Jennifer Clapp

A recently published Oxfam briefing paper, Smallholders at Risk, challenges a number of mainstream assumptions about the role of private-sector investment in developing country agriculture. The conventional wisdom from the World Bank and other powerful actors is that private investment in the sector will benefit smallholders and enhance food security.

Oxfam’s research shows that, even in cases where private investors claim to be investing “responsibly”, the outcomes can nonetheless be harmful to food security and smallholder livelihoods. This happened in the cases the organization examined in Paraguay, Guatemala, and Colombia involving large-scale private investments in soy, oil palm, and maize that displaced farmers, degraded the environment, and contributed to hunger.

The general response to this kind of outcome has been to promote voluntary initiatives that encourage more responsible investment. A spate of recent initiatives explicitly seek to promote responsibility among investors in the sector: the responsible agricultural investment (RAI) principles currently being developed by the Committee on World Food Security, the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI) promoted by the World Bank and UNCTAD, as well as a range of other initiatives including commodity specific certification schemes.

These efforts aim to ensure that private sector investment avoids the kind of pitfalls that Oxfam’s research highlights. But voluntary initiatives alone are unlikely to make much of a difference, no matter how strongly they are worded.

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Timothy A. Wise

Cross-posted from Global Post.

LILONGWE, Malawi — Visit this small, landlocked country in late January and you will have a hard time believing its people often go hungry.

It is mid-rainy season, and in and around the capital city the landscape is lush and green.

Look more closely and you’ll notice that nearly every inch of unpaved space seems planted with maize (corn); the green stalks rise up to five feet above moist, rich soil. Outside of the city, along the road leading south toward the former colonial capital of Zomba, the hills roll with maize, not in vast tracts reminiscent of Iowa but in small, neatly bordered plots.

It certainly doesn’t seem like a land that cannot feed itself. But until recently, that is what Malawi has been.

Droughts often threaten the country’s one rainy season, and with per capita incomes at around $900 per year, hunger, and even starvation, stalk the countryside. The World Food Program has permanent offices here, and for good reason.

Even this season, when the rains have come strong but late, more than 10 percent of the country’s 16 million people face severe food insecurity. According to news reports, some have starved.

It is paradoxical only to outsiders that this greenest of seasons is also the hungriest. By planting time late in the year, many peasant farmers have consumed the last of their saved grain, even following a decent harvest like they had last year. Until the new crop comes in late March or April they have to rely on meager cash income to feed themselves and their families.

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Timothy A. Wise

Cross posted from Global Post.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The African Union commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the Maputo Declaration on agricultural development with the launch of the “Year of Agriculture and Food Security” last week at its summit in Addis Ababa.

Around the summit, following discussions of the political and humanitarian crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, I heard the talk turn to agriculture. And African governments certainly have a lot to talk about.

Since Maputo, which mandated that African governments commit to spending at least 10 percent of their budgets on agriculture by 2015, 20 nations have pledged to do so under the rubric of the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP). Agricultural spending has doubled across the continent, a notable achievement that has shown solid results in increased food production and economic growth for those countries that have fully invested in the sector.

But there is a long way to go. According to a new report from the nonprofit ActionAid, most governments are not “walking the talk” – they are failing to live up to their CAADP commitments.

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Timothy A. Wise

Cross-posted from Global Post.

GENEVA — The world’s elites gathered in Davos, Switzerland last week for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF), paying $20,000 a person for the privilege of offering grand solutions to other people’s problems.

I was down the road in Geneva attending a decidedly low-brow, two-day expert workshop on agricultural trade and development. But downwind we could almost smell their champagne fondue, which no doubt helped the powers-that-be focus on the global food crisis.

WEF’s “New Vision for Agriculture” is their answer, which, along with the G8 nations’ “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition,” represent the bold new initiatives from the rich world to solve poor people’s hunger.

For all the newness, the world’s small-scale farmers can be forgiven for seeing little more than new bottles for some old wine, which they still can’t afford. The old wine includes an overwhelming focus on technological solutions, industrial-scale farms, and high-input methods often poorly suited to small-scale farmers.

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India has only managed a short-term reprieve from the WTO to implement its Food Security Act

Timothy A. Wise, originally published at BW|Businessworld

In the courtyard of the bali International Convention Centre, just outside the hall where World Trade Organization (WTO) delegates were negotiating a modest, if controversial, agreement, someone had erected a small impromptu shrine, replete with flower petals and other offerings. The memorial was for Lee Kyung Hae, the Korean farmer who, ten years earlier, had scaled the barricades keeping the masses from WTO negotiators in Cancún, Mexico. He pronounced the simple indictment that “WTO kills farmers,” then took his own life.

