Is Brazil's Zero Hunger programme working?


12 September 2013

In 2003 Brazil’s government launched the Zero Hunger programme with the aim of eliminating hunger and poverty. Since its launch malnutrition amongst children has decreased and there has also been a reduction in the number of households facing some degree of food insecurity. The positive impacts of the Zero Hunger programme have led to it being used by African leaders as a blue print for ending hunger in the continent by 2025.

Unlike the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition scheme developed by the G8, the Zero Hunger programme originated in the global south and looked at improving conditions for small scale farmers. As well as tools, technical assistance, and training the Brazilian government also created government run restaurants, food banks and school feeding programmes that were supplied from the food bought directly from the farmers. Yet the question remains as to whether Zero Hunger has been enough to address the structural causes of hunger that exist in Brazil. 

 
Photo Credit - Farming matters

For example, has Zero Hunger helped to tackle the problem of large scale agribusiness in Brazil that is related to an increasing monoculture of crops being grown? The evidence suggests not. Big firms have continued to grow vast amounts of soya and other cash crops for export, with soya meal production increasing by approximately 23 per cent between 2003 and 2012. Much of it is used for animal feed. The problem is that decreasing the diversity of crops grown on farmland increases the crops’ vulnerability to pests and disease. Another impact is that local communities then struggle to feed themselves, as there is a finite amount of land and resources, so growing more soya ultimately means growing less maize, rice and other staples needed to provide a basic level of sustenance and nutrition.  

Large scale Brazilian agribusiness is not just having an impact in Brazil. The Guardian recently reported that the Brazilian firm Constran is building an ethanol plant in Ghana with the intention of exporting the produce to Sweden. Again the impact being that the land used to create the plantation will not be able to be used for growing food crops.


 
Soy Farming in Brazil. Photo Credit - Lou Gold

Another large hole in Zero Hunger’s initiative is the absence of any policies addressing the urgent need for land reform in Brazil. , According to the landless workers movement (MST), just 3 per cent of the population now owns more than two thirds of land and more than 50 per cent of farmland lies unused. The conflict between landless peasants and landowners has often become violent with instances of murder being reported, yet the more widespread impact on the landless population is that of malnutrition and a lack of access to clean water. Unless this culture of land inequality is addressed, landless peasants will remain unable to grow their own crops and sustain themselves independently.

Zero Hunger also failed to address the move towards biofuel production, whereby output that was previously headed towards agricultural markets was redirected towards the biofuel industry. In economic theory decreases in the supply of food normally lead to increases in the price of food, and that’s exactly what happened in this instance, with higher prices making it more difficult for poor families to be able to obtain the amount and variety of food that they need. The drive towards biofuel production also has the added impact of an increase in the rate of deforestation as agribusiness firms look to expand their production capabilities. This will only exacerbate the existing problem of landless peasants.
 

Ethanol Production in Brazil. Photo credit -Shell

As pointed out by Raj Patel, Zero Hunger is more about food security rather than food sovereignty and should not be viewed as a permanent solution to providing food for a population. What is needed instead are large scale reforms that address the issues that are preventing many from obtaining food, reforms that address the needs of local communities, such as land reforms, a significant reduction in the strength of large agribusinesses in the market and controls put in place to limit the amount of produce diverted in to biofuel production. Along with reforms, the demands of groups such as the MST need stronger government support.

It’s not just the Brazilian government that needs to make changes. According to GRAIN, European demand for imported goods is a major factor behind land grabs for biofuel in the global south, and this demand is set to increase over the coming years. The EU needs to regulate its usage of biofuels, in terms of the amount used and the method of obtaining them, if it wants to help prevent biofuel production ruining Brazilian lives. 

In the face of the New Alliance, policies like zero hunger are at least designed at channelling investment and skills directly towards small farmers instead of large agribusiness. However, corporations and large landowners are still being allowed to make huge profits by continuing practices that keep people structurally hungry. Only food sovereignty policies intended at seizing control from these businesses are genuinely going to make a difference.

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