Sunita Narain

“There is nothing called junk food. The problem with obesity lies with children who do not exercise enough. What is needed is for them to run and jump, and to do this they need to consume high-calorie food. So, food high in salt, sugar and fat is good for them.” This is what was argued vehemently and rudely by representatives of the food industry in the committee, set up under directions from the Delhi High Court to frame guidelines for junk food in the country.

On the face of it there was no one from the junk food industry in the committee. In the early meetings, we only knew that there were members of two associations who were representing the food industry in the committee. But as discussions got under way, it became clear that the big junk food industry was present in the meeting. We learnt that the member representing the National Restaurant Association of India was a top official from Coca-Cola—the world’s most powerful beverage company that is at the centre of the junk food debate globally. The other grouping, All India Food Processors Association, was represented by Swiss food giant Nestle, which has commercial interest in instant noodles and other junk food.

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Timothy A. Wise, republished from Global Post

International food prices have fallen since 2008, when agricultural commodity prices doubled, pushing millions around the world from bare subsistence to hunger and raising the number of food insecure people to nearly one billion.

Is the crisis over, then? Far from it, according to Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. As he told the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month, global policymakers have yet to address the structural causes of the crisis. In particular, they have failed to recognize that industrial agriculture is not the ultimate solution to global hunger — and that it is, instead, part of the problem.

In part, De Schutter drew his conclusions from his official mission to Malawi last year. As I toured the country last month, it was easy to see what he saw: the promise and allure of hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizer, as well as their limits.

De Schutter took over as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food six years ago, as the global food crisis was breaking. His UN mandate is to advance the “progressive realization of the right to food,” and he has been a tireless advocate at a critical juncture for global agricultural and food policy. He will hand over his mandate to an as-yet-unnamed successor in April, and he used his final report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to deliver a sweeping assessment of the progress to date and the daunting challenges ahead.

His message was upbeat but firm: “The eradication of hunger and malnutrition is an achievable goal. Reaching it requires, however, that we move away from business as usual.”

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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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Jennifer Clapp

After years of delay, the U.S. Senate voted yesterday in favor of the 2014 Farm Bill, which passed easily in the House or Representatives last week. President Obama is widely expected to sign the bill into law. The bill’s provisions on food aid, though not as far reaching in the end as many had hoped for a year ago, are being hailed as a first step toward more major reform in the future. But newly emerging donors mimicking outdated U.S. food aid practices may muddy the reform efforts.

U.S. food aid policy has seen remarkably few major changes since it was initiated 60 years ago, in 1954. Donated food is still required to be primarily grown in the United States, and at least half must still be transported on U.S. flag ships. The United States also remains by far the largest donor of food aid on the global stage, carrying significant weight in setting food aid trends.

But in these past 60 years, the world has changed a great deal, making U.S. food aid policy arcane and outdated. NGOs such as Oxfam and others pushing for reform have emphasized these points.

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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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Editor’s Note: Timothy A. Wise and Marie Brill of ActionAid USA have co-authored a new ActionAid report “Rising to the Challenge: Changing Course to Feed the World in 2050,” based on a GDAE Working paper. The following op-ed published by Triple Crisis and the Huffington Post summarizes the findings of the their report.

Timothy A. Wise and Marie Brill, Guest Blogger

Was Thomas Malthus right after all? In 1798, Malthus postulated that exponential population growth would outstrip our ability to feed ourselves, dooming civilization. This early attempt at global economic modeling has since been widely discredited. But if you’ve been listening to policy-makers and pundits since food prices spiked in 2008, you’ve likely heard the eerie echoes of Malthusian thinking.

“With almost 80 million more people to feed each year, agriculture can’t keep up with the escalating food demand,” warned Frank Rijsberman, head of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). “FAO estimates that we have to double food production by 2050 to feed the expected 9 billion people, knowing that one billion people are already going to bed hungry every day.”

Well, not so fast. Yes, resource constraints, exacerbated by uncertainties over climate change and the unsustainable consumption of non-renewable resources have introduced new threats to our ability to feed a growing population. The issues are indeed serious, but the specter of looming food shortages is a bit overblown.
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Sunita Narain

The tragic loss of 23 young lives because of contaminated food in a Bihar school is unacceptable. But it is also a fact that the Mid Day Meal Scheme, under which cooked food is compulsorily provided to children in government schools, is too important and critical to give up on. The only questions that matter are: why does the scheme not work as well as it should and what can be done to fix it?

