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Sanhati, 20 June 2008

1. India’s Emerging Food Security Crisis: The Consequences of the Neoliberal Assault on the Public Distribution System – Analytical Monthly Review
2. A man-made famine – Raj Patel, The Guardian
3. The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions – Fred Magdoff, Monthly Review
4. Manufacturing a Food Crisis – Walden Bellow, The Nation
5. Global food crisis: ‘The greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model’ – Ian Angus, Socialist Voice
6. Soaring prices are causing hunger around the world – Washington Post Editorial
7. The World’s Growing Food-Price Crisis – Time magazine


India’s Emerging Food Security Crisis: The Consequences of the Neoliberal Assault on the Public Distribution System

An editorial from Analytical Monthly Review

Today, but few can recall memories of the Bengal famine of 1943 and 1944. Most disturbingly, after almost two decades of “reform” and a full decade or more of a nonstop media festival of growth rates and India Shining songs and chants, a massive acute food crisis is again a possibility. For the rulers of India such concerns, while now unavoidable, remain highly abstract. The memories of Bengal famine are again of special importance. Ashok Mitra, in his memoir Apila-Chapila (Ananda Publishers, 2003) [in English translation A Prattler’s Tale (SAMYA, 2007)], tells of millions from the countryside dragging themselves to the cities to beg and to die in the streets. “We went to college, stepping over these live corpses, these half-dead men, women and children. It was an appalling situation. Yet the daily lives of the middle and upper classes were largely unaffected.” Those with similar experience were a guiding force in the creation of post-independence food security programs that, for all their faults and inequalities, achieved a significant rise in per capita foodgrain and calorie consumption over the four decades from 1950. This achievement was swiftly wiped out by the period of neoliberal reform. Already by 2004 foodgrain absorption per capita had dropped to the 150 kilograms per year level of 1950-51, a fall of over 20 kilograms from levels achieved by the 1990s.

The consequences of over a decade of neoliberal hunger are what make the current conjunction of global foodgrain price rise and severe weather events, such as the recent Burmese cyclone, the Australian drought, the extraordinarily severe Chinese winter, a matter requiring urgent attention. Famine is not the result of a failed monsoon or other extraordinary extreme shortage that exhausts what under normal circumstances would be abundant food reserves. Even the most efficient historical systems of food stocks, such as that of Ming China, ran into the year that exhausts reserves. Widespread hunger, not famine, is the result. Only when a population has been nutritionally deprived for an extended period does the year of extraordinary shortage become the year of famine. Utsa Patnaik, our leading specialist in the agrarian economy, asserts that — although wartime burdens placed upon India by the British were a primary cause — the Bengal famine was largely the result of “the preceding three decades of declining nutrition in Bengal which had seen a much larger than average drop in per capita foodgrains availability, by nearly 40% between 1911 and 1947.” It is precisely this situation in which we now find ourselves. For most Indians a persistent decline in available calories has marked the neoliberal era. A recent useful study (Ranjan Ray, “Diversity in Calorie Sources and Undernourishment during Rapid Economic Growth,” EPW, 23rd February 2008) used household calorie intake data from recent National Sample Survey rounds and generally accepted minimum gender specific daily calorie requirements for rural and urban populations to compose a “prevalence of undernutrition” index that would permit comparison over time. The percentage of rural Indian households that were undernourished rose from 48% at the time of NSS Round 43 (1987-8) to 67% at NSS Round 57 (2001-2). Undernourished urban households rose from 37% in 1987-8 to 51% in 2001-2. Things have worsened since 2002, as population growth has overwhelmed rapidly declining domestic rates of growth of food production and rural poverty has accelerated. It is this decade of increasing prevalence of malnutrition and hunger that threatens disaster as a result of an emerging food security problem.

The primary defense for food security remains a badly weakened Public Distribution System (PDS). The PDS was developed in the 1960s both to provide food to deficit regions and all strata of the population and to create sufficient effective demand to encourage a growing agricultural production. The PDS took advantage of increased yields of the “green revolution” to fashion a system of subsidies that despite all global price fluctuations guaranteed farmers a price above costs, moved foodgrains from the favored surplus areas of “green revolution” production to deficit areas, and sold foodgrains at a price low enough to ensure adequate offtake. Though always beset with problems, the PDS was at base a success and achieved a substantial increase in per capita consumption of calories. After 1991, intense pressure from the IMF and the World Bank to reduce the budget deficit brought first a sharp rise in the PDS price of foodgrains unmatched by higher prices for farmers, and then the introduction of “Targeted PDS” in 1997. Within ten years all that had been gained over a generation was lost. “Targeting” involved the near-criminal use of indefensible “Poverty Lines” to subject a vast impoverished population to paying prevailing market prices for essentials. Though accompanied by hypocritical expressions of concern for the poor from both World Bank and Indian neoliberals, targeting was a deliberate and successful attack on the PDS system as a whole. As Utsa Patnaik has said:

If one looks at the history of targeting in other countries, it becomes clear that it has always been a prelude to winding up of state intervention in procurement. That has been the ultimate aim of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. They specifically say that the state should not intervene to buy and sell at prices other than global prices. The WTO agreement on agriculture states that for food security purposes, the government can maintain food stocks but then, at the same time, it says that the government cannot offer farmers prices that are higher than global market prices. Global prices are very volatile. The government’s role here is to protect both the farmer and the consumer. The whole rationale of the PDS lies in that. – (Interview by TK Rajalakshmi, Frontline April, 2008)

And indeed the targeted PDS has gone a long way to the destruction of the system. According to NSS Report on Public Distribution System and Other Sources Of Household Consumption, 2004-05, 58 per cent of subsidised foodgrains do not reach Below Poverty Line (”BPL”) families, as 22 per cent reach Above Poverty Line (”APL”) families, while 36 per cent are sold in the black market. Only 57 per cent of BPL households have ration cards, while the homeless often do not have any. Only 28 per cent of the rural poor have benefited from any type of government food assistance schemes, and for urban areas the figure is just 9.5 per cent. Over half (51%) of rural households with the smallest landholdings (less than 0.01 hectares) do not possess ration cards that entitle them to monthly rations of rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene under the PDS. See . A more effective means of “targeting” was Chidambaram’s budget proposal, in long overdue acknowledgement of the desperate agricultural crisis, to forgive bank debt to farmers. Of course the richer farmers have larger outstanding loans and would benefit the most, and the poorest forced to subject themselves to the village usurers would not benefit at all. The neoliberals are not against subsidies that benefit the more prosperous.

This introduction of “free market forces” into food production and distribution has amounted to, in fact, murder. At first, as was inevitable in a market system subjected to strong deflationary pressures from World Bank, IMF and governmental authorities, prices shot down and small farmers lost in sequence their profits, their lands and their lives. Then as world market prices for essential foods shot up — the result of the U.S. exporting its inflation to the rest of the world to finance its aggression in Iraq and the U.S. provision of vast subsidies to turn foodgrains into fuel — masses living in hunger are driven to the verge of starvation while foodgrains they cannot afford to buy accumulate in the warehouses. We know that no long-term solution is possible absent revolutionary land reform, but neoliberal policies have brought the nation to the point where the vagaries of climate could produce famine not experienced in two generations. This desperate situation demands the immediate abolition of targeting and the introduction of universal PDS with an effective system for public supervision.

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A man-made famine

By Raj Patel, The Guardian

For anyone who understands the current food crisis, it is hard to listen to the head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, without gagging.

Earlier this week, Zoellick waxed apocalyptic about the consequences of the global surge in prices, arguing that free trade had become a humanitarian necessity, to ensure that poor people had enough to eat. The current wave of food riots has already claimed the prime minister of Haiti, and there have been protests around the world, from Mexico, to Egypt, to India.

The reason for the price rise is perfect storm of high oil prices, an increasing demand for meat in developing countries, poor harvests, population growth, financial speculation and biofuels. But prices have fluctuated before. The reason we’re seeing such misery as a result of this particular spike has everything to do with Zoellick and his friends.

Before he replaced Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank, Zoellick was the US trade representative, their man at the World Trade Organisation. While there, he won a reputation as a tough and guileful negotiator, savvy with details and pushy with the neoconservative economic agenda: a technocrat with a knuckleduster.

His mission was to accelerate two decades of trade liberalisation in key strategic commodities for the United States, among them agriculture. Practically, this meant the removal of developing countries’ ability to stockpile grain (food mountains interfere with the market), to create tariff barriers (ditto), and to support farmers (they ought to be able to compete on their own). This Zoellick did often, and enthusiastically.

Without agricultural support policies, though, there’s no buffer between the price shocks and the bellies of the poorest people on earth. No option to support sustainable smaller-scale farmers, because they’ve been driven off their land by cheap EU and US imports. No option to dip into grain reserves because they’ve been sold off to service debt. No way of increasing the income of the poorest, because social programmes have been cut to the bone.

The reason that today’s price increases hurt the poor so much is that all protection from price shocks has been flayed away, by organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank.

Even the World Bank’s own Independent Evaluation Groupadmits (pdf) that the bank has been doing a poor job in agriculture. Part of the bank’s vision was to clear away the government agricultural clutter so that the private sector could come in to make agriculture efficient. But, as the Independent Evaluation Group delicately puts it, “in most reforming countries, the private sector did not step in to fill the vacuum when the public sector withdrew.” After the liberalisation of agriculture, the invisible hand was nowhere to be seen.

But governments weren’t allowed to return to the business of supporting agriculture. Trade liberalisation agreements and World Bank loan conditions, such as those promoted by Zoellick, have made food sovereignty impossible.

This is why, when we see Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the IMF wailing about food prices, or Zoellick using the crisis to argue with breathless urgency for more liberalisation, the only reasonable response is nausea.

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The World Food Crisis – Sources and Solutions

By Fred Magdoff, Monthly Review

An acute food crisis has struck the world in 2008. This is on top of a longer-term crisis of agriculture and food that has already left billions hungry and malnourished. In order to understand the full, dire implications of what is happening today it is necessary to look at the interaction between these short-term and long-term crises. Both crises arise primarily from the for-profit production of food, fiber, and now biofuels, and the rift between food and people that this inevitably generates.

