On the occasion of World Food Day - 16 October 2008
"The fields of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice."
(Proverbs 13: 23)
"Never again will foreign warriors come and take away your grain and wine. You raised it, and you will keep it, praising the Lord."
(Isaiah 62: 8b)
The WCC's engagement with issues related to food goes back over thirty years. As far back as 1975, the WCC lifted up the issues of famine and malnutrition for churches' attention. In 1980, the WCC Central Committee released a Statement on Food critiquing the use of access to food as a political weapon, patenting of seed varieties by international corporations and utilization of food varieties for alternative energy sources. In the same vein, the WCC issued a Statement on the International Food Disorder at the 1983 WCC assembly in Vancouver, Canada.
Food and the means of its production are central to human life. Access to food - as a necessity of life - is a human right. Our economic and political systems must guarantee that none go hungry while others consume excessively.
Practices from the sowing of seeds to the sharing of food in community have been formative for different cultures. Rituals and feasts symbolize the divine gift of abundant life for all. Throughout the Bible and in the Christian tradition of prayer and worship, food features prominently. In the Lord's Prayer we pray: "Give us this day our daily bread." The breaking of bread and sharing of wine in the Eucharist are at the heart of the community that Christ calls us to be:
"The Eucharist embraces all aspects of life. It is a representative act of thanksgiving and offering on behalf of the whole world. The Eucharistic celebration demands reconciliation and sharing among all those regarded as brothers and sisters in the one family of God and is a constant challenge in the search for appropriate relationship in social, economic and political life (see Matt 5:23f, I Cor.10:16f). All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share in the body and blood of Christ" (para 20, Baptims, Eucharist and Ministry Document).
As the global food crisis continues to unfold and impact on the most vulnerable in our societies, this Eucharistic vision calls on the churches to take responsibility to address the crisis and its structural roots in a committed, comprehensive and timely manner.
Currently, many churches and their specialized ministries are responding to the crisis. Through the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance churches continue to advocate for the primacy of the right to food in global trade in agriculture. The churches need to continue to hold international institutions, governments, corporations and financial speculators accountable for the realization of the right to food and food sovereignty. Based on the Eucharistic vision, churches are called to bring the fundamental links between food, community, ecology and life back into perspective. By using their lands and other means at their hands, churches can promote life-giving agriculture. By supporting communities and movements of farmers and landless rural workers they can advocate for just solutions to the food crisis.
Contours of the crisis: soaring food prices and the scourge of hunger
Since the beginning of this year, prices of staple foods such as rice, wheat and corn have surged. Spiralling prices of oil and agricultural inputs have sky rocketed the costs of food production and distribution. Small-scale farmers are not in a position to benefit from the recent price escalation and the increase represents a major calamity for the poor and further undermines their right to food. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that now close to one billion people live with constant hunger. Children are the primary victims of hunger-related diseases and malnutrition that deprive them of the possibility of the fullness of life. Women carry the burden of adjustment to the crisis by expending greater time and energy on seeking cheaper food alternatives.
The scourge of hunger has serious consequences for peace and security. Mounting desperation over soaring food prices has already triggered political conflicts and riots in many countries. The World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round of trade negotiation was expected to solve the issue of food but it is regrettable that the Doha Round meeting did not produce a process to address trade packages that will ensure equitable distribution and production of food. The WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD) are all putting pressure on nations to complete this round of trade agreements as a way to solve the current food crisis. However, many organizations working on trade issues have recognized that the Doha agreement is not helpful because it does not go far enough. It does not encourage countries to increase domestic production and build local food systems so as to ensure food for all their citizens. It builds on a model of trade of import and export of food.
On the whole, the global food crisis stems from and reflects a failure to uphold justice and sustainability within an economic system that is driven by the values of greed and materialism. The prevailing economic paradigm has failed in providing just compensation and support to those who grow our food, in generating livelihoods that offer just wages, in developing just distribution mechanisms to ensure that all people have access to food, and in producing food in ways that are respectful of the environment.
A crisis of production or of distribution and access?
