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The Right To Food

St Vincent and Grenadines

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

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Taken at global level there is no shortage of food. In fact the world's food production is still increasing faster than its population. Yet all too many stilt go hungry and one in three children - around 180 million - suffer seriously from malnutrition.

It makes no difference if a country's overall food production is high, if people have no access to it. In the last decade, IMF-sponsored structural-adjustment policies and the decline in commodity prices have undermined many developing countries' attempts to ensure that their populations are well fed. The countries which have done best are those which have successfully averted famine - but even these have not conquered the everyday hunger of the poor.



Botswana deserves the gold for reducing malnutrition significantly despite experiencing six years of drought in the 1980s (see facing page).

India's silver medal may seem strange when the country contains more hungry people than any other in the world. But it deserves commendation for its continuing success in averting famine. Its success is not due to increased production - food production only increased by five per cent per head between 1980 and 1987 - but rather to national policies of grain reserves, food distribution and food for work. Food prices in India remain remarkably stable despite the crises. For instance, during the most recent drought in 1987 and 1988, food prices increased by less than 10 per cent, largely because the shortfall in production was made up making reserve food available for sale.

The Government has encouraged land ownership among the smallest land-owners over the past couple of decades. And the generally free media and political system holds the Government accountable during food shortages, so that it can't disguise or ignore these crises. The radical government in the state of Kerala in southern India deserves particular congratulation for reducing hunger to lower levels than elsewhere despite being one of India's poorest states.

Food production and distribution has also greatly improved in St Vincent since the election of the Democratic Party in 1984. Prime Minister James Mitchell is an economist who has prioritized food production and encouraged farmers to interlace food plants with their banana trees - the main agricultural product. Consequently the country boosted food production by 49 per cent per head between 1980 and 1987. It now has the best food-production record in the Caribbean.



Of the many failings of the government in Sudan, perhaps the greatest is its appalling record in relation to feeding its people. It has no control over the drought; but it has at times seemed more interested in disrupting than facilitating food relief for its hungriest people.

It has insisted on controlling all relief operations to prevent food relief from strengthening rebel fighters in the South; Sudanese forces have bombed towns where UN relief operations were in progress; and 40,000 tons of US grain intended for the South have been hijacked. The Government is suspected of having traded an additional 300,000 tons of sorghum with Libya and Iraq for weapons; and in 1989 it foolishly exported the entire national grain reserve.

The result of all this is that traditional food-security structures everywhere have collapsed. It is estimated that up to 300,000 people have starved to death in the last two years and that one-third of children now suffer from malnutrition.

Much has changed in the former Soviet Union but it deserves a vote of censure because the failure to get 1990's record harvest through to ordinary people showed that the food-distribution system has completely collapsed. One-third of each year's crop is lost anyway due to poor transportation and storage but in 1990 the Government also offered farmers a ridiculously low price for their food. Farmers were forced to sell for higher prices elsewhere, to barter food for goods, or even to store their produce in the hope that they could sell it for more later on.

The situation has worsened as central authority has collapsed. Empty shelves are common in grocery stores. And the republics are using food as a political weapon, restricting sales to other republics. Official sources estimate that around two million Soviet citizens are going hungry, while unofficial estimates place the figure at closer to 40 million.

Guatemala is now the only country in Latin America never to have implemented any land reform. Most families do not own enough land to feed themselves. And in order to get enough to eat they have to work every year on large farms, harvesting coffee, sugar or cotton. Conditions on these farms are appalling. Wages are under two dollars a day and landowners charge high prices for food, with the result that over 80 per cent of children under five are malnourished.

The lack of access to land is also the main reason behind the country's 32-year-long civil war; Over the last 30 years over 100,000 people have been murdered, and 50,000 have disappeared in a country with a population of only nine million. Most of those murdered were landless.

Sources: Hunger and public action, John Dre'ze and Amartya Sen, Clarendon Press 1989; Food security and the environment, IDS Bulletin, July 1991; 1991 reports from the Alan Shawn Feinstein world Hunger Program, Brown university; The Human Development Report 1991, UN Development Programme; consultations with experts in the field.

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