After a period of decline, the number of undernourished people in the world is again on the rise, and famine has either returned or is threatened in Africa’s conflict areas, even though there is enough food to feed the world’s population. Food globalization and the products of agribusiness and agroindustry have transformed eating habits, with important consequences for public health.
Discussion of the fit between populations and resources began with Thomas Malthus in the early 19th century. In today’s very different context, when the quantity of food available is sufficient to feed everyone on the planet, the number of undernourished people, following a period of decline (900 million in 2000, 777 million in 2015), is rising again (815 million in 2016, i.e. 11% of the world population). In 2017, famine returned to the conflict zones of South Sudan and threatened to appear elsewhere in Africa. With the world’s population projected to grow beyond 9 billion by 2050, tackling the global food challenge involves addressing all the various forms of malnutrition, all the different kinds of actors involved and the sustainability of food production systems.
Comment: According to FAO estimates and calculating an average over three years (2014-2016), the prevalence of malnutrition (color shading) affects 30 to 50 % of the population in many African countries where the availability of food products and the ability to obtain them are lowest. This situation is aggravated by conflicts (explaining the absence of data for the DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, and Libya). With regard to actual numbers of undernourished individuals (squares showing proportions), the highest are to be found in India (194 million) and China (134 million), even though their proportion of the national population is not the largest.
Three types of malnutrition
Three types of malnutrition currently coexist, placing pressures on societies in different ways: caloric undernutrition; caloric overnutrition, which is rapidly increasing; and “hidden hunger,” or persistent vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which affected 2 billion people in 2015, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia, as well as among the poorest sections of the population in wealthy countries.
Comment: This cloud of dots combines the proportion of people who were underweight (along the horizontal axis) and the overweight (along the vertical axis) in 2014. The second is higher than the first in almost all countries. More than half the populations of America, Europe, and other countries (including Egypt and Iran) suffer from overweight compared with fewer than 5% who are underweight. The situation in Asia and certain African countries lies somewhere between the two (20-30% overweight and 5-15% underweight), whereas the Indian subcontinent has the highest levels of underweight people (more than 20%, equal to those who are overweight).
New consumption habits and a lower level of physical activity have caused obesity levels to double (affecting 600 million adults, i.e. 13% of the world adult population). In 2014, 2.2 billion people were overweight or obese – exposing them to a higher risk of death from diabetes. Among the poorest sections of society, all the different kinds of malnutrition are evident: undernutrition among children, obesity among adults, and nutritional deficiencies among everyone. Food insecurity is a factor in higher mortality rates, violence and instability, especially in societies with high levels of inequality and in weak states. Lack of food or access to healthy foods is a marker of poverty and injustice, as are a lack of public policies supporting subsistence farming, clean water provision, healthcare services and nutritional information (all of which can be exacerbated by the impacts of conflicts and climate change).
Globalization of agriculture and food
The agro-industrial modernization model of the 1970s Green Revolution, led by multinational corporations and US-based foundations (involving mechanization, hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, all features of intensive agriculture), drove higher quantities of food production, assisting the fight against famine. it proved to have destructive effects in both environmental and social terms, however.
This same model, reinforced by the chemical industry and genetic innovations and corporate concentration, underpins a global market for agricultural products that is increasingly complex and diversified in terms of the products, actors and interconnected locations involved. While statistics may tell us something about the trade between states (based on tariff and non-tariff barriers), they do not reveal much about the circulations and transnational interdependencies spanning the food industry’s long and highly dispersed value chains. Although the share of agricultural products in goods trading has dropped by 20% over 50 years, down to 8% of the total, they remain a key economic, geopolitical, social and security issue for states, which have to grapple with the many private actors involved (investors, seed companies, producers, transporters, shipping companies, stock exchanges, insurers, distributors, advertisers, etc.).
Comment: The source of this map is Land Matrix, a database produced by an independent global network of researchers, decision-makers, and citizens who compile a list of international land acquisitions using multiple sources (academic research, international organizations, NGOs, private sector, etc.). The data are subject to rapid variation (new contracts, failed transactions, etc.) and the database is constantly updated. The map therefore shows a cumulative situation over 15 years: in addition to the global scale of land acquisition, it clearly shows the geographical spread of investors (companies in the North, Asia and the Gulf) as well as the regions targeted for investment (Africa, South America, South Asia, and Ukraine).
