Food Inflation: Ways to Fight It

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Food inflation has taken off at the beginning of 2011. As the global economic crisis enters its next phase, both developed and developing countries are experiencing inflation. There are many factors fuelling the rise in prices – inefficient distribution and storage systems, lack of investment in agriculture, devaluing currencies, high demand, natural and man-made disasters, use of food products like corn to make biofuels – but there are also ways to counter the effects of food inflation that have been tried and tested across the South.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) says the least developed countries spent US $9 billion on food imports in 2002. By 2008, that amount had risen to US $23 billion. Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary general of UNCTAD, says “the import dependence has become quite devastating.”

Worse, more people had less money to buy the food. The number of individuals living in extreme poverty “increased by 3 million per year during the boom years of 2002 and 2007,” reaching 421 million people in 2007.

For millions of people, it is a matter of life and death that food remains affordable. The poor pay the largest share of their income on food. Raise that cost, and the poor quickly have little money left for other things, like housing, transport, clothing or education.

Approached as a problem needing a solution, it is possible to deal with a bout of food inflation. Every food crisis has its origins and can be resolved. A staggering amount of food goes to waste every year, and a vast quantity can’t get from the farm to the market in time because of infrastructure problems.

An Indian refrigerator – the ChotuKool fridge (http://www.godrej.com/godrej/godrej/index.aspx?id=1) – is designed to stay cool for hours without electricity and to use half the power of conventional refrigerators. Priced at US $69, it is targeted at India’s poor – a population of over 456 million, almost half the total Indian population (World Bank).

Manufactured by Godrej and Boyce and weighing just 7.8 kilograms, it is designed around the stated needs of the poor, who wanted a fridge capable of cooling 5 to 6 bottles of water and 3 to 4 kilograms of vegetables. Portability was crucial as well, since needs to be moved when large family gatherings take place in small rooms.

As a photo shows (http://innovation.hindustantimes.com/summit-photos/godrej/chotukool-3.php), the fridge looks more like a drinks cooler than the typical large refrigerator. It works by replacing the standard compressor motor found in most fridges with a battery-powered heat exchanger.

In Ghana, a mobile phone-driven Internet marketplace is helping to improve efficiencies in farming and selling food. Esoko (esoko.com/#lang=en), tracks products including ground nuts, sesame, tomato, maize and white beans. It offers market information from Afghanistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan and Togo.

India’s e-Choupal is making food distribution more efficient in a country experiencing high inflation. E-Choupal (http://www.echoupal.com) has developed a reputation for both controlling prices and increasing incomes for poor farmers. Started in 2000 by the major Indian company ITC Limited (http://www.itcportal.com), it links farmers to the latest prices for products including soybeans, wheat, coffee and prawns.

E-Choupal works through computers set up in rural areas and has built one of the largest internet initiatives in rural India, reaching 4 million farmers in 40,000 villages.

Brazil, over the last 30 years, has transformed itself from a food importer to one of the world’s major food exporters. It made these impressive achievements with few government subsidies. The agricultural success is down to Embrapa (http://www.embrapa.br/english) – short for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. A public company set up in 1973, it has turned itself into the world’s leading tropical research institution. It breeds new seeds and cattle and has developed innovations from ultra-thin edible wrapping paper for foodstuffs that turns colour when the food goes off to a nano-tech lab creating biodegradable ultra-strong fabrics and wound dressings.

Another approach can be found with a farmer in Kenya, Zack Matere, who boosted his potato crop by turning to Facebook for help. On his farm in Seregeya, Matere used the internet to find a cure for his ailing potato crop.

He uses his mobile phone to access the internet at a costs of about US 0.66 cents a day. One example of the kind of intelligence Matere is able to glean from the internet is reports of cartels deceiving farmers by buying potatoes in over-large 130 kg bags instead of 110 kg bags. Matere takes this information, translates it into Swahili and posts it on community notice boards.

Another fast-growing solution is bringing farming to urban and semi-urban spaces, where the majority of the world’s population now lives.

Urban farmers can take advantage of their close proximity to consumers, keeping costs down and profits up. They can also solve one of agriculture’s enduring problems – where to find water for irrigation by using existing waste water. Waste water is plentiful in urban environments, where factories usually pump out waste water into streams, rivers and lakes.

In Accra, Ghana, more than 200,000 people depend on food grown with wastewater. In Pakistan, a full quarter of the grown vegetables use wastewater.

Family farms are critical to weathering economic crises and ensuring a steady and secure food supply. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) (www.ifad.org) called in 2008 for small family farms – which sustain the livelihoods of more than 2 billion people _ to be put at the heart of the global response to high food prices and uncertain food security.

In Brazil, this call is being answered by a bold initiative to create a “social technology,” combining a house-building programme with diverse family farms.

This is where the Brazilian farmer’s cooperative Cooperhaf: Cooperativa de Habitacao dos Agricultores Familiares (http://www.cooperhaf.org.br/) steps in.

“We see the house as the core issue,” said Adriana Paola Paredes Penafiel, a projects adviser with the Cooperhaf. “The farmers can improve their productivity but the starting point is the house.

“Family farming is very important for the country – 70 percent of food for Brazilians comes from family farming,” said Penafiel. “The government wants to keep people in rural areas.”

Making farming more appealing is being shown as a great way to get ahead in modern Africa. One woman hopes more people will be attracted to farming and boost the continent’s food security and reduce costly imports.

Cynthia Mosunmola Umoru’s company, Honeysuckle PTL Ventures (http://www.tootoo.com/d-c3015227-Honeysuckles_Ptl_Ventures/), is based in Lagos, the business capital of Nigeria.

Leading by example, Umoru has set up a successful and modern agribusiness focusing on high-quality food products using modern packaging and fast delivery. She produces meat products, from seafood like shrimps and prawns to snails, beef, chicken, and birds. Her niche is to deliver the product however the customer wishes: fresh, frozen or processed.

Radical new food sources are also another option over time. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has explored insect protein as a contributor to better nutrition, the economics of collecting edible forest insects, methods of harvesting, processing and marketing edible forest insects, and ways of promoting insect eating with snacks, dishes, condiments — even recipes.

The range of insects that can be tapped for food is huge, and includes beetles, ants, bees, crickets, silk worms, moths, termites, larvae, spiders, tarantulas and scorpions. More than 1,400 insect species are eaten in 90 countries in the South. Entrepreneurs in the South are making insects both palatable and marketable – and in turn profitable. These innovations are adding another income source for farmers and the poor, and supplying another weapon to the battle for global food security.

Resources

1) The global movement for slow food, which encourages organic production and appreciation of traditional foods and cooking. Website: www.SlowFood.com

2) A video story by CNN on Tradenet/Esoko. Website: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6z0ywkHPPQ

3) Olam: The story of Olam – a global food supply company in ‘agri-products’ that got its start in Nigeria – shows how a Southern brand can grow and go global, and overcome the difficulties of cross-border trade. Website: http://www.olamonline.com/home/home.asp

4) South African company Eat Your Garden: It provides urban dwellers and food businesses with their own food gardens bursting with juicy and tasty foods whilst at the same time reducing carbon footprints, and creating employment and provide training, helping poverty alleviation. Website: http://www.eatyourgarden.co.za/

5) Vertical farming, where hothouses are piled one on top of the other, is an option being promoted as a solution to the food needs of urban dwellers. Website: http://www.verticalfarm.com/

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