Thursday, October 15, 2009

The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009

The latest edition of the annual State of Food Insecurity in the World report from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization has just come out, and is getting a fair amount of attention-not least, because it is presenting a side of life overlooked by those given to ecstasies over globalization. Not only is it the case that the attainment of the heavily-hyped Millennium Goals seems very unlikely, but the number of "undernourished" people is actually rising, crossing the 1 billion person mark this year for the first time. As noted in the report, "The increase in food insecurity is not a result of poor crop harvests but because high domestic food prices, lower incomes and increasing unemployment have reduced access to food by the poor."

Particularly worth noting is that the progress of the '70s, '80s and early '90s was, despite the slowing of the world's population growth (p. 11), reversed in the middle of that decade (not incidentally, when Thomas Friedman-style hucksterism and mindless tech-boom hype came to dominate economic dialogue), with hunger increasing in the Asia-Pacific region, the Near East and Africa (p. 9).

Simply put, structural factors are at work, not least that "developing countries today [are] more financially and commercially integrated into the world economy than they were 20 years ago, [so that] they are far more exposed to shocks in international markets" (p. 4), and a pattern of falling private and public investment (with agricultural investment not exempt) amid the budgetary pressures (p. 39) which have been widely acknowledged as the norm in the post-'73 period.

The deterioration worsened during the "food and fuel crisis of 2006-2008," a result of which was that
domestic staple food prices [were] . . . on average, 17 percent higher in real terms than two years earlier. The price increases had forced many poor families to sell assets or sacrifice health care, education or food just to stay afloat (p. 4).
Given the precariousness of the world's economic recovery, and the likelihood that another fuel crisis may not be too far off (even if the decline in oil prices and the explosion of the mortgage crisis diverted attention, the foundations of the argument that peak oil may not be far away have not vanished), the possibility that things might get worse still has to be taken seriously-and offers all the more reason to ask questions too long avoided.

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