Killing Foods, Killing People

“Orlando” (not his real name) eats after everyone else has eaten – if there’s enough left over to eat.  All day, he scavenges in the garbage cans outside of the three MacDonald’s outlets here in the old quarter of the city with an occasional stop-off at KTC.  He shows a neighbor his catch of the day: two mostly-eaten Big Macs, a gnawed chicken leg, a handful of stiff, ketchup-flecked French fries, and rubs his greasy belly in delight.  Orlando has a hard time pronouncing words in the way others can understand. Most passer-bys studiously step around the filthy, crippled man as he sprawls on the public sidewalk.

Because Orlando has no fixed address, he is not counted on Mexico’s official census of the hungry — and, in fact, he isn’t hungry today.  As long as more affluent Mexicans continue to supersize themselves at the fast food franchises in the neighborhood, he isn’t going to go hungry.

How many Mexicans are going hungry in these days of soaring food prices and diminishing reserves as food crisis sweeps what used to be called the Third World?  The rightist government of Felipe Calderon counts 14,000,000 Mexicans living in extreme poverty who are enrolled in its ironically entitled “Oportunidades” (Opportunities) program. Another 12,000,000 at-risk citizens are counted in the administration’s equally euphemistic “Vivir Mejor” (“Live Better”) bureaucracy – both programs are designed to feed an electoral clientele and do not reflect actual hunger.

On the other hand, social economist Julio Boltvitnik, author of the “Moral Economy” column in the left daily La Jornada, figures the numbers of the hungry are more like 40,000.000, 40 per cent  of the population – the stats square with a study done some years ago by Dr. Hector Borges at the National Nutrition Institute that calculated 42 per cent of the population suffers some degree of malnutrition.  But the database is not current.  Boltvitnik estimates that the current wave of price hikes incited by the global food panic is driving 10,000,000 more Mexicans into hunger.  That’s half the population.

According to the National Association of Self-Service Stores (ANTAD), led by Wal-Mart, the nation’s number one food retailer and tortilla purveyor, food sales are down 5 per cent in the first three months of 2008.  This doesn’t signal that Wal-Mart customers have lost their appetites or have suddenly decided to go on a diet.  Chicken part prices are up 11 per cent since the first of the year, milk 69 per cent, cooking oil 78 per cent, beans 93 per cent, not to mention lentils at 105 per cent, and eggs at 113 per cent.  In January, packaged bread cost 13 pesos, in April 24 pesos.

The aisles at La Merced, the oldest produce market in the Americas, are just as packed as ever but more customers are buying less, reflects Jose Cuevas behind the counter of his chicken stand.  Out on the market’s back patio where sellers dump their rotting merchandise, a lot more people are scavenging for leftovers, scraping the bruised tomatoes and blotched potatoes into their pails and cans, since the last time this reporter looked in.

Mexico’s poor are hardly the only Latin Americans going hungry these days.  With income divides that resemble Africa (dixit the World Bank), Mexico and Brazil, the continent’s two most successful republics, are scurrying to feed their least privileged citizens.  CEPAL, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, estimates 50,000,000 residents of the region are going to bed hungry tonight.  9,000,000 extreme poor in South America and 2,100,000 in Central America and the Caribbean are on the brink of starvation.  Bread in Bolivia has quintupled since the first of January and a loaf in Chile now costs two bucks Americano.  A third of all Paraguayans, South America’s most impoverished nation, have had to give up milk, and in Haiti, the basket case of the Americas, where the poor literally dine on mud cakes, people are so pissed off that President Rene Preval fired his prime minister after mobs stormed the congress.

Back in January 2007, Mexicans poured into the streets to protest the jump in tortilla prices from six pesos to upwards of 18 – the tortilla is the basic food unit here.  Fearing riots, Calderon, who had just been awarded the presidency in egregiously fraudulent elections, moved swiftly to knock the hikes back to eight.  But in the 18 months he has occupied the Mexican White House, 16 items in the basic food basket have risen 57 per cent – 63 per cent since January.  73 per cent of the daily minimum wage is dedicated to buying food here (in the U.S. it’s 15 per cent) and the Calderon administration sees trouble brewing on the horizon.  Battered by a bloody narco war that has turned cities into killing floors and with his political credibility seriously challenged by the Left, the President and his associates have sought to retake the initiative.

This past May 25, Calderon and his finance minister, the 350 pound no-neck August Carstens, a former World Bank official, took to national television to outline a $200 million USD tariff-free emergency food import program – actually, all tariffs on 200 agricultural products were eliminated January 1 under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Notwithstanding, food imports in the first three months of 2008 cost Mexico $5 billion USD more than they did in 2007. 14,000,000 extremely poor enrollees in the Opportunities program would now receive an extra 120 pesos ($12 USD) a month to cover soaring food costs, the officials affirmed.  The Cargill Corporation, which dominates the Mexican grain distribution system, would also get an extra $12 on every ton of imported corn to cover increased transportation costs – the subsidy is in addition to a 525 peso per ton bonus Cargill now receives.  Cargill, the world’s largest privately held corporation, has garnered 1.2 billion pesos in subsidies from the Mexican government in the past six months, according to figures released by the Agriculture Secretariat.

Then, satisfied with their largesse, Calderon and Carstens went out to lunch.

The United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that the world food crisis has now touched 37 countries – 22 suffered food riots in 2007-08, not all of them in sub-Saharan Africa.  Mexico’s tortilla war was followed by Italy’s spaghetti war when the price of pasta zoomed due to record increases in wheat prices.  From then on, the rioting spread like the black plague to Mozambique, Mauritania, Morocco, Dakar, and Ouagadougou.  The Horn of Africa is on the verge of famine despite the billions Bush pours in to fan the flames of his terror war in the region.  The Philippines is running out of rice and Indonesians can’t afford soy for tempah cakes, their kind of tortilla.  Bread riots have become national security issues.

Riots are an effective way of getting governments’ attentions, says Nicholas Minot, speaking for the International Food Policy Institute in Washington D.C.  Poor people tend to be strategically concentrated at the heart of Third World cities.  “If all these people were to rise, then the government will have to take care of it,” Raisa Fikray told the New York Times while shopping in a Cairo market.  “But everyone has to rise up together.”

Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubharick smelled the coffee and dispatched the army to bake bread for the masses.  Heavily armed troops guard trains and trucks transporting wheat in Pakistan.  All over Asia where a kilo of rice costs 150 per cent more than it did two years ago, militaries are on alert.

40 years ago this spring, the world was caught up in a rolling youth rebellion that spread like wildfire from the streets of Paris to Prague to Mexico City and even to the U.S. Today, global rebellion threatens all over again – only the flashpoint has moved from the head to the pit of the belly as rioters demand bread in Tajikistan, Yemen, Bangladesh, and Cameroon.

At the annual spring meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, a smiling bank president Robert Zoellick posed for a photo op with a loaf of bread in one hand and a bag of rice in the other.  Hikes that have priced the poor out of the food market should level off in two years, Zoellick, once a key NAFTA negotiator, beamed.  How many desperately hungry people might die in the interval was not discussed.  The crisis had a silver lining, Wolfowitz’s successor suggested – high commodity prices are ballooning farmers’ incomes but he didn’t mean Mexican farmers, 6,000,000 of whom NAFTA imports have displaced from their corn plots, or the farmers of Burkina Faso.

It should be remembered that Zoellick is the president of an institution that imposed export agriculture models on needy countries, wiping out native crops and nutritional self-sufficiency, by encouraging the poor, three quarters of whom live off the land, to grow flowers and broccoli for First World tables.

There should be enough food to go around.  World agricultural production increased 2.6 per cent last year yet more people went to sleep with an empty belly.  The problem is not production but access to a globalized food system.  Latin America, with its 50,000,000-strong hungry masses, produces 27 per cent of the world’s fish supply and a third of its pork.  World corn production was a record 764 million tons in 2007.  The U.S. produced its biggest yields ever: 332 million tons but 81 million of them went into ethanol production to feed cars not people.

The experts attribute food panic to a confluence of “temporary” factors.  A third of the price surge is blamed on diversion of basic grains to biofuels production.  Calderon and other world leaders point fingers at the Chinese and Indians, a third of the planet’s population, for wanting to eat three meals a day.  Shortages of chemical fertilizers, a corporate industrial product, is where the oil crisis meets the food crisis, diminishing yields.  Many consider global warming to be the devil – drought in southern Australia has wiped out rice production that once fed 20,000,000 Asians.  Instead Australian farmers are substituting wine grapes.  Great!  Now Orlando can have a glass of Chardonnay with his scraps.

A billion human beings barely survive on $1 dollar a day – now with sky-high food costs that dollar is worth even less in terms of caloric intake.  Every five seconds, a child under ten dies of hunger-related causes.  You know the litany.  Fidel Castro predicts a billion people will die of hunger because of how the First World uses food.

First Worlders don’t eat well but they eat a lot.  The Big Macs Orlando covets suck up ten kilos of grain for every ten quarter-pounders.  Morbid obesity is epidemic in North America.

All this gorging means fat profits for U.S. farmers. Anything they plant this year will bring them the maximum price.  Of course they farm for profit and not to feed the people. U.S. food exports to the Third World topped $101 billion last year, doled out to governments who comply with Bush’s terror war dictates.

Fat farmers are fattened up by fat government subsidies.  This year’s Farm bill, colluded upon by Democrats and Republicans together, includes $4.6 billion USD in direct payments.  Iowa’s Tom Harkin complains that corporate farmers use the boodle to buy even more land, which, of course, generates even more subsidies.  “It’s a black hole.”

Fat food groups from MacDonald’s to Cargill  (which controls 80 per cent of the earth’s grain stocks) are snorkeling it up at the trough – Cargill’s profits were up 87 per cent in 2007, Archer Daniel Midlands a mere 67 per cent.  Ten leading food corporations are making a killing on the hunger of the people.

The floor of Chicago’s Commodity Exchange is livelier than ever these days as traders snap up the future of food.  “Everyone wants to eat like an American” consultant Dan Basse gloats to the New York Times.  Hedge funds, which had the air knocked out of them in the mortgage fiasco, are in heavy, controlling 40 per cent of the futures.

“Orlando” doesn’t know much about hedge funds. Lodged at the bottom of the global food chain, he is literally scraping by.

JOHN ROSS will rapsodize between bands (Celtic hiphoppers “Beltaine’s Fire”; “Countless Others”, manic garage punk) at El Balazo 2183 Mission in San Francisco Friday June 13 at 8 PM.  “Rebels Rock On For Iraqi Refugees” is a benefit for the Collateral Repair Project produced by Mission district troubadour Tommy Strange.  For further info check out www.collateralrepairproject.org


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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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