Towards the end of 2008, Marc J. Cohen and Melinda Smale, both then working for Oxfam America, approached me with a proposal for a special issue of Development in Practice on the global food crisis that had been generated by chaotic price increases. The resulting volume is both grounded in lived experiences and forward-looking. It also presents an opportunity to explore the differences between the relatively self-contained food-related emergencies of the past and the global dimensions of the situation that we now confront.

The theme also offers a pleasing symmetry. First, Development in Practice was founded and at the time still owned by Oxfam GB (OGB), which was founded in 1942 as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. Notwithstanding the Allied blockade and prohibition on ‘trading with the enemy’, a small group of concerned British citizens mobilised significant popular support to relieve the famine in occupied Greece. So from its inception, OGB's founders had the vision to understand that hunger is rooted in politics, and that civilians therefore have the right, the duty, and potentially the power to do something about it.

Second, and quite coincidentally, I had begun my own career in OGB almost 30 years earlier by working on food issues, initially as a researcher on the role of food aid as a tool for development. The resulting book (Jackson and Eade 1982) was accompanied by a campaign of seminars, speeches at the European Parliament, briefings for journalists, aid agencies, and parliamentary assistants, radio broadcasts, and innumerable interviews and short articles. Prior to this, critiques had focused on the politics of government-to-government food aid. It was taken for granted that so-called ‘project food aid’ was exempt from such concerns and that it could promote development (via food-for work (FFW), mother–child health (MCH), and school feeding programmes).1 Indeed, despite clear evidence that food aid was displacing local produce as people sold unwanted maize, corn oil, and milk powder, proponents argued that food aid was intrinsically ‘self-targeting’, because the only thing that poor and hungry beneficiaries could do with it was to eat it. Attentive reading of the food-aid agencies' own internal reports and commissioned evaluations revealed, however, that the developmental impacts were largely illusory: we therefore argued that the NGOs that depended on channelling food aid for development needed to acknowledge and act upon the facts already at their disposal.2

On moving to Mexico in 1982, I turned my attention to the insidious use of food aid in counter-insurgency, characterised by General Ríos Montt's infamous frijoles y fusiles (‘beans and guns’) programme in Guatemala (Eade 1984a). Following an involvement in a fascinating research programme on US–Mexican agricultural relations (Winder and Eade 1987), OGB commissioned me to write one of a series of three ‘Under the Weather’ reports aimed at dispelling the popular myth that food crises are caused primarily by extreme or erratic climates, rather than things like hoarding and speculation, erosion and other forms of environmental degradation, the ‘pesticide treadmill’ (Bull 1982), and generations of marginalisation – in other words, that hunger is caused by human not divine agency and is therefore a breach of the right to food enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Eade 1984b).

Reading through the contents of this volume brought other recollections to the surface of my mind:

•• A landless family in Bangladesh so poor that they had sold their only remaining possessions, including their cooking pots. Already painfully thin, they were just about surviving on whatever they could forage, and hoping to get food in return for gathering firewood. But of course even if they did manage to earn a few handfuls of rice and catch a couple of fish, they no longer had anything in which to cook them. With no remaining assets, they seemed trapped in a downward spiral.
•• A woman in a remote village in Honduras who arrived with her newborn infant and three small children at the pulpería (local grocery) to buy a tablespoon of cooking oil, an egg, and one tomato. She wanted a fizzy drink for the children but was short of a few cents. In fact she had already paid some 20 times over the odds for her meagre purchases: in addition to the mark-up charged by any store that is off the beaten track, purchases of such minuscule quantities multiplied the cost several times over.
•• 1 January 1994, the date when the Zapatistas famously went public in Chiapas, Mexico to mark the coming into effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Chiapas is a major coffee-growing area, yet no roadside cafés or restaurants had ever served the local produce: only the low-grade and ready-sweetened instant version was on offer. In San Cristóbal de las Casas you can now feel virtuous as you watch the world go, enjoying a cup of organic coffee grown on a plantation run by the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation); or justify the food miles by purchasing fair-trade ‘Café Rebelde’ via the Internet. The EZLN and other Mexican producers have cornered the ‘sustainable’ gourmet coffee market – organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly, and peasant-grown (Pérez-Grovas et al. 2001: 62). Yet volatile global markets frequently force these small-scale producers to sell below cost (Pérez-Grovas et al. 2001: 5).

Given the dependence of the poorest sectors of the population on agriculture, the incorporation of the Mexican and far weaker Central American economies into neo-liberal global markets has inevitably had major repercussions on their agrarian systems, and on the lives of peasant farmers and labourers. An underlying premise of both NAFTA and DR–CAFTA (Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement), and their variations worldwide, is that even traditional food staples are no more than a commodity, a consumer item like a pair of trainers or an MP3 player. The value of food is determined only by the price that it can fetch on the market. The assumption seems to be that as long as people have food on the table, it is immaterial where or how it was grown. Or in other words, it does not matter if small farmers go to the wall as long as their daughters can land jobs in the maquila, and a hamburger and a sugary soda drink fill the stomach just as well as more nourishing traditional foods.

