Photo Courtesy of Neil Palmer
Africa / Food security

Food Security

You hand a man a fish and he eats for a day. You teach a man to fish, maybe hand him a fishing pole and some waders, and he will eat for a year. So sayeth the logic of knowledge-sharing and technological inputs –the prevailing understanding of international development work as it is now enshrined in the G8’s new campaign: food security. In order to ensure a stable, resilient food market in any given country, a comprehensive system of technology and innovation must be imbedded into the current systems of food production for the sake of maximizing both efficiency and capacity.

This, needless to say, requires a massive influx of funds to the countries in question, and the private sector has provided the answer: food enterprise. What had long eluded economists and philanthropists alike has now become suddenly, seductively clear. If all a man needs are some fishing poles and waders, who better to provide them than the bait and tackle shop down the street?

Now while this quaint analogy may serve to illustrate a point, it does little to illustrate scale. The man is, of course, representative of millions of subsistence farmers across sub-Saharan Africa, while his fishing pole and waders are the fertilizer and seeds necessary to propel him into mass production. The charming bait and tackle shop is Yara International, Monsanto, or any other multinational corporation that has insinuated itself into the development community.

This confluence of interest in the farming practices of sub-Saharan Africa from both the private and the public sphere is far from fortuitous. A slow, deliberate interweaving of funds and foundations, policy and pocketbooks has led to the formation of an iron triangle in the international development community. Private capital now binds the policymakers to the implementers as everything from logos to board members is shared through a growing web of interdependence.

Food security itself seems to represent a venerable attempt to frame food provision solely in terms of a moral imperative. Unfortunately, its association with food enterprise usurps its credibility, and its broad claims as to the responsibility of the international sphere fall flat as the concern for profit move to the fore. The two work in tandem: while food security, as a construct, provides the problem, food enterprise provides the solution.

Before we vilify multinational corporations simply for their presence in development work, let’s consider the relationship between the farmer and multinational giant. What was before a simple transaction between a fisherman and a store has become a contract between governments and international businesses –the fisherman isn’t even at the negotiating table. The contracts of the G8 Food Security Summit give physical form to such a relationship. Millions of dollars of investment are promised in the form of fertilizer and seeds while countries agree to provide land, labor, and the very bones of their economic infrastructure to facilitate this massive investment in primary crops—often in the complete reorientation of their markets.

The issue here is blatant coercive force. The short-term gains in production levels overshadow increasing dependence on imported fertilizer and seeds while the reliance on primary good exports perpetuates the same vassal relationship that has frozen the development of these states since the colonial era.

Where is the farmer in all this? Because of the need for land, indigenous groups without formal claims to their land are displaced by the thousands. Because of the need for labor, previously self-sufficient farmers are pushed into the formal economy –no longer providing food for their families, but for the urban class.  As the Green Revolution taught us, increases in production capacity always fail to reach the most vulnerable in society, falling instead into the urban or external markets.

This serves to demonstrate that the construct of food security not only fails to accomplish its promised conclusion to hunger, but instead works to perpetuate it. The discourse of food security is actually detrimental in itself as it only serves to play into the same myths that we, as potential donors, have been told about food provision since we were young –the same myths that made us feel guilty for throwing out our peas after dinner. Food provision is not a question of output capacity, but the distribution of the food that is already being produced.

The idea that the mere production of food would ensure the end to hunger does little but veil the mechanics of food enterprise that is at work beneath. Food security and its operative partner, food enterprise, have now become the new models that buttress the structures and institutions in which hunger has become systematically ingrained.

Through signing food security contracts, governments not only absolve themselves of the issue of food provision to their own citizens, but also then profit from the expansion of their export markets. What was previously gross negligence has become calculated profit. For the signators of these contracts, multinational corporations and governments alike, this is an expansion of their profit margin; for millions, it is their livelihood.

Perhaps the greatest irony still remains in that we are not dealing with a continent of people who don’t know how to fish. Food security has itself constructed the narrative of the incapable fisherman to which it simultaneously purports to be the only solution, making its presence in the international development community all the more egregious.