HC 933 Global Food Security

Written evidence submitted by the Food Ethics Council


1. The central priority for successful efforts to reduce hunger and improve food security must be to tackle the social injustice that pervades all aspects of the food system.

2. The governance of agricultural research needs to be revised to ensure that small-scale producers have a fair say in decisions on priorities that will shape their opportunities for years to come.

3. There is a sufficient body of evidence on the relationship between food price volatility and speculation on food commodities to warrant further regulation of that speculation.

Introduction – The Food Ethics Council

4. The Food Ethics Council is a charity that provides independent advice on the ethics of food and farming. Our aim is to create a food system that is fair and healthy for people and the environment. In pursuit of this aim we:

· Research and analyse ethical issues

· Mediate between stakeholders

· Develop tools for ethical decision-making

· Act as honest brokers in policy and public debate

5. The 13 members of the Food Ethics Council are all leaders in their relevant fields, and appointed as individuals. They bring a broad range of expertise to our work, from academic research through to practical knowledge of farming, business and policy.

Social justice and global food security

6. The Food Ethics Council’s core response to the issues raised by this inquiry is that success of the global food system in securing long-term food security is fundamentally dependent upon addressing the severe social injustice that pervades all aspects of the food system. In elaborating upon this underlying assessment, our submission draws heavily on the findings of our Food and Fairness Inquiry, a two-year investigation into social injustice in the domestic and global food system. [1] The inquiry was conducted by a committee representing all perspectives within the food sectors – senior food industry figures, academics, public officials and civil society campaigners.

7. The world currently produces more than enough food to feed the population, but around a billion people are still living in hunger. This doesn’t mean that measures to increase food production and productivity have no place in addressing global food insecurity – they clearly do – but it does mean that the central priority for successful efforts to reduce hunger and improve food security must be to tackle inequality. One important point about the relationship between production levels and social justice is that measures to increase supply (and thereby make food more affordable for poor people) can actually have the opposite of the desired effect – in fact pushing new people into poverty. By and large, the rapid increase in production has come from industrialisation in agriculture, based on capital-intensive inputs such as high-yielding varieties of seed, fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation systems. Since it is only larger producers who can afford the necessary investments or have access to sufficient credit, this trend leaves small-scale farmers at a disadvantage. As the majority of poor people in poor countries depend on small-holder agriculture – the poorest two billion people depend on 500 million smallholders – this can jeopardise rural incomes and increase vulnerability to hunger.

8. When hunger exists in the midst of highly productive commodity agriculture, it provides a stark illustration of this problem. The commodities in question are not only food crops but also, increasingly, biofuels and animal feed. Our Food and Fairness Inquiry considered evidence showing how meat consumption in rich countries is contributing to an expanding soy industry in Paraguay, with severe adverse consequences for local food security, farmers’ livelihoods and the environment. Land and food that had been used for direct human consumption is instead turned to food and fuel for consumption by wealthier economies.

9. These inequalities of outcome – including hunger – are underpinned and compounded by inequalities of opportunity. When we published the report of the Food and Fairness Inquiry in 2010, there were 1.3 billion small-scale farmers globally, most of whom were poor. Evidence submitted to the inquiry showed that the livelihoods of these poor farmers are threatened by constraints on the opportunity to produce, in the form of restricted or unequal access to the resources need to farm, and to markets for their products. We heard then how ‘land grabbing’ was already exacerbating this inequality of access – a problem which has of course escalated in the last two or three years.

10. Regarding access to markets, for many small-scale producers, domestic and regional markets will be the most realistic and important destination, so measures to improve the functioning of these markets and to address issues around terms of trade assume a high priority. Improving the functioning of markets would have the significant added advantage of helping to reduce post-harvest food waste, which is another crucial element in progress towards global food security. The Government’s Foresight Report on Global Food and Farming Futures showed that grain losses vary from 10-25% in Asian, African and South American countries; while losses from perishable crops are typically in the range of 30-40%. The use of information and communication technology to ‘improve market information and allow producers to make better decisions about timely supply to markets to achieve best prices, avoiding or at least reducing gluts and produce waste’ is one of the report’s recommendations for reducing levels of post-harvest waste. [2] Other recommendations, such as financial support for smallholders to enable them to store produce rather than selling when prices are lowest, would have similar dual-benefits in terms of waste reduction and improved food security.

11. Production for export is also an important option, however, and there are significant constraints on small producers’ access to global markets. In effect, food markets globally make increasing demands on producers to operate at a large scale. Supermarkets require their suppliers to provide large volumes of produce at a low price, with the flexibility required for just-in-time delivery, and in line with a wide range of quality standards. Meeting these standards requires sophisticated systems for implementation and control, and entails costly documentation and certification processes. These are requirements that, to a great extent, large organisations are best placed to satisfy, though retailers do provide some support to help smaller producers overcome the obstacles they face in meeting these standards. The overall effect is that price and standard pressures have pushed smaller-scale producers and processors out of the market across all sectors: meat and dairy; horticulture and fruit.

12. Our more recent Beyond Business As Usual report (published in January 2013) – which explored how government and business can work more effectively together in pursuit of a sustainable food system – also considered the potential for companies to promote fairness and environmental sustainability through their supply chain relationships. [3] By working to develop long-term relationships with their suppliers, retailers can help to secure suppliers’ economic sustainability, and can also give suppliers the assurance and confidence to invest in more sustainable production practices, and in training and developing their workforce. Also, the recognition that sustainable supply chains need to be founded on sustainable communities means that businesses are recognising the need to invest in the wider social and environmental well-being of the communities from which they source, rather than just in the well-being of their workforce. Despite the important progress that has been made in developing these long-term relationships, however, the fact remains that some players are able to make excessive margins thanks both to their disproportionate power, and the lack of transparency about respective margins along the supply chain. Among other things, greater transparency about respective profit margins would enable people to promote social justice for poor country producers by making more informed purchasing decisions. The approach pioneered by French organisation Alter Eco – which gives a breakdown of profit distribution along their products’ supply chains on the product packaging – provides a possible model for how this can be done.

