Solving malnutrition through business and science?

This June’s G8 meeting was not framed in a ‘big issue’ fashion as previous ‘G summits’ have been – think of the G20 meeting in London 2009 or the G8 meeting in Gleneagles 2005. Development campaigners wanted the G8 to be about hunger and nutrition, but this focus jostled with others, notably Syria, tax, and trade. However, in and around the G8, ‘hunger’ was a key part of the shuttling of elites that week, between pre-summit meetings and the G8. On June 8th, the Government hosted a Nutrition for Growth summit at which a strong message about the causes and cures of hunger were propagated. In essence, the agenda follows the following lines:

  • Hunger and malnutrition are ‘technical’ problems. That is, they express dietary and nutritional dysfunctions.
  • The core to any solution is technology. That is, the application of existing scientific knowledge within new and existing aid and development policy.
  • The key agents of this technological solution are international business, research centres, and governments.
  • The core motivation for addressing hunger is to ensure that malnourished people can function better as workers and citizens.

There is in this hunger agenda a salient reshaping of how hunger is perceived and also how it is embedded into a broader model of political economy. The meeting fed into a broader process of elite institutionalisation of the ‘hunger problem’. In essence, the schema outlined above depoliticises hunger and positions international capital as the central agency in the solution to hunger. This, to say the least, requires some critical reflection.

What can business do for the malnourished and hungry? The answer to this question has been emerging from high-level discussions since the G8 at Camp David in 2012. The claim is that transnational corporations can improve agricultural productivity by more effectively disseminating new technologies to small-scale farmers. This might involve new and genetically modified seeds, new fertilisers and pesticides. It might also involve the rolling out of extension services that train farmers in the management of these new technologies. Agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies are already involved. These innovations are underpinned by Western state financial support and the dedication of funds from private companies or corporate philanthropic organisations, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Fund.

When David Cameron says ‘we will not tackle hunger and malnutrition without business’ he is evoking a corporate model of agricultural change in which small scale farmers are more deeply integrated into markets for commodities produced by transnationals. For agribusiness, this might also involve ‘outgrower’ schemes in which small scale farmers are appended of large-scale commercial farming of crops.

For all of the bells and whistles that accompany political agenda-setting and summitry, the proposals that have emerged over the last few years seem familiar. Transnational corporations involved in the globalised and complex food commodity chains have been developing myriad ways of enhancing their control – directly or indirectly – over the way food is produced, processed, and traded.

The possibilities of this corporate solution to hunger are extremely limited. There is certainly evidence scattered throughout those parts of the world where small-scale farming is prevalent that investment in agriculture by private companies can have positive effects on livelihoods. Agricultural wage labour, new trading relations, opportunities to produce new cash crops all have potentially positive effects for small-scale farmers. Indeed, the broad history of peasant farming is that, where the basic productive unit of a household is pretty robust, farmers have taken advantage of new market opportunities very effectively.

But, the bigger picture generated by this specific model is less encouraging. Despite the hype, GM crops have not been proven to offer sustainable solutions to hunger: claims of increased yields are not yet backed up by convincing evidence and the adoption of GM crops has profound repercussions on the way farming is practiced which can be summed up as a reduced autonomy of farmers and an increased reliance on seed and chemical markets. Other issues impact on farming communities in worrying ways as well: land grabbing, the dispossession/pollution of waterways, and the effects of large-scale and possibly GM farming on nearby small-scale farmers.

Furthermore, peasant farmers are already integrated into broader trading and production networks. There is no such thing as a subsistence farmer, producing to consume and not relying on wages, cash income, and market interactions. The hard fact of the matter is that hunger is as much a modern and market phenomenon as it is a product of poor rains or low technology production. In real agrarian livelihoods, all of these factors comingle to produce hard work, poor diets, and social insecurities. ‘More market’ is not a panacea to the millions of working poor farmers who are already as much part of the global economy as anyone else.

Can science ‘solve hunger’? The issue here is what one means by ‘science’. All of the G8 discourse has framed ‘science’ as the research and development performed by large chemical and agriculture companies – either through their own R&D departments or through research centres and universities that they (and Western governments) fund. This is an alienating science: one in which ‘technologies’ are devised as property rights that are then sold to farmers for a (reduced?) profit.

There is very little information on how these new technologies will be introduced into existing livelihoods and cultures which are of course themselves producers of scientific knowledge – less high-tech and more socially-embedded. Current literature on high tech agricultural solutions tends to mention ‘training’ in the most cursory way, as if the dissemination of information to currently ignorant farmers is the working assumption.

