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Issue 99

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[image, unknown] FOOD[image, unknown]

Feeding the five billion

Unusual official responses to hunger in Brazil: food aid. Photo: FAO
Unusual official responses to hunger in Brazil: food aid
Photo: FAO

The global pantry is almost empty. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation's latest report, the world has only one week's food reserves in case of major crop failure in 1981/1982. Apparently for the last two years the world harvest has been insufficient to feed its four and a half billion hungry mouths - the 1,438 million ton harvest in 1980 was 170 million tons too small. The report calls for a seven per cent increase in 1981 production as the minimum needed to replenish stocks and 'safeguard world food security'.

The problem stems partly from disappointing harvests in the Soviet Union and the Third World. While average grain yields have almost doubled in Europe in the last 30 years, developing countries - especially low income nations - had to increase their imports by six million tons to a record 95 million in 1979/80. It was a 95 million tons they could ill afford. They have been badly let down by the West's scientific community.

Over the past 50 years soil scientists and agronomists have concentrated on changing the environment to suit the crop, rather than on developing crops to suit the soil. Europe's green revolution owed its success largely to a tenfold increase in the use of fertiliser over 30 years. But with 75 per cent of the world's population, the Third World uses only 15 per cent of the world's fertiliser. With nearly a quarter of the world's soil lacking adequate minerals, developing countries do not need crops that only give good yields when dosed with expensive fertiliser: they need crops which grow well without fertiliser, or which make efficient use of modest doses.

Most research on plant nutrition is carried out on varieties that have been developed for commercial use in the West. Plant breeding tends to be done with little regard for a crop's natural capacities to withstand drought or overcome deficiencies in the soil. Yet many plants - beans in particular - have bacteria in or around their roots which 'fix' nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into fertiliser for the roots to absorb.

In Brazil most of the soybean crop grows well without fertiliser, and kidney beans - the staple food of Latin America and much of Africa - fail to improve dramatically even with big applications of artificial fertilise. Sugarcane too, has been grown continuously for more than 30 years in parts of Brazil without any nitrogen-based fertiliser.

Until recently research into nitrogen fixation has been desultory: it seemed cheaper and more efficient to rely on nitrogen from artificial fertilisers. Now, reports Peter Rose in New Scientist, there is little doubt that appropriate plant breeding can develop crops with their own inbuilt bacterial fertilising systems.

Unusual official responses to hunger in Brazil: fertilizer propaganda. Photo: FAO
Unusual official responses to hunger in Brazil: fertilizer propaganda
Photo: FAO

A Brazilian research team has discovered that nitrogen-fixation on sugarcane is due to a combination of different bacteria very similar to those found on some varieties of sorghum in India. And grown in association with rice and a particular type of water fern, another bacterium is capable of providing all of the nitrogen that the crop requires. All of these self-fertilising systems operate naturally today. And research has shown that they could all be improved to increase yields. In less developed countries the ultimate goal could be to replace artificial fertilisers altogether.

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[image, unknown] CHINA[image, unknown]

Chauvinist challenge

Taking advantage of the new religious tolerance in China, three Bhuddist delegations from the exiled Dalai Lama have recently made tours of Tibet. The 3.4 million Tibetans represent just one of the 56 ethnic minorities that make up six per cent of China's population. But, contrary to promises made by the Communist Party before the revolution in 1949 that all national minorities would be granted 'the freedom to develop their dialects and languages, to preserve and reform their traditions, customs and religious beliefs', the delegations found Tibetans living in even greater destitution than expected.

Tibetans, like the other minority groups, have been suffering under what has been dubbed 'great Han chauvinism' - 94 per cent of China's population are Han and, as April's China Now reports, Han chauvinism has led to widespread oppression. Only 18 per cent of minority peoples are at school or university. The Chinese have built schools but the teachers are unqualified, the Tibetan language neglected and the better schools occupied mainly by Han pupils, according to the UK Tibetan Society's spring newsletter. Of 4,000 monasteries in old Tibet only three survive and the few factories, houses and roads were built by Tibetan labour for the benefit of the Han. The delegations also reported that enforced planting of winter wheat instead of barley to suit Chinese taste had prevented land being left fallow and resulted in a disastrous harvest during 1979. Thousands of Tibetans died of starvation.

The Han are accused of treating Tibetans as servants and having no respect for their culture. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing was quoted as saying that the minorities were no better than 'foreign invaders and aliens' and their songs and dances 'outlandish'.

Now following an investigatory tour of the region six months ago, the Chinese government has admitted to mistakes and promised drastic measures to increase the autonomy of Tibet. Nevertheless, in spite of the recent increase in literature and text books being published in minority languages, the Vice Minister in charge of minority education agreed in February that 'China is still falling behind in national minority education'. DeHanisation has a long way to go.

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[image, unknown] POPULATION[image, unknown]

Barren fears

Contraception is a dirty word in Tanzania. Family planning lobbyists must tread carefully, calling for 'child spacing' rather than 'birth control'. Its not because Tanzanians are shy about sex or ashamed to visit the family planning clinic. Its because they dread 'the scourge of infertility'. While the continent shudders from the repurcussions of its recent birth boom, some countries must still face the problem of sterility.