13. The third social justice perspective that we considered in the Food and Fairness Inquiry – in addition to equality of outcomes and of opportunities – was ‘autonomy and voice’: that is, the ability of people and communities to influence the decisions and policies that matter to them. Again we found significant problems with direct implications for food security. Smallholders and peasants in poor countries have very limited influence on decisions about the regulation of food and farming systems. Small-scale farmers are comparatively neglected and marginalised in policy-making processes, not least because they have little or no access to resources for political lobbying.

Agricultural research

14. In addition to these general points about the relationship between social justice and food security, our recent work has considered a number of more specific issues that fall within the remit of this Inquiry. One of these is agricultural research, which is an area of policy and decision-making that has significant potential to alleviate the resource constraints facing small-scale producers and to promote food security. It can increase productivity by marginal producers, facilitate sustainable farming and help people gain secure livelihoods. The challenge of feeding a growing population means that there is currently an unprecedented need for coordinated and effective agricultural research. It is crucial to food security that small-scale producers have a fair say in decisions on priorities for agricultural research that will shape their opportunities for years to come.

15. However, the balance of agricultural research spending at the global level has been shifting from the public to the private sector, constraining opportunities for small-scale producers to participate in decision-making. Public spending on agricultural research has declined in recent times, including in research and development around productivity. Private sector agricultural research spending is focused on the most lucrative markets, which generally means farmers with capital or credit and access to markets, not smallholders on the margins of the global food system. This has led to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) – the most comprehensive review to date of the challenges and opportunities in improving food security globally – to conclude there is ‘a gap in research and technology that is relevant to the poorest’. [1]

16. Correcting this is not simply a matter of increased public spending on agricultural research. In order to ensure that publicly funded research serves the public good, decision-making processes must be accountable. This includes promoting participatory research and rural development (specifically by making the participation of small-scale producers a condition for most new public investment in research to promote food security).

Price spikes and volatility, and food price speculation

17. Several of the causal factors behind the recent food price spikes are uncontested: bad harvests; high oil prices; growing international demand for meat and dairy products; export bans; and a policy-driven demand for biofuels. The contribution of speculation in commodity markets to both price spikes and wider price volatility is more contentious, although there is a substantial body of opinion that claims that speculation has indeed been a significant contributory factor – including, for example, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. The Food Ethics Council’s approach to this issue takes as its starting point the view that, due to the many complex factors that can affect both food prices and financial markets, it is unlikely that there will ever be a definite answer to the question about the relationship between commodity speculation and food price volatility.

18. This uncertainty does not, however, lead to an impasse as to whether to place restrictions on ‘food speculation’. Given that there is a strong possibility that speculation impacts upon price volatility, and given that this volatility has significant adverse implications for the food security of large numbers of vulnerable people, then that constitutes a strong argument for increased regulation on food speculation. On the basis of this ‘precautionary principle’, then, regulation should be introduced in case there is a causal relationship between speculation and price volatility.

19. It is also important to recognise that while food price volatility is likely to increase over the coming years, it also seems certain that there will be an overall upward trend in prices. This assessment is based on a number of factors, including: the rising costs of inputs, global population growth, changes in diets in major emerging economies, depletion of finite resources, and the various effects of climate change. It is, of course, the world’s poorest people who are most vulnerable to the effects of this ongoing rise in the price of food.

Food consumption in rich countries

20. We noted above how demand for meat in rich countries has a dramatic effect on land use in poor countries, with severe adverse consequences for local food security, farmers’ livelihoods and the environment. Measures to address domestic (UK) demand for meat and dairy products therefore have a significant role to play in promoting global food security – both by allowing farmers to use the land to produce food for local consumption and for export, and by reducing the environmental impact of our consumption of livestock products.

21. The Food Ethics Council has been working with WWF-UK to try and find ways of making the evident need to reduce meat and dairy consumption in high meat-consuming countries like the UK politically acceptable – given the wholly legitimate concerns of domestic producers and processors about the impact of a crude ‘eat less meat’ message. In our recent joint report, Prime cuts: Valuing the meat we eat, we make a series of recommendations about how a ‘less but better’ message could provide a way of squaring this circle, and support a transition to less but better meat consumption and production.

22. Another relevant aspect of food consumption in the UK, and other rich countries, is the level of waste. The most recent figures from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) show that UK households waste about 20% of the food and drink they buy. [1] This represents an important reduction in the level of household food waste over the last few years. However, in the context of global food security, there is clear obligation to achieve further, significant reductions. This is partly an ethical issue about the unacceptability of wasting food when so many of the world’s population are starving; but there is also practical element – reducing food waste will reduce the environmental impact of our food consumption, and thereby contribute to achieving long-term global food security.

March 2013

[1] Food Ethics Council, Food Justice: The Report of the Food and Fairness Inquiry , 2010

[2] Government Office for Science, Foresight Report on Global Food and Farming Futures: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability , 2011; pp. 92-96.

[3] Food Ethics Council, Beyond Business As Usual: Towards a Sustainable Food System , 2013.

[1] International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, Agriculture at a crossroads , 2009; pp. 16-17.

[1] http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/new-estimates-household-food-and-drink-waste-uk

Prepared 22nd March 2013