Nilanthi (right), alongside Kusumawathi (left), picks tea on her own land
The Diriya Smallholder Tea Society represents 42 smallholder tea producers, all of whom own less than an acre of land. (Sri Lanka, 2009)

4. Conclusion

Our global food system works only for the few – for most of us it is broken. It leaves the billions of us who consume food lacking sufficient power and knowledge about what we buy and eat, almost a billion of us hungry, and the majority of small food producers disempowered and unable to fulfil their productive potential. The failure of the system flows from failures of government – failures to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest – which mean that companies, interest groups, and elites are able to plunder our resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge, and food to suit themselves.

Every day, it leaves 925 million people hungry.

And now we have entered an age of growing crisis, of shock piled upon shock: vertiginous food price spikes and oil price hikes, devastating weather events, financial meltdowns, and global contagion. Behind each of these, slow-burn crises continue to smoulder: creeping and insidious climate change, growing inequality, chronic hunger and vulnerability, the erosion of our natural resources. The broken food system is at once a driver of this fragility and highly vulnerable to it.

Without urgent action to tackle the interlinked challenges of production, equity, and resilience, the future will be one of zero-sum competition between states, resource grabs by powerful elites, and ecological collapse.

The age of crisis is a terrible threat, but also a moment of tremendous opportunity – a period of flux in which a new consensus can be forged, and course set towards a new prosperity. This alternative future is one of co-operation rather than division, where we properly value each other and our environment, and in which everyone enjoys a fair share. Getting there will take all the energy, ingenuity and political will that humankind can muster. We must mount powerful campaigns to win significant transformations in how our societies face common threats and manage common resources.

We will have to overcome the vested interests that stand to lose out, and which will strongly resist. The powerful elites in poor countries that control land and block reform. The farm lobbies of rich countries that plunder public purses, tipping the playing field against poor farmers. The dirty industries that block action on climate change at every turn. The seed companies whose myopic pursuit of patents undermines public research and leaves poor farmers on the margins. The multinational traders who profit as food markets unravel. The financial institutions that bet on them doing so.

Governments must renew their purpose as custodians of the public good rather than allowing elites to drag them by the nose. They must make policy in the interests of the many rather than the few. They must protect the vulnerable. They must regulate companies that are too powerful. They must correct markets that are failing. The examples of Brazil and Viet Nam, among others, show that strong political leaders with a clear moral purpose can drive government success.

The economic crisis means that we have moved decisively beyond the era of the G8, when a few rich country governments tried to craft global solutions by and for themselves. Old battle lines between North and South are increasingly irrelevant. Power – over food, resources, and emissions – is concentrated among the G20 countries, where the emerging economies still have much to improve upon, but fresh energy and solutions to offer. Brazil has a lot to teach the world about tackling hunger, and in 2012 will host the crucial Rio+20 summit. China is the world’s biggest investor in renewable technology161 and has increased its trade with Africa ten-fold in a decade – overtaking the USA and EU as the largest trading partner in many areas.162 In 2011, South Africa assumes the chair of the UNFCCC climate talks from Mexico.

Now the major powers, the old and the new, must co-operate, not compete – to share resources, build resilience, and tackle climate change. And the governments of poorer nations must also have a seat at the table, for they are on the front lines of climate change, where many of the battles – over land, water, and food – are being fought.

Responsible businesses also have a crucial role to play. They can break ranks with vested interests, strengthening the will of politicians and governments to resist. They can embrace progressive regulation rather than seek to undermine it or water it down. They can direct their business models and practices towards addressing the challenges we face.

The benign actions of responsible business and far-sighted governments alone will be unable to overcome the elites and vested interests that seek to block change. Governments must be galvanized to resist them and to regulate, correct, protect, and invest. Citizens must demand this of them. The incentives under which businesses operate must shift so that they can no longer impose their social and environmental costs on others, and instead flourish by making the most of resources. Customers must demand this of them.

The decisions we take, and the choices we make, matter.

Inspired by such ideas, and motivated by a desire for a better future, organizations, businesses, movements, and networks for a new prosperity are appearing, growing, and connecting up all over the world. Poor farmers’ organisations demanding fair shares from national budgets and market chains. Development NGOs working on sustainable agriculture. Environmental organizations calling for a sustainable future. Women’s groups claiming their rights to resources. Communities leading low-carbon lifestyles. Movements, such as Fair Trade, which link ethical consumers and the private sector. Grassroots campaigns calling for the right to food to be respected. The list is long and growing.

Oxfam is proud to stand alongside them.