New Internationalist

Our daily bread - and our trespasses

The spiraling world food grains crisis has been a long time coming. There have been warnings aplenty, but they didn't really grab the headlines. The two things that seem to have caught the world's attention are rising prices (ie food seen in monetary terms) and the social unrest of riots. We rightly fear instability.

Another food crisis is as old as the hills - that of the chronically malnourished. In India alone, before the current situation erupted, in times when there was enough grain to go around, over 260 million people were going to sleep at night without enough food in their bellies. They were the quiet, ground-down poor, chained to the desperation of trying to earn enough to get the next meal and hardly anybody gave a damn about them. These were people whose lives would end far short of anything that could be considered a normal course for one simple reason - a shortage of calories. Jean Ziegler, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, took the only rational way of looking at such deaths when he said: ‘Every five seconds a child under 10 dies of starvation. A child that dies of starvation is in effect murdered.' He said this before the current crisis. So one has to wonder what the true scale of amplification is for the rich world in particular to now sit up and take notice.

By now we are familiar with the confluence of factors that are being mentioned. Biofuels crops taking over land previously devoted to food (hands up those who didn't see that one coming), a rise in carnivorous appetites channeling more grain down the gullets of farm animals, a series of disastrous weather events for agriculture in many parts of the world and human population at an all time high (wonder how long before we start to see comment along the lines of the irresponsible poor having too many kids).

It's time we heard a lot more about the other factors involved. About the speculation and profiteering of global food giants who are intent on further changing agricultural policies around the world to benefit themselves and not farmers or consumers of food. About the hoarding that accompanies any food shortage real or created. About the deep rooted crisis of the cash poor who go hungry even when there is food available. But mostly about the shitty treatment the world's small farmers have been receiving.

Why does it bother so few of us that the people who produce the food are often so impoverished their own families face constant hunger? That they are driven to risky ventures that often end up ruining them because their traditional food crops have been valued so low. Even in the rich world farming, propped up by subsidies, has lost its dignity. Farmers are typically portrayed as whingers when they complain about the ‘freemarket' situation that leaves a few food monopolies in control, driving their own profit margins ever lower. The only model of agriculture that will ever get corporate approval is a completely supine one, beset by ever-increasing gigantism in order to carry out the industrial agriculture we are all pushed towards believing is the only way of feeding the world. 

In the rich world our connection to food has gone seriously weird. We routinely buy to excess and throw out food that has perished without our using it. We'll eat tasteless, additive-laden junk as long as it is ‘convenient'. To harp on about the effort needed to grow food is decidedly boring.

In countries like India, consumers may have a different, more essential relationship with food, but government policy has neglected agriculture for the money values and prestige of the country's burgeoning service sector. Rural India has been in steady decline, more so with market liberalization.

There is little doubt that the current crisis will need urgent international effort. British PM Gordon Brown has urged the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the UN to work towards a solution, one that will no doubt involve food aid. The irony of some of the chief architects of this current situation being called upon to bail out those they've driven to hunger is a bitter one.

Any longer term and more lasting solution has got to involve recognizing food for the good it is, not just seeing its monetary value. It's the only fuel we have, it's as basic as that. If one thinks logically from that perspective, it all comes down to supporting those who produce food not throwing them to the wolves of industry, it comes down to encouraging sustainability, local food self-sufficiency as far as possible, so global market winds don't blow food grains out of reach. And it means ensuring that food has a value above cash and acting accordingly. Hunger can be tackled by the right kinds of national policies, with international support; the interests of global food corporations must not be part of the equation. We call food a basic right; it's time we backed policy-making that believed such a claim.       

Catch up with how the international peasants' movement Via Campesina views the crisis.


Erwin Wagenhofer's film We Feed The World reveals the way the food industry works and much more by just letting the people involved speak for themselves. Mainly centred around European issues, I found completely compelling.

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