We know very well that new ‘top-down’ agricultural technologies produce unintended consequences and failures because of the cavalier approach that governments and corporations have towards existing agricultural livelihoods and communities. New seed types, perhaps requiring new fertilisers; different irrigation regimes; and new cultivation cycles, perhaps less amenable to mixed cropping or use in marginal environments will only succeed in significantly reducing malnutrition if (a) the poorest farmers have stable purchasing power to access the technologies over a period of years, and (b) can ‘localise’ the new technologies into existing livelihoods, environments, and labour assets. One cannot ‘drop’ new high-tech seeds into communities via short-term training programmes and simply expect that the genetic enhancements will work themselves through a diversity of specific social conditions. This evokes a tired history of assumptions about simple generic peasantries with no agency and the need to rescue these farmers through bold modern interventions.

How should we address hunger and malnutrition? The fact is that there is no single social condition of hunger. Hunger is a manifestation of a range of different vulnerabilities and social dynamics. As such, all technological innovations are also social innovations and require consideration and evaluation as such. This kind of approach has long been recognised by a broad range of researchers and institutions, most notably the FAO and perhaps most prominently in recent times in the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Taking the rich and well-established research of the international agricultural epistemic development community, the current ‘science and business’ agenda looks both naïve and narrow.

Furthermore, there needs to be a more open-minded understanding of ‘we’. We live in a world where there is a vibrant and diverse range of agrarian/food sovereignty movements that base themselves on political struggles to defend access to land and water, to present hunger as a political and rights issue (which it clearly is), to try to evoke vernacular norms of legitimacy, justice, and order in the ways that agrarian markets function, and so on. One might recall a familiar social movements adage ‘nothing about us without us’ here; or one might simply note the common sense that those most motivated to solve problems of hunger are those who suffer it and who also happen to be those best placed to make solutions workable and sustainable.

About grahamharris0n

Graham is professor of Politics at University of Sheffield.
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6 Responses to Solving malnutrition through business and science?

  1. Pingback: Solving malnutrition through business and science? | Tipping Point North South

  2. vicki hird says:

    an excellent balanced piece thanks

  3. Mike Bird says:

    Thanks very much for these thoughts. It reminded me of the following passage from Graham Greene’s “The Comedians”:

    “I will make you a bet of ten to one that, in a matter of months, relations are healed and the American Ambassador returns. You forget – Papa Doc is a bulwark against Communism. There will be no Cuba and no Bay of Pigs here. Of course there are other reasons. Papa Doc’s lobbyist in Washington is the lobbyist for certain American-owned mills (they grind grey flour for the people out of imported surplus wheat – it is astonishing how much money can be made out of the poorest of the poor with a little ingenuity). And then there’s the great beef-racket. The poor here can eat meat no more than they can eat cake, so I suppose they don’t suffer when all the beef that exists goes to the American market – it doesn’t matter to the importers that there are no standards here of cattle-raising – it goes into tins for underdeveloped countries paid for by American aid, of course. It wouldn’t affect the Americans if this trade ceased, but it would affect the particular Washington politician who receives one cent for every pound exported.

    “Do you despair of any future?

    “No, I don’t despair, I don’t believe in despair, but our problems won’t be solved by the Marines. We have had experience of the Marines. I’m not sure I wouldn’t fight for Papa Doc if the Marines came. At least he’s Haitian. No, the job has to be done with our own hands. We are an evil slum floating a few miles from Florida, and no American will help us with arms or money or counsel.”

    At the last Progressive Development meeting I suggested the slogan “same shit, different country” given our interest in making the link between those in the UK who are on the wrong end of government policy and those who are beset by the focus of our ODA. Graham Green published “The Comedians” in 1965 so maybe “same shit, different century” is equally valid?

    Of course the geo-politics has changed, but the business model hasn’t…

    But in the interest of not despairing, here’s a link to one of the many ways in which alternatives to the “hunger summit” consensus are alive and well:

  4. Pingback: What we’ve been reading this week – One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?

  5. ME says:

    This definitely helped with my project. 🙂

  6. GloWrya Cipta says:

    malnutrition is not a stranger. malnutrition can occur because of our lack of attention to nutrition from every food we consume.
    this is a very helpful article! I will start paying attention to my nutrition. thanks for sharing! with-mahasiswa-asal-malaysia-dosen-dan-mahasiswa-fkm-adakan-pengmas-atasi-gizi-buruk-di-lamongan/

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