The producers of rice, maize, beans, and dairy products in Mexico and Central America must now compete via closed trade agreements with subsidised US agribusinesses that grow the same crops – albeit not the same varieties. Imports of yellow maize, for instance, are used as a substitute for the sorghum from which Nicaraguan producers manufactured feed for poultry, pigs, and other livestock (Cáceres 2005). Meanwhile, in a perverse twist of the age-old policies of export-led growth and import substitution, farmlands in East Africa and Latin America are using their ‘comparative advantage’ to cultivate cut flowers and out-of-season fruit and vegetables for export, while staples are imported. Mexico has long sent strawberries – and agricultural labourers – over the border to the USA. But when Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in 2010, disrupting flights to and from Europe, Jane Ngige, head of Kenya's flower council, told the BBC that growers were losing up to US$2 million a day, because 97 per cent of the country's cut-flower exports are sent to Europe, from where they are re-exported around the world. Many thousands of blooms rotted at Nairobi airport because they could neither be stored nor transported. As far away as Toronto, florists turned instead to suppliers in Colombia and Ecuador (for details, see

In 1980, Mexico launched an ambitious, though short-lived programme (the Sistema Alimentario Mexicano, or Mexican Food System) to promote food sovereignty and address poverty by supporting peasant production of staple foods while also providing an equitable food-distribution system and assistance for housing, health, education, and nutrition for marginalised sectors (COPLAMAR) (de Janvry and Vandeman 1987: 86).3 Yet only five years later, predicting the death of food self-sufficiency, David Barkin and Blanca Suárez noted:

We have seen in many countries that when commercial interests govern agricultural policy there is a rise in imports of food staples. Some might argue that such imports are unnecessary because food shortages are due to unequal distribution between social sectors, between human beings and livestock, and to avoidable losses. Of course, if today's production capacity were directed primarily towards meeting basic human needs, there would be more than ample. But this is not how the system works: capitalism tends to produce not what is essential but what is profitable, and in the many countries where the majority live in poverty, or who do not participate fully in the capitalist economy, these two principles are incompatible unless there is a clear government policy to make it a priority to ensure that the entire population enjoys a decent standard of nutrition.

(Barkin and Suárez 1985: 241, my translation)

Presciently arguing that ‘the internationalisation of capital’, which is today called (economic) globalisation, aggravates social conflicts and repression, they continued (Barkin and Suárez 1985: 243):

It rips people apart from their traditional societies and makes them dependent on the market for their basic needs. It imposes profound changes without any guarantee that once the basis of their self-provisioning has been destroyed it will be replaced by any other source of subsistence. It seeks to reduce the independence of peasants and artisans, offering them other work or an outlet for their produce, but with no guarantee of success.

The neo-liberal project demands that governments abrogate their right to intervene in order to (re)integrate the production and consumption of local foods – it is assumed that the market will sort this out. Disinvestment in small producers has been helped along over decades of repeating the mantra that small producers and family farms are inefficient, risk-averse, backward, and unable to respond to market opportunities; that development means modernisation; and that the way forward is for each country to exploit its comparative advantage in global markets by becoming ever more specialised: in effect a form of agricultural Taylorism. Land reform has completely fallen off the agenda: the political space is even more limited than governments' appetite for it. As a result, ‘[p]overty reduction strategies often jump from one extreme to the other, commercial agricultural production for global markets, to safety nets for the most needy’ (Gopal et al. 2009: 3).4

But food is an integral part of human culture, giving a sense of belonging. Customs concerning what may or may not be eaten are central to many cultures and religions, and certain foods may even have ritual significance. Learning how to cook, serve, share, and eat food is a defining element within all processes of socialisation. Major celebrations such as weddings, births, and other rites of passage invariably involve people eating together. Food is not, therefore, a mere commodity. And nobody can eat roses or carnations if the bottom drops out of the global flower market.

For Mesoamerican peoples, maize is not merely a staple food but is intrinsic to knowledge, to wisdom, to what gives meaning to human life within the universe. Writing specifically about communities of the Peruvian Andes, but whose insights would resonate in many other settings, the anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin notes:

For indigenous peoples, the world is not divided between a material reality and a nonmaterial reality. The beings of the Pacha, such as human beings, the water in its many forms, the earth, the plants, the animals, the stars, the sun, the moon, and so forth, all share the same world.

(Apffel-Marglin 2010 : 40)

Because food means so much more than simply ingesting the correct amount of nutrients, it does in fact matter how and by whom it is produced, and how and by whom it is consumed. While it is certainly no panacea, the fair-trade movement does at least seek to reintegrate the links between producers and consumers and to place this relationship on a more even footing. In so doing, it articulates a connection between producers' collective rights and the politics of individual consumer choice.5

As contributors to this collection illustrate,6 the reasons for the global food crisis – or, rather, crises – are varied, complex, and dynamic. Rather like the chaos theorists' butterfly, which by flapping its wings in China affects weather patterns in Cameroon or Canada, food-related issues are rooted in diverse local realities as well as global markets. So while there is no single, overarching policy response, it is now vital that small producers and ordinary consumers – local, national, and global – see where their common interests lie and work together to ensure that all human beings enjoy the right to adequate food, and that all food is produced in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable and which respect cultural diversity.


1The USA is the largest single food-aid donor. When J. F. Kennedy renamed the 1954 Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act (PL 480) ‘Food for Peace’, he stated: ‘Food is strength, and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping hand to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want’.

2In 2007, CARE caused a stir among US NGOs by withdrawing from a system whereby the US government purchases goods such as sunflower oil from (largely subsidised) US agribusinesses, ships these goods overseas, and then donates them to NGOs, which in turn sell them on the local market and use the proceeds to finance their anti-poverty projects. Following a review, CARE concluded that the system was inherently inefficient and that it displaced, or at least discouraged investment in, local production. On the face of it, the arrangement amounts to a costly and elaborate form of dumping. According to former US President Jimmy Carter, the system continues because household-name NGOs defend it – because much of their funding now depends on it (New York Times, 16 August 2007, posted at, retrieved 7 February 2011).

3A significant problem was that because the subsidies were geared to produce rather than to producers, large irrigated farms in northern Mexico switched to producing maize and wheat for export, effectively cornering the support intended for small-scale rain-fed produce for the local market.

4Contemporary safety nets still include variations on ‘food aid for development’, but these have been joined by conditional cash transfers (CCTs), whereby an agency (whether state, official aid agency, or NGO) identifies the ‘target’ population whose behaviour they wish to change, and who agree to do things that they would not have done without financial inducement (such as attending antenatal clinics, getting children vaccinated, keeping girls in secondary school). Paying people to do things, however objectively desirable, begs the question of whether the behaviour change will outlive the supply of cash. Even proponents of FFW schemes which provide infrastructure that should benefit the community – roads, irrigation, school buildings, water tanks – have found that it falls into disrepair once there is no material inducement to maintain it. A Caritas official in Haiti once described how the ‘community councils’ (known as food councils or konseys manjes) worked: ‘They construct roads in order to receive food … Where there is no more food, there can be no more work. Goodbye food, goodbye road! If they got food in order to finish a road, they regret it as soon as they have finished … They only then wish for the deterioration of the road so that they can re-do it’ (cited in Jackson and Eade 1982: 32).

5The Northern consumer movement is by and large a middle-class phenomenon, because those who are struggling to make ends meet do not enjoy the same luxury of choice.

6Development in Practice has published dozens of articles on food-related issues and three special issues in conjunction with CGIAR member organisations, two of which are also available in book form: Development and Agroforestry: Scaling Up the Impacts of Research (2002) and Participatory Research and Gender Analysis (2010).


1. Apffel-Marglin, F. 2010. “Feminine rituality and the spirit of the water in Peru”. In Women and Indigenous Religions, Edited by: Marcos, Sylvia. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

2. Barkin, D. and Suárez, B. 1985. El Fin de la Autosuficiencia Alimentaria, México, DF: Centro de Ecodesarrollo/Oceano Sur.

3. Bull, D. 1982. A Growing Problem: Pesticides and the Third World Poor, Oxford: Oxfam (UK & Ireland).

4. Cáceres, S. 2005. CAFTA will be like a brand-name Hurricane Mitch. Envio Digital, 290 (September), available at (retrieved 7 February 2011)

5. de Janvry, A. and Vandeman, A. 1987. “The macrocontext of rural development: a second view of the US experience”. In US–Mexico Relations: Agriculture and Rural Development, Edited by: Johnson, B. F., Luiselli, C., Cartas Contreras, C. and Norton, R. D. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

6. Eade, D. 1984a. “Contrainsurgencia y la ayuda alimentaria”. In Desarrollo Rural y Contrainsurgencia en Guatemala, Edited by: López, Rolando. México DF: IOCE.

7. Eade, D. 1984b. Unnatural Disaster: Drought in NE Brazil, Oxford: Oxfam. (UK & Ireland)

8. Gopal, K. S., Gueye, B., Petersen, P., Ugas, R. and van Walsum, E. 2009. Family farming first. The Broker, 17 (December): 3

9. Jackson, T. and Eade, D. 1982. Against the Grain: The Dilemma of Project Food Aid, Oxford: Oxfam. (UK & Ireland)

10. Pérez-Grovas, V., Cervantes, E. and Burstein, J. 2001. Case Study of the Coffee Sector in Mexico, Fort Collins, CO: Fair Trade. mexico-perez.pdf, available at (retrieved 6 February 2011)

11. Winder, D. and Eade, D. 1987. “Agricultural issues in the United States and Mexico: views from a third country”. In US–Mexico Relations: Agriculture and Rural Development, Edited by: Johnson, B. F., Luiselli, C., Cartas Contreras, C. and Norton, R. D. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.