Chronic hunger affects some 850 million people in the world, while hunger and poverty combined claim around 25,000 lives every day.
To remind us of this unacceptable tragedy, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation celebrated its annual World Food Day with the slogan “The Right to Food.”
But the FAO should have paid more attention to the rights that matter most for “landless farmers, urban slum dwellers…and the extremely poor”--the right to own and exchange property and the right to trade freely, both locally and internationally.
The good intentions of World Food Day on October 16 fail to address seriously the real causes of hunger, famine and poverty.
Jacques Diouf, the organisation’s Director-General rhetorically asked “if our planet produces enough food to feed its entire population, why do 854 million people still go to sleep on an empty stomach?” The answer is destructive government policies.
In the name of subsistence farmers and the hungry, many governments have taken control of agriculture, only to leave it damaged and unprofitable.
Food marketing boards, protectionist trade barriers and heavy tariffs have all made farmers poorer, reduced crop yields and hurt consumers.
These barriers prevent farmers from selling their produce for a profit--eventually leaving both consumers and farmers with empty stomachs.
During famines and food crises, the damage that arbitrary barriers cause to health and life becomes only too visible.
During the famine in Kenya last year, crops were abundant in the Western part of the country while people in the North were starving.
This is not unique and will unfortunately be repeated until markets are allowed to work, unfettered by government policies.
Barriers to trade also prevent farmers from having access to agricultural technologies such as pesticides, fertilizer and hybrid seeds which could drastically reduce backbreaking labour while improving crop yields.
In a single crop season, it takes Sub-Saharan subsistence farmers anywhere between 60 to 120 days just to weed a field.
In fact, nowhere is the average import tariff on agricultural products higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa, where an average of 33.6 per cent raises prices beyond the grasp of those who need it most--the 70 per cent of people who live off the land.
Fertilizer can cost Africans six times the world price. Heads of State and government from more than 40 African Union nations agreed at the Abuja Fertilizer Summit in June 2006 that “as an immediate measure, the elimination of taxes and tariffs on fertilizer and fertilizer raw materials is recommended.”
More than a year later, there is still no report of progress--and barriers to regional trade in all products remain among the highest in the world.
Hunger affects all sectors of life--without adequate and nutritious food, people are unable to work, raise their families, go to school or resist diseases. The best way to reach so-called food security is to ensure that people have the freedom and the rights to provide for themselves and their families.
Not only should governments stop interfering with agriculture and pursuing the chimera of self-sufficiency, they should also recognise that human beings are at their most capable and responsible when free.
The right to own and exchange property would encourage farmers to invest more time and money into their land. More farmers would use agricultural technologies if they were confident that they would retain the returns on their investments. Secure land tenure would also allow farmers to obtain loans from banks by using their land as collateral.
This would allow them to invest to improve their farming business, to start up new businesses or to simply ensure their families’ good health, education and well-being.
Upholding property rights and enabling people to operate businesses in order to sell goods and services would significantly reduce hunger. These policies may seem unrelated to food but they are intimately related to the freedoms that farmers have to produce food and earn a living.
By contrast, continued intervention by governments or international agencies has kept farmers hungry and unproductive, creating those hungry millions.
The FAO is right to say governments should “create peaceful, stable, free and prosperous environments in which people can feed themselves in dignity.”
But that means strengthening people’s control over their own lives, land and work--not government control.
The writer is a Research Fellow in the Environment Programme at International Policy Network, an educational think-tank based in London