Ever-since the beginning of war in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden has been consistently blaming the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin for causing global food crisis, which, according to experts may ultimately turn into “cruel hunger” by the end of 2022. Although until now Western policymakers also are echoing the voice of Biden, global food production scenario tells us almost an opposite story. According to media reports, worsening harvests, infertile soil and increasing food poverty are affecting the majority of small farmers across the world, especially in the Global South. Wheat prices have surged by 59 percent since the beginning of 2022. Recently, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that the number of people living in famine conditions has increased by more than 500 percent since 2016, and more than 270 million people are now living in extreme food insecurity.
While the Ukraine war has exacerbated the food crisis, as Russia and Ukraine account for 30 percent of the world’s wheat exports, constituting 12 percent of traded calories, climate change and capitalism are the primary engines behind this global food crisis.
It is warned that by 2030, global warming will have diminished the world’s average agricultural production by more than fifth. In Zambia, for example, the maize harvest for 2021-2022 is expected to be down by quarter due to droughts and flash floods between 2019 and 2021. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan experienced highest recorded temperatures in March and April this year since records began 122 years ago.
As the government failed to buy sufficient wheat to cover its food security program, India has banned wheat exports, which has further exacerbated the global wheat crisis and soaring food prices.
Experts said, climate and food crises are not isolated phenomena, as they are the result of a global capitalist system and a neoliberal agenda, that has prioritized big corporate agricultural profits over people.
The process of global capitalist system took shape during the “Green Revolution” in India in the late 1960s. This movement was a collaboration between India and the US (with USAID and the Ford Foundation being key actors) and was dependent on agrochemical usage and intensive plant breeding.
High-yielding hybrid crops were introduced – the main one being IR8, a semi-dwarf rice variety – alongside the use of fertilizers, pesticides and lots of groundwater (these high-yielding crops required a lot more water).
Calorific food was valued over nutrition, and these foods had costly inputs.
This shift towards big agriculture and more profitable monocultures made small farmers more dependent on expensive chemical fertilizers, forcing them into ever greater levels of debt. In India, 10,677 agricultural workers were reported to have taken their own lives in 2020, many of them farmers trapped by mounting debts resulting from the high costs of these farming inputs.
Unfair terms of trade and global lending – enforced by multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – are also to blame. Structural adjustment programs (SAPs), introduced by the World Bank following the debt crisis across Latin America and Africa after the 1979 oil crisis, coerced poorer countries into privatizing their public sectors and reducing their welfare mechanisms.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) made it mandatory to adhering to strict policy packages in nearly every key sector – from agriculture to education and healthcare.
Structural adjustment programs meant indebted countries across the Global South had to convert from prioritizing indigenous crops that the local population depended on, to producing cash crops for export. As a result, local populations and farmers became more vulnerable to food scarcity – due to the negative ecological effects and decline in food accessibility.
SAP agenda included privatization and liberalization of seed system in Zambia, which began with the liberalization and deregulation of ZAMSEED in the mid-1990s thus ultimately resulting in decline is support for farmer cooperatives. In addition, the priority of maize as a cash crop has led to a decline in crop variety, meaning the local population has fewer food sources available.
The key reason behind in reduction in varieties of available foods in Zambia is – under the recent policy changes, priority has been given to maize production – one of the key drivers for monocropping.
Seed systems have gone from being cooperative-led to being corporate-led, which prioritizes profits. As a result, most smallholder farmers are unable to purchase seeds at the commercial price and hence they cannot grow any food. Most importantly, these commercial seeds are also more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, such as flood or drought. According to the World Food Program (WPF), 48 percent of the Zambian population is unable to meet minimum calorie requirements.
Similar crisis is showing up in other African countries, including Kenya. In 1980, Kenya was one of the first countries to receive a structural adjustment loan from the World Bank. It was conditional on reducing essential subsidies for farmer inputs, such as fertilizers. Agricultural inputs that were previously provided to farmers free of charge went into the hands of private entities under the guise of efficiency. This has resulted in smallholder farmers being abandoned to the mercy of transnational corporations in the seed and agrochemical industry, which dupe farmers with information about seeds and chemicals. This process instigated a shift towards farming cash crops for export, such as tea, coffee and tobacco, instead of farming key staples for the local population, such as maize, wheat and rice.
A recent report by Save the Children and Oxfam found that 3.5 million people in Kenya are already suffering crisis levels of hunger – and this is likely to rise to five million. While Structural adjustment has made Kenya into a food exporter, although malnutrition remains alarmingly high with 29 percent of children in rural Kenya and 20 percent children in cities being stunted.
It may be mentioned here that, although small-scale farmers occupy less than 25 percent of the world’s farmland, they provide over 70 percent of the world’s food.
Small farmers in African countries are already raising voice against ‘Big Philanthropy’ such as the controversial Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In brief, Vladimir Putin is not to be blamed for the global food crisis. Instead, capitalism is to be blamed.
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