‘Routine’ Hunger before the Current Crisis

Of the more than 6 billion people living in the world today, the United Nations estimates that close to 1 billion suffer from chronic hunger. But this number, which is only a crude estimate, leaves out those suffering from vitamin and nutrient deficiencies and other forms of malnutrition. The total number of food insecure people who are malnourished or lacking critical nutrients is probably closer to 3 billion—about half of humanity. The severity of this situation is made clear by the United Nations estimate of over a year ago that approximately 18,000 children die daily as a direct or indirect consequence of malnutrition (Associated Press, February 18, 2007).

Lack of production is rarely the reason that people are hungry. This can be seen most clearly in the United States, where despite the production of more food than the population needs, hunger remains a significant problem. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2006 over 35 million people lived in food-insecure households, including 13 million children. Due to a lack of food adults living in over 12 million households could not eat balanced meals and in over 7 million families someone had smaller portions or skipped meals. In close to 5 million families, children did not get enough to eat at some point during the year.

In poor countries too, it is not unusual for large supplies of wasted and misallocated food to exist in the midst of widespread and persistent hunger. A few years ago a New York Times article had a story with the following headline “Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots” (December 2, 2002). As a Wall Street Journal headline put it in 2004 “Want Amid Plenty, An Indian Paradox: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger” (June 25, 2004).

No ‘Right to Food’

Hunger and malnutrition generally are symptoms of a larger underlying problem—poverty in an economic system that recognizes, as Rachel Carson put it, no other gods but those of profit and production. Food is treated in almost all of the world’s countries as just another commodity, like clothes, automobiles, pencils, books, diamond jewelry, and so on. People are not considered to have a right to purchase any particular commodity, and no distinction is made in this respect between necessities and luxuries. Those who are rich can afford to purchase anything they want while the poor are often not able to procure even their basic needs. Under capitalist relations people have no right to an adequate diet, shelter, and medical attention. As with other commodities, people without what economists call “effective demand” cannot buy sufficient nutritious food. Of course, lack of “effective demand” in this case means that the poor don’t have enough money to buy the food they need.

Humans have a “biological demand” for food—we all need food, just as we need water and air, to continue to live. It is a systematic fact of capitalist society that many are excluded from fully meeting this biological need. It’s true that some wealthy countries, especially those in Europe, do help feed the poor, but the very way capitalism functions inherently creates a lower strata of society that frequently lacks the basics for human existence. In the United States there are a variety of government initiatives—such as food stamps and school lunch programs—aimed at feeding the poor. Yet, the funding for these programs does not come close to meeting the needs of the poor, and various charities fight an uphill battle trying to make up the difference.
In this era relatively few people actually die from starvation, aside from the severe hunger induced by wars and dislocations. Most instead become chronically malnourished and then are plagued by a variety of diseases that shorten their lives or make them more miserable. The scourge of malnutrition impedes children’s mental and physical development, harming them for the rest of their lives.

The Acute and Growing Crisis: The Great Hunger of 2008

At this moment in history there are, in addition to the “routine” hunger discussed above, two separate global food crises occurring simultaneously. The severe and acute crisis, about two years old, is becoming worse day by day and it is this one that we’ll discuss first. The severity of the current crisis cannot be overstated. It has rapidly increased the number of people around the globe that are malnourished. Although statistics of increased hunger during the past year are not yet available, it is clear that many will die prematurely or be harmed in other ways. As usual, it will be the young, the old, and the infirm that will suffer the worst effects of the Great Hunger of 2008. The rapid and simultaneous rise in the world prices for all the basic food crops—corn (maize), wheat, soybeans, rice, and cooking oils—along with many other crops is having a devastating effect on an increasing portion of humanity.

The increases in the world market prices over the past few years have been nothing short of astounding. The prices of the sixty agricultural commodities traded on the world market increased 37 percent last year and 14 percent in 2006 (New York Times, January 19, 2008). Corn prices began their rise in the early fall of 2006 and within months had soared by some 70 percent. Wheat and soybean prices also skyrocketed during this time and are now at record levels. The prices for cooking oils (mainly made from soybeans and oil palm)—an essential foodstuff in many poor countries—have rocketed up as well. Rice prices have also risen over 100 percent in the last year (“High Rice Cost Creating Fears of Asia Unrest,” New York Times, March 29, 2008).

The reasons for these soaring food prices are fairly clear. First, there are a number of issues related directly or indirectly to the increase in petroleum prices. In the United States, Europe, and many other countries this has brought a new emphasis on growing crops that can be used for fuel—called biofuels (or agrofuels). Thus, producing corn to make ethanol or soybean and palm oil to make diesel fuel is in direct competition with the use of these crops for food. Last year over 20 percent of the entire corn crop in the United States was used to produce ethanol—a process that does not yield much additional energy over that which goes into producing it. (It is estimated that over the next decade about one-third of the U.S. corn crop will be devoted to ethanol production [Bloomberg, February 21, 2008].) Additionally, many of the inputs for large-scale commercial agricultural production are based on petroleum and natural gas—from building and running tractors and harvesting equipment to producing fertilizers and pesticides and drying crops for storage. The price of nitrogen fertilizer, the most commonly used fertilizer worldwide, is directly tied to the price of energy because it takes so much energy to produce.

A second cause of the increase in prices of corn and soybeans and soy cooking oil is that the increasing demand for meat among the middle class in Latin America and Asia, especially China. The use of maize and soy to feed cattle, pigs, and poultry has risen sharply to satisfy this demand. The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last twenty years alone. (New York Times, January 27, 2008.) Feeding grain to more and more animals is putting growing pressure on grain stores. Feeding grain to produce meat is a very inefficient way of providing people with either calories or protein. It is especially wasteful for animals such as cows—with digestive systems that can derive energy from cellulose—because they can obtain all of their nutrition from pastures and will grow well without grain, although more slowly. Cows are not efficient converters of corn or soy to meat—to yield a pound of meat, cows require eight pounds of corn; pigs, five; and chickens, three (Baron’s, March 4, 2008).

A third reason for the big jump in world food prices is that a few key countries that were self-sufficient—that is, did not import foods, although plenty of people suffered from hunger—are now importing large quantities of food. As a farm analyst in New Delhi says “When countries like India start importing food, then the world prices zoom….If India and China are both turning into bigger importers, shifting from food self-sufficiency as recently we have seen in India, then the global prices are definitely going to rise still further, which will mean the era of cheaper food has now definitely gone away” (VOA News, February 21, 2008). Part of the reason for the pressure on rice prices is the loss of farmland to other uses such as various development projects—some 7 million acres in China and 700,000 acres in Vietnam. In addition, rice yields per acre in Asia have reached a plateau. There has been no per acre increase for ten years and yield increases are not expected in the near future (Rice Today, January–March 2008).

Some of the reasons for the recent price increases for wheat and rice are related to weather. The drought in Australia, a major wheat exporting country, and low yields in a few other exporters has greatly affected wheat prices. A 2007 cyclone in Bangladesh destroyed approximately 600 million dollars worth of its rice crop, leading to rice price increases of about 70 percent (The Daily Star [Bangladesh], February 11, 2008). The drought last year in northcentral China combined with the unusual cold and snow during the winter will probably lead the government to greater food purchases on the international markets, keeping the pressure on prices.

Speculation in the futures market and hoarding at the local level are certainly playing a part in this crisis situation to make food more expensive. As the U.S. financial crisis deepened and spread in the winter of 2008, speculators started putting more money into food and metals to take advantage of what is being called the “commodities super cycle.” (The dollar’s decline relative to other currencies stimulates “investment” in tangible commodities.) While it would be a mistake to see these aspects, however despicable and inhumane, as the cause of the crisis, they certainly add to the misery by taking advantage of tight markets. It is certainly possible that the commodity bubble will burst, bringing down food prices a bit. However, speculation and local hoarding will continue to put an upward pressure on food prices. Transnational corporations that process agricultural products, manufacture various foods, and sell food to the public are, of course, all doing exceptionally well. Corporate profits usually do well in a time of shortages and price increases.

Although not a cause for the increase in prices of other foods, the higher prices for ocean fish have created an added burden for the poor and near poor. Overfishing of many ocean species is removing this important protein source from the diet of a large percentage of the world’s population.

The response to the crisis has come in the form of demonstrations and riots as well as changes in government policies. Over the past few months there have been protests and riots over the increasing cost of food in many countries, including Pakistan, Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Mexico, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. China has instituted price controls for basic foods and Russia has frozen the price of milk, bread, eggs, and cooking oil for six months. Egypt, India, and Vietnam have banned or placed strict control on the export of rice so that their own people will have sufficient food. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, has expanded the number of people eligible to receive food aid by over 10 million. Many countries have lowered protectionist tariffs to try to lessen the blow of dramatically higher prices of imported foods. Countries heavily dependent on food imports such as the Philippines, the world’s largest importer of rice, are scrambling to make deals to obtain the needed imports. But these various stop-gap efforts have mainly marginal effects on the problem. Almost all people are forced into a lower standard of living as those in the middle class become increasingly careful about the foods they purchase, the near poor drop into poverty, and the formerly poor become truly destitute and suffer greatly. The effects have been felt around the world in all classes of society except the truly wealthy. As Josette Sheeran, the head of the UN’s World Food Program, said in February, “This is the new face of hunger….There is food on shelves but people are priced out of the market. There is vulnerability in urban areas we have not seen before. There are food riots in countries where we have not seen them before” (The Guardian, Feb. 26, 2008).

Although Haiti has been a very poor country for years—80 percent of the people try to subsist on less than what two dollars a day can purchase in the United States—the recent situation has brought it to new depths of desperation. Two cups of rice, which cost thirty cents a year ago, now cost sixty cents. The description of an Associated Press article from earlier this year (January 29, 2008) is most poignant in its details:

It was lunchtime in one of Haiti’s worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud. With food prices rising, Haiti’s poorest can’t afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies. Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country’s central plateau.

