author and activist based in San Francisco. His books include The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy and Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.
Thirteen people died and hundreds were wounded last week in the African nation of Mozambique when police cracked down on a three-day protest over a 30 percent hike in the price of bread. The UN says the riots in Mozambique should be a wake-up call for governments that have ignored food security problems since the global food crisis of 2008, when countries around the world saw angry protests in the streets over the rising prices of basic food items. We speak with author and activist Raj Patel. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thirteen people died and hundreds were wounded last week in the African nation of Mozambique when police cracked down on a three-day protest over a 30 percent hike in the price of bread. On Tuesday, the government of Mozambique announced it would reverse the bread price increase but added it had been forced to increase prices because of the soaring price of wheat. World wheat prices have jumped more than 60 percent in the week since Russia, the world’s third-largest exporter of wheat, decided to ban wheat exports following record-setting drought and wildfires.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, warned that the riots in Mozambique should be a wake-up call for governments that have ignored food security problems since the global food crisis of 2008, when countries around the world saw angry protests in the streets over the rising prices of basic food items.
AMY GOODMAN: The Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO, has called for an emergency meeting later this month to discuss global food security. But on Tuesday, an official with the agency blamed the Mozambique riots on "market turbulence," not a food crisis.
Well, for more on this story, we go now to San Francisco. We’re joined by author and activist Raj Patel. His books include Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System and The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. His latest article appears in The Guardian of London; it’s called "Mozambique’s Food Riots–The True Face of Global Warming."
Raj, welcome to Democracy Now! What is happening in Mozambique?
RAJ PATEL: Well, right now, the government has indeed reversed its 30 percent food price increase. But the government was right in pointing to international financial speculation. Of course, there were domestic issues, as well. It wasn’t just the price of bread that went up by 30 percent; the price of utilities — water and, like, electricity — in urban areas also went up in the double digits. And this is what people were rebelling and protesting against. But it’s true that Mozambique was subject to these huge fluctuations on the international wheat market. And as you say, Russia has been experiencing some incredible drought and wildfires. Russia has experienced its worst heat wave in over a century.
But there’s nothing natural about the way that those weather events get transmitted around the world. The way that we experience climate change, the way that we experience global warming, is always mediated. It’s always an interaction between the natural systems and our human systems. So, for example, in Russia, the fact that there was a heat wave was compounded by the fact that Russian preparations and fire fighting equipment wasn’t very good and the preparations to actually fight the fire were inadequate. And then, of course, on top of that, Vladimir Putin announced that there would be a ban on exports of wheat to the international market. And what that did was send signals to traders and speculators in grain that, in fact, there would be less wheat available than they thought. And there were worries already about how climate will impact wheat harvests in Argentina, for example. And all of a sudden you have a sort of speculative bubble.
And again, this is — there’s nothing natural about these speculative bubbles. They’re very much human-generated, particularly since legislation in 1991 was waived as the result of lobbying by Goldman Sachs. You’ll see increasing levels of speculation in food and fuel, that creates these bubbles in prices. And a few people profit a great deal. In 2006, for example, Merrill Lynch estimated that speculation was causing commodity prices to rise 50 percent higher than if they were based on just supply and demand alone. So there’s a lot of money in these markets.
But the consequence of that is that governments such as Mozambique find themselves in a position, when the price of wheat goes sky high, that they’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and they make the political decision to pass those costs on to their citizens. And that political decision proved to be a very poor one, because people in the cities protested widely. And as a result, as you say, thirteen people were killed. Initially, reports were that rubber bullets were being fired, but at least one report suggests that the reason that the police switched to live ammunition is because they ran out of rubber bullets. And again, there’s nothing natural about those consequences. Those are all human systems compounding and magnifying the effects of the strange climatic events that we’re experiencing worldwide.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And, Raj Patel, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says we’re on track to have the third-largest wheat crop ever. How is it possible to have that and also have a record number of hungry people worldwide?
RAJ PATEL: Well, I think this is the interesting point. I mean, there’s a lot of questioning among the punditry about whether we are in fact back in 2008. If you cast your mind back, what we saw in 2007, 2008 were record rises in the price of food. And, in fact, in 2008 and 2009, we had pretty good harvests. But the quality and the quantity of the harvests doesn’t matter so much as people’s ability to access that food. And what we’re seeing since 2007 and 2008 is that there are hundreds of millions of more people who are now poor and caught in the global recession and unable to afford food. And if the way that we distribute food is through the market, then the main barrier to access isn’t the quantity of food that’s available, but the poverty of the people who are unable to access it. And that’s why, for many people, the crisis of 2008 hasn’t really stopped. Since 2008, we’ve had now hundreds of millions of more people who are hungry, so that now the number of hungry people in the world, according to the last count in 2009, was estimated at 1.06 billion people who are hungry. So, in fact, things, for many people, are much worse than they were in 2008, not necessarily because harvests are lower, but because people are poorer.
AMY GOODMAN: Raj Patel, talk about what’s happened in Pakistan, these devastating floods and their effect on food and agriculture there.
RAJ PATEL: Well, again, what we’re seeing is, of course, horrific conditions in Pakistan. But the flooding was exacerbated by domestic policy choices around deforestation, for example. And so, by deforesting, the magnitude and the effect of those floods was made much, much worse.
And what we know is — something that we’re seeing around the world is that the groups that are hardest hit by these kinds of climate change events are the most vulnerable, and specifically women. Whether in Pakistan or in Mozambique, we know that 60 percent of the people going hungry today are women or girls. And the United Nations has observed that in a range of countries where massive climatic disasters have been recorded and the impacts followed up, we know that women bear the brunt of these kinds of events. And we also know that in developing countries women grow the majority of the food that is consumed. And so, what we’re seeing is a very disproportionate impact on the people who are actually providing the food for the majority of people in developing countries to eat.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Raj Patel, what about the situation in Niger? We had — we saw a terrible drought there, followed by flash floods. What does it mean for food security there?