The geography of trade and investment flows reveals the emergence of new major producers like Brazil, the level of Chinese demand, and the scale of international land acquisitions. The product hierarchy is changing: cereals are decreasing, poultry and meat are increasing, palm oil is booming. Subsistence agriculture (500 million small-scale farmers worldwide), sacrificed by developmentalist policies and by the Washington Consensus, is still excluded from these trade flows.
This trade feeds into a different type of globalization: an industrial food supply comprising standardized mass-market products, low-cost and of poor nutritional quality, supplied by global corporations in the food, retail and fast-food sectors to urban consumers, including consumers in countries of the South and the poorest social groups in countries of the North.
Comment: The large fast food brands contribute to food globalization (cheap standardized products of low nutritional quality) and the increased numbers of people who are overweight or obese. The near 140,000 sales outlets in 148 countries in 2014, according to The Economist, are very unequally distributed (size of dots). In keeping with the history of their development, half are in the United States, whereas many African countries have none at all. When these figures are linked to the population of each country (color shading), it becomes evident that the offer per inhabitant is highest in North America, Australia, and Europe, whereas in China, the country that comes second for the number of sales outlets, the offer concerns only a small share of the population.
Packaged products, soft drinks, ready-made meals, hamburgers, pizzas, sushi, kebabs, etc., adapted or not to local tastes, laden with sugar and fat, play their part in the increasing numbers of people who are overweight or obese. This food system is leading to standardization on the one hand (with a higher proportion of meat and dairy products, in particular) and to hybridization on the other.
NGOs, international organizations, networks of food researchers and health professionals, consumer associations and innovative farmers are proposing agroecology as an alternative to agro-industry. Through reports, collaborative databases, education campaigns, group initiatives and boycotts, these actors are promoting alternative ways of feeding ourselves (organic agriculture, permaculture, flexitarianism, ending animal suffering, local food, urban agriculture, urban-rural connections, fair trade, seed co-ops, labeling, traceability, environmental labeling, etc.), contributing to the emergence of a more integrated approach to questions of human security and nutrition in the glocal arena. They also highlight the absence of regulation to rein in highly speculative markets, a lack of controls on agrochemical and biotechnology research and development, and the ambiguous relationships between public and private spheres. Bound by their political choices, the influence of lobbies and private-sector standards and trade-offs, states are proving slow to respond to these calls from civil society, especially given the multitude of governance bodies in this field (club diplomacy) and the proliferation of international organizations (FAO, WFP, IFAD, WTO, UNDP, UNCTAD, UNEP).
- malnutrition > Malnutrition
- Malnutrition results from an ongoing dietary imbalance in terms of the quantity and/or quality of food eaten (encompassing both obesity in wealthy countries and people whose diet is inadequate due to poverty). Famine is defined as a critical food supply failure affecting entire populations, a situation that will quickly lead to deaths in the absence of remedial measures. Between malnutrition and famine, undernourishment is caused by reduced access to nutrition due to economic circumstances (price spikes), periodic shortages (especially in the hunger gap between two harvests) or chronic shortages (long-term conflict situations).
- Food insecurity > Food Security
- The notion of food security emerged at the World Food Conference of 1974 and has developed since then to include various aspects – access, availability, quality, stability – which were summed up as follows at the World Food Summit of 1996: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” It is one of the seven dimensions of human security set out in the United Nations Human Development Report (HDR) of 1994.
- weak states > Collapsed state
- A state incapable of ensuring its population’s security (ending the social contract) and controlling its territory (end of sovereignty). At this point the country is ungoverned and the violence this generates can precipitate collapse (as in Congo, Somalia and Afghanistan, for example). However, the use of this designation by the international community can be arbitrary, too, masking strategic interests and power politics.
- poverty > Poverty
- Initially referring to a lack of economic resources, the notion of poverty has broadened in recent decades to include its different components, such as appalling sanitary conditions, a low level of education, social and gender inequalities, human rights violations, environmental damage, and increased vulnerability to so-called “natural” disasters. The Human Development Index (HDI) developed by the United Nations Development Program in the mid-1990s (and its gendered variant, Gender Development Index or GDI) and the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) devised by researchers at the University of Oxford in 2010, use Amartya Sen’s work on capabilities to identify the deprivation suffered by the poor in terms of health, education, and living standards.