The “cookies” also contain some vegetable shortening and salt. Toward the end of the article is the following:

Marie Noel, 40, sells the cookies in a market to provide for her seven children. Her family also eats them.

“I’m hoping one day I’ll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these,” she said. “I know it’s not good for me.”

Many countries in Africa and Asia have been severely impacted by the crisis with hunger spreading widely—but all nations are affected to one extent or another. In the United States—where over the past year the price of eggs increased 38 percent, milk by 30 percent, lettuce by 16 percent, and whole wheat bread by 12 percent—many people are starting to purchase less costly products. “Higher Food Prices Start to Pinch Consumers” is the way the Wall Street Journal put it in a headline (January 3, 2008).

It should be noted here that while wheat prices are at record levels and prices of wheat products in the United States will certainly go higher, the cost of the wheat in a loaf of bread is only small part of the retail price. When wheat prices double, as they have, the price of a loaf of bread may increase by 10 percent, perhaps from $3 to $3.30. However, the effect of a doubling of prices for corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice is devastating for poor people in the third world who primarily purchase raw commodities.

With food pantries and soup kitchens stretched to the breaking point, the U.S. poor are experiencing deepening suffering. In general, the poor in the United States tend to first pay their rent, heat, gas (for a car to get to work), and electricity bills. That leaves food as one of the few “flexible” items in their budgets. In the central part of my home state of Vermont, over the last year the use of food shelves (i.e., aid from local, charitable food assistance programs that give groceries directly to the needy) has increased 133 percent among all users and 180 percent among the working poor! (Hal Cohen, with the Central Vermont Community Action Council, personal communication February 20, 2008.)

The economic recession is beginning to be felt in many parts of the United States, adding to the rise in requests for help from the various government food assistance programs (“As Jobs Vanish and Prices Rise, Food Stamp Use Nears Record,” New York Times, March 31, 2008). But, frequently people using the inadequately funded government programs tend to run out of food toward the end of the month, resulting in a huge increase in demand at food shelves and soup kitchens at that time. And as the need for food has increased, food donations have actually declined—with a large drop in federal donations (with high prices there are fewer “surplus” commodities from farm programs, so $58 million in food was given to food shelves last year versus $242 million five years before).

Supermarkets have found ways to make money from damaged or dated goods they previously donated to charities. In Connecticut, there has been a surge in demand for food while supply is not keeping up. A food pantry in Stamford is supplying food to four hundred families, double the number of a year ago. According to the food pantry’s director, “I have had to turn people away….There were times I went home and wanted to cry” (New York Times, December 23, 2007). A professor at Cornell University who studies food-assistance programs in the United States has summarized the situation: “There is a nascent crisis building….Demand for food-bank assistance is climbing rapidly when the resources are falling in dramatic terms because the dollars just don’t go as far” (Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2008).

The Long-Term Food Crisis

As critical as the short-term food crisis is—demanding immediate world notice as well as attention within every country—the long-term, structural crisis is even more important. The latter has existed for decades and contributes to, and is reinforced by, today’s acute food crisis. Indeed, it is this underlying structural crisis of agriculture and food in third world societies which constitutes the real reason that the immediate food crisis is so severe and so difficult to surmount within the system.

There has been a huge migration of people out of the countryside to the cities of the third world. They leave the countryside because they lack access to land. Often their land has been stolen as a result of the inroads of agribusiness, while they are also forced from the land by low prices they have historically received for their products and threats against campesino lives. They move to cities seeking a better life but what they find is a very hard existence—life in slums with extremely high unemployment and underemployment. Most will try to scrape by in the “informal” economy by buying things and then selling them in small quantities. Of the half of humanity that lives in cities (3 billion), some 1 billion, or one-third of city dwellers, live in slums. The chairman of a district in Lagos, Nigeria described it as follows: “We have a massive growth in population with a stagnant or shrinking economy. Picture this city ten, twenty years from now. This is not the urban poor—this is the new urban destitute.” A long New Yorker article on Lagos ended on a note of extreme pessimism: “The really disturbing thing about Lagos’ pickers and vendors is that their lives have essentially nothing to do with ours. They scavenge an existence beyond the margins of macroeconomics. They are, in the harsh terms of globalization, superfluous” (November 13, 2006).

One of the major factors pushing this mass and continuing migration to the cities—in addition to being landless or forced off land—is the difficulty to make a living as a small farmer. This has been made especially difficult, as countries have implemented the “neoliberal” policies recommended or mandated by the IMF, the World Bank, and even some of the western NGOs working in the poor countries of the third world. The neoliberal ideology holds that the so-called free market should be allowed to work its magic. Through the benign sanctions of the “invisible hand,” it is said, the economy will function most efficiently and will be highly productive. But in order for the market to be “free” governments must stop interfering.

With regard to agriculture, governments should stop subsidizing farmers to purchase fertilizers, stop being involved in the storage and transportation of food, and just let farmers and food alone. This approach also holds that governments should stop subsidizing food for poor people and then the newly unbridled market will take care of it all. This mentality was evident as the Haitian food crisis started to develop late in 2007. According to the Haitian Minister of Commerce and Industry, “We cannot intervene and fix prices because we have to comply with free market regulations” (Reuters, December 9, 2007). This was the same response that colonial Britain adopted in response to the Irish potato famine as well as to the famines in India in the late 1800s. But to a certain extent this way of thinking is now internalized in the thinking of many leaders in the “independent” countries of the periphery.

This ideology, of course, has no basis in reality—the so-called free market is not necessarily efficient at all. It is also absolutely unable to act as a mechanism to end poverty and hunger. We should always keep in mind that this ideology represents the exact opposite of what the core capitalist countries have historically done and what they are actually doing today. For example, the U.S. national government has supported farmers in many ways for over a century. This has occurred through government programs for research and extension, taking land from Indians and giving it to farmers of European origin, subsidizing farmers directly through a variety of programs including low-cost loans, and stimulating the export of crops. It should also be noted that the United States, Europe, and Japan all developed their industrial economies under protectionist policies plus a variety of programs of direct assistance to industry.

The effects of the governments of the third world stopping their support of small farmers and consumers has meant that the life for the poor in those countries has become more difficult. As an independent report commissioned by World Bank put it: “In most reforming countries, the private sector did not step in to fill the vacuum when the public sector withdrew” (New York Times, October 15, 2007). For example, many African governments under pressure from the neoliberal economic policies promoted by the World Bank, the IMF, and the rich countries of the center of the system stopped subsidizing the use of fertilizers on crops. Although it is true that imported fertilizers are very expensive, African soils are generally of very low fertility and crop yields are low when you use neither synthetic nor organic fertilizers. As yields fell after governments were no longer assisting the purchase of fertilizers and helping in other ways, more farmers found that they could not survive and migrated to the city slums. Jeffrey Sachs—a partially recovered free-trade shock doctor—has had some second thoughts. According to Sachs, “The whole thing was based on the idea that if you take away the government for the poorest of the poor that somehow these markets will solve the problems….But markets can’t step in and won’t step in when people have nothing. And if you take away help, you leave them to die” (New York Times, October 15, 2007).

Last year one country in Africa, Malawi, decided to reverse course and go against all the recommendations they had received. The government reintroduced subsidies for fertilizers and seeds. Farmers used more fertilizers, the yields increased, and the country’s food situation improved greatly (New York Times, December 2, 2007). In fact, they were able to export some food to Zimbabwe—although there are those in Malawi, who consider that to have lowered their own supplies too far.

Another problem occurs as capitalist farmers in some of the poor countries of the periphery enter into world markets. While subsistence farmers usually sell only a small portion of their crops, using most for family consumption, capitalist farmers are those that market all or a large portion of what they produce. They frequently expand production and take over the land of small farmers, with or without compensation, and use fewer people than previously to work a given piece of land because of mechanized production techniques. In Brazil, the “Soybean King” controls well over a quarter of a million acres (100,000 hectares) and uses huge tractors and harvesting equipment for working the land. In China corrupt village and city officials frequently sell “common land” to developers without adequate compensation to the farmers—sometimes there is no compensation at all.

Thus, the harsh conditions for farmers caused by a number of factors, made worse by the implementing of free-market ideology, have created a continuing stream of people leaving the countryside and going to live in cities that do not have jobs for them. And those now living in slums and without access to land to grow their own food are at the mercy of the world price for food.

One of the reasons for the growing consolidation of land holdings and forcing out of subsistence farmers is the penetration of multinational agricultural corporations into the countries of the periphery. From selling seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides to processing raw agricultural products to exporting or selling them through new, large supermarkets, agribusiness multinationals are having a devastating effect on small farmers. With the collapse of extension systems for helping farmers save seeds and with the disbanding of government seed companies the way was paved for multinational seed companies to make major inroads.

The giant transnational corporations such as Cargill and Monsanto now reach into most of the third world—selling seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and feeds while buying and processing raw agricultural products. In the process they assist larger farms to become “more efficient” —to grow over larger land areas. The main advantage of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds is that they help to simplify the process of farming and allow large acreages to be under the management of a single entity—a large farmer or corporation—squeezing out small farmers.

The negative effects of the penetration of large supermarket chains are being felt as well. As a 2004 headline in the New York Times put it “Supermarket Giants Crush Central American Farmers” (December 28, 2004). Large supermarkets would rather deal with a few farmers growing on a large scale than with many small farmers. And the opening of large supermarkets does away with the traditional markets used by small farmers.

The Prolonged Crisis Is Intensifying

It seems logical that with higher food prices, farmers should be better off and produce more to satisfy the “demand” indicated by the market. To a certain extent that is true—especially for farmers that can take advantage of all the physical and monetary advantages of large-scale production. Yet, the input costs for just about everything used in agricultural production have also increased, thus profit gains for farmers are not as large as might be expected. This is a particularly difficult problem for farmers raising animals fed on increasingly expensive grains.

In addition, things are not necessarily going well for small and subsistence farmers. Many are stuck in debt so deep that it’s hard for them to get back on their feet. An estimated 25,000 Indian farmers committed suicide last year because they could see no other way out of their predicament. (The Indian government has proposed a budget that includes loan wavers for small farmers that have borrowed through banks. However, if it actually goes into effect, the millions that have borrowed from local usurers will not benefit.) The consolidation of land holdings and the removal of small farmers and landless workers from the land has been exacerbated by the exceptional crop price increases over the last few years.

