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Hunger In A World Of Plenty


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Hunger in a world of plenty

Wealth, not scarcity, makes people hungry. Dinyar Godrej explains why pushing the 'free' market as a panacea
is like prescribing pneumonia for a cold.

A light came wobbling up the Banbury Road, Oxford, in the dead of night. It stopped near a garbage bin and an elderly figure dismounted from an equally elderly bicycle. It was a man, slim and upright, if a little tremulous, dressed in faded but impeccably pressed clothes, a clip on his right ankle to guard the indeterminate grey of the trouser leg against any chance encounter with bike grease.

First he looked up and down the road. Then, very carefully, he extricated a neatly folded plastic carrier bag from a pocket and set about methodically searching through the contents of the bin. From amongst the day's detritus he picked up some half-eaten items, inspected them for decay, then placed them in his carrier bag. In a few minutes he was through and set off in the direction of Summertown, wobbling to a stop from time to time.

All of North Oxford seemed to be asleep, every locked house silent, and I knew I had witnessed a routine which was meant to be invisible. I couldn't help but feel that had it happened in broad daylight in front of curious passers-by it would have been just as dignified.

In my mind this memory dovetails with a much older one from when I was a child living in my family home in Indore - a city in India's Deccan heartland which has grown pell-mell around industry's magnet.

One day a very old and skeletal man wearing only a loincloth came and sat down by the potted cactus at the end of our drive. Unlike other alms seekers he sat silently until my mother noticed him - there was no telling how long he had been there. He was immediately given some money which he took with the kind of abundant gratitude that puts the giver to shame.

He returned once a week, every week, more emaciated each time. He weighed heavy on our conscience - watching the bones straining through his skin with every movement he made was a lesson in anatomy and ethics rolled into one.

We became more watchful, looking out several times a day to see if he was there. He was persuaded to come round to the back of the house and sit in the shade. My mother took to giving him larger sums of money and food which he would take away to eat elsewhere. He was nearly blind and had to be told the value of the coins. We all feared that in reality it made little difference because he would probably be cheated anyway. We asked him to come around more often, but he had his own code of honour and would only visit once a week.

Eventually he stopped and then we knew he was dead. To be honest it was a relief not to have to watch the skin hang from him or his slow, angular, careful walk.

In Indian folklore the gods often come down to earth to test human beings. We felt as though we had been through such a test but couldn't say whether we had passed it or not.

Making Martians

Increasingly sophisticated lifestyles often distort our relationship with food: we are even able to forget that its basic purpose - apart from the obvious pleasure it gives - is to keep us going. Another person's hunger is a reminder that there is something as simple as eating to live. Yet nowhere are people guaranteed a right to food. If the presence of hunger is an affront to our notions of justice, then it is doubly unjust that those who have the least power - the elderly, women and their dependent children, refugees, the disabled - are the most likely to go hungry.

The shame of hunger is a double shame - it burns the hungry with the brand of humiliation, despair and dependency and it burns us with guilt and a feeling of powerlessness at being unable to help. For the hungry it can mean being reduced to surrender the dignity that attends being able to provide for oneself. Sometimes this can be perceived oddly - as though the hungry had no dignity to lose, as though they had no emotions to expend, as though they were ciphers filled only by need, as though they were Martians.

The wealthy often go into denial - putting up walls around their homes, sending their kids to special schools, policing their malls, making sure that the poor are 'elsewhere'. This distance is essential to making Martians of the poor - they are completely alien, they have no connection to us, they are illegal immigrants to our neighbourhood or our nation, they are a problem. An aunt of mine once suggested that poor people should be taken out at the dead of night and shot - such 'cleaning-up' happens for real in some parts of the world.

Today it is estimated there are nearly 800 million people who don't have enough to eat - 12 million die of hunger every year. Two billion have vitamin and mineral deficiencies in their diets which can cause serious health problems.[1],[2]

Hidden war

There's a war going on and we hardly hear of it. The news media chases famine, hooked onto a perverse aesthetics of death. People with chronic, everyday hunger, who work and go about their business with a hole inside, aren't quite sexy enough. Famines have the 'advantage' of being dramatic, of coming and going, of being, in retrospect, controllable. The hungry, on the other hand, are always with us.

