Thursday, May 12, 2011

Poverty: They Cure Symptoms of Poverty and Hunger

Photo Credit:

By Johannes Reichert

IDN-InDepth NewsReport

ISTANBUL (IDN) - If the fourth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries (UNLDC IV) "does not look promising at all," as former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, pointed out bluntly ahead of the gathering concluding on May 13, it is because the root causes of the problems of the world's poorest are not being tackled.

Instead of curing root causes of poverty and hunger that plague LDCs, the focus is on curing symptoms. Poverty and hunger are related to each other and to environmental degradation. This is underlined by the fact LDCs are primarily agricultural economies with nearly 70 percent of the population engaged in agriculture. But productivity of LDC agriculture is relatively low. Land degradation is a major problem, due to increasing population pressure, erosion, water scarcity and the breakdown of traditional systems for soil fertility.

Nevertheless, farmers have little support from their governments. In fact, African countries, which constitute the lion's share of LDCs, spend only 3 percent of their budget on agriculture, disproportionate to the size of the sector in terms of employment and economic activity.

Encouraged by the rich developed countries who claim to be their redeemers meanwhile, most LDCs dismantled marketing boards, extension services and credit support and opened up agricultural markets to subsidised exports from developed countries some twenty years ago.

"This decimated agricultural sectors and most turned from net food exporters to net food importers within a decade -- the LDCs food import bill rose from USD 9 billion in 2002 to USD 24 billion in 2008," informs a policy brief by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), titled 'Sustainable agriculture and food security in LDCs', released on May 11.

"International finance organizations and bilateral donors advised several LDCs to set up production and export capacity for cash crops. While some countries, such as Tanzania, have been successful in this regard, this focus often distracted political attention and crowded out investment from staple food production and its supportive infrastructure and institutions," notes the UNCTAD policy brief.

In addition, post harvest losses in LDCs are large, with at least one third of food produced being lost before reaching consumers due to spoilage, poor storage and transport facilities. On-site processing of agricultural products is limited by energy poverty; 92 percent of rural households in sub-Saharan Africa have no electricity.

UNCTAD adds: Environmental degradation contributes to food insecurity. Natural ecosystems provide most of the world's poor with food, fuel, medicine, building materials and cultural identity. These systems are being systematically degraded and destroyed, and their regenerative and strategic productive capacity jeopardized. Unsustainable land management practices lead to scarcity of water for both drinking and agriculture.

The changing climate increases extreme weather events in LDCs (extreme temperature, floods and droughts) and unpredictable changes in weather patterns that affect agriculture. Extreme weather events in LDCs increased fivefold from the period 1970-79 to 2000-10, resulting in over USD 14 billion losses. Land use changes, forestry and agriculture account for over 70 percent of LDC greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental degradation, low agricultural productivity, high post harvest losses, limited connections to markets, energy poverty, limited education and nonagricultural opportunities, hunger and thirst lead millions of desperate people to leave rural areas each year for the cities, only to find that life is often no better.

To check this vicious circle, rural areas in LDCs must be revitalized, transforming them into vibrant places with a clear perspective for families and young people, UNCTAD advises, adding: "For this we need a fundamental transformation, even a revolution, in agriculture. This revolution should not be based on expensive, imported external inputs."

The policy brief notes that governments spend large amounts of their foreign currency reserves on agrochemicals (synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides). LDCs import over 90 percent of the agrochemicals used in agriculture. Many of these chemicals are dangerous, with pesticides being a top cause of occupational mortality and morbidity, and they are difficult to provide to rural farmers at the right time.

UNCTAD considers it problematic that the global seed, agrochemical and biotechnology market is dominated by few companies, with the four biggest controlling 60 percent of global agro-chemical, a third of seed and almost 40 percent of biotechnology supply.

The prices of oil and agrochemicals are increasing, due to the increasing price of fossil fuels, used in agrochemicals, and mineral phosphorous, used in synthetic fertilizer. The agricultural input index skyrocketed just before the first food price crisis of 2008. The ratio of food prices to input prices fell steadily over the 2004-2008 period.

"Farmers were not profiting from higher food prices because their input prices were increasing much faster. In the light of the above, going down the high-external input-dependent, industrial agriculture route places LDCs in a situation of extreme vulnerability," notes UNCTAD.

But there is another way -- one that builds upon and gives value to LDCs strengths: sustainable agriculture. It focuses on ecological and not chemical intensification of agricultural production.

Sustainable agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. It combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life.

Research by the UN and numerous other bodies demonstrates that sustainable agriculture improves food supply, nutrition and livelihoods in LDCs. For example, a UNEP-UNCTAD analysis of 114 cases in Africa revealed that a shift towards organic agriculture production increased yields by 116 percent. Moreover the positive impact endures as it is based on strengthening the five types of capital in farming communities -- human, social, natural, financial and physical.

The policy brief says: Building strong soils and improving soil fertility is key to sustainable agricultural practices, and increases soil water retention and resilience to climatic shocks such as higher temperatures, droughts, floods and storms.

"Moreover sustainable agriculture, with its focus on building ago-ecological systems, promotes the use and further development of indigenous varieties, well adapted to local conditions and agricultural practices, and the associated knowledge," says UNCTAD.

UNCTAD regrets that these traditional varieties are disappearing from farmers’ fields worldwide at very high rates, and with them goes the associated wealth of traditional knowledge and culture.