Rising crop prices cause the price of farmland to increase—especially of large fields that can be worked by large-scale machinery. This is happening in the United States and in certain countries of the periphery. For example, Global Ag Investments, a company based in Texas, owns and operates 34,000 acres of Brazilian farmland. At one of its farms, a single field of soybeans covers 1,600 acres—that’s two and a half square miles! A New Zealand company has purchased approximately 100,000 acres in Uruguay and has hired managers to operate dairy farms established on their land.

Private equity firms are purchasing farmland in the United States (Associated Press, May 7, 2007) as well as abroad. A U.S. company is cooperating with Brazilian and Japanese partners to purchase 385 square miles in Brazil, approximately a quarter of a million acres! This is also happening with South American capital taking the lead—a Brazilian investment fund, Investimento em Participacoe, is buying a minority stake in a an Argentine soybean producer that owns close to 400,000 acres in Uruguay and Argentina.

Rising crop prices have also led to an acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon basin—1,250 square miles (about the size of Rhode Island) in the last five months of 2007—as capitalist farmers hunger for more land (BBC, January 24, 2008). In addition, huge areas of farmland have been taken for development—some of dubious use, such as building suburban style housing and golf courses for the wealthy.

In China during 2000 to 2005, there was an average annual loss of 2.6 million acres as farmland is used for development. The country is fast approaching the self-defined minimum amount of arable farmland that it should have—approximately 290 million acres (120 million hectares)—and the amount of farmland will most likely continue to fall. As part of an effort to gain access to foreign agricultural production, a Chinese company has made an agreement to lease close to 2.5 million acres of land in the Philippines to grow rice, corn, and sugar—setting off a huge protest in the Philippines that has temporarily stalled the project (Bloomberg, February 21, 2008). As one farmer put it: “The [Philippine] government and the Chinese call it a partnership, but it only means the Chinese will be our landlords and we will be the slaves.’’

Ending World Hunger

Ending world hunger is conceptually quite simple. However, actually putting it into practice is far from simple. First, the access to a healthy and varied diet needs to be recognized for the basic human right that it clearly is. Governments must commit to ending hunger among their people and they must take forceful action to carry out this commitment. In many countries, even at this time, there is sufficient food produced to feed the entire population at a high level of nutrition. This is, of course, most evident in the United States, where so much food is produced. It is nothing less than a crime that so many of the poor in the United States are hungry, malnourished, or don’t know where their next meal will come from (which itself takes a psychological toll) when there is actually plenty of food.

In the short run, the emergency situation of increasingly severe hunger and malnutrition needs be addressed with all resources at a country’s disposal. Although mass bulk distribution of grains or powdered milk can play a role, countries might consider the Venezuelan innovation of setting up feeding houses in all poor neighborhoods. When the people believe that the government is really trying to help them, and they are empowered to find or assist in a solution to their own problems, a burst of enthusiasm and volunteerism results. For example, although the food in Venezuela’s feeding program is supplied by the government, the meals for poor children, the elderly, and the infirm are prepared in, and distributed from, peoples’ homes using considerable amounts of volunteer labor. In addition, Venezuela has developed a network of stores that sell basic foodstuffs at significant discounts over prices charged in private markets.

Brazil started a program in 2003 that is aimed at alleviating the conditions of the poorest people. Approximately one-quarter of Brazil’s population receive direct payments from the national government under the Bolsa Família (Family Fund) antipoverty program. Under this program a family with a per capita daily income below approximately $2 per person per day receives a benefit of up to $53 per month per person (The Economist, February 7, 2008). This infusion of cash is dependent on the family’s children attending school and participating in the national vaccination program. This program is certainly having a positive effect on peoples’ lives and nutrition. It is, however, a system that does not have the same effect as Venezuela’s programs, which mobilize people to work together for their own and their community’s benefit.

Urban gardens have been used successfully in Cuba as well as other countries to supply city dwellers with food as well as sources of income. These should be strongly promoted—with creative use of available space in urban settings.

Agriculture must become one of the top priorities for the third world. Even the World Bank is beginning to stress the importance of governments assisting agriculture in their countries. As Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank, has stated,

Today the attention of the world’s policy makers is focused on the sub-prime woes, and the financial crises. But the real crisis is that of hunger and malnutrition…this is the real problem that should grab the world’s attention. We know that 75 percent of the world’s poor people are rural and most of them depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Agriculture is today, more than ever, a fundamental instrument for fighting hunger, malnutrition, and for supporting sustainable development and poverty reduction.
(All-Africa Global Media, February 19, 2008)

Almost every country in the world has the soil, water, and climate resources to grow enough food so that all their people can eat a healthy diet. In addition, the knowledge and crop varieties already exist in most countries so that if farmers are given adequate assistance they will be able to grow reasonably high yields of crops.

Although enhanced agricultural production is essential, much of the emphasis in the past has been on production of export crops. While this may help a country’s balance of payments, export oriented agriculture does not ensure sufficient food for everyone nor does it promote a healthy rural environment. In addition to basic commodities such as soybeans, export-oriented agriculture also leads naturally to the production of high-value luxury crops demanded by export markets (luxuries from the standpoint of the basic food needs of a poor third world country), rather than the low-value subsistence crops needed to meet the needs of the domestic population. Production of sufficient amounts of the right kinds of food within each country’s borders—by small farmers working in cooperatives or on their own and using sustainable techniques—is the best way to achieve the goal of “food security.” In this way the population may be insulated, at least partially, from the price fluctuations on the world market. This, of course, also means not taking land out of food production to produce crops for the biofuel markets.

One of the ways to do this and at the same time help with the problem of so many people crowded into urban slums—the people most susceptible to food price increases—is to provide land through meaningful agrarian reforms. But land itself is not enough. Beginning or returning farmers need technical and financial support in order to produce food. Additionally, social support systems, such as cooperatives and community councils, need to be developed to help promote camaraderie and to solidify the new communities that are developed. Perhaps each community needs to be “seeded” with a sprinkling of devoted activists. Also, housing, electricity, water, and wastewater need to be available to make it attractive for people living in the cities to move to the countryside. Another way to encourage people to move to the country to become farmers is to appeal to patriotism and instill the idea that they are real pioneers, establishing a new food system to help their countries gain food self-sufficiency, i.e., independence from transnational agribusiness corporations and provision of healthy food for all the nation’s people. These pioneering farmers need to be viewed by themselves, the rest of the society, and their government as critical to the future of their countries and the well-being of the population. They must be treated with the great respect that they deserve.


Food is a human right and governments have a responsibility to see that their people are well fed. In addition, there are known ways to end hunger—including emergency measures to combat the current critical situation, urban gardens, agrarian reforms that include a whole support system for farmers, and sustainable agriculture techniques that enhance the environment. The present availability of food to people reflects very unequal economic and political power relationships within and between countries. A sustainable and secure food system requires a different and much more equitable relationship among people. The more the poor and farmers themselves are included in all aspects of the effort to gain food security, and the more they are energized in the process, the greater will be the chance of attaining lasting food security. As President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a country that has done so much to deal with poverty and hunger, has put it,

Yes, it is important to end poverty, to end misery, but the most important thing is to offer power to the poor so that they can fight for themselves.

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Manufacturing a Food Crisis

By Walden Bello, The Nation

When tens of thousands of people staged demonstrations in Mexico last year to protest a 60 percent increase in the price of tortillas, many analysts pointed to biofuel as the culprit. Because of US government subsidies, American farmers were devoting more and more acreage to corn for ethanol than for food, which sparked a steep rise in corn prices. The diversion of corn from tortillas to biofuel was certainly one cause of skyrocketing prices, though speculation on biofuel demand by transnational middlemen may have played a bigger role. However, an intriguing question escaped many observers: how on earth did Mexicans, who live in the land where corn was domesticated, become dependent on US imports in the first place?

The Mexican food crisis cannot be fully understood without taking into account the fact that in the years preceding the tortilla crisis, the homeland of corn had been converted to a corn-importing economy by “free market” policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and Washington. The process began with the early 1980s debt crisis. One of the two largest developing-country debtors, Mexico was forced to beg for money from the Bank and IMF to service its debt to international commercial banks. The quid pro quo for a multibillion-dollar bailout was what a member of the World Bank executive board described as “unprecedented thoroughgoing interventionism” designed to eliminate high tariffs, state regulations and government support institutions, which neoliberal doctrine identified as barriers to economic efficiency.

Interest payments rose from 19 percent of total government expenditures in 1982 to 57 percent in 1988, while capital expenditures dropped from an already low 19.3 percent to 4.4 percent. The contraction of government spending translated into the dismantling of state credit, government-subsidized agricultural inputs, price supports, state marketing boards and extension services. Unilateral liberalization of agricultural trade pushed by the IMF and World Bank also contributed to the destabilization of peasant producers.

This blow to peasant agriculture was followed by an even larger one in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Although NAFTA had a fifteen-year phaseout of tariff protection for agricultural products, including corn, highly subsidized US corn quickly flooded in, reducing prices by half and plunging the corn sector into chronic crisis. Largely as a result of this agreement, Mexico’s status as a net food importer has now been firmly established.

With the shutting down of the state marketing agency for corn, distribution of US corn imports and Mexican grain has come to be monopolized by a few transnational traders, like US-owned Cargill and partly US-owned Maseca, operating on both sides of the border. This has given them tremendous power to speculate on trade trends, so that movements in biofuel demand can be manipulated and magnified many times over. At the same time, monopoly control of domestic trade has ensured that a rise in international corn prices does not translate into significantly higher prices paid to small producers.

It has become increasingly difficult for Mexican corn farmers to avoid the fate of many of their fellow corn cultivators and other smallholders in sectors such as rice, beef, poultry and pork, who have gone under because of the advantages conferred by NAFTA on subsidized US producers. According to a 2003 Carnegie Endowment report, imports of US agricultural products threw at least 1.3 million farmers out of work–many of whom have since found their way to the United States.

