issue 225 - November 1991
people, plants & politics
In a world of plenty, why are so many people still going without enough to eat?
Troth Wells discovers some of the reasons why the harvests fall short of the hope.
And what do you grow on your shamba?' asked Martha with a smile. We had been looking at her vegetable plot in Kenya's Meru district. Behind us was an impressive array of crops, grown together - maize/corn and beans, cassava, an avocado pear tree...
Martha looked at me, waiting. It was midday and hot, with the sun directly overhead. I grew hotter as I thought how to answer her question.
'Well, I don't have a shamba,' I began. She looked surprised. 'I don't really grow any food, just some herbs and tomatoes. Then the confession. 'I buy everything in a supermar... shop.' Martha laughed, amazed that I grew no food, had no need of land, and had enough money to buy what I needed. I had no control over the production of food, yet I could buy exactly what I liked.
Talking with Martha and looking at her mix of plants growing harmoniously together under the African sky, it was easy to feel envious of her contact with the soil, with growing and with food. It seemed a long way from the weekly pilgrimage to the supermarket, pushing a metal trolley up and down the soulless aisles of this secular cathedral. What do I need today? Sweetcorn, rice, bean-curd, sugar, bananas and cocoa...
And yet, glance at the shelves and the connections are all around. Mangoes from Kenya, right there. Cocoa from Ivory Coast. Chilean grapes. Tea from India and coffee from Colombia. The world's food is here and we can buy as we wish, the main criteria being cost and quality. But wait a minute. Over there are avocado pears from South Africa. Is it all right to buy them now? Is the boycott still on? (Can anyone I know see me?)
In this way concerns about cost and quality broaden into concerns about where food comes from and the way it is produced. We are critical consumers. We like to feel that although we are among the most privileged people in the world we're not adding too much to the world's problems by our consumption.
This might seem unimportant, given that our high income levels mean we will inevitably consume far more. On average, income in the North is $12,510 - 18 times higher than in the South.1 Money gives us the power to buy what food and goods we want, and it is the same for wealthy people in the Third World.
But it is a different story for the world's poor people, who have little or no income with which to buy food and little or no land on which to grow it. Every day one fifth of the people in developing countries - about 800 million people - goes hungry2. Behind these impersonal figures stand the landless families in Asia, the small farmers in Africa and the urban poor in Latin America - the children, women and men whose stomachs constrict with hunger pangs and who get sick because their bodies are weak from lack of nourishment.
Are they hungry because there is not enough food to go round? It seems not - plenty is grown. Despite a fall in global cereal stocks in the late 1980s, there is currently enough food in the world to provide the 2,600 calories or so required to keep us fit and healthy.
Up until now, we have managed overall to keep pace with increasing population largely through the technology of 'improved' or 'high response' seeds, agro-chemicals and increased mechanization - a package called the Green Revolution. But the benefits have been patchy, as its story shows us.
Launched in the 1960s as the vessel of hope for the world's food problems, the revolution's new wonder seeds of wheat and rice carried the promise of bumper harvests. In the decades since, the debate has raged over whether or not this revolution has 'succeeded'.
Those in favour wave statistics of increased yields: in many areas planted to these 'modern varieties' (MVs) food production per acre per person has doubled or tripled, outpacing population growth.3 Countries such as India and Indonesia have been transformed from basket cases into granaries. Other benefits are that more jobs have been created, and that more grain means prices can be kept low.
On the opposite side, people point to the environmental costs of growing one crop year in year out, using large doses of chemicals; to the widening gap between national production (in India for example) and satisfied stomachs in the villages; to the loss of species diversity; and to the social costs of this increased production as fields of wheat straddle the horizon, marching over land used for traditional crops and plants by poor people.
Opponents are critical too of the fact that the technical inputs favour richer farmers, since they are the ones who can stump up the cash not just for the new seeds but also for the chemicals and irrigation systems that the seeds demand.
Above all, critics attack the architects of the revolution for concentrating on the technical side - how to boost output - while ignoring how to get that larger harvest to the people who need it most. In theory, of course, the extra food is available to everyone. But in reality the poor still do not have the money to buy it: they watch as the loaded grain lorries rumble past them.
So here we have it, a great leap forward in the fields that has paradoxically brought both large benefits and heightened inequalities. Average yields of Asian and Latin American wheat and rice have probably increased by more in the past 25 years than in the previous 250 years. 'This has saved the lives of millions of people,' says Michael Lipton, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute's Consumption and Nutrition Program in Washington.
But on the other hand the standard of living in the poorest households are 'little or no higher than before the MVs arrived', says Lipton. India highlights the problem. Since the new strains were introduced, food output nationally has kept ahead of population growth. Yet the incidence and severity of hunger has hardly changed.3
So if more food is grown why is there still so much hunger? One reason is that even where the new grains boost food supply, not much extra demand comes from the poorest people. It is not just a question of food availability, but of having access to it - from having land to grow it on, or an income to buy it with, or some kind of transfer payments (labour for food for example). So the surplus swells the national stocks or cuts imports, but does little to put food into that hungry child's mouth.
Up until now, the benefits of the Green Revolution have largely been creamed off by the rich and powerful to bolster their own positions. It has not led to a fairer distribution of the extra food. After all, fancy seeds alone cannot transform power structures.
Nonetheless, the new farming methods are spreading and many small farmers are involved. Today, about 40 per cent of rural populations in the Third World are cultivating mainly the modem varieties.
It is hard now to see how we could do without the Green Revolution, so can it be more effectively harnessed to serve the poor? And can traditional agriculture still play a part in delivering more food to those who need it? The answer is probably yes to both questions.