The population map of Africa is like a moth-eaten coat, reports Anne Retel-Laurentin in IPPF's People magazine. In some parts up to 50 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage and 40 per cent of women are sterile. In Zaire, Congo, Gabon, Central African Republic, Cameroon and north-eastern Angola, women bear an average of only two or three children - a far cry from the usual seven or eight. Venereal diseases are the main culprit. Left untreated over years, VD can cause blockage of fallopian tubes and increase the likelihood of traumatic pregnancies with injuries that result in sterility. Unfortunately VD is difficult to diagnose without advanced medical equipment. Only one tenth of syphilis cases in Zaire and Central African Republic could be diagnosed by skilled doctors without access to a laboratory, according to Ms. Retel-Laurentin.

Syphilis can be cured with penicillin and mass campaigns in the 1950's in Cameroon, Upper Volta, Senegal and Zaire have reduced infertility dramatically in some regions - from 40 to 13 per cent over 20 years in south-western Zaire, for instance. But gonorrhoea has become resistant to many antibiotics and is on the increase, particularly in regions where families are disrupted by rapid urbanisation and migration. Venereal diseases have taken hold most strongly along slave trading and colonial routes, and sexually permissive societies are the most affected. In African kingdoms and sultanates involved in the slave trade thousands of harem women were lent, given or passed around on the whims of chiefs and kings. But in groups where the spread of sexually-transmitted disease was strictly controlled by enforcing womens' marital fidelity, sterility has not been a problem.

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Main areas of low fertility in tropical Africa (marked in black). Fertility in some areas improved after campaigns to treat venereal disease. Infertility pockets are suspected in several other countries. 

The threat of infertility creates a vicious circle. Women must prove their fertility before they marry: but promiscuity increases the spread of VD and the likelihood of infertility. Seeing the degradation and loneliness of just a single barren woman in the village can undermine the best family planning propaganda. The fear of infertility is as important as high infant mortality in discouraging people from using birth control. And it represents another challenge to population planners to remember that they deal with living people not cold statistics.

 

 

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[image, unknown] MULTINATIONALS[image, unknown]

Profit squeeze

Every morning when someone in New Delhi brushes his or teeth with Colgate toothpaste, the cash register at the company's parent office in New York rings. In the last seven years, Colgate Palmolive in India has sent home profits of nearly $10 million. Colgate came to India 43 years ago with just $20,000. Today, a ten rupee share commands Rs.140 on the stock market.

In a bid to counter the image that profits are excessive and large remittances are draining the Indian economy, Colgate has taken full page advertisements which claim that 'Being an Indian company is much more than having a majority shareholding. It is total involvement.'

Under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA), foreign share holding has been diluted to 40 per cent to give majority shareholding to Indians. But economists like Dilip Swamy argue that 'Indianisation' under FERA is a myth. Colgate's 31,470 Indian shareholders hold no more than 50 shares each and will never be able to assert their 'Indianness' in the company's affairs. Their interest is limited to the amount of dividend declared and the appreciation of Colgate shares on the stock-market. Any move to help the consumer - including that of keeping profits to a reasonable level - will be fought tooth (sic) and nail.

In his book MultinationaIs Corporations and the World Economy, Swamy compares this kind of Indianisation with the US strategy of 'Vietnamisation' of the Vietnam war, arguing that multinationals 'buy' a section of the population in order to fight-off their fellow Indians. The parent company's hands, like those of the occupying army, are kept clean. But control always rests in those hands - a third of Colgate's Indian directors are still appointed directly from New York.

Despite its claims to being Indian the giant multinational has used its considerable power to brow beat small local firms. Vajradanti, an indigenous herbal toothpaste, has been forced into the export market by Colgate's muscle power. When Promise, a toothpaste similar to Colgate, was offered to the consumers at a price 20 per cent below Colgate's, the multinational launched a suit in the Bombay High Court pleading for an injunction on the grounds that the Promise pack used Colgate's red and white combination. When the judge refused to oblige, Colgate hired a noted lawyer to covertly file a 422 page petition in the Supreme Court.

The high pressure secret game did not work, the Supreme Court could only request the High Court to expedite the case. But, at the same time Close Up, the toothpaste made by Unilever's Indian subsidiary continues to use Colgate's red and white colour combination on its pack without a word from the vocal market leader. All must be well in the multinational family.

ANF, New Delhi

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[image, unknown] BRAZIL[image, unknown]

Debt as weapon

'If you borrow a million dollars from a bank and can't repay, you are in trouble. But if you borrow a billion dollars and can't repay, the bank is in trouble' say Professors Jack Guttentag and Richard Herring of the University of Pennsylvania. With total Third World debt sending shock waves through the world financial community, there is a new concern that the most heavilyindebted nations might actually have the upper hand in future bargaining with the West. Is the tail wagging the dog at last?