Prospects are not good, since the Mexican government continues to be controlled by neoliberals who are systematically dismantling the peasant support system, a key legacy of the Mexican Revolution. As Food First executive director Eric Holt-Giménez sees it, “It will take time and effort to recover smallholder capacity, and there does not appear to be any political will for this–to say nothing of the fact that NAFTA would have to be renegotiated.”

Creating a Rice Crisis in the Philippines

That the global food crisis stems mainly from free-market restructuring of agriculture is clearer in the case of rice. Unlike corn, less than 10 percent of world rice production is traded. Moreover, there has been no diversion of rice from food consumption to biofuels. Yet this year alone, prices nearly tripled, from $380 a ton in January to more than $1,000 in April. Undoubtedly the inflation stems partly from speculation by wholesaler cartels at a time of tightening supplies. However, as with Mexico and corn, the big puzzle is why a number of formerly self-sufficient rice-consuming countries have become severely dependent on imports.

The Philippines provides a grim example of how neoliberal economic restructuring transforms a country from a net food exporter to a net food importer. The Philippines is the world’s largest importer of rice. Manila’s desperate effort to secure supplies at any price has become front-page news, and pictures of soldiers providing security for rice distribution in poor communities have become emblematic of the global crisis.

The broad contours of the Philippines story are similar to those of Mexico. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos was guilty of many crimes and misdeeds, including failure to follow through on land reform, but one thing he cannot be accused of is starving the agricultural sector. To head off peasant discontent, the regime provided farmers with subsidized fertilizer and seeds, launched credit plans and built rural infrastructure. When Marcos fled the country in 1986, there were 900,000 metric tons of rice in government warehouses.

Paradoxically, the next few years under the new democratic dispensation saw the gutting of government investment capacity. As in Mexico the World Bank and IMF, working on behalf of international creditors, pressured the Corazon Aquino administration to make repayment of the $26 billion foreign debt a priority. Aquino acquiesced, though she was warned by the country’s top economists that the “search for a recovery program that is consistent with a debt repayment schedule determined by our creditors is a futile one.” Between 1986 and 1993 8 percent to 10 percent of GDP left the Philippines yearly in debt-service payments–roughly the same proportion as in Mexico. Interest payments as a percentage of expenditures rose from 7 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 1994; capital expenditures plunged from 26 percent to 16 percent. In short, debt servicing became the national budgetary priority.

Spending on agriculture fell by more than half. The World Bank and its local acolytes were not worried, however, since one purpose of the belt-tightening was to get the private sector to energize the countryside. But agricultural capacity quickly eroded. Irrigation stagnated, and by the end of the 1990s only 17 percent of the Philippines’ road network was paved, compared with 82 percent in Thailand and 75 percent in Malaysia. Crop yields were generally anemic, with the average rice yield way below those in China, Vietnam and Thailand, where governments actively promoted rural production. The post-Marcos agrarian reform program shriveled, deprived of funding for support services, which had been the key to successful reforms in Taiwan and South Korea. As in Mexico Filipino peasants were confronted with full-scale retreat of the state as provider of comprehensive support–a role they had come to depend on.

And the cutback in agricultural programs was followed by trade liberalization, with the Philippines’ 1995 entry into the World Trade Organization having the same effect as Mexico’s joining NAFTA. WTO membership required the Philippines to eliminate quotas on all agricultural imports except rice and allow a certain amount of each commodity to enter at low tariff rates. While the country was allowed to maintain a quota on rice imports, it nevertheless had to admit the equivalent of 1 to 4 percent of domestic consumption over the next ten years. In fact, because of gravely weakened production resulting from lack of state support, the government imported much more than that to make up for shortfalls. The massive imports depressed the price of rice, discouraging farmers and keeping growth in production at a rate far below that of the country’s two top suppliers, Thailand and Vietnam.

The consequences of the Philippines’ joining the WTO barreled through the rest of its agriculture like a super-typhoon. Swamped by cheap corn imports–much of it subsidized US grain–farmers reduced land devoted to corn from 3.1 million hectares in 1993 to 2.5 million in 2000. Massive importation of chicken parts nearly killed that industry, while surges in imports destabilized the poultry, hog and vegetable industries.

During the 1994 campaign to ratify WTO membership, government economists, coached by their World Bank handlers, promised that losses in corn and other traditional crops would be more than compensated for by the new export industry of “high-value-added” crops like cut flowers, asparagus and broccoli. Little of this materialized. Nor did many of the 500,000 agricultural jobs that were supposed to be created yearly by the magic of the market; instead, agricultural employment dropped from 11.2 million in 1994 to 10.8 million in 2001.

The one-two punch of IMF-imposed adjustment and WTO-imposed trade liberalization swiftly transformed a largely self-sufficient agricultural economy into an import-dependent one as it steadily marginalized farmers. It was a wrenching process, the pain of which was captured by a Filipino government negotiator during a WTO session in Geneva. “Our small producers,” he said, “are being slaughtered by the gross unfairness of the international trading environment.”

The Great Transformation

The experience of Mexico and the Philippines was paralleled in one country after another subjected to the ministrations of the IMF and the WTO. A study of fourteen countries by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization found that the levels of food imports in 1995-98 exceeded those in 1990-94. This was not surprising, since one of the main goals of the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture was to open up markets in developing countries so they could absorb surplus production in the North. As then-US Agriculture Secretary John Block put it in 1986, “The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on US agricultural products, which are available in most cases at lower cost.”

What Block did not say was that the lower cost of US products stemmed from subsidies, which became more massive with each passing year despite the fact that the WTO was supposed to phase them out. From $367 billion in 1995, the total amount of agricultural subsidies provided by developed-country governments rose to $388 billion in 2004. Since the late 1990s subsidies have accounted for 40 percent of the value of agricultural production in the European Union and 25 percent in the United States.

The apostles of the free market and the defenders of dumping may seem to be at different ends of the spectrum, but the policies they advocate are bringing about the same result: a globalized capitalist industrial agriculture. Developing countries are being integrated into a system where export-oriented production of meat and grain is dominated by large industrial farms like those run by the Thai multinational CP and where technology is continually upgraded by advances in genetic engineering from firms like Monsanto. And the elimination of tariff and nontariff barriers is facilitating a global agricultural supermarket of elite and middle-class consumers serviced by grain-trading corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland and transnational food retailers like the British-owned Tesco and the French-owned Carrefour.

There is little room for the hundreds of millions of rural and urban poor in this integrated global market. They are confined to giant suburban favelas, where they contend with food prices that are often much higher than the supermarket prices, or to rural reservations, where they are trapped in marginal agricultural activities and increasingly vulnerable to hunger. Indeed, within the same country, famine in the marginalized sector sometimes coexists with prosperity in the globalized sector.

This is not simply the erosion of national food self-sufficiency or food security but what Africanist Deborah Bryceson of Oxford calls “de-peasantization”–the phasing out of a mode of production to make the countryside a more congenial site for intensive capital accumulation. This transformation is a traumatic one for hundreds of millions of people, since peasant production is not simply an economic activity. It is an ancient way of life, a culture, which is one reason displaced or marginalized peasants in India have taken to committing suicide. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, farmer suicides rose from 233 in 1998 to 2,600 in 2002; in Maharashtra, suicides more than tripled, from 1,083 in 1995 to 3,926 in 2005. One estimate is that some 150,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives. Collapse of prices from trade liberalization and loss of control over seeds to biotech firms is part of a comprehensive problem, says global justice activist Vandana Shiva: “Under globalization, the farmer is losing her/his social, cultural, economic identity as a producer. A farmer is now a ‘consumer’ of costly seeds and costly chemicals sold by powerful global corporations through powerful landlords and money lenders locally.”

African Agriculture: From Compliance to Defiance

De-peasantization is at an advanced state in Latin America and Asia. And if the World Bank has its way, Africa will travel in the same direction. As Bryceson and her colleagues correctly point out in a recent article, the World Development Report for 2008, which touches extensively on agriculture in Africa, is practically a blueprint for the transformation of the continent’s peasant-based agriculture into large-scale commercial farming. However, as in many other places today, the Bank’s wards are moving from sullen resentment to outright defiance.

At the time of decolonization, in the 1960s, Africa was actually a net food exporter. Today the continent imports 25 percent of its food; almost every country is a net importer. Hunger and famine have become recurrent phenomena, with the past three years alone seeing food emergencies break out in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and Southern and Central Africa.

Agriculture in Africa is in deep crisis, and the causes range from wars to bad governance, lack of agricultural technology and the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, as in Mexico and the Philippines, an important part of the explanation is the phasing out of government controls and support mechanisms under the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs imposed as the price for assistance in servicing external debt.

Structural adjustment brought about declining investment, increased unemployment, reduced social spending, reduced consumption and low output. Lifting price controls on fertilizers while simultaneously cutting back on agricultural credit systems simply led to reduced fertilizer use, lower yields and lower investment. Moreover, reality refused to conform to the doctrinal expectation that withdrawal of the state would pave the way for the market to dynamize agriculture. Instead, the private sector, which correctly saw reduced state expenditures as creating more risk, failed to step into the breach. In country after country, the departure of the state “crowded out” rather than “crowded in” private investment. Where private traders did replace the state, noted an Oxfam report, “they have sometimes done so on highly unfavorable terms for poor farmers,” leaving “farmers more food insecure, and governments reliant on unpredictable international aid flows.” The usually pro-private sector Economist agreed, admitting that “many of the private firms brought in to replace state researchers turned out to be rent-seeking monopolists.”

The support that African governments were allowed to muster was channeled by the World Bank toward export agriculture to generate foreign exchange, which states needed to service debt. But, as in Ethiopia during the 1980s famine, this led to the dedication of good land to export crops, with food crops forced into less suitable soil, thus exacerbating food insecurity. Moreover, the World Bank’s encouragement of several economies to focus on the same export crops often led to overproduction, triggering price collapses in international markets. For instance, the very success of Ghana’s expansion of cocoa production triggered a 48 percent drop in the international price between 1986 and 1989. In 2002-03 a collapse in coffee prices contributed to another food emergency in Ethiopia.

