Repurposing Our International Leftovers

2 Apr

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Yesterday Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development’s U.K. office sent around one of his usual announcements having to do with what’s happening in the world of development aid. Usually these have to do with some of interesting podcasts he hosts called Development Drums.

This one, however, described a new program that would see thousands of tons of otherwise wasted food from our First World supermarkets be sent to hungry people in the so-called Third World. After all, we throw out or otherwise waste an estimated 1.2 billion metric tons of food annually, wrote Mr. Barder –“because of losses in harvesting, storage, transportation and poor labelling.  This is between 30-50% of all food produced: yet at the same time, about 900 million people will go to bed tonight hungry.”

As a result, he said, “(a) consortium of donors, NGOs, supermarkets and agro-businesses are working on plans to use surplus food, currently wasted in industrialised countries, to the developing world to tackle hunger.”

Well, it did take a few seconds but then I realized that it was April 1st — and that Mr. Barder was just kidding us. He even concocted a rather brilliant acronym for this “plan” – the Africa Pilot for Repurposing International Leftovers (APRIL).

Nonetheless, the tongue-in-cheek message did offer some, ahem, food for thought.

How many of us were told , as youngsters refusing to eat something we didn’t like, “to think of the starving children in Africa,” and eat up? Most of us I imagine. Yet as the absurdity of Mr. Barder’s April Fools Day message makes clear, there is something awry in a system where so many people waste food and so many others don’t have enough to eat.

It is pretty clear by now that the reasons for this is not because there isn’t enough food in the world to feed us all. It is because millions of people in the Global South don’t have the money to buy it. Their incomes are so small — either from working, farming or running some kind of small informal business — that the percentage of income available for food is as negligible as our concerns about throwing away a third to a half of what we buy.

What’s more, we are not talking here about the wilted lettuce in your crisper, but the vast amounts that gets lost in the food chain before it even gets to our fridge.

Why is food so expensive in countries where so many people live on one to two dollars a day?

It is, in fact, the same system that still makes huge profits dumping a ton of misshapen potatoes, or pricing their produce so high it didn’t sell so it gets tossed. Poor countries, moreover, are often highly dependent on food imports — which is crazy when you think about it.

Haiti for example was self-sufficient in food, much as many people barely got by, until the 1980s. Now it must import from abroad about 80 per cent of its food, and when prices spike, as they did, in 2007, even people with jobs simply can’t afford the tax-payer-subsidized rice or pasta from abroad. Meanwhile, the farmers that once grew the rice themselves have long been put out of business by the cheaper subsidized product. Rural poverty not only means that farmers have no storage facilities or roads to transport their produce, but they lack enough land to make a decent living.

Yet the wealthy countries of this world continue to promote poor-nation dependence on our “leftovers.” They continue to say that agri-business is better for food production than small family owned farms. And, of course, they continue to receive billions in subsidies.

APRIL may be a joke, but it’s one that illustrates the upside down world of poverty and food. Let’s hope it hits our governments’ brains, for a change, instead of their funny bones.

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