The answers are complicated. Providing nutritious food to children in schools helps address two key problems; hunger and education. Progressive political leaders found the answers in their states. In 1982, M G Ramachandran, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, set up the nutritious meal programme. It is legendary that he took deep interest in the working of the scheme. Former district officials will tell you of his surprise trips to schools and his fury if anything was found out of order. This was top priority, so it worked.

In the mid-1990s, the Central government adopted these ideas coming from different states and framed a national midday meal scheme. But nothing much happened. In 2001, the Supreme Court directed all governments to provide cooked food to all children in primary schools. Since then the scheme has evolved. The Central government agreed to provide free grain (rice and wheat) and funding for transport, cooking cost and recently even an honorarium for the cook. The state government is required to top up this funding; pay for vegetables and pulses; provide infrastructure in schools and manage affairs.

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Timothy A. Wise

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) created a stir last October with its revised estimates of global hunger. After revising the methodology used in its annual State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) reports, the FAO reported that the number of hungry had not surpassed one billion following the 2008 food price spikes, as previously reported. Indeed, the new estimates showed barely an upward blip during the food price spikes. Moreover, new trend lines based on revised estimates of past hunger suggested significant progress in reducing the incidence of hunger.

“New estimates show that progress in reducing hunger during the past 20 years has been better than previously believed,” the FAO concluded, “and … given renewed efforts, it may be possible to reach the MDG hunger target [of halving world hunger] at the global level by 2015.”

Now, a group of hunger researchers led by Frances Moore Lappe, and including Triple Crisis bloggers Jennifer Clapp, Robin Broad, and Timothy A. Wise, have published a detailed critique of the SOFI 2012 estimates and report. “Framing Hunger: A Response to ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012,’” offers recommendations to the FAO, as much in relation to the presentation of its hunger estimates as on the methodology itself.

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Sasha Breger, Guest Blogger

In my last two posts (http://triplecrisis.com/a-great-sucking-sound-part-2/, http://triplecrisis.com/a-great-sucking-sound-part-1/), I addressed the roles of debt, farmland acquisition, and physical commodity hoarding in helping finance siphon wealth from global agriculture.  In this final post, I discuss the role of derivatives and insurance markets in this redistributive process. I then turn to some of the potential critiques of my argument.

Derivatives markets

Derivative and insurance markets are implicated in the redistribution of wealth from agriculture to finance in at least two ways.  First, derivatives—and some retail insurance products based on them (e.g. Brazilian CPR, micro crop and revenue insurance)—are increasingly marketed to farmers, traders and/or consumers as a means of reducing market and weather risks in agriculture (demand for such products has been catalyzed by the erosion of public arrangements to prevent and mitigate agricultural risk). To my mind, this arrangement in many cases resembles a case of unequal exchange.  An hedging product of mediocre quality is being exchanged for a stream of fees and commissions to the financial sector. Indeed, hedging with commodity futures and options is a tricky proposition without guarantee of success. Contracts are too large and relatively short-term (relative the positions of many food system participants), trading and brokerage accounts are difficult, expensive and time-consuming to establish (especially for smaller traders), and future prices are both volatile and inefficient in many cases (this complicates derivatives trading by increasing the frequency of margin calls, as well as driving basis risk).

In fact, recent speculation in agricultural derivatives (more below) has introduced such inefficiency into future prices that hedgers have been petitioning regulators to introduce new limits on speculative trading. A 2008 letter from the Missouri Farm Board to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) comments on rising basis risk for hedgers: “For almost three years farmers have experienced a widening of basis levels for most commodities…The lack of convergence between an expiring futures contract and the cash market has… presented major challenges to producers trying to carry out marketing plans involving futures and options contracts.”  Even as speculators render cash prices more volatile, and effective risk management thus more essential, these same speculators are disabling one of the few price risk management options that remain for agricultural actors.  I hear that sucking sound growing louder.

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