As in Mexico and the Philippines, structural adjustment in Africa was not simply about underinvestment but state divestment. But there was one major difference. In Africa the World Bank and IMF micromanaged, making decisions on how fast subsidies should be phased out, how many civil servants had to be fired and even, as in the case of Malawi, how much of the country’s grain reserve should be sold and to whom.

Compounding the negative impact of adjustment were unfair EU and US trade practices. Liberalization allowed subsidized EU beef to drive many West African and South African cattle raisers to ruin. With their subsidies legitimized by the WTO, US growers offloaded cotton on world markets at 20 percent to 55 percent of production cost, thereby bankrupting West and Central African farmers.

According to Oxfam, the number of sub-Saharan Africans living on less than a dollar a day almost doubled, to 313 million, between 1981 and 2001–46 percent of the whole continent. The role of structural adjustment in creating poverty was hard to deny. As the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa admitted, “We did not think that the human costs of these programs could be so great, and the economic gains would be so slow in coming.”

In 1999 the government of Malawi initiated a program to give each smallholder family a starter pack of free fertilizers and seeds. The result was a national surplus of corn. What came after is a story that should be enshrined as a classic case study of one of the greatest blunders of neoliberal economics. The World Bank and other aid donors forced the scaling down and eventual scrapping of the program, arguing that the subsidy distorted trade. Without the free packs, output plummeted. In the meantime, the IMF insisted that the government sell off a large portion of its grain reserves to enable the food reserve agency to settle its commercial debts. The government complied. When the food crisis turned into a famine in 2001-02, there were hardly any reserves left. About 1,500 people perished. The IMF was unrepentant; in fact, it suspended its disbursements on an adjustment program on the grounds that “the parastatal sector will continue to pose risks to the successful implementation of the 2002/03 budget. Government interventions in the food and other agricultural markets… [are] crowding out more productive spending.”

By the time an even worse food crisis developed in 2005, the government had had enough of World Bank/IMF stupidity. A new president reintroduced the fertilizer subsidy, enabling 2 million households to buy it at a third of the retail price and seeds at a discount. The result: bumper harvests for two years, a million-ton maize surplus and the country transformed into a supplier of corn to Southern Africa.

Malawi’s defiance of the World Bank would probably have been an act of heroic but futile resistance a decade ago. The environment is different today, since structural adjustment has been discredited throughout Africa. Even some donor governments and NGOs that used to subscribe to it have distanced themselves from the Bank. Perhaps the motivation is to prevent their influence in the continent from being further eroded by association with a failed approach and unpopular institutions when Chinese aid is emerging as an alternative to World Bank, IMF and Western government aid programs.

Food Sovereignty: An Alternative Paradigm?

It is not only defiance from governments like Malawi and dissent from their erstwhile allies that are undermining the IMF and the World Bank. Peasant organizations around the world have become increasingly militant in their resistance to the globalization of industrial agriculture. Indeed, it is because of pressure from farmers’ groups that the governments of the South have refused to grant wider access to their agricultural markets and demanded a massive slashing of US and EU agricultural subsidies, which brought the WTO’s Doha Round of negotiations to a standstill.

Farmers’ groups have networked internationally; one of the most dynamic to emerge is Via Campesina (Peasant’s Path). Via not only seeks to get “WTO out of agriculture” and opposes the paradigm of a globalized capitalist industrial agriculture; it also proposes an alternative–food sovereignty. Food sovereignty means, first of all, the right of a country to determine its production and consumption of food and the exemption of agriculture from global trade regimes like that of the WTO. It also means consolidation of a smallholder-centered agriculture via protection of the domestic market from low-priced imports; remunerative prices for farmers and fisherfolk; abolition of all direct and indirect export subsidies; and the phasing out of domestic subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture. Via’s platform also calls for an end to the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights regime, or TRIPs, which allows corporations to patent plant seeds; opposes agro-technology based on genetic engineering; and demands land reform. In contrast to an integrated global monoculture, Via offers the vision of an international agricultural economy composed of diverse national agricultural economies trading with one another but focused primarily on domestic production.

Once regarded as relics of the pre-industrial era, peasants are now leading the opposition to a capitalist industrial agriculture that would consign them to the dustbin of history. They have become what Karl Marx described as a politically conscious “class for itself,” contradicting his predictions about their demise. With the global food crisis, they are moving to center stage–and they have allies and supporters. For as peasants refuse to go gently into that good night and fight de-peasantization, developments in the twenty-first century are revealing the panacea of globalized capitalist industrial agriculture to be a nightmare. With environmental crises multiplying, the social dysfunctions of urban-industrial life piling up and industrialized agriculture creating greater food insecurity, the farmers’ movement increasingly has relevance not only to peasants but to everyone threatened by the catastrophic consequences of global capital’s vision for organizing production, community and life itself.

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Global food crisis: ‘The greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model’ – Part 1

By Ian Angus, Socialist Voice

If the government cannot lower the cost of living it simply has to leave. If the police and UN troops want to shoot at us, that’s OK, because in the end, if we are not killed by bullets, we’ll die of hunger.” — A demonstrator in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

April 28, 2008 — In Haiti, where most people get 22% fewer calories than the minimum needed for good health, some are staving off their hunger pangs by eating “mud biscuits” made by mixing clay and water with a bit of vegetable oil and salt.[1]

Meanwhile, in Canada, the federal government is currently paying $225 for each pig killed in a mass cull of breeding swine, as part of a plan to reduce hog production. Hog farmers, squeezed by low hog prices and high feed costs, have responded so enthusiastically that the kill will likely use up all the allocated funds before the program ends in September. Some of the slaughtered hogs may be given to local Food Banks, but most will be destroyed or made into pet food. None will go to Haiti.

This is the brutal world of capitalist agriculture — a world where some people destroy food because prices are too low, and others literally eat dirt because food prices are too high.

Record prices for staple foods

We are in the midst of an unprecedented worldwide food price inflation that has driven prices to their highest levels in decades. The increases affect most kinds of food, but in particular the most important staples — wheat, corn, and rice.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that between March 2007 and March 2008 prices of cereals increased 88%, oils and fats 106%, and dairy 48%. The FAO food price index as a whole rose 57% in one year — and most of the increase occurred in the past few months.

Another source, the World Bank, says that that in the 36 months ending February 2008, global wheat prices rose 181% and overall global food prices increased by 83%. The bank expects most food prices to remain well above 2004 levels until at least 2015.

The most popular grade of Thailand rice sold for $198 a tonne five years ago and $323 a tonne a year ago. On April 24, the price hit $1000.

Increases are even greater on local markets — in Haiti, the market price of a 50 kilo bag of rice doubled in one week at the end of March.

These increases are catastrophic for the 2.6 billion people around the world who live on less than US$2 a day and spend 60% to 80% of their incomes on food. Hundreds of millions cannot afford to eat.

This month, the hungry fought back.

Taking to the streets

In Haiti, on April 3, demonstrators in the southern city of Les Cayes built barricades, stopped trucks carrying rice and distributed the food, and tried to burn a United Nations compound. The protests quickly spread to the capital, Port-au-Prince, where thousands marched on the presidential palace, chanting “We are hungry!” Many called for the withdrawal of UN troops and the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled president whose government was overthrown by foreign powers in 2004.

President René Préval, who initially said nothing could be done, has announced a 16% cut in the wholesale price of rice. This is at best a stop-gap measure, since the reduction is for one month only, and retailers are not obligated to cut their prices.

The actions in Haiti paralleled similar protests by hungry people in more than 20 other countries.

In Burkino Faso, a two-day general strike by unions and shopkeepers demanded “significant and effective” reductions in the price of rice and other staple foods.

In Bangladesh, more than 20,000 workers from textile factories in Fatullah went on strike to demand lower prices and higher wages. They hurled bricks and stones at police, who fired tear gas into the crowd.

The Egyptian government sent thousands of troops into the Mahalla textile complex in the Nile Delta, to prevent a general strike demanding higher wages, an independent union, and lower prices. Two people were killed and more than 600 have been jailed.

In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, police used tear gas against women who had set up barricades, burned tires and closed major roads. Thousands marched to the President’s home, chanting “We are hungry,” and “Life is too expensive, you are killing us.”

In Pakistan and Thailand, armed soldiers have been deployed to prevent the poor from seizing food from fields and warehouses.

Similar protests have taken place in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Peru, Philippines, Senegal, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Zambia. On April 2, the president of the World Bank told a meeting in Washington that there are 33 countries where price hikes could cause social unrest.

A senior editor of Time magazine warned:

The idea of the starving masses driven by their desperation to take to the streets and overthrow the ancien regime has seemed impossibly quaint since capitalism triumphed so decisively in the Cold War…. And yet, the headlines of the past month suggest that skyrocketing food prices are threatening the stability of a growing number of governments around the world. …. when circumstances render it impossible to feed their hungry children, normally passive citizens can very quickly become militants with nothing to lose.”[2]

What’s driving food inflation?

Since the 1970s, food production has become increasingly globalised and concentrated. A handful of countries dominate the global trade in staple foods. Eighy per cent of wheat exports come from six exporters, as does 85% of rice. Three countries produce 70% of exported corn. This leaves the world’s poorest countries, the ones that must import food to survive, at the mercy of economic trends and policies in those few exporting companies. When the global food trade system stops delivering, it’s the poor who pay the price.

For several years, the global trade in staple foods has been heading towards a crisis. Four related trends have slowed production growth and pushed prices up.

The end of the `green revolution’: In the 1960s and 1970s, in an effort to counter peasant discontent in south and southeast Asia, the U.S. poured money and technical support into agricultural development in India and other countries. The “green revolution” — new seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, agricultural techniques and infrastructure — led to spectacular increases in food production, particularly rice. Yield per hectare continued expanding until the 1990s.

Today, it’s not fashionable for governments to help poor people grow food for other poor people, because “the market” is supposed to take care of all problems. The Economist reports that “spending on farming as a share of total public spending in developing countries fell by half between 1980 and 2004.”[3] Subsidies and R&D money have dried up, and production growth has stalled.

