New Internationalist

Bitter Harvests

Issue 135

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THE FOOD INDUSTRY [image, unknown] Changing staples

[image, unknown]

Bitter harvests
A staple food is one that people eat day after day, year after year. Often it is the only food the poor can afford. So any change in a country’s staple can have drastic consequences for the well-being of the poorest sections of the community. Dick Franke surveys the food bowls of the world to see how eating habits have changed over the past 400 years.

If there is too little food in her bowl, or the wrong kind of food, it is likely to be because local agriculture has been distorted to meet the food requirements of the rich rather than the hunger of the poor.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

A paradox haunts much of the Third World: the very people who produce most of the world’s subsistence food are themselves the most common victims of malnutrition and starvation, Villages surrounded by lush fields and advanced irrigation systems may harbour as many hungry people as villages on the edge of the desert. What brings about this mismatch between resources and people? In part, it is the heritage of the past four centuries of European and North American colonial rule which built giant overseas fortunes out of resources previously used to feed people. Land that grew rice was taken for sugar; land that grew corn was used instead for cotton; and the very people who cultivated tubers in Africa were taken an ocean away. Everywhere food patterns were altered, often dramatically, almost always for the worse.

One of the most important changes to take place in the staple diets of Third World peoples was the introduction of grains into areas previously dominated by root crops. Grains are more easily stored, traded and transported. True, root crops like manioc, cassava and yam are low in protein. But most root-growing peoples also kept pigs or hunted to obtain their animal protein and fats. And, despite their lower protein content, root crops were more reliable to grow on a year to year basis than grains. So, ironically, periodic famine can follow the introduction of seemingly more nutritious staple crops - as has happened in the Pacific Islands for instance.

Almost the most serious disruptors of staple food production has been the introduction of sugar as a crop throughout much of the tropical world, Used in medieval Europe as a medicine, sugar began to rise in price and popularity after about 1500, just as colonial expansion was occurring.

The consequences in Brazil were devastating for local food growing: land was stripped of its trees, soil was deprived of nutrients, wild-life variety was destroyed, and local populations were forbidden from planting fruit trees by sugar barons determined to keep every square metre of land available for the profitable sweet cane. While sugar production in Brazil increased from just over 2,000 tons in1560 to more than five million tons in 1946,the diet of the sugar workers in the villagers of Brazil’s Northeast went into decline, with 75 per cent of the population estimated to be malnourished by the 1970s.

On the island of Java too, sugar interfered with local rice and vegetable production. Making use of ideal climate, soil and water conditions, Dutch entrepreneurs built sugar factories and simply grabbed whatever land they needed. It takes 16 months to grow a crop of sugar cane. That means three rice crops are lost whenever a single sugar crop is grown. Add to this the need to completely change the irrigation system after each sugar crop, and the result is the loss of up to 42 per cent of land available for food growing over a three year period. In 1920, eight per cent of the entire wet rice land of Java was planted in sugar, while many of the best areas had up to 44 per cent given over to the greedy canes. Meanwhile the colonial government was issuing a series of reports entitled: ‘The declining welfare of the population of Java’.

Another example from Java illustrates this dismal chain of events. A colonial coffee enterprise in the south central mountains in the 1850s failed and, because the region comprised limestone hills with only a thin soil layer, excessive chopping of trees for the coffee plants led to rapid soil erosion. By the 1930s rice production had given way to cassava, a low-protein ‘hunger’ crop that can grow on poor soil, It kept people alive but at low levels of diet. Medical reports in the 1 960s indicated that the average height of the people was declining as a result of the unhealthy diet left behind as a consequence of the failed coffee scheme of a century earlier.

In Africa too changes took place that were similar to those in the New World and in Asia. Kenyan animal herders, thought to have been well-fed and healthy by 19th century explorers, were found by the 1930s to be languishing on inadequate diets. What had happened to their diet of meat, milk, and blood from their animals, plus grains traded with local farmers? For a start European farmers had enacted quarantine laws to prevent native herders from moving their animals across ‘European areas’. They also induced the herders to auction their animals at low prices and so interfered with traditional trek routes that herds were concentrated onto insufficient land, causing overgrazing and loss of animals. As for the grain exchanges with local farmers, these were undermined by a gigantic colonial land grab that took 18 per cent of Kenya’s best land for European farmers to grow new crops like tea and other non-food produce.

In the West African Sahel yet another specific set of events illustrates the same general process. Here French colonialism forcibly introduced peanuts, rubber and cotton into areas that had once been given over almost entirely to the time-honoured traditional foods of millet and sorghum. By the 1930s the lack of staple food production had grown so severe that African farmers were in danger of not producing enough to keep themselves and their urban counterparts alive, Growing concerned, the French rulers decided to import rice from their Indochina colonies to their African ones. Today many Africans are so used to rice - much of which still has to be imported - that the fate of a government can depend on its ability to supply the grain. It is a sad irony that rice - needing so much water - has replaced millet and sorghum - both relatively drought-resistant - in the diets of people in one of the most drought-ridden areas in the world.

But altering food habits in the interests of profit has not ended with the demise of formal colonial rule. The world’s food supply today is possibly more under the control of a few large powers than even in the heyday of colonialism. But today those powers are the transnational food corporations. In 1980, for example, the 15 largest transnationals controlled 85 to 90 per cent of pineapple trading and 70 to 75 per cent of the trade in bananas. Since they are in business to make a profit, the transnationals are not concerned with providing food in the amounts and combinations that people need.

The biggest profits are to be made on luxury crops, produced by cheap labour on cheap land in the developing world and sold to wealthy consumers in the rich world. And growing those luxury crops - like pineapples, bananas and sugar - takes up so much land and labour that there is often too little left over for growing staple foods. Here the transnationals enter again, offering grains from the surplus-producing countries of North America, Europe (especially France), Australia, and Argentina.

If wheat is the main grain on the market, but rice is the main staple eaten in a particular poor country, no matter: development programs can be brought in to help change the diet. In Bangladesh, for instance, World Bank and USAID funds have begun introducing wheat on a massive scale to make wheat a major part of the Bangladesh diet and make the country a potential customer for wheat exports whenever the local wheat crop fails. The wheat is in competition with dahl and other traditional high-protein vegetable foods and its introduction has been associated with serious decline in the quality of the Bangladesh diet.

Whether it be the switch from roots to grains, millet to rice, staple to luxury crops, both colonial regimes and their offspring, the transnational corporations, are looking for ways to use local land and labour for yet another round of profit-making endeavours. And nowhere in this long history does there seem to be room for a healthy diet for the rural people of the Third World.

Dick Franke is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Montclair State College in the US and author, with Barbara Chasm, of Seeds of Famine: Ecological Destruction and the Development Dilemma in the West African Sahel.


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