Niger is the epicentre of hunger. Here, it is chronic. Corrosive. Structural. Systemic. Over 65 per cent of people survive on less than $1.25 a day.1 Nearly one in two children is malnourished.2 One in six dies before they reach the age of five.3
Families are fighting a losing battle against soil depletion, desertification, water scarcity, and unpredictable weather. They are exploited by a tiny elite of powerful traders who set food prices at predatory levels.
Shocks rain down upon them like hammer blows: a compounding series of disasters, each one leaving them more vulnerable to the next. The drought of 2005. The food price crisis of 2008. The drought of 2010. These events stole lives, shattered families, and obliterated livelihoods. The consequences will be felt for generations.
Chronic and persistent hunger. Rising demand on top of a collapsing resource base. Extreme vulnerability. Climate chaos. Spiralling food prices. Markets rigged against the many in favour of the few. It would be easy to dismiss Niger, but these problems are not unique – they are systemic. The global food system is broken. Niger is simply on the front line of an impending collapse.
At the start of 2011, there were 925 million hungry people worldwide.4 By the end of the year, extreme weather and rising food prices may have driven the total back to one billion, where it last peaked in 2008. Why, in a world that produces more than enough food to feed everybody, do so many – one in seven of us – go hungry?
The list of answers routinely given is bafflingly long, often crude and nearly always polarized. Too much international trade. Too little international trade. The commercialization of agriculture. A dangerously romantic obsession with peasant agriculture. Not enough investment in techno-fixes like biotechnology. Runaway population growth.
Most are self-serving, designed to blame the victims or to defend the status quo and the special interests that profit from it. This is symptomatic of a deeper truth: power above all determines who eats and who does not.
Hunger, along with obesity, obscene waste, and appalling environmental degradation, is a by-product of our broken food system. A system constructed by and on behalf of a tiny minority – its primary purpose to deliver profit for them. Bloated rich-country farm lobbies, hooked on handouts that tip the terms of trade against farmers in the developing world and force rich-country consumers to pay more in tax and more for food. Self-serving elites who amass resources at the expense of impoverished rural populations. Powerful investors who play commodities markets like casinos, for whom food is just another financial asset – like stocks and shares or mortgage-backed securities. Enormous agribusiness companies hidden from public view that function as global oligopolies, governing value chains, ruling markets, accountable to no one. The list goes on.
An age of crisis
2008 marked the start of the new era of crisis. Lehman Brothers collapsed, oil reached $147 a barrel, and food prices leapt, precipitating protests in 61 countries, with riots or violent protests in 23.5 By 2009, the number of hungry people passed one billion for the first time.6 Rich-country governments responded with hypocrisy, professing alarm while continuing to throw billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money at their bloated biofuel industries, diverting food from mouths to petrol tanks. In a vacuum of trust, governments one after another imposed export bans, pushing up prices further.
Meanwhile the profits of global agribusiness companies rocketed, the returns of speculators soared, and a new wave of land-grabbing kicked off in the developing world, as private and state investors sought to cash in or to secure supply.
Now, as climate chaos sends us stumbling into our second food price crisis in three years, little has changed to suggest that the global system will manage any better this time around. Power remains concentrated in the hands of a self-interested few.
The paralysis imposed upon us by a powerful minority risks catastrophe. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are already above sustainable levels and continue to rise alarmingly. Land is running out. Fresh water is drying up. We have pushed ourselves into the ‘Anthropocene Epoch’ – the geological era in which human activity is the main driver of planetary change.
Our bloated food system is a major cause of this crunch. But it is also rapidly becoming a casualty. As resource pressures mount and climate change gathers pace, poor and vulnerable people will suffer first – from extreme weather, from spiralling food prices, from the scramble for land and water. But they won’t be the last.
New research commissioned for this report paints a grim picture of what a future of worsening climate change and increasing resource scarcity holds for hunger. It predicts international price rises of key staples in the region of 120 to 180 per cent by 2030. This will prove disastrous for food importing poor countries, and raises the prospect of a wholesale reversal in human development.