As a result, in seven of the past eight years the world consumed more grain than it produced, which means that rice was being removed from the inventories that governments and dealers normally hold as insurance against bad harvests. World grain stocks are now at their lowest point ever, leaving very little cushion for bad times.

Climate change: Scientists say that climate change could cut food production in parts of the world by 50% in the next 12 years. But that isn’t just a matter for the future:

Australia is normally the world’s second-largest exporter of grain, but a savage multi-year drought has reduced the wheat crop by 60% and rice production has been completely wiped out.

In Bangladesh in November, one of the strongest cyclones in decades wiped out a million tonnes of rice and severely damaged the wheat crop, making the huge country even more dependent on imported food.

Other examples abound. It’s clear that the global climate crisis is already here, and it is affecting food.

Agrofuels: It is now official policy in the US, Canada and Europe to convert food into fuel. US vehicles burn enough corn to cover the entire import needs of the poorest 82 countries.[4]

Ethanol and biodiesel are very heavily subsidised, which means, inevitably, that crops like corn (maize) are being diverted out of the food chain and into gas tanks, and that new agricultural investment worldwide is being directed towards palm, soy, canola and other oil-producing plants. The demand for agrofuels increases the prices of those crops directly, and indirectly boosts the price of other grains by encouraging growers to switch to agrofuel.

As Canadian hog producers have found, it also drives up the cost of producing meat, since corn is the main ingredient in North American animal feed.

Oil prices: The price of food is linked to the price of oil because food can be made into a substitute for oil. But rising oil prices also affect the cost of producing food. Fertiliser and pesticides are made from petroleum and natural gas. Gas and diesel fuel are used in planting, harvesting and shipping.[5]

It’s been estimated that 80% of the costs of growing corn are fossil fuel costs — so it is no accident that food prices rise when oil prices rise.

By the end of 2007, reduced investment in third world agriculture, rising oil prices, and climate change meant that production growth was slowing and prices were rising. Good harvests and strong export growth might have staved off a crisis — but that isn’t what happened. The trigger was rice, the staple food of three billion people.

Early this year, India announced that it was suspending most rice exports in order to rebuild its reserves. A few weeks later, Vietnam, whose rice crop was hit by a major insect infestation during the harvest, announced a four-month suspension of exports to ensure that enough would be available for its domestic market.

India and Vietnam together normally account for 30% of all rice exports, so their announcements were enough to push the already tight global rice market over the edge. Rice buyers immediately started buying up available stocks, hoarding whatever rice they could get in the expectation of future price increases, and bidding up the price for future crops. Prices soared. By mid-April, news reports described “panic buying” of rice futures on the Chicago Board of Trade, and there were rice shortages even on supermarket shelves in Canada and the US.

Why the rebellion?

There have been food price spikes before. Indeed, if we take inflation into account, global prices for staple foods were higher in the 1970s than they are today. So why has this inflationary explosion provoked mass protests around the world?

The answer is that since the 1970s the richest countries in the world, aided by the international agencies they control, have systematically undermined the poorest countries’ ability to feed their populations and protect themselves in a crisis like this.

Haiti is a powerful and appalling example.

Rice has been grown in Haiti for centuries, and until 20 years ago Haitian farmers produced about 170,000 tonnes of rice a year, enough to cover 95% of domestic consumption. Rice farmers received no government subsidies, but, as in every other rice-producing country at the time, their access to local markets was protected by import tariffs.

In 1995, as a condition of providing a desperately needed loan, the International Monetary Fund required Haiti to cut its tariff on imported rice from 35% to 3%, the lowest in the Caribbean. The result was a massive influx of US rice that sold for half the price of Haitian-grown rice. Thousands of rice farmers lost their lands and livelihoods, and today three-quarters of the rice eaten in Haiti comes from the US.[6]

US rice didn’t take over the Haitian market because it tastes better, or because US rice growers are more efficient. It won out because rice exports are heavily subsidised by the US government. In 2003, US rice growers received $1.7 billion in government subsidies, an average of $232 per hectare of rice grown.[7] That money, most of which went to a handful of very large landowners and agribusiness corporations, allowed U.S. exporters to sell rice at 30% to 50% below their real production costs.

In short, Haiti was forced to abandon government protection of domestic agriculture — and the US then used its government protection schemes to take over the market.

There have been many variations on this theme, with rich countries of the north imposing “liberalisation” policies on poor and debt-ridden southern countries and then taking advantage of that liberalization to capture the market. Government subsidies account for 30% of farm revenue in the world’s 30 richest countries, a total of US$280 billion a year,[8] an unbeatable advantage in a “free” market where the rich write the rules.

The global food trade game is rigged, and the poor have been left with reduced crops and no protections.

In addition, for several decades the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have refused to advance loans to poor countries unless they agree to “Structural Adjustment Programs” (SAP) that require the loan recipients to devalue their currencies, cut taxes, privatize utilities, and reduce or eliminate support programs for farmers.

All this was done with the promise that the market would produce economic growth and prosperity — instead, poverty increased and support for agriculture was eliminated.

The investment in improved agricultural input packages and extension support tapered and eventually disappeared in most rural areas of Africa under SAP. Concern for boosting smallholders’ productivity was abandoned. Not only were governments rolled back, foreign aid to agriculture dwindled. World Bank funding for agriculture itself declined markedly from 32% of total lending in 1976-8 to 11.7% in 1997-9.”[9]

During previous waves of food price inflation, the poor often had at least some access to food they grew themselves, or to food that was grown locally and available at locally set prices. Today, in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that’s just not possible. Global markets now determine local prices — and often the only food available must be imported from far away.

Food is not just another commodity — it is absolutely essential for human survival. The very least that humanity should expect from any government or social system is that it try to prevent starvation — and above all that it not promote policies that deny food to hungry people.

That’s why Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was absolutely correct on April 24, to describe the food crisis as “the greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model.”

Global food crisis: ‘The greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model’ – Part 2

Nowhere in the world, in no act of genocide, in no war, are so many people killed per minute, per hour and per day as those who are killed by hunger and poverty on our planet.” —Fidel Castro, 1998

May 11, 2008 — When food riots broke out in Haiti last month, the first country to respond was Venezuela. Within days, planes were on their way from Caracas, carrying 364 tons of badly needed food.

The people of Haiti are “suffering from the attacks of the empire’s global capitalism,” Venezuela’s President Hugo Chàvez said. “This calls for genuine and profound solidarity from all of us. It is the least we can do for Haiti.”

Venezuela’s action is in the finest tradition of human solidarity. When people are hungry, we should do our best to feed them. Venezuela’s example should be applauded and emulated.

But aid, however necessary, is only a stopgap. To truly address the problem of world hunger, we must understand and then change the system that causes it.

No shortage of food

The starting point for our analysis must be this: there is no shortage of food in the world today.

Contrary to the 18th century warnings of Thomas Malthus and his modern followers, study after study shows that global food production has consistently outstripped population growth, and that there is more than enough food to feed everyone. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, enough food is produced in the world to provide over 2800 calories a day to everyone — substantially more than the minimum required for good health, and about 18% more calories per person than in the 1960s, despite a significant increase in total population.[1]

As the Food First Institute points out, “abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food in the world today.”[2]

Despite that, the most commonly proposed solution to world hunger is new technology to increase food production.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, aims to develop “more productive and resilient varieties of Africa’s major food crops … to enable Africa’s small-scale farmers to produce larger, more diverse and reliable harvests.”[3]

Similarly, the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute has initiated a public-private partnership “to increase rice production across Asia via the accelerated development and introduction of hybrid rice technologies.”[4]

And the president of the World Bank promises to help developing countries gain “access to technology and science to boost yields.”[5]

Scientific research is vitally important to the development of agriculture, but initiatives that assume in advance that new seeds and chemicals are needed are neither credible nor truly scientific. The fact that there is already enough food to feed the world shows that the food crisis is not a technical problem — it is a social and political problem.

Rather than asking how to increase production, our first question should be why, when so much food is available, are over 850 million people hungry and malnourished? Why do 18,000 children die of hunger every day?

Why can’t the global food industry feed the hungry?

The profit system

The answer can be stated in one sentence. The global food industry is not organized to feed the hungry; it is organised to generate profits for corporate agribusiness.

The agribusiness giants are achieving that objective very well indeed. This year, agribusiness profits are soaring above last year’s levels, while hungry people from Haiti to Egypt to Senegal were taking to the streets to protest rising food prices. These figures are for just three months at the beginning of 2008.[6]

Grain Trading

* Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Gross profit: $1.15 billion, up 55% from last year
* Cargill: Net earnings: $1.03 billion, up 86%
* Bunge. Consolidated gross profit: $867 million, up 189%.

Seeds & herbicides

* Monsanto. Gross profit: $2.23 billion, up 54%.
* Dupont Agriculture and Nutrition. Pre-tax operating income: $786 million, up 21%


* Potash Corporation. Net income: $66 million, up 185.9%
* Mosaic. Net earnings: $520.8 million, up more than 1,200%

The companies listed above, plus a few more, are the monopoly or near-monopoly buyers and sellers of agricultural products around the world. Six companies control 85% of the world trade in grain; three control 83% of cocoa; three control 80% of the banana trade.[7] ADM, Cargill and Bunge effectively control the world’s corn, which means that they alone decide how much of each year’s crop goes to make ethanol, sweeteners, animal feed or human food.

As the editors of Hungry for Profit write, “The enormous power exerted by the largest agribusiness/food corporations allows them essentially to control the cost of their raw materials purchased from farmers while at the same time keeping prices of food to the general public at high enough levels to ensure large profits.”[8]

Over the past three decades, transnational agribusiness companies have engineered a massive restructuring of global agriculture. Directly through their own market power and indirectly through governments and the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organisation, they have changed the way food is grown and distributed around the world. The changes have had wonderful effects on their profits, while simultaneously making global hunger worse and food crises inevitable.

The assault on traditional farming

Today’s food crisis doesn’t stand alone: it is a manifestation of a farm crisis that has been building for decades.

