Saturday, 28 November 2009

Food Security: The Ultimate National Security

Although the parts on climate change (not the real problem) are at best unfortunate, and although the part on the historical role of the Church is just plain wrong, The Morning Star editorialises:

Over the next couple of weeks we will see a level of political frenzy let loose on the international stage. Ministers will try desperately to salvage something from the crushed expectations of the Copenhagen summit. I don't doubt the integrity of those attempting the rescue mission. It just feels that they have the same prospects as households trying to resist the floods in Cumbria. In this case it is the sheer force of tidal stupidity within the global community that will sweep away most of our bridges. Without wishing to be facetious, perhaps our best hope of success from Copenhagen is failure.

Global leaders are trying to stitch together a climate change agreement based around many of the assumptions that got us into the mess in the first place. Rich nations still argue that a return to economic growth has to come first. Poor nations argue that they are entitled to a larger share of it. No-one seems willing to question the model itself. "Trade is good for the poor," argue the free-trade ideologues, who choose to ignore that much of this trade is entirely dominated by global corporations. Transnational companies use the assets of the developing world to enhance the quality of their offshore bank accounts, rather than the onshore life prospects of the poor.

None of the big lobbying organisations hovering around Copenhagen argues the case for a post-globalisation economics, in which regionalised economic systems take priority over global ones. Sooner rather than later, the world's leaders will need to understand that "security" issues are displacing free-trade agreements, and will continue to do so. A huge fuss recently erupted over rich companies and countries acquiring land rights in the developing world.

The most dramatic was undoubtedly the deal set up by the Madagascar government. It planned to lease half of the island's arable land to the South Korean company Daewoo. The firm was to get the land for 99 years and pay next to nothing for it. In exchange Madagascar was offered a barter arrangement for infrastructure projects. Such was the level of public anger about this deal that Malagasy president Marc Ravalomanana was forced out of office. The deal has now been scrapped. However, it was not the only land grab that has been taking place.

The UN food and agriculture organisation (FAO) calculated that a recent wave of land acquisitions has taken place in Africa equivalent to one 10th of the continent's existing farmed area. Saudi Arabia already had huge land holdings in Sudan. It has now signed an additional $100 million (£61m) deal for fertile land in Ethiopia. China has agreements for new land holdings in Zimbabwe and Algeria. Egypt has leased two million acres of land in Uganda to grow corn and wheat. A new wave of colonial occupation is taking place. Conquest is by contract rather than by the sword.

In the last couple of months there have been a string of reports about how climate change is dragging Kenya into tribal conflicts about the right to survive. This year's drought is the third year in succession. The rain has been either insufficient or has arrived at the wrong time. Nearly four million Kenyans are dependent on food aid. Thousands of animals have died of starvation and thirst. Fighting between tribes sometimes begins and ends with the slaughter of each other's cattle. Kill the livelihood and you kill the tribe. Often it is only the uneasy brokering of water rationing agreements by tribal leaders that holds off the descent into a raw fight for survival.

It is against this background that you must make your own judgements about Qatar's acquisition of 40,000 hectares of Kenya's Tana river delta to grow fruit and vegetables for consumption by Qataris. Britain also buys huge quantities of green beans, cut flowers and fresh vegetables from Kenya. These are produced using water that Kenyans no longer have for themselves. It is a form of water sequestration - transferring the "embedded water" in goods from the south to supermarket shelves in the north. At some point the poor will refuse to play. But the revolt may not begin with the poor.

Australia has begun a "security" rethink about fishing rights around its territorial waters. It has threatened to cut the nets of boats in what it regards as its domain. The actual confrontation may not be with Russian or Japanese "fish factory" ships, which hoover up vast tracts of the sea bed. It is the lives and livelihoods of small Indonesian fishing communities that are more likely to be threatened. International objections came in thick and fast when the Philippines suspended all rice exports in the middle of a food crisis of its own. But when big nations take action to protect their food security interests, it is only a matter of time before the whole ball game changes.

A new protectionism - food security - will come to override trade agreements or market liberalisation. And so it should.

The alternatives are civil war or tidal population movements in search of food and water. The trouble is that rich nations want access to cheap food, but not the refugees that cheap food ultimately produces. India is building a 2,500-mile fence to keep out would-be refugees from Bangladesh. The US has done much the same with Mexico. They are joined by a collection of oil-rich, water-poor countries whose own food security needs are being met by buying crops out of the mouths of the poor.
Still, the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and World Bank demand market liberalisation as a precondition of debt relief. Over the last two decades aid and investment in sustainable agriculture has plummeted. What we need are policies that protect the traditional rights of smallholders and family farmers. What we get is huge international pressure on the poorest of countries to sign away land deals under the pretext that common land is "unused" land.

The same presumption was made in the early years of imperial expansion. Explorers from France, Spain, Britain and Portugal were handed a papal bull which allowed them to claim the lands they "discovered." It was the church doctrine of terra nullius - an assumption that these were empty lands, regardless of the indigenous societies which may have lived there for thousands of years. Then, as now, land acquisition was based on superior force. Then, but not now, there was land and water to spare.

Today we need new policies which treat water as the scarce resource it is, which live modestly within the limits nature sets and which tread respectfully around the irresistible force that water can also become. The connections between Kenya and Cumbria are that they each tell us that management of water and land are central to our future survival. How we manage crises will be an unavoidable challenge, even for climate sceptics. If the climate scientists are right, however, a return to "business as usual" economics will only accelerate the shift from crisis to chaos. A half-hearted deal in Copenhagen would speed up the process.

Rich nations will not shell out sufficient cash to deliver food security and energy security programmes in the south. Without this the south will not sign up to any climate change agreement. Rich nations will not agree to live on less and to share more. They want the world to be as it was - business as usual and a transformation without tears.

They wish.

Maybe it is better to face up to the fact that today's global institutions - and the mindset of the negotiators - are themselves not fit for purpose. They will not save a place for us on the planet. Perhaps only an abject failure in Copenhagen can force a break from the politics that created the mess in the first place. As Einstein is famously credited as saying: "The thinking it took to get us into this mess is not the same thinking that is going to get us out of it."

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