Chris Simoens
01 May 2011
Despite our high-tech prowess and our long-standing expertise and experience, we fail to succeed in feeding everyone. Once again, food prices are going through the roof. They were a not inconsiderable spark for the popular uprisings in the Arab countries. And yet there is enough food for everyone. Why is it so difficult to eradicate hunger?

To answer this question, we must ask another question: who are the billion people who are still suffering from hunger today? Surprisingly, more than 70% of them are farmers in their own right, landless agricultural workers and shepherds living in rural areas in developing countries. The rest live in slums. They ended up there because the countryside offered them no future as farmers.

At least 500 million farmers have nothing but a hoe to work the land. They account for 80% of the farmers in Africa and 40-60% of the farmers in Asia and Latin America. They do not have a draught animal, let alone a tractor. Nor do they have the money for pesticides, fertilisers and improved seeds. They grow food for their own use, and only sell the surplus, if any. The slightest setback, such as a plague or bad weather, has disastrous consequences for them.





At the root of the problem lies an unequal evolution in the North and South. In the early 20th century, most farmers produced 1 tonne of grain per worker. The most advanced farmers - with the first machines still pulled by animals - reached 10 tonnes. Since then, the engine of industrial agriculture has set itself in motion. First in the US, after the Second World War also in Europe. The ingredients were: mechanisation, fertilisers, pesticides, specialisation, improved varieties, large scale ... Today, this industrial agriculture manages to yield 500-2000 tonnes per worker, while the poor farmers in the South still work by hand. So the ratio is now 1/2000.


With the advent of modern transport - large ships, airplanes, motorways... - food could also be transported to all corners of the world faster and in large quantities. In combination with the liberalisation of international trade, a single world market for food was created. From then on, food prices were set at world level, with cereal mainly dictating food prices. And because industrial agriculture in the North offered huge quantities of cereal, food prices dropped considerably. Consequently, even the small African farmer with nothing but a hoe received a pittance for his harvest.


For Europe, the new agricultural policy was a success. After all, the new European Community after World War II wanted to avoid famines. It succeeded in this. In order to achieve this, however, it offered their farmers higher prices than the world market. Moreover, the transition to large-scale farming was gradual. Small farmers who left agriculture found work in the industry and the service sector. Either that, or they received unemployment benefit while waiting for a job.


Downward spiral


The small farmer in the South has no options for getting out. In the South, the confrontation with industrial agriculture was much more brutal, and the government neglected its farmers. A desperate struggle began.

As it was no longer profitable to market food, the farmers switched - either entirely or in part - to tropical crops, something which the rich countries cannot grow. Farmers produced their food only for themselves, which led to domestic shortages. And so developing countries were forced to import food to feed their growing urban population.

But the range of tropical crops became increasingly limited. For sugar cane, there is the alternative sugar beet; rubber can be replaced by synthetic substances; cotton can also be grown in the south of the US, and so on. What remained was coffee, cocoa, tea, pineapple, bananas, ...

These cultures could not compete with the mechanised large plantations, remnants of the colonial era, often in the hands of foreign companies. Moreover, so many small farmers threw themselves at these tropical crops that the prices were too low to be viable.

A final way out was to supply the cities. There, the slums were increasingly filled with farmers fleeing the countryside. And they need food. So the city became a market for fresh produce that is less suitable for export: vegetables, fruit, milk and eggs. Unfortunately, urban dwellers have little money because of a lack of employment opportunities, and the expanding city is encroaching on the farmland. The farmers had to move further away. Gradually, transport costs became so high, it was impossible to sell the food at a profit.

In order to keep their heads above water, farmers, for example, trade in land, or drastically limit their consumption. But some expenses remain unavoidable: salt, shoes, medicines, school supplies... In order to have some income, farmers sell more of their paltry harvest, so that they end up not having enough themselves. When they run out of food, they now have to buy food themselves. Sometimes, they are so impoverished that they can't even get a loan. The upshot of this downward spiral is hunger or the flight to the cities. Some still venture into growing crops like hemp, poppy or coca.




Higher food prices

In order to eradicate hunger once and for all, farmers in the South must be given opportunities. Sufficiently high prices for the harvest are a key element. But why do the high food prices in 2008, and again today, cause so many riots?

We can distinguish two groups. First of all, there are the slum dwellers of the big cities. As impoverished farmers or farm labourers, they fled the countryside or were born there as the children of rural refugees. They often survive doing odd jobs, peddling all kinds of goods (cigarettes, batteries, nuts, candy, you name it), polishing shoes, car security, prostitution... Because they spend 50-80% of their budget on food, they can't cope with the high food prices[1]. For the young people who were born in poverty, the downward spiral is becoming untenable. All it takes is a small spark for the accumulated discontent and frustration to erupt.

A second group are the small farmers. It is true that they need higher, fair prices, but not the abruptly high prices as we know them today. After all, many impoverished farmers have to buy some of their own food. They cannot build up stocks - there is no storage space - and cannot only sell them when the price is favourable, for example during mid-season. Moreover, as ignorant farmers, they are easy prey for clever buyers who pay under the going rate. If they make a modest profit from their small harvests, this is not enough to invest in higher productivity. After all, the price of food is linked to the price of oil. As a result, fertilisers and transport are more expensive.

