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Food prices around the world are surging. Between July of last year and this January alone, the price of wheat has doubled. Indeed, the cost of food has now passed the record levels of 2008, when angry citizens staged huge protests in dozens of countries. Currently, protesters across the Middle East include lowering food prices among their demands. When prices go up even a bit, millions more people starve.
The local organic farmers with whom we have been spending time in the Philippines and elsewhere are less affected by these price swings precisely because they consume much of what they harvest, and they sell the rest to local markets. These farmers have achieved at the household level what Frances Moore Lappé terms “food democracy,” and what the small farmer coalition, Via Campesina, calls “food sovereignty” at a national level.
A country has “food sovereignty” when its people consume safe and nutritious food largely grown by their own small farmers. Significantly fewer countries sustain this sovereignty today than a generation ago. The reigning development model pushed by World Bank and other experts has left many countries exporting more cash crops like flowers and gourmet vegetables, and importing more of their staple foods.
But there is more to food sovereignty than freedom from imports. In richer countries, food purchases make up a relatively small percent of household budgets. Here in the United States, we spend an average of only seven percent of our budgets on food, although that number rises in poor urban neighborhoods.
In Tunisia and Egypt, however, the average person spends more than a third of their household budget on food, and thus more people feel food price hikes daily in the pits of their stomachs.
As in most countries, Egyptians used to grow what they ate domestically. Today, Egypt is one of the world’s largest wheat importers— bringing in over half the wheat it consumes from elsewhere. As a result, ordinary Egyptians are now extremely vulnerable to catastrophic global weather events and manipulative trading by speculators on commodity futures markets. Wheat prices are spiking in part because of recent droughts in China and flooding in Australia. The food markets in poorer nations feel the consequences of these price hikes immediately.
Worldwide, the majority of people get the bulk of their calories from basic grains. In almost all countries, this means wheat, rice, or corn. We decided to look at the degree to which countries have become dependent on importing these critical foods. We were stunned by the results.
Haiti imports more than 80 percent of its number one grain: rice. Tunisia and Morocco both import about three-quarters of the wheat their people consume. In Mexico, the birthplace of corn, the North American Free Trade Agreement ripped open the market. Mexicans now buy most of their corn from the United States.
Rice-eating nations are usually more resilient. They tend to grow the vast majority of this staple, making import dependence low.
But in the Philippines, where we have spent considerable time on local farms, imports account for as much as a sixth of rice consumption. In 2008, rising rice prices set the entire nation on edge. Responding to citizen concerns about such intense vulnerability to global markets, the new government has set ambitious goals on eliminating rice imports within three years. They project much lower rice imports this year.
There are food sovereignty lessons to be learned from sub-Saharan Africa, made up of those countries that lie south of the protest belt in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Most of these nations are less import-dependent when it comes to food than nations in Latin America and Asia, and so are less affected by spiraling prices. In addition, there is evidence that, as food costs have risen in several of these sub-Saharan countries, people are returning to native-grown cassava and sorghum in place of expensive imported food.
But mainstream pundits are now counseling these countries to further enmesh themselves in the global economy. While the World Bank continues to push trade-dependent agriculture, hundreds of groups from ActionAid to the Oakland Institute and Food First are promoting alternatives.
The UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food has been gathering evidence from 57 poorer nations where innovative non-chemical techniques have been used to boost food production. Special Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter sums up the findings: “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development."
There is a ray of hope that penetrates the crisis for import-dependent countries: While millions are suffering as the result of volatile development models, the food emergency of 2011 can convince more countries to reject conventional “wisdom” that says exporting and importing more is the right path to food security.
In many countries like the Philippines, local farmers growing healthy and chemical-free foods are on the rise and are taking over increasing shares of local and national markets.
There is a great deal that governments can do to boost such rooted, sustainable farms, from investing in irrigation and retraining agricultural extension workers, to rejecting trade agreements that pry open food markets.
Today, thousands of people in the streets of Morocco and other Middle Eastern nations are demanding lower food prices as well as democracy. It is time to say “no” to food vulnerability and to reinvigorate rooted farms all over the world.
John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group.
They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.