, as part of the powerful Ag lobby, push for more “study” (incidentally, many European countries ban precautionarily while the US favors corporate interests).
        And the poor of the US and the rest of the world pay the most for this. Who’s picking the crops? Who can afford to shop for organic? And then there’s the issue of meat…the environmental impact, the huge amt of cruelty involved…
        And myriad things covered by other commenters. Better off?

  2. JGordon

    Traditional agricultural (especially “green” revolution techniques) only harnesses a tiny sliver of a fraction of the matter and energy available in an ecological system for human use–and if these resources were reconfigured into more appropriate organizations supporting a relatively large number of people on a relatively small portion of land would not be hard to accomplish. Although knowing people as I do now, I think that most will persist with traditional growing techniques (even well-intentioned organic farmers, etc) without ever thinking to investigate new ways of doing things–and since the carrying capacity of the environment around them will be correspondingly reduced because of their ignorance and poor utilization of resources many more people will starve than absolutely need to.

    That is not to say that the above article is not valid; it’s just a warning that if people don’t get smart about how they grow food not only will a lot of people starve to death in the near future, but our descendants (should any survive the incipient radiation bath) from here on will be doomed into endless labor for very small calories surplusses. Or we could just start inculcating sustainable and abundance-producing techniques in people around us starting now. Those of us and our descendants with access to those will be out-competing those without in no time. Well–so I suppose things will work out one way or another in any case.

    1. William

      Can we once and for all dispense with the myth that farmers are stupid and traditional farming is inefficient? That they are backward and need to be taught (by whom?) how to grow food better? The reverse could not be more true. Organic farmers especially, who you also assume are doing things wrong, are the most innovative farmers out there. They are more likely to be educated in the sciences, and they study and experiment endlessly. That is the nature of organic farming–you have to be smart and paying attention to a vast array of factors that conventional farmers don’t worry about.

      If you were to have ever picked up one of the farming and ranching magazines over the last ten years which conventional farmers and ranchers read, you will be struck at how organic methods are front and center of nearly every issue. Only they are not billed as such, but are promoted because they work (such as no-till, which has faced a huge uphill climb ever since it began to be promoted decades ago).

      Proof of how traditional farmers and their methods are far superior to conventional “innovation” can be seen here: and here

  3. Skeptic

    At some point, the substitution effect will take place with food. It already has for some. I have two neighbors who never had vegetable gardens who now have them.

    There is a business opportunity here. Some have heard of CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, where a farm grows food and either delivers it to the consumer or the consumer picks it up at the farm on a contract basis. But why not grow the food on the consumer’s own property on a contract, turnkey basis? That is, if the consumer has available land, the contract farmer comes in, tills and prepares the land, plants it, nurtures it and produces crops for the consumer. Voila, no land costs, and a lessened cost of transporting food materials back and forth from a traditional farm. There is also an educational opportunity here with a part of the population interested in agriculture, nature, bees, etc. In addition, there is the health aspect, disconnecting from the poisonous Industrial Food System.

    Here is a link to a company that produces very nice industrial strength tillers that might be suitable for such work:

    (Kudos to NC for continually raising issues such as this. Other financial sites have tunnel vision failing to see the Big Picture, how all the aspects of our daily lives are intertwined and held hostage to the 1%.)

    1. William

      This is actually being done. In Oregon, there are individuals and organizations which do exactly this. They farm numerous plots on other people’s land and share the harvest. So the farmer/urban gardener needs very little in the way of investment (and no money borrowed).

  4. HotFlash

    “It is time for states to end a false neutrality and take sides.”
    Umm, a little late for that, methinks. The states have already chosen sides. And as for alliance between a mouse and an elephant, whose influence do you think would be stronger? A state would hardly come, hat in hand, er, trunk, to humbly take advice from the mouse. Most of the family farmers that I know would be terrified of an ‘alliance’ with their state! For instance, you can find many examples of the Canadian govts ongoing war of conquest against family farmers and their responses here at the National Farmers Union – Ontario’s website

    1. Mellon

      Canada is now trying to use the FTAs to force the pipeline project through. Guess the US has taught them how to be a bully using FTAs. (Since we’ve been doing it to them for more than 25 years!)

      Shhhh! Big secret!

  5. MtnLife

    The states businesses in each state are choosing sides. It’s really not hard to guess which side Iowa and Kansas are going to come down on. I’m glad I live in Vermont where there is very little giant agribusiness. Not only did we just get our GMO labeling bill passed but we have a Farm to Plate (F2P) Investment program which is aimed at strengthening our local producers, creating jobs, and increasing healthy food access to all Vermonters. There are now 40 farmers markets that take EBT (3Squares/SNAP) cards and starting in July they give an extra $10 in coupons each time you stop at a different market (different days work too). Farm to Family is an ancillary program where families can get coupons (not part of 3Squares) to buy fresh fruits and veggies at farmers markets.
    I love the fresh food culture here. I grow a good deal of my own food with a mix of organic, high intensity, companion planted soil agriculture and a quickly sprouting aqua/duck-ponics setup using a mix of deep water culture and thin nutrient film. My chickens and ducks provide food, pest control, and occasional garden help (great at shredding soil). I can get grass fed bison and beef 2 miles up the road (I don’t eat too much meat but my wife does), raw milk and cheeses 10 min away. At our wedding, the take home gift was a clove of local garlic that many of our attendees planted and are still enjoying a few years later. I haven’t had health insurance for years (and I won’t until single payer gets enacted, looking at 2017) but I rarely get sick due to the quality of the food that I put into my body.

    1. Skeptic

      “…but I rarely get sick due to the quality of the food that I put into my body.”

