The food crises and the need of changes

09/25/2008, 3:35 PM (update on 04/18/2019, 4:32 PM) | Estimated reading time: 19 min
By Iara Pietricovsky, member of INESC Executive Board. Anthropologist and political scientist.
The text was presented in the Unctad's fifty-fifth session of the Trade and Development Board.

Inesc presents the text “The food crises: needed and urgent structural changes” written by Iara Pietricovsky from Inesc’s Management Collegiate Body and presented in the Unctad’s fifty-fifth session of the Trade and Development Board.


The food crisis: needed and urgent structural changes

Iara Pietricovsky[1]

The global crisis in food prices seems to reflect a systemic crisis, closely linked to the capitalist mode of production, particularly in its stage of capital financiarization. We speak of crisis because, according to the World Bank, there was an average increase of 83% in the price of basic food products, which are key to the world food chain – such as wheat, corn, rice, milk, meat, soybean, and so on – as well as a 38% rise in commodity prices in 2004-2007, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Although this crisis is currently abating, it shows the perverse and cruel face of the hegemonic development model, and its capacity to produce deep inequalities, in addition to destroying the planet’s natural wealth.

This crisis has many paradoxes. First, the world hunger that affects a significant number of people (at least 800 million people live in extreme poverty and chronic hunger around the world) is not caused by lack of food. On the contrary, food production is sufficient. However, a large contingent does not have access to food due to lack of money to buy it in sufficient amount or because they do not have land or are not supported, through public policies, to grow their own food or produce a surplus for local markets. This proves that the food crisis not only reflects an economic and social crisis, but is also a worldwide violation of human rights.

What are the elements behind this price rise and the unprecedented increase of food shortages? According to the Brazilian Action for Nutrition and Human Rights (ABRANDH) and the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (INESC), we have to take into account the following points:

1. A commodity production and marketing model highly based on fossil fuels.

This point is based on the whole productive chain of petroleum and its byproducts, with the sharp increase of oil price, from US$ 30 a barrel in 2003 to over US$ 120 in 2008. This had a direct impact on food production and transportation.

2. US and European protectionist agricultural policies that make it impossible for food produced in developing countries to access the market.

Protectionist policies in those countries make it impossible to produce food in developing countries. They end up importing food, spending more on oil, and causing increased inflation. As a result, developing countries limit funds to social policies and to fight structural poverty and extreme poverty.

3. Market liberalization and deregulation.

The key issue in the market deregulation implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank was that it weakened national states, especially in developing countries. As a consequence, states are unable to implement public policies for promoting food sovereignty, family agriculture, food stocks, rural extension, adequate technological development, and so on. Governments do not prioritize public funding to social policies related to universalization of human rights. Mexico is the most emblematic case, where the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had a devastating impact on Mexican basic food, particularly the corn tortilla. Incapable of competing with highly-subsidized US corn, Mexicans stopped producing this basic food and the country started to import it. With the recent inflation in corn prices, the price of tortilla quadrupled, making it inaccessible to large parts of the population.

4. Transforming food products into commodities.

Food products ceased to be viewed as food and became investment in futures markets. With the increased number of people consuming food, particularly in China, India, Brazil, among other countries, food products were stocked to increase prices in the markets. Here we face an ethical issue because what is relevant for the world market system is the price increase rather than the world population’s right to food.

5. Irresponsible energy sovereignty policies in developed countries, especially in the European Union and the United States.

This shows the contradiction between the incentives given by the rich countries to the production of agrofuels using products from the food chain, and their refusal to discuss other forms of producing and consuming food products.

6. Weak international solidarity related to reduced assistance to the agricultural sector.

According to data released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), official development assistance (ODA) granted by the richest countries has been around 0.3% of their GDPs for over 15 years. This falls far short of the modest goal of 0.7% by 2015. Furthermore, little or no investment has been made in research combining local and traditional knowledge with formal knowledge, with the goal of developing agricultural inputs and technologies adequate to different biomes and cultures in developing countries. It should be added to this, the weakness of public policies for rural infrastructure, as well as health, education, credit, and technical assistance. All this has contributed to a global decrease in the growth rate of agricultural productivity.

7. Waste.

The huge food waste is another very serious structural factor in a world where millions of people still go hungry. It is estimated that about 30% of the food products are wasted in the stages of harvesting/raising/slaughtering, transporting, processing, packaging, storing, distributing, handling, and consuming. It should also be noted the huge waste of water to produce agrofuels and beef. The waste of food and water is considered one of the greatest challenges of the XXI century.

8. Climate change.

Earth’s climate change is recognized as an emergency. The mode of production based on fossil fuels, with a predatory appropriation of nature by an individualistic and consumerist model of society, has been provoking the exhaustion of nature. Excessive carbon monoxide, hole in the ozone layer, too many automotive vehicles in the cities, deforestation, forests devastated by slash and burning, among other factors, have caused global climate warming.

This global warming produces alterations in the climate patterns that govern agriculture, drying up riverbeds, and melting ice in mountain ranges which forms most of the rivers that flow into agricultural lands. In addition, ice melting in the North and South poles causes floods in other areas. There is a clear trend to changes in the environmental pattern: droughts and floods will harm global food production capacity, further weakening those countries unable to implement food sovereignty.

In addition, to maintain this market logic, with its unrestrained search for profits, based on fossil fuels or on the transformation of food products related to the food chain into agrofuels, will necessarily cause an even more dramatic impact on the climate. Its expansion has caused the invasion of forested areas and waste of drinking water in agrofuel production. This form of production further stimulates extensive farming, harms family agriculture (both subsistence and indigenous farming), destroys biodiversity, and increases global warming.