It is best to increase the food price gradually. This gives farmers the opportunity to gradually increase their productivity. The slum dwellers do need a social safety net, though. For example, instead of importing cheap food (which also costs money from the budget), the government could give them food stamps. This would enable them to buy their own food on the domestic market.



Man picks coffee berries
© Nestlé

Stable food prices

There is also a need for stable prices. After all, when prices fluctuate sharply, farmers do not know how best to invest. By the time the harvesting is done, their crop may hardly be worth anything again. Small farmers cannot get insurance cover for this.

In the current system, however, fluctuations are difficult to avoid. In recent years, food prices have increasingly followed oil prices. With a higher oil price, transport and fertilisers become more expensive, while it is more profitable to invest in biofuels. As a result, more agricultural land is taken up by crops that serve as a basis for biofuels, and not for food.

Financial speculation exacerbates fluctuating prices. After the 2008 crisis, real estate and financial products were no longer viable options for speculators. The commodities market, including cereals and soil, filled the gap. Speculators are not interested in the goods they are trading. They are only out for profit. So they can - virtually, without having storage facilities - buy large quantities of wheat with the expectation of a price increase. They can even deliberately create a scarcity on the market in order to raise prices. When the price is sufficiently high, they sell at a high profit.

Speculation therefore disrupts the normal functioning of the market in terms of supply and demand. The balance between the two normally sets the price. When supply is low, prices rise.  Just like the financial markets since the crisis, the commodities market also needs to be controlled. So that it is known who is buying and selling what, and nonsensical, virtual transactions can be avoided. Other measures include increased food stocks, a tax on speculation on agricultural products or the protection of the internal market of a country or region against imports at plummeting prices.


Agro-environmental approach

What kind of agriculture is best for the smallholder? As fertilisers and pesticides are expensive and harmful to the environment, there are more and more people in favour of a cheap agro-ecological approach. Such an approach strives for a natural balance to prevent diseases and pests as much as possible. Moreover, it reuses everything so that little external input is needed. Strictly ecological agriculture manages to avoid all chemical products. Ecological food is therefore healthier, while farmers and soil stand to benefit from it.



While a fair price and an ecological approach help the farmer move forward, it is not enough to eradicate poverty and hunger. There is, for example, a need for officially recognised property rights over the land farmers cultivate (and a fairer distribution of land), equal rights for women (many farmers are actually female farmers!!), training, roads and markets to sell the goods, food-processing options, and access to credit, simple mechanisation, manure and quality seed. Through cooperatives, farmers gain a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis buyers and can jointly purchase machines and seeds, for example. In order to make this possible, the government must finally pay attention to agriculture in its policy.

 Two women sell the surplus of their harvest in the city, as the last way out for an income.
© Nick Cordell



It is likely that by 2050, there will be 9 billion people. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food production must increase by 70% in order to feed them. Can we achieve this by only helping small farmers?

In any case, the small-scale, ecological approach tackles the hunger problem at its roots. The yield per hectare is even higher than in industrial agriculture! This is partly due to the wide range of crops. Within 5 to 10 years, ecological agriculture could double food production in developing countries.

Losses after harvesting must be avoided. Due to a lack of storage space and scope for processing, at least 12% of the food in the South is lost; this number is as high as 50% for fruit and vegetables. In the North, supermarkets and consumers throw away (dirt-cheap) food. Food waste in Belgium amounts to 660,000 tonnes annually, accounting for 7.4% of consumption.



The high food prices have also triggered the demonstrations in Tunisia (January 2011). The immediate spark was the act of despair of Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire. Bouazizi was a young street vendor of fruit and vegetables who could hardly support his family.

Protesting Tunisians are flocking to the streets
© Nasser Nouri

Either way, the challenges remain enormous. Climate change - already noticeable - will cause more and more droughts, floods, storms ... This can lead to the destruction of harvests and agricultural land. A lot of water will also be needed to irrigate the land. A growing demand for biofuels will take up more and more agricultural land. Not to mention countries with insufficient food production of their own, such as Saudi Arabia, which are looking for huge plots of land in developing countries. In 2009 alone, they seized 45 million hectares of land, about the size of France. And an increasing middle class in emerging economies - as is already the case in China and India - is eating more meat and dairy. Meat production wastes farmland. For example, a field that yields 330 kg of meat as grassland can also produce 40,000 kg of potatoes.

Ecological agriculture is already environmentally and climate friendly. By taking care of a humus-rich soil and the use of trees, it saves water and stores CO2. But industrial agriculture also has its role to play. However, it must not compete unfairly with small farmers in the South and must become environmentally friendly. Modern agricultural research - with its adapted varieties, more economical irrigation techniques and so on - together with traditional knowledge will be desperately needed to alleviate hunger in 2050.

Without attention for the small farmer, we cannot solve the problem of hunger. Today, we can grow enough food for everyone, but the many challenges will make it extremely difficult to feed the 9 billion people in 2050. You and I can do something about it. Not throwing away food, eating less meat, living in an energy-efficient way, ecological gardening, supporting organisations that make farmers aware... They all help. Allow me to end with a quote from Gandhi: "There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed."


By way of comparison: in Belgium a family spends on average 13 to 14% of its budget on food. After WWII, this was about 40%.

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