And yet there is no reason why this should be so - more than enough food is produced in our world to feed everyone. What is more, estimates of food supply are usually based on grain production alone and don't include vegetables, milk and meat. To invoke this surplus is not just globaloney sung to the tune of 'There are people starving in China so eat your food' [what my mother always told me]. It is not even to argue that countries with surpluses should 'give' other countries their food. In the majority of countries the surpluses exist within the country; it's just that poor people have no means to buy the food. The reallocation of less than 10 per cent of India's food supply would feed its hungry population - the largest among all countries. The food waits instead for the right price or a foreign buyer.

Hunger is not due to scarcity, it is created by wealth. The wealthiest fifth of the population, living mainly in industrialized countries, controls 85 per cent of global income, whilst the poorest fifth lives off a mere 1.4 per cent.[1] Britain's richest 10 people have as much wealth as 23 poor countries with over 174 million people.[3] Statistics like that don't just happen, they reflect theft on a vast scale. Mahatma Gandhi pointed out that since the wealth of a country like Britain was founded on the plunder of nearly half the world's resources we would need several worlds to bring such prosperity to everyone. What we are seeing is an unprecedented polarization of wealth - fewer people are getting hold of more and more and they seem to care less and less about the consequences.

With money-economies firmly in place the wealthy can pull markets in whichever direction they like. Something as basic as food production is completely skewed by the demands of wealth. Industrial countries contain 24 per cent of the world's population, but they manage to use 48 per cent of the world's grain and 61 percent of its meat.[4] In fact they stuff quite a lot of this grain into what will become the meat. Their consumption of non-food resources is even higher. Leftover money is always available for the little luxuries of life - US citizens spent $30 billion on jewellery and watches in 1991, a sum equivalent to the entire Gross Domestic Product of 20 low-income countries.[1]

None of this would matter so much if rich countries were self-sufficient themselves - but they aren't. They corner resources through the sheer power of money, and they turn the rest of the world into beggars at the feast. The simplicity and the cruelty with which this is done is worth exploring.

Peddling the market

Colonialism turned the majority of the world's people into resource providers. The trade advantage thus gained was maintained even after subject countries got their independence. Then along came the Gulf's oil boom and Western banks found themselves flooded with investments from oil-rich sheikhs. They peddled this money unscrupulously to governments in the Majority World. Poor countries took up loans in the 70s because prices for the raw materials they sold were rising at the time and they thought they might get a foot in the door of the rich club. Commodity prices fell, interest rates soared and in some cases a Mobutu or a Marcos pocketed billions of dollars. The Third World Debt had come to stay. The amount paid off as interest by poor countries has already exceeded the original sums of money borrowed, yet they are still in debt. In 1993, for every dollar given in aid rich nations took back three in debt repayments.

The marketplace is now being pushed as the panacea for countries with problems feeding their populations, which is a bit like prescribing pneumonia for a cold. The IMF and World Bank give loans on condition that poor countries work towards increasing their exports to pay off debt. So already-glutted and recession-hit Western markets get more of the same things - more cocoa, more coffee, more bananas - from producers in the Majority World who are forced into competition with each other. Prices drop as fast as production rises.

Straddling markets from Djibouti to Detroit is the relatively recent colossus of the transnational corporation, funnelling produce from farmers world-wide, shipping it hither and yon, playing with it for profit. In 1989 transnationals controlled 70 per cent of international trade and 80 per cent of all the land growing export crops. They employed just three per cent of the world's paid labour.[5] Profits - and they are huge - go mainly to a handful of owners.

This, then, is the so-called 'free market' - a place where wealthy governments and big business give poor producers the freedom to sell their labour and goods at the lowest possible prices. In another age it went by another name - slavery.

Rich countries dictate terms to poor countries, protecting their own produce with subsidies, imposing tariffs and squeezing the lowest prices for raw materials. They don't feel a similar need to protect their markets from each other.

Milking the beast

The strangest thing about the market is that the movers and shakers have tremendous influence but little control. They are milking the beast for all it's worth today. That it may kick the pail tomorrow is something they'd rather not think about.

France's President Mitterand put his finger on it at the recent UN Social Summit, where world leaders agreed to disagree over the steps to be taken to combat poverty. 'Are we really going to let the world become a global market without any rules other than those of the jungle and with no purpose other than maximum gain, maximum profit, in the minimum time?' he asked.[6]

The market mentality is striking at the very heart of food production - the farmers. In the West it has imposed an unsustainable and heavily polluting commercial agriculture that uses 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food it produces. This very expensive food is made cheap for urban consumers by subsidies, which have come from their taxes anyway. The huge surpluses farmers in the West produce are then dumped in the Majority World either as food aid or at ridiculously low prices which often destroy local farmers in the process. Increasingly this high-cost agriculture has edged out smaller producers and has led to the present indebtedness of many a US farmer.

In the Majority World the Green Revolution got hijacked by the ‚lites who could afford it and starved large numbers of small farmers who couldn't. Cash cropping took hold, uprooting a diversity of food crops, driving those who couldn't hack it into urban centres to look for jobs.

This is a tremendous diminishment of human resources. People who can provide for themselves become hungry and landless. Farmers find decisions about what they grow and how they grow it being taken by forces beyond their control and not in their best interests. Consumers too find they are at the mercy of the merchants, that they count not as people but as customers.


The resistance is about rescuing the control of food from this market machine. Poor people around the world are bypassing the system with communal efforts at growing and sharing food.

In India farmers are successfully resisting the transnationals' efforts to control their seeds. All across Latin America peasant farmers are getting together under a movement called Campesino a Campesino to share their knowledge and work towards growing more food. In Bolivia women have taken to the streets protesting against US food 'aid' which has crippled local wheat production. In Zambia farmers are rediscovering the diversity of traditional foodgrains like sorghum and millet; mills are opening in rural areas loosening urban control over the finished product.

Change is coming to the rich world, too. In Japan the Sekatsu consumer network has directly linked up with banana growers in the Philippines, getting a better deal for all parties concerned. In France farmers are working with their Brazilian counterparts to find ways of forgoing the use of Brazilian grain as animal feed. Fair-trade movements have made a start at getting better prices for coffee and cocoa producers, proving cash crops needn't necessarily cause hunger.

This is the kind of resistance which could safeguard our food in the future, and we tell some of the stories in this issue. However, the crisis that looms over the market minefield is not just one of deepening poverty but of ultimate environmental collapse. The world's relatively small wealthy population is probably getting too large for it. This is the population whose demand occupies swathes of rich farmland and makes it grow strawberries, flowers and animal feed, forcing hungry farmers into marginal, erosion-prone areas. This is the population which ultimately endorses the poisoning of our environment and the exhaustion of every exhaustible resource.

All the realistic alternatives involve making choice available to more, not less, people and doing so before environmental imperatives dictate their own terms. Hunger is, in this sense, a question of democracy and democratic control. At present the most 'democratic' nations of the world are involved in the most widespread massacre of human rights - the perpetuation of hunger.

The globe, we are told, is shrinking. Perhaps it has not yet shrunk enough for the rich to see that they inhabit the same planet as the poor. There is no neat boundary between the world of wealth and the world from which the wealth comes. To make two worlds out of one is, quite literally, to tear it apart.

Dinyar Godrej is a co-editor of New Internationalist.

1 Bread for the World Institute, Hunger 1995: Causes of hunger, Silver Spring 1994. 2 Bertrand Delpeuch, Seed and Surplus, CIIR/Farmers' Link, London 1994. 3 World Development Movement. 4 Tim Lang and Colin Hines, The New Protectionism, Earthscan, London 1993. 5 The International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA), An Alternative Report on Trade, Brussels, 1995. 6 The Guardian, 13 March 1995.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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