The depth of the global food crisis is best expressed by what poor people are eating to survive.
In Burundi, it is farine noir, a mixture of black flour and moldy cassava. In Somalia, a thin gruel made from mashed thorn-tree branches called jerrin. In Haiti, it is a biscuit made of yellow dirt. Food inflation has sparked protests in Egypt, Haiti, Mexico and elsewhere. Tens of thousands protested earlier this month in Mogadishu, as the price of a corn meal rose twofold in four months.
And while the crisis seemed to come out of nowhere, the reality of hunger is a regular feature of life for millions of people. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 854 million people worldwide are undernourished.
Hunger isn’t simply the result of unpredictable incidents like the cyclone that struck Myanmar. In most cases, millions teeter on the edge of survival long before the natural disasters hit. According to UN Millennium Project Web site, of the 300 million children who go to bed hungry every day, only "8 percent are victims of famine or other emergency situations. More than 90 percent are suffering long-term malnourishment and micronutrient deficiency."
The technology and know-how exist to make our capacity to produce food even greater–if this were made a priority. As part of a recent series on the global food crisis, the Washington Post described the damage being done by gnat-sized insects called "brown plant hoppers." Billions them are destroying rice crops in East Asia and putting millions of poor people at risk of going hungry.
The threat could easily be eliminated with the creation of rice strains resistant to this pest, but that hasn’t happened–because funding for research projects has been cut. The International Rice Research Institute used to have five entomologists, or insect experts, overseeing a staff of 200 in the 1980s. Now it has one entomologist, with a staff of eight.
The world’s wealthiest countries and their international loan organizations, like the World Bank, have cut money for agricultural research programs. According to the Post, "Adjusting for inflation and exchange rates, the wealthy countries, as a group, cut such donations roughly in half from 1980 to 2006, to $2.8 billion a year from $6 billion. The United States cut its support for agriculture in poor countries to $624 million from $2.3 billion in that period."
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SEARCHING FOR answers to the crisis, some people argue that "there simply isn’t enough to go around," or that there are "too many" people to feed in a world of limited resources. This argument has been around for many decades. In effect, it tries to blame starvation on the starving themselves. And it simply isn’t true.
"The food crisis appeared to explode overnight, reinforcing fears that there are just too many people in the world," wrote Eric Holt-Giménez and Loren Peabody of Food First. "But according to the FAO, with record grain harvests in 2007, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone–at least 1.5 times current demand. In fact, over the last 20 years, food production has risen steadily at over 2.0 percent a year, while the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.14 percent a year. Population is not outstripping food supply."
The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough food. The problem is that the people who need it are too poor to buy it. This is the case around the globe, including some of the wealthiest countries in the world.
In the U.S., food pantries report being stretched to the breaking point because more working people are turning to them when their paycheck doesn’t make it. Demand is up 15 to 20 percent over last year, and the pantries are serving "folks who get up and go to work every day," Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, told USA Today. "That’s remarkably different than the profile of who we’ve served through the years."
This flies in the face of the commonly held idea that average Americans and a culture of overconsumption and waste are eating up the world’s resources.
Of course, examples abound of people who get much more than their fill, in elite hotels and restaurants around the globe–but they are a small fraction of the population. And when these parasites gorge themselves, they steal from the mouths of poor people everywhere–in less developed countries, but also in wealthy nations like the U.S.
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THE POTENTIAL exists to eliminate hunger and malnutrition anywhere in the world. What stands in the way of our ability to feed each and every person is really the system we live under–capitalism.
The drive for profit at the heart of the system–where things like food, which should be viewed as a fundamental right, are seen as commodities to be bought and sold–is really the source of the problem. No amount of technology can overcome this fundamental fact.
Thus, during the Great Depression, while millions of poor and unemployed Americans went hungry, U.S. farmers were facing the exact opposite problem: They were producing too much food to keep prices from falling. So at the same time that millions of poor and unemployed people stood in breadlines for food assistance, food crops were being destroyed, because no profit could be made from giving it away.
As the author John Steinbeck wrote in the Grapes of Wrath:
The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at 20 cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?…A million people hungry, needing the fruit–and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains…
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate–died of malnutrition–because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
Capitalism is a chaotic system, where starvation can exist amid plenty, and where a disaster seems to loom around every corner. In Mexico, for example, the price of tortillas went up 60 percent last year. Increased demand for American farmers to divert corn for use in ethanol as opposed to corn for food was largely to blame for the skyrocketing prices of this Mexican staple.
But Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South asked an important question in a recent article: "How on earth did Mexicans, who live in the land where corn was domesticated, become dependent on U.S. imports in the first place?"
During the 1980s, in return for bailouts from the IMF and World Bank, Mexico was forced "liberalize" its trade policies, and this accelerated under the North American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. farm products flooded the Mexican market, and agribusiness giants like Cargill reaped huge profits. Mexican farmers couldn’t possibly compete.
International "aid" is organized around the principle not of solving poverty but of making profits–and in the process, it usually leads to more suffering. In Ethiopia, the poverty "experts" at the World Bank forced the country to devote good land not to food crops, but to export crops to sell on the world market. As a result, the famine of the 1980s were made even worse.
These crises aren’t aberrations, but are built into the system. A recent Time magazine article grudgingly commented, "The social theories of Karl Marx were long ago discarded as of little value, even to revolutionaries. But he did warn that capitalism had a tendency to generate its own crises." The Time article was titled "How Hunger Could Topple Regimes."
The current system and its warped priorities can’t possibly accomplish something as important as feeding the world’s people. It will take a society organized on a completely different basis to achieve this. If we could harness the resources wasted on the pursuit of profit–including the wars that our government funds around the globe–we could feed the world many times over.
ELIZABETH SCHULTE is a reporter for the Socialist Worker.