The miracle of food multiplication

Image: Nataliya Vaitkevich
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By JEAN MARC VON DER WEID*

Without greatly expanding diversified food production, open (malnutrition), hidden (malnutrition) or mild (nutritional imbalances) hunger will not be eliminated.

1.

The Lula Government announced, in several ways, including an article by the Minister of Social Development, Welington Dias, the removal of 24,3 million Brazilians from the hunger map in just one year of government! How did you explain this spectacular success?

Several government measures were cited that would have had this massive effect: increase in Bolsa Família, update of school lunch values, more employment, real increase in the minimum wage, resumption of the Food Acquisition Program. The explanations are essentially aimed at increasing the purchasing power of food for these millions of hungry people. Nothing was said about the supply of food and its prices.

The number is so staggering that it could be taken directly to the Guinness Book of Records. And it overshadows the biblical miracle (New Testament) in which Christ multiplies bread and fish (a good pair from a nutritional point of view), feeding a crowd of five thousand faithful during a famous sermon. The flood of glorious numbers leaves listeners and readers astonished, but common sense indicates that something is wrong.

To begin with, if so many stopped going hungry, what did they start eating? If we consider the classic basic diet of the Brazilian people, centered on rice with beans and corn or cassava derivatives, this increase in demand would represent enormous pressure on the food market, since there was no increase in the production of rice, beans and corn (for human consumption) or cassava in 2023. There is also no information indicating its import.

Instead, a small but significant percentage of rice was exported. As rice with beans and cornbread or cornmeal are no longer part of the current diet of even the wealthiest classes, the increase in food demand may have been directed towards wheat derivatives, such as bread, pasta and biscuits. But there was also no significant increase in wheat production or imports.

Other research has pointed to the adoption of a very insufficient, “belly-filling” diet by the poorest and most hungry population. They are ultra-processed foods such as noodles and sausage, a symbol of this inadequate diet, but which can provide enough calories for statistics to remove them from the hunger map. I have no idea about the behavior of this sector of the agri-food system, but I don't know that there has been an explosion in demand and supply for these products.

If there was no increase in production and there would have been a huge increase in demand, the effect would be strong food inflation that would erode the increase in income of these hungry people and would not allow the vicious cycle of hunger to be broken, at least for a good part of these 24,7, 2023 million. Food inflation, in fact, remained strong throughout XNUMX, almost always double general inflation, but it does not seem high enough to indicate the heavy imbalance that the hypothetical miracle would cause.

There are other factors to consider in this equation: the poor do not spend all their income on food, as they are forced to make other, so-called incompressible, expenses: housing, transport, health, education, communication, clothing, etc. And it must also be taken into account the fact that close to 60 million people were in default at the beginning of last year and even the excellent and successful Desenrola program involves regularizing the payment (facilitated and reduced, it is true) of debts. In other words, not all of the income improvement was directed towards purchasing food.

Finally, we cannot forget that the increase in income was not as strong as the government claims. There was an increase in employment, but with an emphasis on informality and research indicates that, even with the real (very modest) increase in the minimum wage, the income of the poorest did not recover the levels (which were already insufficient) of 2014.

What about Bolsa Família? The amounts distributed last year only maintained the nominal value of Bolsonaro's Brazil Aid, with an increase for families with many children. There was no spectacular jump in the income of the poorest compared to previous aid, whether emergency aid or Jair Bolsonaro's (between August and December 2022) in his attempt to win the vote of this popular sector.

2.

And then? How to explain the “miracle”?

The government used two different surveys to reach this “miraculous” result. The first is from Rede PENSAN, dated 2022, indicating the existence of 33 million hungry people (severe food insecurity), 60 million undernourished people (moderate food insecurity) and 32 million people with different types of dietary imbalances (mild food insecurity). .

The second is from IBGE, indicating the existence of 8,7 million hungry people. But when comparing one survey to another, the government did what my great aunt called combining the chickens with the piglets. The correct comparison would be with the IBGE survey in 2017/18 and in this survey, the number of hungry people was 10,3 million, while the previous survey, from 2013, counted 7,25 million. In other words, according to IBGE, the number of hungry people who left the hunger map between 2017 and 2023 was 3,05 million.

It is not a negligible number, but it cannot be said that this effect only occurred in the last year. However, it is very likely that a good number of the beneficiaries were favored after the unnameable's departure.

Data from the PENSAN Network survey had already been questioned by others, released by FAO in relation to 2021. The United Nations entity for food and nutrition indicated the presence of 20,5 million hungry people. Although there is a difference of one year between the surveys, the difference with the Network survey cannot be explained by the date of each one. After all, it is highly unlikely that the number of hungry people increased by 12,5 million (61% more) in just one year.