- subsistence farming > Subsistence farming
- This is the most widespread type of farming as regards numbers of farms and workers, surface area cultivated, and feeding capacity. It involves growing crops and raising livestock in sufficient quantities for the farmer’s own use (with any surplus going to the local market). It plays an important role in food safety, natural resource management, and environmental conservation. Undervalued (as belonging to an outdated past) or overvalued (return to the earth, agroecology) and overshadowed by the dominant agro-industrial model, it has suffered from lack of government interest (needs in terms of land access, water, technology, credit, and training). The persistence of malnutrition, the return of famines, and criticisms of industrial food production are now encouraging NGOs and International Organizations (IOs) to put it at the center of their agricultural, social, and environmental policies.
- Green Revolution
- The rapid transformation of agricultural production launched in the countries of the South (notably Asia) in the 1960s by governments, development organizations and agribusiness to combat malnutrition, poverty and the spread of communist revolution. It involved the use of fertilizers, pesticides, the sowing of selected seeds, mechanization and highly increased yields, and led to a global quantitative reduction in malnutrition. It also had major consequences for social organization (debt-induced eradication of family farming) and the environment (pollution and deterioration of soils and water, reduction of biodiversity). The subsequent step has been the widespread use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
- intensive agriculture > Intensive agriculture
- Agriculture characterized by the massive use of synthetic inputs (plant protection products such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.), extensive mechanization (for plowing, processing, harvesting, treating animals), varietal selection and now also genetic engineering (GMOs). It increases agricultural yields over the short and medium terms, at the cost of harming biodiversity, the environment and health (soil contamination, groundwater and underground water courses, erosion, and desertification). Alternatives include sustainable agriculture, organic farming, agroecology and permaculture.
- environmental > Environment
- In broad terms, the environment is understood as the biosphere in which living species cohabit, while ecology studies the relations between these organisms and their environment. The environment encompasses very diverse natural areas from undisturbed virgin forests to artificialized environments planned and exploited by humans. In a more limited definition of the term, “environmental” issues are those relating to natural resources (their management, use and degradation) and biological biodiversity (fauna and flora). As a cross-cutting public concern, the environment encompasses issues of societal organization (production models, transport, infrastructure, etc.) and their impacts on the health of humans and ecosystems.
- circulations > Circulation
- People, merchandise, services, capital, information, ideas, values, and models are being transferred and exchanged in ever-increasing numbers. The expansion, diversification, and acceleration of movement typify the ongoing process of globalization. Circulation connects economic and social spaces through networks which, depending on their density, fluidity, output, and hierarchy, can differentiate them considerably. Of all types of circulation, information in the broadest sense is experiencing the most rapid growth, whereas the circulation of people is the one encountering most obstacles.
- geopolitical > Geopolitics
- Study of power struggles for territory, generally involving states in competition for space, with the direct or indirect use of organized violence as its mode of operation. Translation of the German term Geopolitik (1897), with definitions and uses that have varied over time. Friedrich Ratzel and Rudolf Kjellén examined the relationships between state politics and geographic data; Karl Haushofer wrote about the relationships between land, blood and race and defined the Lebensraum (living space) that formed the basis of Nazi propaganda (in consequence of which the term subsequently fell into disuse); and Halford John Mackinder spoke of the “geographic” foundations of military power, contrasting the continental heartland with the maritime periphery. More recently, Yves Lacoste emphasized the importance of representations, the idea of the nation being for him the most powerful form of geopolitical representation. Geostrategy is geopolitics directed toward action (military or economic).
- Washington Consensus
- A term which, from 1989, covered the recommendations to states made by the economist John Williamson together with international financial institutions (IMF and World Bank), with a view to liberalizing their economies. These structural adjustment plans (discipline and fiscal reform, public expenditure reform, trade liberalization and privatization of public enterprises) had great influence in Latin America, Africa, and the post-communist countries. Their economic results were variable and the social consequences dramatic in states that already lacked any redistributive public policies.
- global corporations > Multinational corporation
- Company that has undertaken foreign direct investment (FDI) giving it access to facilities that it owns fully or in part (subsidiaries). The first MNCs date from the late 19th century; corporations of this kind have become widespread in the early 21st century. The majority of FDI takes place between industrialized nations. Such companies are now transnational rather than multinational, the largest among them tending to evolve into global corporate networks.
- hybridization > Hybridization
- The act of mixing two varieties of a single species, which can, by extension, be applied to the formation of any political, religious, institutional, economic, cultural (etc.) system synthesizing different influences.
