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Hunger management

Experts predict that there will be ten billion of us by 2100. Feeding the world could be the politic

How will we eat in the future? By 2100, the world's population is projected to reach ten billion. The highest levels of consumption will be in Europe and North America, most people will live in Asia and the highest population growth rates in Africa - where the population could triple over the next 90 years. If tomorrow augurs ill, today is already pretty dire. The global recession has lowered incomes, raised food prices and pushed the number of hungry people to one billion.

We're poorly set to cater for tomorrow. The policies designed to keep prices low have been responsible for greater instability. Countries were meant to be able to ride out bad weather and poor harvests through trade liberalisation. Grain stores were sold off because, in the event of emergency, the market would provide. But it didn't. Trade and financial networks have instead become excellent conduits for international shocks. Last year, fires in Russian wheat fields led to riots in Mozambican cities. Commodity speculation has made prices more volatile, and climate change has driven up prices too. Poor weather helped drive bread prices higher this year, fanning the flames of the Arab spring and deepening the woes of China's thousands of protesting migrant workers.

If these are the dividends of the 21st-century food market, then it is unsurprising that the old-fashioned idea that a country might produce a little more of its own food is enjoying rising popularity. There is, however, a war over how to do that. The Oxford economist Paul Collier recently berated the "romantics" who were nostalgic for peasant agriculture. He called for big agriculture, genetically modified crops and for the EU and US to stop domestic subsidies. He is right on the last point: biofuel subsidies drive up food prices, siphoning grain from the poorest into the petrol tanks of the richest. On other points, Collier's facts seem shakier. In its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank found that, on the contrary, investment in smallholder agriculture was among the most efficient and effective ways of bringing people out of poverty and hunger. The question is what sort of investment to bring to small farmers.

Share and care alike

Consider Malawi - a battlefield for the future of farming. A landlocked country a little smaller but with a third more people living in it than Greece, it features consistently among the world's poorest places. The latest figures show nine out of ten people living on the equivalent of less than $2 a day. More than 70 per cent of Malawians live in the rural areas, where nearly every farmer grows maize but not enough people can afford to eat it - about 40 per cent of Malawi is poor and "food-insecure".

Like elsewhere in Africa, the soil in Malawi isn't as rich as the rest of the world's. Farming everywhere depletes the soil of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and poor farmers in Africa in general use very little fertiliser. These missing molecules have led the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supported by various political leaders, to call for a green revolution in Africa directed at small farmers.
This is something of a reversal of Collier's conventional wisdom, which insists that the best way for Malawi to become food-secure is to have large estates exporting things in which the country has a comparative advantage - mainly tobacco - and buy grain on the international market. Today, large-estate tobacco farming is in decline, which means there is less foreign exchange with which to import food.

Being landlocked, Malawi also faces higher prices for grain. According to one estimate, the marginal cost of importing a tonne of food-aid maize is £250, £125 a tonne to import it commercially and only £30 to source it domestically using fertilisers. At a time when food and fertiliser prices are predicted to rise, Malawi is sensible to consider how vulnerable to the caprices of international markets it wants to be.

This partly explains why, in the late 1990s, the Malawian government decided to spend the greater part of the department of agriculture's budget on subsidising fertiliser. The president, Bingu wa Mutharika, expanded the programme over 2005-2006, boosting production by between 300,000 and 400,000 tonnes, or up to 15 per cent. The government reports that maize production has remained surplus to national requirements ever since. A success, then? For those who were able to receive vouchers and cash them in, undoubtedly, but evaluations of the programme have remained curiously silent about its impact on hunger. Having enough food in the country doesn't necessarily mean that all the people get to eat.

There are 50 million food-insecure people in the US, for instance, but few would argue that the US wants for calories. There is enough food today to feed every human being. That a billion people, 60 per cent of them women or girls, go hungry amid sufficiency is a symptom of an ongoing failure in the global food system. Hunger is not a sign of a shortage of food - it is a symptom of poverty. For the most vulnerable, that poverty can scar for life. Chronic hunger causes children to be stunted. The number of children malnourished this way has remained stubbornly high since the fertiliser subsidies began in Malawi.

Part of the problem is that more crops in the fields can take women out of the home. Gender matters when it comes to farming. In Malawi, 90 per cent of women work part-time, and women are paid over 30 per cent less than men. Women are also burdened with care work, especially in a country afflicted by HIV/Aids. Even where they own land and have access to the same resources as men, women find themselves torn between the demands of childcare and myriad household and farming chores.

These problems need to be addressed not through soil chemistry, but through social change. In northern Malawi, Canadian researchers have worked with local clinicians, educators and about 8,000 farmers since 2000 on the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) project. As a result of participating in these groups, women and men report more resource sharing, and men help more with childcare and the farming chores associated with women. This, in turn, has led to markedly improved child nutrition.

These sorts of interventions involve investment in support services. The fertiliser programme has, however, sucked resources away from the department of agriculture. Research in Latin America and South East Asia suggests that it's smarter for government to subsidise public goods such as agricultural research and extension services than to direct money at private inputs like fertiliser. Not least, this is because the private inputs can be captured by those with land and political clout.

Luckily, there are alternatives. The SFHC project has been researching ways to build soil ecology in more sustainable ways. A range of experiments has been rolled out, based on a farmer-researcher model; trials include planting different legume crops such as soybeans, mucuna (a kind of inedible bean), pigeon peas and groundnuts, together with maize. By sowing pigeon peas and groundnuts next to each other and incorporating the crop residue back into the soil, farmers have been able to improve maize yields, outperforming the fertiliser programme by roughly 20 per cent.

Esnai Ngwira is a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, and one of the programme's star innovators. "Where I incorporated residue last year, people were asking me, 'Have you already applied fertiliser?' So I think this is a better long-term solution," she said. Farmers like the technique not only because it provides more maize, but because it's a source of protein, helps control erosion, can provide food for goats and diversifies crop risk. Intercropping also leaves less weeding to do.

Harvest for the world

These projects succeed, in part, because they use local agricultural knowledge. Rather than treating farmers as passive recipients of technology and science, agro-ecological programmes build on farmers' innate scientific understanding of their environment.

They still have limitations, however. The subsidy has done nothing for a hard core of people - 15 per cent of Malawians remain ultra-poor, unable to buy enough to eat. These are mostly the landless, or those who have poor-quality land and who have to sell their labour at harvest time, when they need it most. They remain untouched by the Malawian miracle because they don't have land rights, and land redistribution is off the policy agenda.

The future doesn't look very promising for Malawi. Concerned about the financial sustainability of the programme, the government is about to embark on a "greenbelt" project, in which thousands of acres will be irrigated to induce foreign investors to begin large-scale cultivation of sugar cane and other export crops. The foreign exchange brought in by this programme, it is hoped, will bankroll spending on fertiliser. Thousands of smallholders are scheduled to be displaced to pay for the fertiliser habit. Yet policymakers have little to offer beyond their commitment to deeper international trade and keeping their fingers crossed.

The tragedy is that there is ample evidence about what works. Yet policymakers insist that an end to hunger is compatible with global markets in food, pretend that action on climate change can be postponed and think that the persistence of malnutrition in women and girls is a quirk of fate. For as long as the dogma of financial liberalisation trumps the ideas of those whom they purport to feed, expect the body count in the war on hunger to rise.

Raj Patel is the author of "The Value of Nothing" (Portobello Books, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle