At the summit meeting that opens in Italy on Wednesday the leaders of the G8 are expected to announce a “food security initiative”—an effort to reverse “the tendency of decreasing official development aid to agriculture” and increase investment in third world food production instead. According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Washington spends 20 times more on food aid in Africa than on long-term agricultural programmes to develop local food production. A similar bias exists in the policies of the EU which believes that in food aid it has a good way of dumping its surpluses.
Nothing may come of the new promises, as nothing came of the big hoo-ha at the G8 summit four years ago when a massive increase in aid, especially to Africa, was agreed. But if these promises were to be honoured, this will be just what the poorer countries need.
Most of the world’s poor live in the rural backwaters of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Most of them are small farmers or landless farm workers. Despite the cries in 2007 when the world food price suddenly shot up to historical highs it actually benefited these people. It was a long overdue correction in the terms of trade, whereby the urban minority of the world, whether they be shanty town dwellers in Nigeria’s Lagos or the inhabitants of middle class suburb in Mumbai, have long been subsidised by the cheap food produced by the poorest of the poor- those left behind in the remote reaches of the countryside. Moreover, little investment reaches them—there are too few schools, agricultural advisers or health clinics and only rutted roads and battered trucks to link their produce to the market place. (Although the amazing penetration of the mobile phone in recent years has done much to link some of them to the market place.)
I was in the countryside in Nigeria at the time when prices were going up. The peasants I talked to, growing the local staple, cassava, were happy about this. It meant they could sell their produce at a substantially higher price than before. They planned to expand their planting the next year. Indeed, that was done all over and prices have now fallen, as one would suspect. Fortunately for them, they have…