Drought in Australia’s food bowl, subsidies for ethanol production in the USA and shifts in European farm subsidies are all being touted as contributing to a spike in world prices. Whatever the cause, many millions of people around the world face hunger as globalisation facilitates the movement of the food that is available to those who are prepared to pay the highest price. Australians might complain about paying a little more for bread but they are unlikely to go without. As always, it is the poor who are most affected.
I am a forest scientist by profession, a forest owner by heart and a small time farmer by coincidence. My interest in the world food crises is in what it tells us about our land management systems and the complex economies that have developed around them. In the hope that something good may come from this crisis I’m looking to the future and hoping that others with influence are able to solicit a response sufficient to meet the immediate needs of the hungry.
International food programs must rightly focus on the crisis as a means of highlighting the need for more government and community funding. However, there is clearly a risk that programs and policies aimed at holding back rising food prices will do more damage than good in the long term.
With increasing demand for food and fibre to be produced more environmentally and socially sustainably, and for land to be retired from production for conservation, recreation and urban development, an increase in food prices is arguably long overdue. In fact, high prices, particularly resulting from higher energy costs, may be exactly what we need to underpin a new “many shades of green” revolution in farming systems.
For decades, Australian farmers have complained about the cost-price squeeze. Whether it is due to the availability of cheap imports or an imbalance of power in the food marketing and distribution system, farm gate food prices have not risen sufficiently to cover the rising costs of production.
To survive, farmers have continued to adopt the strategies promoted during the last green revolution such as: get-bigger-or-get-out; an increased reliance on pesticides; specialisation rather than diversification; a shift from rainfed to irrigated systems; and engineering advances that reduce labour costs.
As a result, the community has had the food they need without having to incur much in the way of higher prices. It’s not surprising many farmers see no alternative but to continue in the same vain by embracing genetically modified crops.
And, internationally, the strategy has largely worked: the world has been able to maintain a cheap and fairly readily available food supply despite a dramatic increase in population and urbanisation. However, the fact that a number of relatively independent events that have happened to occur simultaneously in the wealthiest countries (Europe, North America and Australia) can lead to food shortages in some of the poorest countries suggests the globalisation and industrialisation of farming systems has its risks.
For me, the crisis has highlighted the inability of farmers, despite the diverse climates across the world, to respond quickly to the price signals and increase production. The reasons for this will vary from place to place and would need to be studied locally. It could be climatic (drought or flood) but I suspect the problem is more likely to be the result of insecure land tenure, the availability and cost of seeds and other inputs on which farmers have become reliant, the lack of effective marketing mechanisms, and an inadequate knowledge and skills base.
The process of industrialisation and simplification of farming systems has reduced the use of locally appropriate food crops and farming techniques, undermined the value of local (indigenous) knowledge and effectively set farmers from different corners of the globe against each other such that they compete for the same inputs in and attempt to supply the same markets.
Yet, on the positive side, the higher costs of the inputs of industrial agriculture (water, fuel, fertilisers and pesticides), coupled with higher food prices may be the catalyst for change. Rewarding those who can produce food that is less reliant on a few (centrality controlled) inputs may well encourage the development of highly diverse and widely distributed agricultural systems that deliver the full range of environmental, social and economic values we are coming to expect of our rural landscape.
Labour costs, traditionally seen as a threat to the profitability of farming systems will become a more cost effective management option leading to greater employment opportunities and reducing the flight to the cities.
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