The group of scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that urgent action on the part of governments and changes in our patterns of production and consumption are needed, as well as strengthening values based on human rights.

Pathways for change

Why Brazil has managed to dampen the impact of the food crisis? Recent analyses have noted the country’s capacity to produce surplus because of repeated super harvests. Another important factor in containing the effects of the global food crisis is a set of public policies strengthening the country’s agricultural potential and vocation, including family farming. In 2005, family farming production made up 9% of the Brazilian GDP and a little more than a third (34.7%) of the value of domestic agricultural production (Ministry for Agrarian Development and DIEESE, 2008). Antipoverty public policies and those with a redistributive approach should also be considered in this analysis.

Brazil is an important example of a country where participatory democracy, demanded by social movements since the 1990s, has produced results in the fight against poverty and inequality. The struggle to implement human rights, an ongoing struggle of social movements, has stimulated the Brazilian government to develop policies for historically marginalized segments, such as peasants in family farming, rural women, among others. Today there are measures promoting access of family farmers to the benefits of agricultural policies. In addition, other measures such as the universalization of rural social security, expansion of the Bolsa Família Program, universalization of electricity in rural areas, and increase in the minimum wage with impact on the urban and rural population should also be taken into account.

I cited this example to show that the diminished impact of the crisis was directly related to the government’s capacity to establish a dialogue with social movements and organized civil society, which have accumulated paradigmatic experiences to change the world development pattern and gained autonomy in elaborating, implementing, and executing social policies, ensuring a decent life to about a third of the population. The participatory process applies pressure on the government and changes national priorities.

In a recent meeting, the Brazilian National Council on Food Security (CONSEA) presented the following suggestions to the Lula government:

a) expanding and strengthening policies to support family farming;

b) implementing a national food supply policy based on the approaches of food security and sovereignty, and the human right to adequate food;

c) revising the food production and consumption model to ensure expansion of a diversified food production, valorization of agrobiodiversity, strengthening regional culture and eating habits, and democratizing access to land and other natural resources;

d) revising the agrofuel production model in order to not compromise the food and nutrition security of the Brazilian population;

e) revising the basis of global trade regulations sponsored by the WTO; and

f) resuming the proposal to create a world food and nutrition security program similar to the Zero Hunger program (Fome Zero).

Hence, there is strong input from demands put forward by social movements in these proposals and, to a certain extent, in the suggestions accepted by government. We could compare with the following proposals made by a working group organized in Brazilian civil society. The FASE Working Group on Monoculture (2008) noted: “agriculture diversification against monoculture, family and peasant farming against agribusiness, agroecology against the ‘green revolution’ and the ‘genetics revolution,’ agrarian reform and limitation of the size of rural properties against large estates, maintenance of ecosystems against homogenization of spaces, rebalancing rural and urban worlds against emptying the countryside and urban-industrial concentration, recognition of the lands owned by traditional populations against expropriation of territorial rights and privatization of the environment, social use of biodiversity against patenting genetic resources, food and nutrition sovereignty and strengthening local markets against depleting diets, taking advantage of food along all the food chain against the huge waste, considering food and water as rights against a model that transformed them into commodities.”

These demands express an enormous conflict within Brazilian society, as well as the scope of the challenge for equalizing all the different interests that come into play. The old model, still hegemonic, is facing new proposals of how to address inequalities and the predatory exploitation of Earth’s natural resources and biodiversity.

Looking at the world from the perspective of the tensions and challenges in Brazilian society, we suggest that the following be implemented at international level:

1) Strengthening the role of the state in its three dimensions, so they are able to act as effective mediators in conflicting social interests and, at the same time, be capable of implementing the treaties and conventions with autonomy and sovereignty;

2) Recognizing the human right to food, so national states are able to implement, promote, and execute food security policies, as well as policies to ensure a decent life for all people.

3) Strengthening the processes of dialogue with and participation of social movements and NGOs from the social transformation camp and at the international level;

4) Launching and promoting measures to change world consumption, and unfair and unequal international trade rules, stimulating public transportation policies and diminishing the number of cars in the cities, fighting against water and energy waste, stimulating renewable energy sources, furthering new technologies to create jobs and preserve the environment, its biodiversity and local culture, protecting genetic resources, defending indigenous populations and their traditional knowledge, fighting against the concentration of land, income, and inputs.

5) Ensuring implementation of social protection policies and systems in developing countries. Guaranteeing policies for social security, health, education, social assistance, adequate food and nutrition, housing, sanitation, jobs and income, public security, and promotion of ethnic, race, gender, and sexual orientation equality. These policies should be elaborated and implemented from the perspective of human rights.

6) Expanding international public funding for agrarian development policies that will strengthen family farming and indigenous peoples. This will be achieved through access to credit, land, water, inputs, and incentives to cooperatives and associations, and so on.

7) Reinforcing international public institutions and institutionalities in order to ensure a global project based on radicalizing human rights throughout the planet.

8) Expanding development assistance in effective ways.


1) Discussion paper – A Crise Mundial de Alimentos Viola o Direito à Alimentação (World Food Crisis Violates the Right to Food) – ABRANDH – Brasília, 2008.

2) E.M. n. 004 – 2008/CONSEA, May 2008.

3) INESC Technical Note – Segurança Alimentar no Âmbito do Mercosul (Food Security in the Mercosur Framework), Brasília, September 2008.

[1] Member of INESC Executive Board. Anthropologist and political scientist.

Category: Artigo

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