RAJ PATEL: Well, again, I mean, it’s the same story over and over again, that what we’re seeing is — I mean, we are seeing these sort of catastrophic floods that layer on top of a long history of underinvestment, a long history of bad development policies, poor governmental choices. And again, what we see is the natural cycles and the natural sort of shocks that we are seeing more and more of, because of anthropogenic climate change, layering on top of human systems that are failing, that are decrepit in one way or another, and that pass and transmit these natural shocks into the very poorest communities in the world. And then, of course, by adding to those human systems things like speculation in grain, we make things much, much worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the latest report, Raj Patel, from the World Bank on land grabs and this frightening trend of the consolidation of land, being bought by foreign entities and countries just buying up agricultural land?
RAJ PATEL: Right. So, one of these sort of human systems is involved in international development policy. I mean, one of the reasons why countries like Mozambique, for example, are so vulnerable to these international shocks is because their economies have been restructured to connect them very deeply to the international market. One of the policies that has been promoted by organizations like the World Bank has been the policy of land grabbing. Of course, the land — sorry, the World Bank doesn’t really call it "land grabbing"; it calls it "global interest in farmland," because there isn’t a nice way to describe the process whereby foreign investors will come up and buy huge swaths of land, promising great returns, but in fact delivering very little.
And so, this long-awaited World Bank report, which was leaked a little over the summer and which the World Bank has now finally released, tells two stories. If you read the press release and if you read the analysis that the World Bank provides, the World Bank suggests that if you allow foreign countries and investors into the poorest countries on earth, the results can be very good. Well, of course, the results can be very good. But, in fact, if you look at the results, if you look at the data the World Bank itself presents on the results of these so-called land grabs, the results have been pretty shocking. What the bank observes is that foreign investors are attracted to countries with these weak regulatory systems. Seventy percent of the investment in — the foreign investment in land has happened in Africa, and the majority of the responses — the majority of the outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa have been catastrophic. The bank says that none of the sub-Saharan African countries that recently attracted investor interest achieved more than 25 percent of the gains that were promised. And, in fact, things are so bad that Mozambique itself is trying to get some of the land back that it sold to investors, because the government is worried that half the land is sitting idle and not growing sugarcane or any of the other crops promised by investors.
But, of course, one of the worst things is, it’s bad enough to have speculators who sit up and buy the land and don’t do anything with it, but worse than that is when the speculators do do something with the land. And again, what the World Bank observes is that the most vulnerable are hit hard when things like sugarcane crops are being grown in developing countries, because sugarcane is a very thirsty crop, and what investors buy when they buy land for sugarcane is also access to water. And what we’ve been seeing is that women who collect the water and depend on that collection for their livelihood are now being shut out of their livelihood, so that foreign speculators can make money. And that, of course, is the great tragedy of these land grabs, is that they are — again, they compound the natural — not the natural, the inequalities, the human inequalities that already exist in developing countries, and they are a poor substitute for genuine investment in development and in food sovereignty in these countries.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Now, African leaders just concluded an agricultural forum in Ghana calling for greater private investment in farming on the continent. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is the chairman of the forum, as well as the organization known as AGRA, or Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. This is how Kofi Annan explained the goals for the forum to a news website.
KOFI ANNAN: Africa, if it gets its act together, can feed its own population and help export to the rest of the world. And so, I think governments and business, the business community, is taking keen interest in agriculture. And that is what you’re seeing here at this forum. Governments are prepared to come in with the right policies, which I hope also means appropriate infrastructure to help the revolution move forward.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Raj Patel, talk about AGRA, this Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
RAJ PATEL: Well, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa causes some people, particularly people who are close to it, to wince a little, because the green revolution has had some very ambivalent effects. The green revolution was the process of creating hybrid crops and imposing those, consolidating farm sizes, and relying on incredibly thirsty and incredibly fossil fuel-intensive kinds of fertilizer-driven agriculture to boost yields. I was talking to a representative from the Gates Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that’s been very big in supporting the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and even they have been saying that, well, if they had had more influence than they in fact have had, the name "Green Revolution" probably wouldn’t feature in this alliance. But nonetheless, what we’re seeing through this alliance is a shift towards — away from the kinds of government-sponsored and —supported investments that we’ve seen in the past towards a sort of private-sector-driven approach to investing in agriculture. And you heard Kofi Annan there talking about private-sector interest. Well, again, land grabs -— as the World Bank report suggests, land grabs are an expression of that global interest in land. And really what it seems to be — AGRA seems to be a Trojan horse for is the privatization of agriculture in Africa.
Now, Kofi Annan is exactly right, that with the right kinds of policies, with the right kinds of government investment, with the right kinds of public investment, it is possible for Africa to feed itself. And there are in fact an abundance of ideas about how food sovereignty, about how democratic control over food and agriculture in Africa might happen. It just so happens that AGRA seems to be siding less with some of these ideas coming from African farmers, for example, and much more with the ideas coming from the private sector and coming from organizations like Monsanto. And that, I think, is one of the great tragedies of AGRA is that it’s mobilizing public opinion for a set of policies that already seem to have failed pretty badly.
AMY GOODMAN: Raj, thank you very much for joining us. Raj Patel, author and activist based in San Francisco. His latest article, "Mozambique’s Food Riots–The True Face of Global Warming." His books include The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, also Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.