First Published: 2009-04-24

 
The Global Threat from Hunger
 

More and more countries invest in foreign agriculture to build 'food security' at home. Feeding the rich might end up starving the poor as foreign-owned farms threaten the livelihood of native farmers, says Patrick Seale.

 

Middle East Online

Over one billion people go hungry every day -- that is to say, one sixth of the world’s population of 6.5 billion. They are not just hungry from time to time. They are chronicallyhungry. They can never find enough food to feed their children or meet their own needs. Their number is growing.

What is the world doing about it? The answer is: very little.

The problem is too big, too widespread and -- and also, in a sense, too slow moving -- for rich countries to give it the priority it deserves. World hunger did not feature among the top concerns of the G-20 at their recent summit meeting in London.

Yet, it is beginning to be realised that food insecurity poses a threat to global stability. Meeting in Italy last weekend, agriculture ministers of the G8 industrialised countries recognised the extent of the problem. They pledged to continue fighting hunger. But beyond calling for increased public and private investment in agriculture, the final communiqué was short on fresh proposals. The only good news was the announcement by the Obama Administration that it would double US aid to agriculture in poor countries to $1bn next year.

The ministers were given a report by the Italian presidency which warned that, if widespread starvation was to be avoided, global agricultural output had to double by 2050 -- when the world’s population would reach a staggering 9 billion. The report called for “immediate interventions.” But nothing immediate was suggested.

When prices of agricultural commodities surged in 2007-2008, some thirty countries -- from Haiti to Egypt to Bangladesh -- were shaken by food riots. Illegal migration to Europe increased from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Piracy off the Somali coast captured the world’s attention, but few were prepared to recognise that its roots lay in poverty.

Many diverse factors lie behind the world-wide increase in hunger. They include a soaring world population, which is said to be increasing by 80 million a year; a shortage of water and arable land, notably in the dry Middle East; highly volatile food prices; financial constraints which prevent some governments from continuing to subsidise food prices at former levels; a flight of young people from the land; and -- that new and terrifying imponderable -- climate change.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that an injection of 30 billion Euros a year into family farming across the world could hold hunger in check, and even reverse it. But the FAO appeal has largely fallen on deaf ears.

As collective action by world powers is unlikely, countries with the means to do so are outsourcing the problem of food security by buying or leasing vast tracts of arable land outside their borders.

Saudi Arabia, for example, has already secured 1.6 million hectares of agricultural land in Indonesia. As it is phasing out its own wheat production to conserve finite water resources, it is planning to invest heavily in agricultural projects abroad. A state-owned organisation -- the Saudi Company for Agricultural Investment and Animal Production, with an initial capital of $800m – is trying to interest private Saudi investors in foreign farm projects by providing credit and by negotiating deals with Australia and Argentina, as well as with countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Many such contracts have been concluded or are in prospect. Something like a world-wide scramble for land is taking place. The United Arab Emirates has secured 1.3 million hectares overseas, mainly in Sudan and Pakistan. Indeed Pakistan, according to a Reuters report this week, has offered to sell or lease large tracts of farmland to countries anxious to secure their food supplies. Qatar has land holdings in Indonesia; Kuwait has similar holdings in Burma; while Libya is about to sign a large contract for farmland in Ukraine. Jordan has set its sights on Sudan.

South Korea -- a resource-poor but heavily populated country -- has acquired over one million hectares in Sudan, Mongolia, Indonesia and Argentina. Just last week, the Financial Times reported that a South Korean company, Hyundai Heavy Industries, planned to lease 50,000 hectares of farmland in Russia’s far-east.

China, too, has long been interested in the undeveloped lands of Russia’s far-east. According to the French daily Le Monde, between 400,000 and 700,000 Chinese peasants have already settled permanently in that Russian region, which is geographically closer to Beijing than to Moscow. It is also estimated that a million Chinese peasants might find their way to Africa over the next year or two.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, China feeds 20 per cent of the world’s population with just 10 per cent of the world’s agricultural land and about six per cent of the world’s water resources.

One of the problems of these new semi-colonial plantations is that much of the food produced there will not be consumed on the spot but will be exported to the countries that put up the money -- to China, South Korea and the Arab world. This might actually increase food scarcity in the host countries. Foreign-owned farms could also threaten the lives of native farmers. Often without title to ownership, they face the threat of expulsion by the newcomers.

Feeding the rich might end up starving the poor.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

Copyright © 2009 Patrick Seale

(Distributed by Agence Global)

 

Gunmen kidnap 17 Turks in Iraq capital

US carries out secret drone campaign in Syria

Lebanon protesters escalate “You Stink” campaign

Car bomb kills 10 in Syria regime bastion Latakia

Syria war takes its toll on heritage riches

Saudi top cleric slams Iran prophet movie

Iran police to confiscate cars of 'poorly veiled' women

Libya's Tripoli authorities undecided on joining peace talks

Turkey transfers British reporters to new jail

Two Yemeni Red Cross staff killed

Qatar to begin enforcing key labour reform law from November

Turkey government says it 'had no role' in reporters' arrest

IS claims Tripoli car bomb near oil firm

Dispute with Israel government keeps Christian schools shut

Kuwait charges 24 'linked to Iran' with plotting attacks

Turkey police raid anti-Erdogan media group after British reporters jailed

New Turkey caretaker government holds first meeting

Dozens of Lebanon protesters occupy environment ministry

Shebab attack Somalia AU base

Will Erdogan's political gamble solve Turkey poll impasse?

UN confirms Palmyra temple destroyed

Over 10,000 Icelanders ready to welcome Syrians

Libya loyalist forces battle IS jihadists in Benghazi

South Sudan peace deal in jeopardy

Pressure builds on Europe as refugee crisis exposes splits

Israel confirms jail for Druze ex-MP over visit to Syria

Egypt much delayed elections to start on October 17

Palmyra temple appears ‘largely intact’ after ISIS blast

Turkey to offer cash rewards for tips on ‘terrorists’

Yemen children's hospital on the verge of shutting down

In gruesome video, ISIS shows burning alive of Iraq Shiite fighters

Four years after famine, situation in Somalia remains alarming

A year on, recapture of Yazidi hub remains a distant prospect

IS jihadists move closer than ever to central Damascus

EU leaders call for action to defend migrants’ 'dignity'

IS blows up parts of famed Palmyra temple

Deadly fire at housing complex of Aramco in Saudi Arabia

In historic first, Saudi Arabia allows women to run in local elections

Israel repels protesters with tear gas at separation barrier in West Bank

ISIS brutality in Syria: Over 90 people executed in one month

Bashir to visit China despite international arrest warrant

Egypt summons British envoy in row over Al-Jazeera trial

Yemen war seeks to stop ‘Iran expansion’ in Arab region

Lebanon protesters to government: Meet our demands of face escalation

Calls for action on refugee crisis mount after Austrian tragedy