One can only speculate why the secretive government of Ethiopia is giving away the country’s fertile land to foreign agribusinesses. But we know the official explanation; that is, such ‘long-sought’ agricultural investments enhance the country’s food security. For a country that is intuitively associated with hunger and starvation, there should indeed be no higher priority than food security. Yet, how agricultural production by profit-driven foreign businesses improves the food security of poor Ethiopians is not terribly clear. Indeed, compelling empirical and theoretical evidences show that increased food production per se doesn’t necessarily correlate to any improvement in the food security of people in any country. That is what I wish to discuss here. Before turning to this issue, however, a word or two on the equivocal concept of food security is in order.
A. Food Security: What is It?
The notion of food security, like GDP, conceals more than it reveals about how the actual lives of people go. It may mean different things, depending on whose security is at stake. Generally, food security is raised at three different levels:
i. Global food security: concerns with the aggregate global food supply sufficient to feed the world population. It is invariably about the supply side of the equation. Potentially, food insecurity might be an existential threat to humanity. Presently, however, the world is awash with surplus food. Indeed, overproduction has been a major concern in some regions of the world for decades that discouraging agricultural production now figures even as a goal under the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA). Overproduction slumps food prices, and agribusinesses that dominate all chains of the world food trade don’t like that. Accordingly, the so-called blue box subsidies under the AoA are tied with a condition that receiving farmers limit their productions. It does not matter that around a billion people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger on a constant basis. As a matter of fact, as famine raged in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, farm policy debates in surplus producing nations were centered on whether disposing the surplus food grain in the sea or dumping it to the third world in the form or aid or cheap sale is cost effective. Thus, for the hungry, global food security is largely inconsequential.
ii. National food security: refers to the availability at a national level of adequate amount of food for the entire population. Again, it is about the supply side of the equation, and thus it may not signify anything for the poor and the hungry. For example, India produces about 50 million tons of surplus food grain per year; yet, a third of its population suffers from chronic hunger. Similarly, although surplus food disposal has been a major concern in the United States since the mid-1980s, the US Department of Agriculture reports that millions of Americans suffer from food insecurity year after year. There are similar stories elsewhere. The crux of the matter is this: the abundance of aggregate food supply at the national level is often irrelevant for the insolvent poor.
iii. Individual/household food security: here is where food in/security figures in its most concrete manner. Food insecurity can be decisively tackled only at the individual/household level. Distribution rather than availability of food is at the heart of the problem of hunger. Indeed, the greatest misconception regarding hunger is probably the assumption that people go hungry because there is no food or there is less food than is needed to feed all people in the country. People starve either because they produce insufficient food or are simply too poor to command enough food in the market, not necessarily because there is a decline in the per capita food supply. It is often about the demand side of the equation. Even during times of famine, there is always food in the local market for those who can afford to buy. As the 18th century French princess Marie Antoinette’s legendary ‘then, let them eat cake’ might exemplify, it is often the case that some starve even when others live in blinding abundance.
B. Why Large-Scale Land Transfer is NOT the Answer to Food Insecurity
Agribusinesses produce food exclusively for the market. And obviously the market is need-blind; not only does it operate to the complete exclusion of the insolvent, but also may undermine how much food those who can pay are entitled in exchange for the price they pay. One’s ability to command enough food depends not only on how much one can spend on food, but also on how much others are willing to pay. One’s exchange entitlement may worsen, for instance, because others have grown richer and are buying more food, triggering a rise in food prices. Thus, while agribusiness acquiring land in Ethiopia may sell their produce anywhere in the world market, an average Ethiopian with an annual consumption expenditure of just $670 will have to compete with, say, a Swiss who can afford to spend $26,470 per annum on consumption. And, of course, the poor Ethiopian stands no chance under this scenario (even if we accept the seemingly inflated figure of $670). It would be foolish, therefore, to expect Karuturi to cater to poor consumers in Ethiopia.
Market forces, by their very nature, facilitate the movements of goods, including food, to places where they can fetch the most competitive price rather than to places where they have greater utility. During the Great Irish Famine, for example, food was actually exported from impoverished Ireland to opulent England. In Ethiopia too, during the 1973 Wollo famine, food was bought from markets in the province of Wollo and sold in Addis Ababa and Asmara. That is what the market naturally does-responding to demand, not to need. Not only food products directly but also productive resources, such as land are increasingly being diverted away from growing staple foods for the poor and the hungry towards cultivating livestock feed that would go to satisfy the dietary taste of the rich (i.e. expensive protein-rich animal products) and biofuel production. Such diversion of farm land was among the major drivers of the recent global food crisis, which is estimated to have plunged around a 100 million people into extreme poverty and hunger globally. At the same time, however, a rapid growth of per capita food consumption has been recorded among the growing middle class in many regions of the world. Indeed, we do not need to look elsewhere; many of the investors that have acquired land in Ethiopia seek to produce crop for biofuel production, and, of course, they do not have any responsibility towards the food security of Ethiopians. How this boosts the country’s food security is not obvious.
C. The Way to Tackle Food Insecurity
Hunger has both technical as well as political dimensions. A credible effort to stamp out hunger must thus address both dimensions of the problem. First, there should be sufficient food. The fact that hunger is more of a problem of distribution than of availability of food should not imply that there are no issues with respect to food supply. Indeed, and this is ironic, most victims of hunger are food producers. For poor countries, such as Ethiopia, low productivity associated with lack of technology and agricultural inputs, remains a veritable problem. That agricultural labor productivity in least developed countries, such as ours, is less than 1 percent that of the level in developed nations explains it all. As regards small holding farmers, therefore, any food security program must necessarily involve improving their food productivity. That is largely technical. For the urban poor, the availability of sufficient food stock in the country or at the local granary is not sufficient. Although food is physically available, it may still be economically inaccessible for the very poor. Therefore, any food security program in this context must ultimately aim at enhancing the capability of individual’s to compete and purchase enough food. That in effect means fighting urban poverty.
Poverty is both the root and consequence of hunger. People go hungry because they are poor (conversely, those crippled by hungry have a diminished chance of defying poverty). Yet, poverty does not offer foundational explanation to hunger. It begs the question of why people are so poor in the first place. We know that poverty is not inevitable. We also know that no society’s resources are too insufficient to extricate people from abject poverty and starvation. Indeed, too often, resource constraint is not even among the primary causes of poverty and hunger in the world today, including in Ethiopia. Endemic hunger rages unabated, not because the problem is invincible, but because its victims find themselves in socioeconomic and political circumstances that rob them of the ability to defy the tragedy. The fact that hunger is predominantly a rural phenomenon means that its victims are not only socially and economically marginalized, but also are often geographically removed from the scene of political decision making. Powerlessness, be it in the control over productive resources such as land, or in decision making processes at local and national levels explains much of the problem. While the starved are powerless and their voices too muted to be heard, they are often ignored, by those holding political and economic power. We heard several times our leaders denying the existence of famine, even as they plead for food handouts. A credible food security program must thus exhibit the political will to comprehensively address every handicap that undermines a person’s entitlement to food, whether it is illiteracy or bad land policy, genocidal corruption or misdistribution, political repression or overpopulation, discrimination or ecological degradation, institutional ineptitude or unemployment, lack of accountability or political instability.