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World Food Day: Let’s cooperate

October 16, 2012
by Patrick Love

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Last year, the world spent the equivalent of $2000 on arms for every one of the planet’s 870 million malnourished people.  Other than giving the gun money (or guns) to the hungry, how else could we fight malnutrition? On its annual World Food Day, the FAO argues that agricultural cooperatives are the “key to feeding the world”. Co-ops are far more important than most of us realise. According to the FAO, around 1 billion people worldwide are members, and cooperatives provide over 100 million jobs across all sectors, 20% more than multinationals. In 2008, the top 300 cooperatives were responsible for an aggregate turnover of $1.1 trillion, roughly the size of the world’s tenth largest economy, Canada.

Agricultural cooperatives (the main type in many countries) can offer their members a range of services, including credit, training, marketing and access to information, as well as improving their bargaining power when buying inputs or in policy making. That can help them take advantage of opportunities like the surges in food prices seen in 2007-2008, that in fact left many poor farmers worse off because they couldn’t increase their own production but still had to pay higher prices for things they didn’t produce themselves.

People in this situation can become trapped in a vicious circle, where food insecurity is not just an immediate tragedy, but a threat to longer-term wellbeing. As Joe Dewbre explains in the OECD Observer, faced with hunger, families first tend to reduce consumption of higher quality foods, such as meat or vegetables. But if the crisis continues, they may have to sell the means by which they normally earn a living – their animals or tools for instance – or take out loans that will leave them impoverished and indebted for years to come. Or even worse. Earlier this year, the Indian media reported on a wave of suicides among farmers in Bengal unable to repay loans.

Dewbre argues that historical evidence – and common sense – suggest that as a society becomes richer, food security becomes less of a problem. An OECD working paper shows that developing countries with very different levels of economic development, population size and geographical location have succeeded in reducing poverty and improving nutrition. Despite the significant differences among them, they share some characteristics. During the period when they had the greatest success in reducing poverty, the macroeconomic context became progressively more favourable. Their own governments were lowering export taxes, reducing overvalued exchange rates and dismantling inefficient state interventions in agricultural markets. Meanwhile, the governments of rich country trading partners were reducing the kinds of support to their farmers that distorted production and trade the most.

As we discussed in this article, hunger exists in rich countries too, but the main food-related problem here is obesity. According to the OECD Obesity Update 2012, obesity rates in OECD countries have doubled or tripled from 1980, when fewer than one person in ten was obese. Now, the majority of the population is overweight or obese in 19 of the 34 OECD countries, and OECD projections suggest that more than two out of three people will be overweight or obese in some OECD countries by 2020. The good news is that the progression of the epidemic has effectively come to a halt for the past ten years in some countries, including Korea (where obesity rates have stabilised at 3% to 4% of the population), Switzerland (7% to 8%), Italy (8% to 9%), Hungary (17% to 18%) and England (22% to 23%).

However, the epidemic isn’t regressing anywhere, and it’s also becoming a problem in developing countries. Data from the WHO show that overweight and obesity are now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. Close to 35 million overweight children are living in developing countries, compared to 8 million in developed countries. The WHO ranks overweight and obesity as the fifth leading risk for global deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In addition, 44% of the diabetes burden, 23% of the ischaemic heart disease burden and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer burdens are attributable to overweight and obesity.

That said, hunger and malnutrition are still the number one risk to the health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. That $1.738 trillion used to buy arms last year could have been better spent.

Useful links

OECD work on food security and nutrition

OECD work on agricultural policies for poverty reduction

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