Ahead of the June G20 Summit, the charity Oxfam launched a campaign, called Grow, and at its US launch Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser said that the entire food system as we know it is fundamentally broken.
Even if we leave aside the questionable ethics of commodity price speculation on basic foods in a world where people starve in one place while food is thrown away in another, there is something badly out of balance with food production.
It is not wholly clear what sparked the recent E Coli outbreak in Germany, for example. First Spanish cucumbers, then German bean sprout seeds and now seeds originating from a company in the UK have been identified as being the cause, though so far without as yet any hard scientific proof.
This is a good illustration what Offenheiser was talking about. Often we do not know where our food has come from, how it has been produced and how far it has had to travel from seed to supermarket. At the same time we do not know whether the farmers who produced it were making a fair return for their effort or were eking out a living while struggling to survive themselves on the uneven playing field that is the global food market.
One of the five key areas where Oxfam’s Grow campaign was calling for action was in providing aid to small producers in developing countries. 500 million small-scale food producers in poor countries feed nearly one-third of humanity.
The charity argues that while investment in smallholder agriculture should be tailored to the particular contexts of the farmers, its ultimate aim in working with small farmers is to shift towards the least external inputs possible while increasing productivity.
The CEO of the world’s largest biopesticides research and development organisation based in the US also argues that investment in small farmers is needed and has said that his company’s focus on the research and development of low-chem bio-pesticides, bio-fungicides and yield enhancing agricultural products is aimed to help farmers provide safer, healthier foods to consumers without compromising the quality of their land and ultimately the environment on which we all depend.
He, also, has said that it is scandalous that in such a diverse and rich world so many people still suffer malnutrition and starvation and that lack of investment and resources mean that many developing world farmers are faced with an unacceptable choice between producing enough food and draining their land of precious goodness in the effort to do so.
Plainly there is some agreement from both the charity sector and organizations within the food production system that action is needed and even on where it should be targeted.
The June 2011 G20 meeting did announce an action plan. It called for a big increase in productivity and greater transparency in commodity markets as a way of curbing volatility in food prices. It proposed an agricultural market information system (Amis) to provide accurate and timely information on crop supply, demand and food stocks and promised to give special attention to smallholders, especially women, in particular in developing countries, and to young farmers to improve productivity.
As Oxfam and other campaigners pointed out afterwards, however, without any detailed figures, targets or deadlines much of the announcement could be seen as empty rhetoric.