The differences between these two surveys can be explained by different methodological approaches, with the FAO essentially counting calories ingested, eliminating from the hunger map all those who can access more than 1200 calories in their diet. The Network recorded, in its research, the regularity of access to three meals a day, regardless of what comes on the plate. The issue is that the numbers from each of these surveys refer to different situations and cannot be compared. Let's wait and see what the Network's next survey will indicate.

To complete, I just want to reinforce arguments already explained in another article, which I recommend reading. First: without greatly expanding diversified food production, open (malnutrition), hidden (malnutrition) or mild (nutritional imbalances) hunger will not be eliminated. Second: without a more robust minimum income, it will not be possible to adopt an adequate diet. Third: without mobilizing medium and large agribusiness producers, this expansion of food supply will not be possible.

Fourth: family farming is unable to respond (in the short term) to the increase in food demand that a consistent nutrition policy will entail. It will have a contribution to make, but it will not be enough, unless the government greatly accelerates agrarian reform. Fifth: a massive food education policy combined with an increase in the food supply for a correct diet will be necessary, or people will continue to eat ultra-processed foods. Sixth: although it is not possible, in the short term, to offer “healthy food in the countryside and in the city” through conversion to agroecology, it is possible to stimulate an increase in production with the use of techniques that are less aggressive to the consumer and the environment.

Finally, we have to discuss the impact of the climate crisis in Rio Grande do Sul on the supply of basic foods throughout Brazil.

3.

With the commoditization of Brazilian agriculture and its integration into global markets, food production in the country has not only been falling but also concentrated in certain territories and producers. The most dramatic case is rice.

Rio Grande do Sul concentrates between 70 and 80% of the rice supply in Brazil. Furthermore, this production is concentrated in a limited number of municipalities, involving medium and large producers, with a smaller part under the responsibility of family farmers. Rice was once a crop spread throughout the country, but capitalized production, employing the use of agrochemicals, seeds improved by companies (today centered on private companies) and machinery has concentrated supply in the area now flooded by the torrential rains of recent weeks. And nowadays this production is also increasingly linked to the international market, with increasing volumes being exported.

The price of this concentration is being charged now, with the loss of (according to market companies) 11% of the harvest. This number must be well underestimated, as information from producers indicates that 20% of the crop had not yet been harvested and should be almost entirely lost. On the other hand, the rice stored on the properties may have been affected by the floods and this has not yet been evaluated.

In normal situations, governments and producers build safety stocks for possible crises. In developed countries, these stocks account for two to three months' consumption or 16 to 25% of production. But CONAB's rice stocks have been at zero since Michel Temer's government and were not replenished last year, the first year of Lula's government. In fact, it wasn't just rice stocks that were and are running low.

Why did the government leave this policy aside? Firstly, because rice prices were high and the government preferred to wait to replenish stocks with low prices. It is a reasoning focused on a different concept, that of market regulation and not consumer safety. When using the concept of regulation, it makes sense to postpone purchases to replenish stock, buy at low prices to sustain them, benefiting producers, and sell at high prices, to benefit consumers, stabilizing the Marketplace. But regulation is not the same thing as security, as the Rio Grande do Sul disaster demonstrates.

The government preferred to postpone spending on replenishing stocks, which would require the import of rice, strongly opposed by agribusiness, due to its inevitable effect of holding down prices. I have no doubt that the rice farming agribusiness will oppose the decision to import one million tons, announced today by Lula. periods of shortage of supply, like the current one, are a great profit opportunity for those who have rice to sell. And if the estimated losses are understated, imports may have to be twice as much as announced.

Finally, you need to think about the medium and long term. The climate crisis, always denied by agribusiness and its representatives in Congress, state governments (including Rio Grande do Sul), legislative assemblies and city halls, is here to stay. Not only that, but the trend of extreme weather events has been announced by the IPCC for decades. A quick look at international news proves the globalization of the climate crisis, with torrential rains occurring in Asia, while in Africa it is the drought that has been affecting production in several countries.

The climate causes amazing damage, but it is not fatal. Climate instability originates from global warming and the major emitters of greenhouse gases are fossil fuels, deforestation and burning and emissions from corporate agriculture. The proposal to increase the extraction and consumption of petroleum derivatives is not a privilege of this government, but we are among the biggest emitters of GHG due to deforestation (which decreased last year in the Amazon, but increased a lot in the Cerrado) and, above all, due to fires , which broke records in all biomes. Controlling GHG emissions is imperative to confront climate instability and we must play our part in the global effort for the planet's survival.

Finally, the floods in Rio Grande do Sul were not only due to torrential rains, but also to actions by Rio Grande do Sul agribusiness and its government, changing the State's environmental standards and laws to eliminate riparian forests that could have played a role as a natural buffer. for floods, at least in part. The same can be said about the state's government's negligence with the flood control system that has already been implemented in the state for decades and is one of the best designed in the world. Floodgates, barriers and dikes were left without maintenance and collapsed under the pressure of the waters.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).


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