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The issues

Bias against the poor

Social, economic and technological changes have left the poor with limited access to land and water - women in rural areas are often the worst affected


Perhaps the most egregious problem is the widespread bias against the hungry and the poor. Most societies were once structured so that, even though many people were poor, most had access to sufficient food to ensure their survival. Social, economic and technological changes have since eroded the traditional "safety nets", and ties to the land have been weakened or severed, making it difficult or impossible for the poor to grow their own food. In quite a few rural areas today, archaic and inequitable agrarian structures have been grafted on to highly industrialized agricultural production systems, leaving the poor with limited access to land, water, fuelwood and other basic amenities (Figure 3). Poor women in rural areas, in particular, are often forced to spend much of their time searching for water and fuelwood with which to prepare meagre meals for their families.

Once primarily the result of crop failure in isolated areas, famine today is increasingly caused by the marginalization and impoverishment of rural populations as a result of inadequate institutions and policies. Marginalization and impoverishment have multiple causes but they often result from a lack of viable resource alternatives, with a consequent reliance on marginal lands and deforestation. Chronic undernutrition and malnutrition, indicators of serious vulnerability to natural or human-induced emergencies, are often observed in such populations. Civil strife and war are also fuelled by such processes and further weaken food security. These conditions often lead to vast population movements, especially from rural to urban areas and often across national borders.

In urban areas, furthermore, crowding, inadequate sanitation, makeshift housing, longer food transport networks and a lack of clean water often lead to the rapid spread of disease and malnutrition, sapping poor people's ability to care for themselves and undermining the mental development of their children. All this is exacerbated by a lack of education and capital, which are essential for freeing people from poverty.

Number of people living in poverty or lacking access to essential services in the developing world

Source: FAO. 2000. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2000 ; J.R. Lupien and V. Menza. 1999. Assessing prospects for improving food security and nutrition. Food, Nutrition and Agriculture, No. 25.

Ineffective guardianship of the global commons

A second interrelated issue is the inadequate guardianship of the global commons, that is the resources, institutions and values that societies commonly share, yet which tend to be overexploited because of individual egoism. Three distinct aspects of guardianship are of concern here: natural resources, cultural identity and human rights.

Natural resources

Humanity's power to modify the natural world as well as our increasing numbers pose immense threats to the natural resource base on which we depend. Regarding marine resources, for instance, although the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) was a step in the right direction, our collective ability to create ever-more effective means of catching fish is depleting the seas of much of their abundance and the majority of stocks are now fully exploited (Figure 4). Huge vessels with canneries on board compete with fishers using simple nets or lines. Entire communities based on fishing activities are suddenly discovering that their livelihoods are threatened.

World capture fisheries reaches maximum potential

Source: FAO data, 2000.

Policies of increased industrial production threaten not merely to create local pollution but also to upset the climate, resulting in holes in the ozone layer as well as global warming. Current predictions suggest that, with global warming, we can expect more variable and harsher weather conditions, rising sea levels and inundated coastal cities, and shifts in the location of agricultural production.

Increases in the demand for water for agricultural, industrial and domestic uses are lowering groundwater levels and, in some cases, permanently depleting aquifers. In other cases, overuse of water is leading to the salinization and eventual abandonment of what was once prime agricultural land.

Biodiversity, commonly considered essential for maintaining life on earth, is threat-ened as a result of widespread specialization in agricultural production (Figures 5 and 6), industrial pollution, deforestation and the introduction of invasive species. In short, entire ecosystems are being weakened, damaged and even destroyed by human intervention.

Today's limited use of plant biodiversity for food production

Source: FAO

Proportion of the world's farm animal breeds at risk, by region

Source: FAO. 2000. World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity (third edition).

Cultural identity and diversity

The erosion of biodiversity is mirrored by the erosion of cultural diversity. Just as biodiversity may serve as insurance against unfavourable ecosystem changes, so cultural diversity may serve as a buffer against human error. Some cultures have proved exceedingly adept at incorporating new ideas and new technologies while reaffirming central values. Others have collapsed in the face of change. As markets penetrate previously isolated cultures, entire languages, traditions and practices, religions, types of food and means of food preparation and other social institutions are in danger of extinction. This is especially true of cultures whose primary values are non-material.

Some cultures have been eroded by national policies that foster conformity to the dominant national culture. Still others have been severely damaged by new technologies that undermine deeply held beliefs, thereby taking much of the meaning out of people's daily life. Some have been pushed aside for what is arguably defined as progress. The pervasiveness of advertising and the creation of truly international consumers of global foods, clothing, cinema and even music, have also increased the process of homogenization and obliterated cultural identities.

This is not to suggest that members of such cultures passively accept unwanted change. In fact, they often attempt to fight against the collapse of their cultural identity through increased cultural solidarity and resistance to externally induced change. Such resistance is often violent, resulting in loss of life and property as well as undermining democratic institutions and suppressing internal dissent. In the more extreme cases, resistance movements turn on themselves as partisans attempt to eliminate all those who do not live up to claimed traditional ideals.

Individuals' and peoples' rights

The simultaneous loss of biological and cultural diversity threatens to undermine the rights of both individuals and entire peoples. On the one hand, some groups would force people to abandon their age-old ways in order to partake of what is dubiously described as progress. On the other hand, there are those who would deprive indigenous populations of the conveniences of modern life, preserving them so that they can maintain global goods such as plant germplasm. Both extremes undermine the rights of individuals and peoples to make their own decisions and determine their future.

In all societies, traditional mechanisms to ensure the right to adequate food are being eroded by the weakening of social and cultural ties, brought about by the breakup of traditional family units, accelerated urbanization and the globalization of markets, information and culture. In the face of persistent and widespread hunger, therefore, the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action reaffirmed the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food and specified the need to clarify the definition of the right to food. They also reaffirmed the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, as stated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other relevant international and regional instruments, urging particular attention to the implementation and full and progressive realization of these rights as a means of achieving food security for all.

An emerging global economy, but not a global society

While the globalization of the world's economy is proceeding rapidly, the creation of a global society is only now beginning to be considered. Goods, services and especially capital flow freely across national borders at ever-increasing rates, yet people remain largely constrained by national borders. For nations, businesses and consumers, action in the market is limited by access to capital; those without any means have no voice in the marketplace. And although every nation has institutions that supplement market forces with some form of social safety net to support people who are unable to draw adequate benefit from the market, the solidarity network among nations is rather underdeveloped.

Yet, a global market without a global society could be self-destructive. First, it may divide people between those who participate in the market and those who lack the means to do so, both within nations and among them. Whether it be for lack of education and capital or because they are exploited, those who cannot participate will reject the global market as yet another threat to their livelihoods. Second, the global market might involve the construction of international institutions that claim the allegiance of only a small élite. Citizens in both industrialized and developing nations may therefore reject global markets, plunging the world into conflicts at the national and international levels.

In contrast, little attention has been given to the prerequistes for building a global society. Such a society would embody the values put forth in dozens of international treaties and declarations that treat people as citizens rather than consumers. But how can we build a global society in which poverty, hunger and malnutrition are reduced or, better, eliminated?

Clearly, to achieve this goal, many diverse interests must be reconciled and several complex and protracted conflicts resolved. Other choices are conceivable but not attractive. There may be parties who believe they can triumph over others but, in the long term, there are no winners. No matter how difficult it may be, people must recognize that their fate is bound to that of others, as is the fate of the planet. A way must be found to reduce the gaps between the poor and the affluent, the food-secure and the food-insecure and the winners and losers of globalization as well as between cultures and between generations.

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