After steadily declining for over a decade, global hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people in 2016 – 11 percent of the global population, as reported by the 2017 The State of Food Security and Nutrition. Although these figures do not represent the full picture of food insecurity – let us not forget about moderate food insecurity, often insufficiently measured – they do give a hint of the path the world is heading towards. On this occasion of World Food Day, we cannot celebrate that we are on our way to ending hunger.
The proliferation of violent conflicts, like in Yemen, and climate-related shocks, which can be best exemplified by recent catastrophes in the Caribbean and Americas, are partly behind such trends. But underlining all this are the dominant political and economic systems that shape how our world functions, and that also feed us.
Ten years ago, the world food price crisis shook the world, from the south to the north. International prices of all major food commodities reached their highest level in nearly 30 years, pushing the number of people living in hunger to one billion, and compromising the fundamental human rights of many more. And although some thought it to be an unforeseeable conjuncture and the language of crisis was on everyone’s lips, the truth is that the events of 2007 simply brought the cracks of an unsustainable, broken food system, which had already been there for a long time, into public consciousness. The hiking of prices were just a by-product. What we saw was a multifaceted and multidimensional crisis, which led to a human rights disaster.
It had profound effects on people's lives and livelihoods, on their relationships to food, as well as on public health and the social fabric of communities. In an attempt to compensate for the higher food prices, many people, particularly women, had no choice but take on additional work, often under exploitative and unsafe conditions, with ripple effects in other aspects of life. It also forced many to reduce both the quantity and quality of the food they consumed – an example of moderate food insecurity. And its side effects are still being felt to this day.
As echoed by this year’s Right to Food and Nutrition Watch, this brings us to a disturbing conclusion: we’re still trapped in a food crisis. It persists in 2017, as evidenced by the prevalence of severe food insecurity as well as the numerous underreported challenges millions face to realize their right to food. For many, especially in the food sovereignty movement, this comes as no surprise. Dominant economic and political systems prioritize profit over the maintenance of our environment and our right to daily bread. From de-humanized trade deals and the eviction of traditional communities from their lands to the destruction of our nature: they are all consequences of the same root cause.
We are witnessing how the homogenizing and hegemonic global food system, driven by increasingly concentrated transnational corporations, is succeeding in reducing food to a tradable commodity. The rural space is the primary area where this conflict materializes, often violently, through the grabbing and exploitation of land, water and other natural resources. In urban contexts the alarming incidence and prevalence of diet-related non-communicable diseases, as well as obesity, is on the rise worldwide.
Unsustainable approaches have also been evident in the systematic exploitation of farm labour, the persistent pollution of nature and the concentration of economic power and wealth that leave food producers chronically indebted. And of course, this has surfaced as a result of rising levels of inequality in access to both food and productive resources. If the root causes that brought us to the crisis in the first place have not been tackled, we should not be surprised that we are back at square one. Real and long-lasting improvement during these years has been more a mirage than a reality.
If we want to find our way out of this multidimensional crisis, we need systemic transformations. We need a transition to sustainable production, distribution and consumption models that do not condition the guarantee of our human rights and the conservation of nature. Think for a moment what we are leaving for the future generations! If we continue down this path, we will have nothing to feed humanity into the future, at least not adequately. We urgently need to build up resilient local and regional food systems and address the extreme concentrations of power in national and international markets.
On the bright side, the continuing food crisis has already led food sovereignty movements to advance alternatives, particularly agroecology. Approached as a science, a set of practices, and a movement for food production that works with nature, is a pillar of food sovereignty and is guided by human rights. Standing in stark contrast to industrial models of production that require environmentally and economically costly external inputs, while generating substantial waste and other social and environmental costs, agroecology now receives an unprecedented level of interest and visibility, including from some governments. This is particularly the case as intensifying climate-induced disruptions have increased the challenges to industrial agriculture.
But, even though we have managed to put agroecology partially into the UN agenda, it cannot be placed on an equal footing with approaches put forward by the private sector, such as ‘climate smart agriculture’. These two terms cannot simply coexist, because in order for agribusiness to survive, peasant farming would have to die. Half-hearted commitments by states serve no purpose, as they are aimed at pleasing both civil society and business but bring no real changes. The priority should lie in the needs and rights of human beings, not of business.
We have tried to eradicate hunger and malnutrition for ten years and we did not succeed. Not only should we reflect on replacing a system that is failing us, but more importantly on the values that sustain it. Should the generation of profit come at the cost of environmental destruction and our basic human right to food and nutrition? People are hungry for real change.
Jean Ziegler is former UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and Sofia Monsalve, Secretary General of FIAN International