Who can forget the fears from skyrocketing rice prices just three years ago? Well, once again, food prices around the world are surging. Just between July of last year and this January, wheat prices have doubled. Indeed, food prices have now passed the record levels of 2008, when angry citizens staged huge protests in dozens of countries. Currently, protesters across the Middle East include lower food prices among their demands. When food prices go up even a bit, millions more people starve.
The local organic farmers with whom we have been spending time in the Philippines and elsewhere are less affected by these price swings precisely because they consume much of what they harvest, and they sell the rest in local markets. These farmers have achieved at the household level what Frances Moore Lappe terms “food democracy,” and what the small farmer coalition, Via Campesina, calls “food sovereignty” at a national level.
A country has food sovereignty when its people consume safe and nutritious food largely grown by its own small farmers. Significantly fewer countries have food sovereignty today than a generation ago. This is not surprising since the reigning development model pushed by the World Bank and other experts has left countries exporting more cash crops like flowers and gourmet vegetables, and importing more of their staple foods.
But there is more to food sovereignty than just freedom from food imports. In richer countries, food purchases make up a relatively small percentage of household budgets. In the United States, consumers spend on average only 7 percent of their budgets on food, although that number rises in poor urban neighborhoods. But in the Philippines, Tunisia and Egypt, the average family spends over a third of the household budget on food, and thus more people feel food price hikes daily in the pits of their stomachs.
Like most countries, Egypt used to grow what its people ate. Today, however, it is one of the world’s largest wheat importers, importing over half the wheat that its people eat. As a result, ordinary Egyptians are now hostage to the whims of weather catastrophes in other countries and manipulative trading by speculators on commodity futures markets. Wheat prices are spiking in part because of recent droughts in China and flooding in Australia, and these higher prices are felt immediately in food markets across the poorer nations.
Around the world, most people get the bulk of their calories from basic grains. In almost all countries, this means rice or wheat or corn. We researched how dependent countries have become on imports for these most important food items, and we were stunned by the results: Haiti’s number one grain is rice, and it imports over 80 percent of the rice Haitians eat. Tunisia and Morocco are likewise vulnerable because each imports about three-quarters of their wheat consumption. Mexico, the birthplace of corn, had its food markets ripped open by the demands of a free trade agreement with the US and Canada and now imports most of its corn consumption.
Rice-eating nations tend to grow the vast majority of the rice their people eat, so import dependence tends to be low. But the Philippines is one of the leading rice importers. Rice imports account for as much as a sixth of Philippine consumption year in and year out. As a result, rising rice prices in 2008 set the nation on edge.
Responding to citizen concerns about such vulnerability to global rice markets, the Aquino government has set ambitious goals on eliminating imports within three years, and projects far lower rice imports this year.
There are food sovereignty lessons to be learned from sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the sub-Saharan countries are less food import-dependent than nations in Latin America and Asia. Hence, they are less affected by spiraling food prices. In addition, as food prices have risen, there is now evidence that in several of these countries, people are returning to native-grown cassava and sorghum in place of imported food.
Unfortunately many mainstream pundits are now counseling countries, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, to hook further onto the global economy. But, while the World Bank continues to push trade-dependent agriculture, hundreds of groups, from the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement to Rice Watch and Action Network, are promoting alternatives. So too is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who has been gathering evidence from poorer nations where innovative non-chemical techniques have been used to boost food production. Special Rapporteur Olivier de Schutter summed up the findings: “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation.”
As this suggests, there are rays of hope amid the crisis for import-dependent countries: While millions are suffering as the result of vulnerable development models, the food price crisis of 2011 can convince more countries to reject the conventional wisdom that exporting and importing more food is the right path. In many countries like the Philippines, local farmers growing healthy and chemical-free foods are on the rise and are supplying increasing shares of local and national markets. And, there is a great deal that governments can do to boost such rooted sustainable farms, from investing in irrigation to retraining agricultural extension workers to rejecting trade agreements that pry open food markets.
Today, thousands of people in the streets of Morocco and other Middle Eastern nations are demanding lower food prices as well as democracy. The Philippines is well poised to be a leader in food democracy—in saying no to food vulnerability and in reinvigorating rooted farms.