translated into English by Claudia Bragman
The 32nd World Food Day took place on 16 October 2012. The FAO and the University of Geneva organised a round table for the occasion. This included Jean Ziegler, the vice-president of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee and former first rapporteur for the United Nations on the right to food, Fabien Pouille, senior agronomist at the ICRC, Cecile Molinier, Director of the United Nations Development Programme in Geneva and Laurence Boisson de Chozournes, professor of international law and international organisations and member of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee.
Reducing hunger and poverty: a Millennium objective
Firstly, the theme of the day, “agricultural cooperatives to reduce hunger in the world”, was barely tackled throughout the conference. There was a brief introduction by Jean-Dominique Vassalli, the chancellor of the University of Geneva, followed by a musical interlude by Anggun, the Franco-Indonesian singer. Then, the round table began with a speech by Cecile Molinier who gave a presentation on the current state of affairs.
Reducing hunger and extreme poverty is at the top of the list of the eight Millennium Development Goals, which have been adopted by some 193 UN member States and 23 international organisations in 2000. One of its sub-objectives aimed to halve the number of people who are suffering from hunger and malnutrition in the world by 2015. According to the FAO, the number of people suffering from hunger in the world has gone from approximately 1 billion in 1990 – 1992 to 868 million in 2010 – 2012. Therefore, one is forced to concede that this ambitious mission can only end in failure
Food speculation: a poverty-generating practice
As for Jean Ziegler, he did not fail to mention the problem of financial speculation as soon as he began speaking, the topic being part of his latest book Mass Destruction – the Geopolitics of Hunger. Over the last few years, speculation has had an enormous impact on food prices and, consequently, on food security.
The speculator’s role can roughly be described as the middleman between producers and buyers. The speculator guarantees producers that their harvests will be bought in advance at a certain price. This ensures that the farmer receives minimum income, should prices fall. Conversely, if prices rise in the meantime, the speculator will resell the harvest at a higher price, thus benefitting from a profit margin. This allows for risks to be rewarded.
Whilst morally questionable, the critical current state of affairs is not only caused by this type of practice. The problem became envenomed by the 2008 crisis because many speculators turned towards the food market, believing it to be a safe and stable sector. Therefore, the number of middlemen increased and food prices became considerably higher. This price increase mainly affected the population of developing countries, where food represents a large part of the household budget (60 to 90% in a developing country compared to 8% in a Swiss household, according to Mr Pouille). According to Mr Ziegler, food speculation could be responsible for the fact that many people live in an unstable situation.
This position, which numerous economists deem to be debatable in many respects – supposes that the problem of world hunger has grown to a worldwide scale and can no longer be defined only in terms of local development. These new issues mean that it is necessary to create new international regulations: we can no longer only be content with developing infrastructure and improving the agricultural output of developing countries. This is a case of the butterfly effect. That is to say, the actions of a speculator from Geneva can have a serious impact on a remote village in Somalia.
Respecting a social contract
Speculation may, therefore, have become a major hindrance to achieving the first Millennium objective. Yet, this problem does not have to be a death sentence: there are solutions, which are now central to numerous debates. Thoughts go to the insertion of a Tobin tax or even to the popular initiative “No food speculation”, launched a few weeks ago by the Socialist Youth of Geneva. Gambling with the stock market must not become an additional problem for developing countries.
“We do not play with food” – and even less with the food of people who are suffering from malnutrition. Indeed, during the conference, Laurence Boisson de Chazournes reminded us that the Millennium objectives are a fantastic tool for mobilisation and make up the essence of a social contract, which we have committed to respect. Jean Ziegler underlined that “powerlessness does not exist in a democracy“, the right to food exists and must be respected.