Taking traditional farming systems first, these provide much more than just food. Shrubs and trees, in addition to yielding leaves and edible roots for humans, provide browse or fodder for animals and timber for building or fuel. Animals provide draught power, milk and meat as well as dung. Stalks and other crop residues also add to the animal fodder and fuel. The mix of tree and plant heights provide shade. Crops can sustain each other by being mixed: beans nourish the soil for maize which returns the gift by providing a handsome stalk for the bean to climb up.
Some estimates suggest that, hectare for hectare, these mixed farming plots provide a richer mixture of nourishment, than the same area planted to one crop.4 Certainly they are kinder to the soil and to people.
It sounds too idyllic to be true. But there is every reason to pursue this approach in countries where people still have access to farming land, as in Africa. And since peasant farmers the world over have always experimented with crop breeding, they will doubtless welcome the latest 'modern varieties', especially of staple foods such as cassava and sorghum. Small farmers can use chemical inputs judiciously to enhance nature's course rather than subverting it for ever. The important thing is that they control what they produce, and that technology serves their needs.
This is the link to the Green Revolution, which also has a part to play in reducing hunger, provided its fruits can be better distributed to the hungry. This is not just a question of trucks and fuel. It means tackling social injustice by devising, for example, effective food subsidies or job creation schemes.
But subsidies and public-employment schemes crumble if the government has no money. Most developing countries are reliant on the export of primary commodities or cash crops like coffee or cocoa. When prices of these fall, governments have to cut back on public spending - often strong-armed into it by lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
During the last decade, according to the World Bank, prices for many commodities fell to their lowest levels since World War Two. They climbed back a little, but by 1989 average prices were still lower than in l980.5 So a poor country like Uganda, exporting coffee, is faced with more mouths to feed and less money to pump into its economy to help its people.
This dependence on the price of a few commodities on the world market is no accident. It dates from imperial times, when colonies were used as resource bases by their industrializing rulers - as handy gardens, forests and mines, not to mention pools of cheap labour. Economic ideas about specialization and the laws of comparative advantage bolstered a Western view that Africa, for example, was best suited to grow tea and coffee while North America had wheat and corn production sewn up.
The problem with this is that it puts Ghana and Ivory Coast, for example, into the same cock pit fighting for cocoa buyers. If they both boost production, markets become glutted and prices fall. Yet if they cut production other countries will take up the slack. Only the buyers - the producers and consumers of chocolate in the rich world - end up benefiting.
This game was set in motion by the West and it is still the industrial countries that make up the rules. Southern countries are restricted from processing their own raw materials and exporting the results to the North, while the North itself complains bitterly at any sign that the South might obstruct 'free trade'. Current negotiations on the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), aimed at removing trade barriers, look positive for the developing countries. But in the long term it will open their markets up to the long and probing tentacles of US grain giants like Cargill and could dash their hopes of food self-reliance.
It is time for another revolution - in trade this time - and overseen by the United Nations. This would reverse the current position by insisting that industrialized countries live up to their free-trade principles while allowing the Third World some protection for its fledgling industries.
But of course there has to be the political will. The West, smug about the demise of the Eastern bloc, believes that capitalism has triumphed and that the free market is here for all. But a market is never free. It responds to economic power and not to need. The only way it can operate equitably is for purchasing power to be more widely dispersed, for consumers to be enfranchised.
Which brings us back to the supermarket. Consumers have some power. Critical consumers can make life hot even for the very biggest multinational companies. The consumers' associations in Western countries have traditionally not made it their business to complain about multinationals' treatment of their workers in the Third World. But they are linked through the International Organization of Consumer Unions to groups like the Consumers' Association of Penang in Malaysia, whose watchdog role is vital in raising concern about dangerous chemicals or unsavoury working conditions.
And there should soon be the chance to take consumer power further. The aid agency, Oxfam, in partnership with other European fair-trading organizations is launching a scheme which hopes to take the principles of fair trade into the supermarkets by rewarding certain products with a special mark of endorsement. The 'fair-trade mark' will guarantee to the consumer that the farming family at the other end of the production chain is getting a fair deal. The aim is to encourage companies like Dole, say, to offer a better proportion of the retail price to the producers in the Philippines. Companies are increasingly having to satisfy environmental criteria - so why should they not meet standards based on justice and humanity as well - and be penalized by the consumer if they are found wanting?
This is a better, more organized solution than simply boycotting bananas on the grounds that they probably came from an exploitative plantation like that described later in this magazine. Boycotts are a useful weapon but they should only be used when there is an organization representative of the workers concerned which calls for such action - as in South Africa.
A 'fair-trade mark' would help make our decisions as consumers more informed and useful. But even without such a scheme we can learn more about the distant origins of the foods we buy. Let us go back to the supermarket trolley bearing sweetcorn, sugar, rice, bean-curd, cocoa and bananas. These are the six ingredients selected to make the imaginary meal that is the basis of this magazine - the menu is overleaf. They have been chosen because of what they reveal about the way food is produced - and the people who produce it.
In the following pages meet Joyce Kayaya, a maize farmer in Zambia; Neco, working on a Brazilian sugar plantation; Rahima Khatun, preparing rice for her family in Bangladesh; Mr Lau, selling soybeans in China; Ghanaian cocoa farmer Kwabena Nten; and Yolanda Martinez, who works on a banana farm in the Philippines. Just a few of the faces behind the facts on world food.
1 Human Development Report 1991, UNDP.
2 From figures in The State of World Population Report 1991, UNFPA, and Human Development Report 1991, UNDP.
3 New Seeds and Poor People, Michael Lipton with Longhurst (Unwin Hyman 1989).
4 Biotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture, Henk Hobbelink (Zed 1991).
5 World Development Report 1990, World Bank.
This special report appeared in the raw food - people, plants & politics issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.