Global Regulation Could Help Biopesticide Developers Combat the Dangerous Politics of Food

Nancy B. Alston

Extreme poverty causes chronic hunger for about 852 million people worldwide, while up to 2 billion suffer intermittent food insecurity as a result of varying degrees of poverty and 17,000 children each day die of hunger.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1983 produced two definitions of food security, based on the balance between supply and demand.

For demand it meant “ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food that they need” and, on supply, “there should be availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”.

By 2009, however, the FAO reported that the number of hungry people had been increasing slowly but steadily. From the start of the food and economic crises hunger in the world increased sharply.

It’s scandalous that in almost three decades nothing has changed. Why should this be?

It is really about the political will to address four key areas, the environment, protectionism, powerful lobby groups and armed conflict and also about politicians’ inability to think beyond narrow, local interests and to act cooperatively, ethically and globally.

First, environment: the 1992 Rio Earth Summit created The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and 154 countries signed up to action.

Thirteen annual Conferences of the Parties (COP) later, globetrotting through Berlin, Kyoto, The Hague, Marrakech, Bali and Copenhagen, there’s been lamentable progress towards effective action while politicians accumulated staggering carbon footprints – in travel and verbal hot air.

There are understandable differences – for example why should the emerging BRIC economies curb their economic growth and the chance to lift millions out of poverty for a problem caused by the developed world?

Meanwhile there’s water scarcity in India while countries like Bangladesh and small Pacific islands like Tuvalu face total or part submersion of valuable land as global warming causes rising sea levels and African cattle farmers watch their herds die as droughts continue and the deserts spread. Most recently the UN has warned that the failure to halt shrinking biodiversity could start to damage economies.

These trends all threaten food security. Although the world grain harvest continues to expand the question is will it expand fast enough match rapidly growing demand?

Yield growth is now just over one percent a year, scarcely half the earlier rate and yet there is a range of new technologies coming from biopesticides developers that could help improve yield.

This leads to item two – national interest and protectionism, where since 2007 “a dangerous politics of food scarcity” in which individual countries acting out of self-interest are destabilising global equilibrium according to global organisation World Watch. Countries such as Russia and Argentina limited or banned exports to counter domestic food price rises. Vietnam, the world’s second-largest rice exporter after Thailand, banned exports for several months, creating panic and food riots in some grain importing countries. Other countries, like China in Africa and Egypt in the Ukraine, are buying up large swathes of land and making trade agreements to protect future food security.

The global sharing of knowledge and risk could be a better, more equitable solution – and globally-agreed fast tracked regulation of new generation biopestides, biofungicides and yield enhancers.

The disproportionate power of lobby groups is the third issue that needs to be tackled. US and European politicians’ negotiating room, for example, is limited by the influence of their farmers. Food economics are also distorted by multinational food producers and big retailers trying to maintain profits while responding to consumer demand for more natural foods.

Meanwhile farmers in Africa and other developing countries can’t export their produce profitably. Again it points to the need for globally-available new generation low-chem agricultural products.

Finally there’s war and, again according to World Watch, in the last two decades the number of food emergencies has risen from an average of 15 per year to more than 30 per year from 2000.

The vast majority have been in Africa, where the average number of crises has tripled, fuelled mainly by armed conflict. When millions of people are driven from their homes, unable to work their fields and cut off from markets for their produce and from commercial supplies of seed, fertilizer and ceedit, food production and food security are hugely disrupted. Governments that come to power by force or rigged elections have a narrow support base, dependent on cronyism and patronage.

Food distribution then becomes a political issue skewed towards urban areas, where the most influential and powerful live, priced at the expense of rural populations.

In the observation of Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen – there is no such thing as an apolitical food problem. It is government action or inaction that determines the severity of a famine.

Copyright (c) 2010 Alison Withers

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