Solving malnutrition through business and science?

We need to broaden our understanding of hunger and challenge the prevailing market-centred approach

Graham Harrison
Graham Harrison

This June’s G8 meeting was not framed in a ‘big issue’ fashion like the previous UK G8 meeting in Gleneagles in 2005 or the G20 meeting in London 2009. Development campaigners wanted the summit 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.

On June 8th the British 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 followed the following lines:

  • Hunger and malnutrition are ‘technical’ problems that express dietary and nutritional dysfunctions
  • The core to any solution is technology – the application of 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.

This agenda provides a salient reshaping of how hunger is perceived and shows how it is embedded into a broader model of political economy. It fed into a broader process of elite institutionalisation of the ‘hunger problem’ that in effect depoliticises hunger and positions international capital as the central agency in its solution. This, to say the least, requires some critical reflection.

What can business do for the malnourished and hungry? The answer has been steadily 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 and might also involve training farmers in the management of 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.

In other words, 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 all 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 that private investment in agriculture 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 shows 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 supported by convincing evidence and the adoption of GM crops has profound repercussions on the way farming is practised. Adopting GM crops reduces the autonomy of farmers and increases 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. Hunger is as much a modern and market phenomenon as it is a product of poor rains or low technology production. All of these factors comingle to produce hard work, poor diets and social insecurities.   In sum, ‘more market’ is not a panacea to millions of working poor farmers already integrated into the global economy.

Can science ‘solve hunger’? The issue here is what one means by ‘science’. 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, which 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 themselves producers of knowledge, albeit less high-tech and more socially-embedded. Current literature on high-tech agricultural solutions tends to mention ‘training’ only in the most cursory way.

We know very well that new ‘top-down’ agricultural technologies produce unintended consequences and failures because of the cavalier approach that governments and corporations adopt towards agricultural communities. New seed types will only succeed in significantly reducing malnutrition if the poorest farmers have stable purchasing power to access the technologies over a period of years, and if they can ‘localise’ the new technologies into existing livelihoods, environments and labour assets.  You cannot just ‘drop’ new high-tech seeds into communities via short-term training programmes and expect the genetic enhancements to work themselves through a diversity of specific social conditions. This evokes a tired history of assumptions about generic peasantries and the need to rescue these farmers through bold modern interventions.

How should we address hunger and malnutrition? There is no single social condition of hunger; it is a manifestation of a range of different vulnerabilities and social dynamics. All technological innovations are also social innovations, and require consideration and evaluation. This approach has long been recognised by researchers and institutions, 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. The current ‘science and business’ agenda looks naïve and narrow when compared to this approach.

Ultimately, 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 and to try to evoke vernacular norms of legitimacy, justice and order in the ways that agrarian markets function. Recall a familiar adage of social movements: ‘nothing about us without us’.  Or simply note the common sense that those most motivated to solve problems of hunger are those who suffer it: they also happen to be those best placed to make solutions workable and sustainable.