Food Price Increases: Who gets hurt and what can be done about it

Miguel Altieri | 04.11.2008

Food prices are increasing by the day, countries are cutting trade in some basic grains, and food riots, marches, and protests are happening in countries around the world. Is agriculture at a crossroads? Are the world’s 1.5 billion hectares of farmlands sufficient to feed us, the animals we consume… and also produce agrofuels for our industrial way of life?

Recently adopted U.S. and the E.U. renewable energy standards are contributed to rapidly rising prices for both land and food. Concerns about climate change and its impact on biodiversity, rising sea levels, and rising temperatures add another level of urgency to finding solutions. Food riots announce to the world that increasing numbers of people who live on less than $2 a day are going to bed hungry. For several decades, the number of hungry people in the world remained steady at around 800 million. Food prices have climbed steadily since 2006 and, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), commodity food prices have increased by 45% in just the past nine months (July 2007-March 2008).(1) The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) predicts that every one percent increase in food prices pushes 16 million more people into hunger.

Today industrial agriculture contributes at least one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, mainly methane and nitrous oxide. As we move beyond peak oil, continuing this large-scale, energy-dependent, and environmentally degrading farming system may not be a viable option. Agricultural productivity depends upon fresh water, pollinators, fertile soil formation, benevolent weather, and other environmental factors that intensive industrial farming continually abuses and frequently ignores. How much land can we afford to abandon due to flooding, top soil loss, and desertification?

The immediate challenge for our generation is to reduce agriculture’s dependence on fuel by changing how we farm and market our food. Historically sustainable, ecologically biodiverse and socially just, smaller-scale, locally-based agriculture has fed us, and has also been able to heal the planet. Recent studies at the University of Michigan(2) as reported on in Food First Backgrounder Shattering Myths: Can sustainable agriculture feed the world? (3), and a long-term study at Iowa State University(4) demonstrate that sustainable agriculture can match the productive capacity of industrial farming.

Using less oil and cutting back on agrofuel production does not mean we will automatically grow less food. We will just need to return to growing food the way our ancestors have done for 8,000 years.

But it won’t be an easy task to break our input-intensive industrial agricultural habits. Reshaping national agricultural policies and reducing global food trade will require the participation and political will of millions of consumers—joining together with the world’s majority of small farmers to educate, support, and advocate for each other. Equally important, it will require that we all examine what we eat, why we eat it, where it came from, and why it was grown the way it was. In short, it will require that we all understand how healthy food is grown and what is grown locally. And even if we don’t grow our own food, we all need to appreciate the fact that we need the birds and the bees, localized seeds that have proven productive, quality air and water, and farmers and gardeners to nurture the food we all need to survive and thrive.

Almost three decades of trade liberalization have driven millions of farmers here in the U.S. and around the world off of their land. Our industrial agricultural system is controlled by a small number of very powerful multinational agribusiness corporations. Their power has extracted enormous profits for their owners and managers. And it has promoted dramatic increases in food exports from poorer nations to the industrialized north that have resulted in a downward spiral of poverty, low wages, rural-urban migration, dramatic cross-border migration, and massive environmental degradation. International “free” trade has not solved the world’s food problems—in fact, it has made matters critically worse in a very short span of time.

The good news is that there is a way to help the increasing number of people who can’t afford to buy or grow enough food to eat. Since 1995, the Via Campesina, which is the world’s largest international coalition of small farmers, has been promoting local and national food sovereignty. Now we are at a key juncture where many nations may seriously engage with those small-scale farmers to produce food for their hungry people—or risk violent overthrow of their government by mobs of starving, angry citizens.

Food sovereignty promotes closed-circuit local production and consumption, and community action for access to land, water, and agrobiodiversity, using agroecological methods. Local production for local consumption allows consumers to know that their quality of life is tightly linked with the type of agriculture practiced in neighboring rural areas. As we now understand, agricultural techniques affect water quality and biodiversity. Industrial agriculture has failed to feed the hungry—and it has rapidly degraded our air, water, and land, while reducing the diversity of plants and animals.

Multifunctional diversified small farms can, according to studies, produce from 2 to 10 times more per unit area than do larger, corporate farms. In the U.S. the top quarter of farmers practicing sustainable agriculture—mostly small to medium size—get higher yields than conventional external-input intensive farmers. And those sustainable farms reduce soil erosion, use less water, and conserve biodiversity. Communities surrounded by thriving small farms have healthier economies and happier citizens than do communities surrounded by depopulated large, monoculture, mechanized farms.

It is great news to know that eating local food is both ecological and contributes to building a healthy community… that buying food at local farmers markets supports the type of low-input agriculture that is urgently needed as energy inputs increase in price… and that buying supermarket food contributes to an unsustainable agricultural path.

The scale and urgency of the challenge we face has no precedent. What needs to be done is environmentally, economically and politically feasible. But we need to recognize the urgency of changing how we grow and consume food. The decision about what kind of food system we will have rests with each of us. What we eat, who grew it, and where we buy not only determines our own fate, but also the fate of small farmers and the urban poor worldwide.

Notes

(1) http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2008/1000823/index.html

(2) Badgley, C., J. Moghtader, E. Quintero, E. Zakem, J. M. Chappell, K. Aviles-Vázquez, A. Samulon, and I. Perfecto. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Resources and Food Systems. Summer 2007.

(3) Chappell, M. Jahi. Shattering Myths: Can sustainable agriculture feed the world?, Food First Backgrounder, Fall 2007, http://www.foodfirst.org/node/1778

(4) http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/newsreleases/2007/organic_111307.htm