- agroecology > Agroecology
- As a farming practice, agroecology includes organic farming within a wider ecological management of cultivated space (composting, complementarity between species, hedges and groups of trees, mound and deep-bed gardening, etc.) so as to improve biodiversity and water use, encourage reforestation and combat erosion. As an interdisciplinary scientific approach combining agronomy, ecology, economics, sociology, agroecology relies on exchanges between farmers, scientists, social and environmental activists, and political decision-makers. Debates about agroecology interweave themes such as energy transition, peasant farming, demands for food sovereignty, the circular economy, and short supply chains, re-forging the link between producers and consumers (“consum’actors”). Organic farming is characterized by the refusal to use chemical inputs (or else limiting them strictly to exceptional and temporary cases) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and attempts to reintroduce traditional farming methods that require a larger workforce than intensive agriculture (recycling of organic matter, crop rotation, non-intensive rearing, traditional irrigation, and local crops).
- flexitarianism > Flexitarianism
- Flexitarianism is a dietary practice that involves reducing the amount of meat and fish consumed without giving them up entirely. The term describes a flexible application of vegetarianism, a diet that excludes foods derived from animal slaughter (meat, fish, shellfish, gelatin). An exclusively plant-based (or vegan) diet also excludes all products of animal origin not directly involving slaughter (eggs, dairy products, honey) while ethical veganism also opposes animal exploitation and cruelty in the production of food, clothing (leather, wool, fur), hygiene/personal care products (wax, dyes), leisure businesses (bullfighting, circuses, zoos) and animal testing.
- human security > Human Security
- Developed over the course of the 1990s, the concept of human security is based on an expanded vision of security, going beyond state security and military threats. The United Nations Human Development Report (HDR) of 1994 sets out seven categories (food security, health security, environmental security, political security, economic security, personal security and community security) and defines security as follows: “It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life – whether in homes, in jobs or in communities.” Criticized as lacking operationality, it remains a key notion in contemporary international relations.
- regulation > Regulation
- The term regulation refers to all the processes and mechanisms that enable a system to function in a normal, regular fashion. At the international level, it refers to the set of processes, mechanisms and institutions that act to correct imbalances that might threaten the global order and to ensure that actors behave predictably, thereby ensuring stability. It is closely linked to the notions of governance and global public goods.
- research and development > Research and Development
- Investment made by businesses (internally or through outsourcing) in fundamental, applied and experimental research to develop knowledge enabling new products to be developed or to ensure productivity gains. This research is key in the context of competition between multinational companies, their global operations (more centralized than production), international negotiations (patents), links between governments and business (public-private research) and North-South relations.
- lobbies > Lobby
- Pressure or interest group whose aim is to influence political authorities so that they make decisions in the interest of that group’s members. Lobbies are recognized and accepted in varying degrees within the political cultures of different countries – and their methods and actions can involve varying degrees of transparency and legitimacy. Given the increasing technical complexity of trade negotiations and the intricacy of decision-making levels and processes, today lobbyists are amassing funding proportional to the interests they are defending and using high-level experts to prepare their dossiers. They play an important role in legislative development processes in the United States, in the institutions of the European Union and in the WTO.
- civil society > Civil Society
- At the national level, civil society refers to a social body that is separate from the state and greater than the individuals and groups of which it is formed (social classes, socio-professional categories, generations, etc.). The notion of a global civil society emerged in the 1970s (John Burton, World Society) and refers to social relations formed in the international arena and beyond the control of states, when citizens of all countries take concerted action to demand regulations that may be supranational or infranational. However, the term conceals a great diversity. The notion of world society emerged among geographers in the 1990s and refers to the more all-encompassing process of creating a social space at the planetary level.
- governance > Governance
- Inspired by management and entrepreneurship, the expression global governance refers to the formal and informal institutions, mechanisms and processes through which international relations between states, citizens, markets and international and non-governmental organizations are established and structured. The global governance system aims to articulate collective interests, to establish rights and duties, to arbitrate disputes and to determine the appropriate regulatory mechanisms for the issues and actors in question. Governance takes various forms: global multilateral governance, club-based governance (restricted to members, e.g. G7/8/20), polycentric governance (juxtaposition of regulatory and management mechanisms operating at various levels), and so on.
- international organizations > International Organization
- In the words of Clive Archer, an IO is “a formal, continuous structure established by agreement between members (governmental and/or non-governmental) from two or more sovereign states with the aim of pursuing the common interest of the membership.” Marie-Claude Smouts identifies three characteristics of IOs: they arise out of a “founding act” (treaty, charter, statute), have a material existence (headquarters, finance, staff), and form a “coordination mechanism.