      I have never seen a financial/economic article addressing the issue of food input versus health. This would seem an obvious topic but no analysis appears. Yet, the average Joe would readily agree that if you put 69 Octane fuel in your car, there would be an adverse result. But, when it comes to food, any old industrialized, chemicalized “food” will do, no matter. The idea that eating CRAP has any long term downside is never considered. Eating MAL*MART industrialized food has a financial health cost in the end.

      (In the 80s, I used to attend NOFA conferences in Western MA. Organic organizations from VT, NH, NY, PA, CT, RI, ME were all there. It changed my life not only on Nutrition but many other aspects of Life.)

  6. Mellon

    Please read this:

    This is really a must read:

    Its not only single payer that the free trade agreements are undemocratically, stealthily, destroying our hope for.

    Healthy food (and especially the ability of people to buy it -) is in their sights. The TTIP seems designed to force US inhumane and unhealthy factory farming on the rest of the world, lower the food quality in signatory nations to the lowest common denominator and force countries to accept food and especially meat, raised with bad US practices.

  7. Brian

    Ah, food. How many nations are like Japan, England, Germany and numerous others, are totally dependent on imports of food? How much farm acreage is caught where water supply is tainted with runoff, direct chemical contamination, and pollution? How much of the agriculture regions are poisoned beyond the breaking point from years of chemical contamination?
    Here in Oregon, two conservative counties saw a major percentage of the people come out to vote together. The chemical companies countered solely with fear, false advertising and never offered any positive argument for their product. They resorted to physical threats of arrest for farmers if the law passed. For all their money, Sygenta, Monsanto, Dow got nothing in return.
    We in southern Oregon have no representative to speak for us. He was well paid by the food lobby to be quiet. Our government passed laws to protect Monsanto from us. Few other countries in the world want our food products now, and even less want the seeds. Since no one else wants it, they paid to have passed laws to shove it down our throats.
    We object.

  8. The Black Swan

    I live in a condo with a small, south facing, back patio. It is roughly 5′ x 6′. Using recycled materials and vertical growing techniques I have been able to plant roughly 50 vegetable, fruit, and berry plants and still have enough room to sit out there and enjoy a cup of tea surrounded by my garden. I’ve even built a small compost and imported worms from another compost pile. My total cost was less than $50. This isn’t enough to be self sufficient, but by the end of the summer I should be providing all my own vegetable needs with more to spare and share with family, friends, and neighbors. This is a pretty easy thing to do, and staring at all the underutilized patio and deck space in my neighborhood, it is a thing that could become incredibly productive for people living in an urban environment. Small scale farming is necessary for certain food products, and I support it 100%, but most people can and should start their own kitchen garden.

  9. sd

    Does McDonalds serve its own fast food for lunch to its Board of Directors at its annual meeting?

  10. mellon

    There is a global “land grab” that is going on all around the world now-
    there are a number of important issues..

    legal invisibility of those who were delivered outside of the hospital/doctor/licensed midwife context, basically most of the population in some countries. In Africa, india, Latin America, I think a great many people were not born in hospitals, and do not have formal birth certificates, etc. so that renders them legally invisible in certain situations involving land.

    2.) massive corruption: its not unusual for entire villages land holdings to be sold without any knowledge or participation or compensation by some corrupt government official a hundred miles away who has never even seen land-

    Then one day a truckload of thugs shows up ans says, go, we bought this land, its ours, burns down the huts of the farmers, villagers, destroys any property which is not suitable for theft, cuts down their fruit trees and shoots anybody who refuses to go.

    3.) the Obama administration is clearly more sympathetic to the agribusiness conglomerates, and is attempting to ignore thie fact that this land grab is a massive theft.
    they are hyping it as a good thing.

    4.) unless the world speaks up this will continue and get worse and worse. What people should push for is some rule that the land grab pattern is wrong and criminal.

    It would make much more sense to set up a national technology assistance program in each country for small farmers- and shared equipment/microloans.

    1. different clue

      The world should, but it won’t. If these targeted peasants begin seeking arms and training to defend their own land, would anyone support arming and training those peasants?

      Modi will force the pace of this in India itself. I would expect vastly accelerated “Indian Wars” against the indigeneous tribals of India that Roy has been describing.

      1. mellon

        There has already been too much killing of the poor farmers and their families. Violence doesn’t lead to justice, it just begats more violence. The biggest problem is massive corruption.

  11. Demented Chimp

    The elephant in the room is demographics. There will not be any farmers on the land in 20 years time. Smaller more educated families is now the norm. The children are leaving the land in droves for the slums/cities. There are very few young farmers left in China, its a tough life that they have lost touch with and dont want. This trend is accelerating worldwide.

    We should be focusing our efforts on preparing for efficient and sustainable mechanisation of the lands vacated by demographics. Preparing softer landings for people moving to semi urban areas not unhealthy slums but planned developments. Redistribution of the food/wealth created by more efficient large scale ag (the tough part). Should not be ADMs and Cargills we need more competition and local superfarmers.

    Smallholder farmers are dying out. Focusing our efforts on them whilst a temporary salve doesnt help the main issue and actually slows the necessary transition.

  12. J D

    Mark Shepard in the upper midwest (Wisc) has created a large scale exemplar for calorie production based on perennial silvoculture of chestnuts, hazelnuts, apples, and intergrated animal grazing. At maturity, this sytem will have an output that dwarfs conventional grain in a similar footprint. With barely a percentage of the inputs. No sprays, no annual tillage, no anitbiotics. Hazelnut oil biodeisal runs the machinery when machinery is needed.

Comments are closed.