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Source: Morgan Gurantee Trust Company

International bankers are especially upset about Brazil - that big, bruising dictatorship that is the front runner in the Third World's debt sweepstakes. Spurred on by the rising cost of oil imports and scandalous inflation (115 per cent in 1980), the country's external debt has been growing rapidly over the last decade. According to figures released by the US-based Morgan Guarantee Trust Company, Brazil used 77 per cent of its foreign exchange from export earnings in 1980 to pay for oil and service its debt of over $60 billion. When payment on the principal is included, oil and interest costs accounted for 107 per cent of export earnings. This means all other imports have to be paid out of foreign currency reserves or further loans - to add even more to the existing debt mountain.

Brazil is not alone. According to America's Wall Street Journal, oil and debt service in 1980 soaked up 101 per cent of Turkey's export earnings and 70 per cent in Chile and India.

US banks in particular have a big stake in Brazil, holding nearly a third of the country's foreign debt. New York's Citibank is Latin America's biggest supporter with nearly five billion dollars worth of loans on its books. With so much tied up overseas, big multinational banks are getting very twitchy about those countries close to the credit ceiling. If it came to the crunch, the banks might be forced to keep doling out long after the limit has passed rather than face disaster through default.

There is also speculation that major Third World debtor nations- perhaps in a 'debtors trade union' - might refuse to pay interest until Western nations relax their grip on the global economy. The poor nations could, for example, demand an end to barriers such as tariff restrictions that block their exports to the West. They could also bring pressure to link the price of Third World commodities to price inflation of Western manufactured goods.

However, fears of Third World unity on the debt question are almost certainly baseless. Most of the heavily indebted nations are members of the so-called Newly Industrializing Countries (NICS) and firmly committed to co-operation with the West's industrial powers. Brazil, South Korea, Argentina, Turkey, the Philippines, Chile, Taiwan and Colombia are dependent on the technology, capital and markets controlled by Western multinational corporations and banks. Such 'debt as-weapon' tactics are unlikely to see the light of day in a world where credit worthiness and attractiveness to outside investors is thought to be the only ticket to progress.

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[image, unknown] MULTINATIONALS[image, unknown]

Dumping dangerous drugs

When a drug is banned in the West - for causing tumours, malformed babies, growth stunting or nerve atrophy - what can be done with the mountains of left-over pills and potions? Pack them up for export to the developing world is the answer many multinational companies have come up with. Drug dumping can be big business.

Even international development agencies have been distributing the potential killer preparations. The Dalkon Shield, a contraceptive intrauterine device, was banned in the US after it killed at least 17 women and caused over 200,000 serious uterine infections. Subsequently the US Agency for International Development sent Dalkon Shields to 42 countries including Israel, Paraguay, and Tunisia with just one inserter for every ten shields, aggravating the chances of infection tenfold. Now, six years after suspension of US sales, they are still being used in parts of the Third World.

Executives of major exporters argue that foreign buyers will just turn to European suppliers if export of hazardous US products is prohibited. And though the US State Department issues warnings to foreign governments, it contends that 'individual governments are generally in the best position to establish standards of public health and safety'. But many countries lack the necessary laboratories and trained customs staff. With each drug costing some $55 million to develop, companies are understandably loath to drop a product completely. So the dangerous bottles, capsules, and packets keep pouring in.

Multinationals not only sell harmful drugs to the Third World, they also recommend excess dosages and overcharge poorer countries according to London based Social Audit's recent report Insult or Injury. The UK pharmaceutical company which markets Migril for migraine headaches recommends doses in Asia and Africa that are double those in the US. Too many tablets increase the headaches, which encourage even greater overdoses. Glaxo's Guanimycin is prone to similar abuse. And Lomotil - an anti-diarrhoeal medicine sold on prescription in the US because just small overdoses can be fatal - is sold over the counter in Sudan and recommended for one-year-olds. Packages proclaim it was used by Gemini and Apollo astronauts.

As with babyfoods, advertising methods used in the Third World are questionable. Doctors are given discounts and kickbacks and are overwhelmed with free samples which they then sell. In Malaysia an order for 100 tablets earns an additional 20. Though over two billion dollars is spent each year on drug research worldwide, three times this amount is spent on marketing. Drug companies spend twice as much on promotion per doctor in Tanzania as in Britain. The UK has one sales executive for every 30 doctors, Tanzania has one for every four doctors. And Dar es Salaam's leading hospital's annual bill for four non life-saving drugs is enough to protect half a million children against malaria.

But the drug companies need not hold all the trump cards. In 1977, the World Health Organisation identified 200 basic drugs it deemed 'essential' for the health of people in the developing world. The Vienna-based United Nations Industrial Development Organisation has identified 26 of these as being simple enough to be produced by most developing countries. Where production is not possible, UNIDO recommends that countries form buyer groups to increase their bargaining power with Western products. India is cited as one model. Producing nearly 85 per cent of its simple drug needs, it insists on 60 per cent local ownership of foreign subsidiaries involving more complex drugs.


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