It must be emphasised that the crisis is not primarily of production, but of distribution and access. Current global food supplies are sufficient to feed 12 billion people - double the world's population - but only if everyone has equal access and no one takes more than their fair share (FAO 2008). While global grain production has not been able to meet demand in recent years, people in rich countries have been consuming five times the amount of grain consumed by people in poor countries.
The makings of the current food crisis may be traced to three decades of neglect of agriculture and indiscriminate neo-liberal economic reforms pushed mainly by international financial institutions on developing economies together with trade liberalization policies that exposed farmers in poor countries to subsidised imports from rich nations. In recent decades control over the global food system (e.g. seeds and fertiliser supply, trade and retail) is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few powerful international corporations who benefit most from rising prices.
It has been noted that despite the fact that many small farmers contribute about 80% of food in rural areas, they are not protected and supported.
For too long, mainstream development thinking has viewed agriculture as marginal for economic growth rather than as the source of life and key to eradicating poverty. Capital-intensive, export-oriented, mono-cultural models of agricultural production were promoted which effectively wiped out millions of rural livelihoods, eroded the incomes of small farmers and food producers, undermining rural traditions and ways of life. This has been a major cause of massive migration from rural to urban areas which further weakened the local food production systems. More and more countries have become net food importers. The drive towards higher export productivity and profits at the expense of development of domestic consumption has propagated unsustainable farming practices that have accelerated soil, water and air degradation. The conversion of lands to industrial use and the privatisation of water and other natural resources crucial to growing food have further deepened the crisis.
Droughts and floods caused by climate change have resulted in reduced harvests in some countries. The expansion of the production of agro-fuels has competed with the cultivation of crops for food. Higher food prices have not benefitted small farmers, whose capacities to produce food have been severely weakened by "free market" policies. The price increases have instead benefitted giant transnational agri-businesses that exercise increasing control over agricultural production and distribution as well as benefitting financial speculators.
The prevailing economic paradigm has failed to provide just compensation and support to those responsible for growing most of the food that feeds the majority of the people. Generating rural and urban livelihoods requires just wages and prices, distribution mechanisms that ensure access to food for all, and production of food in ways that are respectful of the environment.
Highly indebted poor countries continue to pay back their debts to rich countries while experiencing the food crisis. It is not right that these countries are still repaying large amounts of money to the richer world while their people are struggling to get the basics of life such as food.
In view of the foregoing, the World Council of Churches general secretary calls on international institutions, regional intergovernmental bodies and governments to
- Urge public and private institutions to address volatility in food prices and agriculture prices by re-establishing public stocks at national and regional levels. Stocks provide an important buffer against price volatility and food insecurity. Transparently held stocks will discourage hoarding and speculation on commodity markets. Coordinated action is required at international level to manage supply at the international level and regulate global commodity.
- Support UNCTAD's code of restrictive practices which will prevent firms from abusing their market power and encourages the creation of global just rules which will address the power held by a few transnational companies. The market power of agribusiness companies must be checked and controlled.
- Call for introduction of legislation at all levels that enshrines the right to food and food sovereignty; such legislation shall aim to
- Protect farmers from subsidised imports,
- Guarantee fair and stable prices for small food producers,
- Introduce regulation of international agro-businesses and of speculative activities on commodities trading;
- Promote corporate social responsibility and accountability in agro-industry,
- Build into agriculture resilience and adaptation to climate change, and
- Protect the environment.
The general secretary further calls on the WCC member churches to
- Advocate actively with their governments, intergovernmental organizations and international financial institutions for the implementation of the above;
- Renew their commitment to work for genuine land reform - including the redistribution of church lands, institutional practices, demonstrating practical models of life-giving agriculture such as community based organic farming in church lands;
- Review their own institutional practices, lift up, promote and replicate practical models of life-giving agriculture (e.g. community based, organic farming, especially in church lands);
- Promote local and environmentally friendly agricultural production through support for:
- Community seed banks and appropriate household food reserve systems,
- Direct relationships between producers and consumers and
- Efforts of awareness-building in local communities and congregations on the global food crisis through education and ecumenical formation and relevant Bible study materials;
Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
WCC general secretary