With a reported quarter-million farmer suicides since 1990, Indian negotiators may well have had Lee Kyung Hae on their minds as they arrived in Bali, Indonesia for the WTO’s ninth ministerial. The country’s National Food Security Act was under threat from the WTO’s arcane rules, and Indian negotiators came to fight.

So did India’s Right to Food Campaign, which sent two representatives to object to the intrusion of the global trade body in India’s domestic policy-making. The act was the result of a decade of organising and lobbying. How could a distant trade body undermine its simple principles of paying hungry farmers a decent price for their grains and distributing it to India’s millions of hungry?
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Timothy A. Wise

Cross-posted from Global Post.

Mexico’s largest agribusiness associated invited me to Aguascalientes to participate in its annual forum in October. The theme for this year’s gathering was “New Perspectives on the Challenge of Feeding the World.”

But it was unclear why Mexico, which now imports 42 percent of its food, would be worried about feeding the world. It wasn’t doing so well feeding its own people.

In part, you can thank the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for that. Twenty years ago, on January 1, 1994, NAFTA took effect, and Mexico was the poster child for the wonders of free trade. The promises seemed endless.

Mexico would enter the “First World” of developed countries on the crest of rising trade and foreign investment. Its dynamic manufacturing sector would create so many jobs it would not only end the U.S.  immigration problem but absorb millions of peasant farmers freed from their unproductive toil in the fields. Mexico could import cheap corn and export electronics.

So much for promises.

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Timothy A. Wise

Re-published from the Global Post.

BALI, Indonesia — A tense and acrimonious four-day standoff ended Saturday morning at the World Trade Organization meeting in Bali.

A last-minute objection by Cuba and three Latin American allies held up the agreement Friday night, with Cuba objecting to the hypocrisy of a “trade facilitation” agreement – one part of the so-called Bali package – that ignored the United States’ discriminatory treatment of the island nation under the US trade embargo.

Overnight, text was added to reflect Cuba’s concern even if it did nothing to resolve the issue. Call it the story of the WTO.

Leading up to this week’s meeting, the US and other rich countries had attempted to declare India’s food security program in violation of the WTO’s archaic and biased rules and sought to discipline the program as “trade distorting.”

India and other developing countries fended off the challenge to these programs, which support small farmers and help feed the hungry. But the final agreement is no green light.

Countries considering such programs would not be protected by the “peace clause” that will shield India and some others for the next four years. And onerous reporting requirements put the onus on the developing country to prove that its stock-holding program is not “trade distorting.”

In return for the modest protections for food security programs, and a vague package of reforms for the least developed countries, developing countries also agreed here to a trade facilitation package that could benefit some of them but might demand more than they can give.

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Triple Crisis blogger Timothy A. Wise was interviewed by the Real News Network on the continuing controversy in Mexico over the government’s possible approval of permits to Monsanto and other biotech firms to grow transgenic corn on a commercial scale. As Wise explains, the opposition got a shot in the arm recently when a judge issued an injuction on further permits, calling for precaution given the concern (and pending lawsuits) over the environmental impacts of transgenic corn in a country with such a rich diversity of native varieties. Noting the recent controversy over the World Food Prize going to biotech engineers (see his earlier post), he points out that NAFTA’s environment commission studied a documented case of “genetic contamination” a decade ago and recommended precaution. (See the suppressed report and background research.) With a crucial referendum pending in Washington State on mandatory labeling of GM foods, there are signs the tide is turning against Monsanto.

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Timothy A. Wise

This year’s World Food Prize went to three biotech engineers, all of whom have been instrumental in bringing genetically modified foods to your table.

Inside the Marriott Hotel in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, where the prize’s four-day program took place October 15-18, the message was clear: Technology is the answer to the world’s looming food shortages, and anyone who gets in the way isn’t putting farmers and the hungry first.

And you have to admire the laureates for their candor.

In their prepared press statements, they couldn’t have been clearer about what the prize means to them.

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Timothy A. Wise and Marie Brill

Rumor has it that the Roman emperor Nero played a fiddle and sang while Rome burned for five days in the Great Fire of 64. Nearly 2000 years later, at the very site where this devastating fire started so long ago, history is repeating itself, only the leaders doing the fiddling are delegates to the 40th meeting of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS). And what’s burning is the world’s food, in the engines of our cars.

Unfortunately this time, the fire didn’t end in five days. Food-based biofuels have been burning for over a decade, the fires are growing in scale and intensity, and there is no end in sight.

It’s not as if we haven’t seen the warning signs. There have been three food price spikes in the last six years, with a wide range of studies implicating biofuels as a key driver of price volatility. How could it be otherwise? In the United States, 40% of our corn—fully 15% of the global corn supply—is now diverted to make ethanol, up from just 5% in 2000.

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