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Why is There Rampant Famine in the 21st Century?

How can we explain the fact that famine still exists in the 21st century? One person in seven on this planet is permanently hungry.

The causes are well known: a profound injustice in the distribution of wealth and the monopolizing of land by a small minority of large landowners. According to the FAO , 963 million people were suffering from famine in 2008. Paradoxically, these people mainly live in rural areas. They are generally farmers who do not own land or do not own enough, and are without the means to cultivate it effectively.

What caused the food crisis of 2007-2008 ?

It is important to emphasize that in 2007-2008, the number of people suffering from hunger increased by 140 million. This marked increase is due to the explosion of food prices . In several countries retail food prices increased by as much as 50%, or even more.

Why such an increase? To answer this question, it is important to understand what has been happening over the past three years. Only then can alternative, appropriate policies be implemented.

On the one hand, the public authorities in the North increased their aid and subsidies for agro-fuels (mistakenly referred to as bio-fuels, since there is nothing organic about them). All of a sudden, it became profitable to replace subsistence crops with oleaginous crops or feed grains, or to divert part of grain cultivation (corn, wheat, etc.) towards the production of agro-fuels.

On the other hand, after the real estate bubble burst in the United States, with repercussions throughout the rest of the world, the major investors (pension funds, investment banks, hedge funds, etc.) shifted their focus and speculated on the futures market where contracts for food prices are negotiated (there are three main futures exchanges in the United States: Chicago, Kansas City and Minneapolis). It is therefore urgent for citizens to take action to legally ban speculation on food prices. Despite the fact that speculation reached its peak and declined from the middle of 2008, and that futures prices have plummeted, retail prices have not followed suit. The vast majority of the world’s population has a very low income and is still affected by the dramatic consequences of the increase in food prices of 2007-2008.

The tens of millions of redundancies announced for 2009-2010 around the world will further worsen the situation. In April 2009, the FAO told the G8 that the number of chronically hungry people was set to rise by 75 million to 100 million this year, bringing the total number to more than 1 billion. In order to counter this situation, public authorities must keep food prices under control.

The increase in famine throughout the world is not due, at least for the moment, to climate change. But this factor will have very negative consequences for the future in terms of production in certain regions of the world, especially in tropical or subtropical areas. Agricultural production in temperate zones should be less affected. The solution lies in radical action being taken so as to drastically reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (the IPPC recommends an 80% reduction of emissions for the most industrialized countries and 20% for the others).

Is it possible to eradicate famine?

Eradicating famine is entirely possible. The basic solutions needed in order to reach this vital goal lie in policies of food sovereignty and agrarian reform. That is to say, feeding populations based on local production, whilst limiting imports and exports.

Food sovereignty needs to be the focal point of governments’ political decisions. They need to concentrate on family farms, using techniques designed for the production of organic food. Furthermore, this would enable people to have good quality foodstuffs: no GMOs, no pesiticides, no herbicides and no chemical fertilizers. However, to achieve this goal, 2 billion farmers need to have access to sufficient land to work on, and to work for themselves, as opposed to producing wealth for the big landowners, agro-business multinationals and large retailers. Through public aid, these people should be given the means available to cultivate their land without depleting it.

In order to do this, an agrarian reform is needed. A reform which is desperately lacking, be it in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Asia or in certain countries in Africa. Such an agrarian reform must address the redistribution of land, banning large private landowners and providing public aid for farmers.

It should also be stressed that the IMF and, above all, the World Bank are largely responsible for the food crisis since they recommended that the governments of the South stop maintaining grain silos which have been used to feed the domestic market in case of shortages or steep price increases. The World bank and the IMF encouraged the governments of the South to cut the public credit agencies for farmers and drove them into the clutches of private lenders (often large traders) or private banks exacting exorbitant rates. This left many small farmers in debt, in India, Nicaragua, Mexico, Egypt and several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to official studies, the high level of debt among Indian farmers has been the main cause of suicide of 150,000 farmers in India over the past decade. This is a country where the World Bank has successfully persuaded the authorities to suppress public credit agencies for farmers. And that is not all: over the past 40 years, the World Bank and the IMF also coerced tropical countries to reduce wheat, rice and corn production and replace them with export crops (cocoa, coffee, tea, bananas, peanuts, flowers, etc.).