As we saw in part one of this article, over the past three decades the rich countries of the north have forced poor countries to open their markets, then flooded those markets with subsidised food, with devastating results for Third World farming.

But the restructuring of global agriculture to the advantage of agribusiness giants didn’t stop there. In the same period, southern countries were convinced, cajoled and bullied into adopting agricultural policies that promote export crops rather than food for domestic consumption, and favour large-scale industrial agriculture that requires single-crop (monoculture) production, heavy use of water, and massive quantities of fertiliser and pesticides. Increasingly, traditional farming, organised by and for communities and families, has been pushed aside by industrial farming organised by and for agribusinesses.

That transformation is the principal obstacle to a rational agriculture that could eliminate hunger.

The focus on export agriculture has produced the absurd and tragic result that millions of people are starving in countries that export food. In India, for example, more than one-fifth of the population is chronically hungry and 48% of children under five years old are malnourished. Nevertheless, India exported US$1.5 billion worth of milled rice and $322 million worth of wheat in 2004.[9]

In other countries, farmland that used to grow food for domestic consumption now grows luxuries for the north. Colombia, where 13% of the population is malnourished, produces and exports 62% of all cut flowers sold in the United States.

In many cases the result of switching to export crops has produced results that would be laughable if they weren’t so damaging. Kenya was self-sufficient in food until about 25 years ago. Today it imports 80% of its food — and 80% of its exports are other agricultural products.[10]

The shift to industrial agriculture has driven millions of people off the land and into unemployment and poverty in the immense slums that now surround many of the world’s cities.

The people who best know the land are being separated from it; their farms enclosed into gigantic outdoor factories that produce only for export. Hundreds of millions of people now must depend on food that’s grown thousands of miles away because their homeland agriculture has been transformed to meet the needs of agribusiness corporations. As recent months have shown, the entire system is fragile: India’s decision to rebuild its rice stocks made food unaffordable for millions half a world away.

If the purpose of agriculture is to feed people, the changes to global agriculture in the past 30 years make no sense. Industrial farming in the Third World has produced increasing amounts of food, but at the cost of driving millions off the land and into lives of chronic hunger — and at the cost of poisoning air and water, and steadily decreasing the ability of the soil to deliver the food we need.

Contrary to the claims of agribusiness, the latest agricultural research, including more than a decade of concrete experience in Cuba, proves that small and mid-sized farms using sustainable agroecological methods are much more productive and vastly less damaging to the environment than huge industrial farms.[11]

Industrial farming continues not because it is more productive, but because it has been able, until now, to deliver uniform products in predictable quantities, bred specifically to resist damage during shipment to distant markets. That’s where the profit is, and profit is what counts, no matter what the effect may be on earth, air, and water — or even on hungry people.

Fighting for food sovereignty

The changes imposed by transnational agribusiness and its agencies have not gone unchallenged. One of the most important developments in the past 15 years has been the emergence of La Vía Campesina (Peasant Way), an umbrella body that encompasses more than 120 small farmers’ and peasants’ organisations in 56 countries, ranging from the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil to the National Farmers Union in Canada.

La Vía Campesina initially advanced its program as a challenge to the “World Food Summit”, a 1996 UN-organised conference on global hunger that was attended by official representatives of 185 countries. The participants in that meeting promised (and subsequently did nothing to achieve) the elimination of hunger and malnutrition by guaranteeing “sustainable food security for all people”.[12]

As is typical of such events, the working people who are actually affected were excluded from the discussions. Outside the doors, La Vía Campesina proposed food sovereignty as an alternative to food security. Simple access to food is not enough, they argued: what’s needed is access to land, water, and resources, and the people affected must have the right to know and to decide about food policies. Food is too important to be left to the global market and the manipulations of agribusiness: world hunger can only be ended by re-establishing small and mid-sized family farms as the key elements of food production.[13]

The central demand of the food sovereignty movement is that food should be treated primarily as a source of nutrition for the communities and countries where it is grown. In opposition to free trade, agroexport policies, it urges a focus on domestic consumption and food self-sufficiency.

Contrary to the assertions of some critics, food sovereignty is not a call for economic isolationism or a return to an idealised rural past. Rather, it is a program for the defence and extension of human rights, for land reform and for protection of the earth against capitalist ecocide. In addition to calling for food self-sufficiency and strengthening family farms, La Vía Campesina’s original call for food sovereignty included these points:

* Guarantee everyone access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity.
* Give landless and farming people — especially women — ownership and control of the land they work and return territories to indigenous peoples.
* Ensure the care and use of natural resources, especially land, water and seeds. End dependence on chemical inputs, on cash-crop monocultures and intensive, industrialised production.
* Oppose WTO, World Bank and IMF policies that facilitate the control of multinational corporations over agriculture. Regulate and tax speculative capital and enforce a strict code of conduct on transnational corporations.
* End the use of food as a weapon. Stop the displacement, forced urbanisation and repression of peasants.
* Guarantee peasants and small farmers, and rural women in particular, direct input into formulating agricultural policies at all levels.[14]

La Vía Campesina’s demand for food sovereignty constitutes a powerful agrarian program for the 21st century. Labour and left movements worldwide should give full support to it and to the campaigns of working farmers and peasants for land reform and against the industrialisation and globalisation of food and farming.

Stop the war on Third World farmers

Within that framework, we in the global north can and must demand that our governments stop all activities that weaken or damage Third World farming.

Stop using food for fuel. La Vía Campesina has said it simply and clearly: “Industrial agrofuels are an economic, social and environmental nonsense. Their development should be halted and agricultural production should focus on food as a priority.”[15]

Cancel Third World debts. On April 30, Canada announced a special contribution of C$10 million for food relief to Haiti.[16] That’s positive – but during 2008 Haiti will pay five times that much in interest on its $1.5 billion foreign debt, much of which was incurred during the imperialist-supported Duvalier dictatorships.

Haiti’s situation is not unique and it is not an extreme case. The total external debt of Third World countries in 2005 was $2.7 trillion, and their debt payments that year totalled $513 billion.[17] Ending that cash drain, immediately and unconditionally, would provide essential resources to feed the hungry now and rebuild domestic farming over time.

Get the WTO out of agriculture. The regressive food policies that have been imposed on poor countries by the World Bank and IMF are codified and enforced by the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Agriculture. The AoA, as Afsar Jafri of Focus on the Global South writes, is “biased in favour of capital-intensive, corporate agribusiness-driven and export-oriented agriculture.”[18] That’s not surprising, since the US official who drafted and then negotiated it was a former vice-president of agribusiness giant Cargill.

AoA should be abolished, and Third World countries should have the right to unilaterally cancel liberalisation policies imposed through the World Bank, IMF and WTO, as well as through bilateral free-trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA.

Self-determination for the global South. The current attempts by the US to destabilise and overthrow the anti-imperialist governments of the ALBA group — Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada — continue a long history of actions by northern countries to prevent Third World countries from asserting control over their own destinies. Organising against such interventions “in the belly of the monster” is thus a key component of the fight to win food sovereignty around the world.

More than a century ago, Karl Marx wrote that despite its support for technical improvements, “the capitalist system works against a rational agriculture … a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system”.[19]

Today’s food and farm crises completely confirm that judgment. A system that puts profit ahead of human needs has driven millions of producers off the land, undermined the earth’s productivity while poisoning its air and water, and condemned nearly a billion people to chronic hunger and malnutrition.

The food crisis and farm crisis are rooted in an irrational, anti-human system. To feed the world, urban and rural working people must join hands to sweep that system away.

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Footnotes for Part 1:

[1] Kevin Pina. “Mud Cookie Economics in Haiti.” Haiti Action Network, Feb. 10, 2008.

[2] Tony Karon. “How Hunger Could Topple Regimes.” Time, April 11, 2008.,8599,1730107,00.html

[3] “The New Face of Hunger.” The Economist, April 19, 2008.

[4] Mark Lynas. “How the Rich Starved the World.” New Statesman, April 17, 2008.

[5] Dale Allen Pfeiffer. Eating Fossil Fuels. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC, 2006. p. 1

[6] Oxfam International Briefing Paper, April 2005. “Kicking Down the Door.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] OECD Background Note: Agricultural Policy and Trade Reform.

[9] Kjell Havnevik, Deborah Bryceson, Lars-Erik Birgegård, Prosper Matondi & Atakilte Beyene. “African Agriculture and the World Bank: Development or Impoverishment?” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal,

Footnotes for Part 2:

[1] Frederic Mousseau, Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger in Our Time. Oakland Institute, 2005.
International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Global Summary for Decision Makers.

[2] Francis Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset. World Hunger: Twelve Myths. (Grove Press, New York, 1998) p. 8

[3] “About the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.”

[4] IRRI Press Release, April 4, 2008.

[5] “World Bank President Calls for Plan to Fight Hunger in Pre-Spring Meetings Address.” News Release, April 2, 2008

[6] These figures are taken from the companies’ most recent quarterly reports, found on their websites. Because they report the numbers in different ways, they can’t be compared to each other, only to their own previous reports.

[7] Shawn Hattingh. “Liberalizing Food Trade to Death.” MRzine, May 6, 2008.

[8] Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster and Frederick H. Buttel. Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment. Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000. p. 11

[9] UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Key Statistics Of Food And Agriculture External Trade.

[10] J. Madeley. Hungry for Trade: How the poor pay for free trade. Cited in Ibid

[11] Jahi Campbell, “Shattering Myths: Can sustainable agriculture feed the world?” and ” Editorial. Lessons from the Green Revolution.” Food First Institute.

[12] World Food Summit.

[13] La Vía Campesina. “Food Sovereignty: A Future Without Hunger.” (1996)

[14] Paraphrased and abridged from Ibid

[15] La Vía Campesina. “A response to the Global Food Prices Crisis: Sustainable family farming can feed the world.”

[16] By way of comparison, this year Canada will spend $1 billion on the illegal occupation of and war in Afghanistan

[17] Jubilee Debt Campaign. “The Basics About Debt.”

[18] Afsar H. Jafri. “WTO: Agriculture at the Mercy of Rich Nations.” Focus on the Global South, November 7, 2005.

[19] Capital, Volume III. