Two global food crises in 5 years is a misfortune; three looks like carelessness. So yesterday’s Global Hunger Summit was a golden opportunity to tackle the causes of global food price volatility – without doubt the single greatest threat to nutrition in the 21st century, and with equally little doubt, the result of chronically malfunctioning food markets exacerbating climate change (see e.g. what the clever people at the New England Complex Systems Institute say about the 2012 food crisis).
So what did the Global Hunger Summit propose to do about the malfunctioning markets and commodity speculation behind upward fluctuating food prices? Not a lot. The joint statement the PM issued with the Brazilian VP Michel Temer acknowledged climate change, with an emphasis on science-y solutions like drought resistant crops and ‘evidence-based’ policies. But while nobody expected a full-on attack on profit-motivated food commodity speculation, there was a pat on the back for food markets, with a promise to connect poor people to them better. That must have gone down pretty well with the global food giant Cargill – which was already feeling ‘optimistic’ earlier this month as the US drought increased global food price volatility and thereby its revenue prospects.
Putting hunger high on the global policy agenda should be a good thing, but the Summit failed to connect with the concerns of poor people whose experiences are being tracked in our IDS-Oxfam Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project (funded by DFID, Irish Aid, and Oxfam GB). Our fourth round of research is finding that many poor people are not so much ‘hungry’ as they are fed up of struggling to feed families in the face of an apparently endless series of steep price rises. Higher living costs mean more women entering poorly paid and over-crowded job markets, scrabbling around for bargains, scrounging and ‘borrowing’. In our Indonesian sites, working women say it is now cheaper to eat in the local warung than to cook at home; nobody knows what that means for children’s nutrition, but it won’t be good. And in the Bangladesh sites, women say men find bargaining for cheap food onerous and shameful, so they have to do the food shopping, too. In short, the global food crisis is a crisis of the global care economy: no number of clever evidence-based nutritional supplements will nourish babies whose mothers are working ever harder to care for their families.
What we really needed from the Summit was less charity and science and more solidarity with food justice campaigns. The point is to tackle the causes of food price volatility. And it would have been there, too, that the elusive political will to act on nutrition could be tapped: governments find the social unrest that comes with uncontrollable global food price volatility extremely scary; by contrast, they find the spectre of under-nourished babies quite easy to live with.
Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.
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