Finally, to crown their efforts in favour of big agro-businesses and major grain exporting countries (beginning with the United States, Canada and Western Europe), they also persuaded governments to open their borders to food imports which benefit from massive subsidies from governments in the North. This led to many producers in the South going bankrupt and also to a severe reduction in local subsistence crop production.

To summarize, it is necessary to ensure food security and implement agrarian reform. The production of industrial agro-fuels must be abandoned and public subsidies for those who produce such fuels should be withdrawn. It is also necessary to rebuild public food reserves in the South (especially cereals such as rice, wheat, corn…), re-establish public credit agencies for farmers and food price regulation. People who earn a low wage must be ensured access to quality food at a low price. The State must also guarantee that small agricultural producers can sell at prices high enough to allow them to noticeably improve their living conditions. The State must also develop public services in rural areas (health, education, communication, culture, public seed “banks”, etc.). Public authorities are perfectly capable of guaranteeing both subsidized food prices for consumers and retail prices high enough to provide small producers with an adequate income.

Is this fight against famine not part of a much greater battle?

One cannot expect to seriously fight famine without combating the fundamental causes of the current situation. Debt is one of these causes. The publicity and fanfare around the issue, especially in recent years at the G8 or G20 summits, has failed to pull the veil over this persistent problem. The current global crisis is further worsening the situation in developing countries faced with the cost of debt, and new debt crises in the South are due to emerge. The debt has led people of the South, so often rich in terms of human and natural resources, to general impoverishment. Debt is organized pillage and must urgently be stopped.

In fact, this infernal public debt mechanism is a main obstacle to fulfilling people’s basic human needs, including the right to decent food. Without a doubt, the fulfilment of basic human needs must be placed above any other considerations, be they geopolitical or financial. From a moral perspective, the rights of creditors, people of private means or speculators have little weight compared to the fundamental rights of 6 billion citizens crushed by the implacable mechanism of debt.

It is immoral to ask countries, impoverished by a global crisis for which they are not at all responsible, to earmark a large part of their resources to repaying wealthy creditors (whether from the North or the South), instead of securing their basic needs. The immoral nature of the debt also stems from the fact that this debt was very often contracted by non democratic regimes who did not use the sums of money they received in the interests of their own population and often embezzled vast amounts, with the tacit or active approval of the States of the North, the World Bank and the IMF. The creditors of the most industrialized countries granted loans while being fully aware of the fact that the regimes were often corrupt. They are therefore in no position to demand that the people of these countries pay back a debt which is both immoral and illegal.

To sum up, debt is the one of the main mechanisms through which a new form of colonization operates, to the detriment of the people. This is in addition to the historic injustices perpetrated by rich countries: slavery, extermination of indigenous populations, colonial shackles, pillaging of raw materials, biodiversity and the know-how of farmers (through the patenting of agricultural products of the South, such as Indian basmati rice, for the profit of multinational agro-businesses in the North), the pillage of cultural goods, the brain drain etc. In the name of justice, it is time to replace the logic of domination with a logic based on the redistribution of wealth.

The G8, the IMF, the World Bank and the Paris Club impose their own truth, their own justice, to which they are both judge and party. Faced with the crisis, the G20 has taken up the baton and is trying to place a discredited IMF at the centre of the political and economic playing field. We must put an end to an injustice which profits oppressors, whether from the North or South.

Eric Toussaint, president of the Committee for the Cancellation of Third World Debt – Belgium www.cadtm.org , author of The World Bank: A Critical Primer, Pluto, London, 2008.

Damien Millet, mathematician, is spokeperson for CADTM France (Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt).
Joint authors of 60 Questions 60 Réponses sur la dette, le FMI et la Banque Mondiale,  CADTM-Syllepse, Liège-Paris, 2008. English version to be published in 2009.

Translated by Francesca Denley in collaboration with Judith Harris

Notes.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, www.fao.org

See ERIC TOUSSAINT and DAMIEN MILLET, “Why a world food crisis? (yet again)”, 2008, www.cadtm.org/spip.php?article3714 . See also Éric Toussaint, “Getting to the root causes of the food crisis”, http://www.cadtm.org/spip.php?article3865

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, see www.ipcc.ch/languages/french.htm

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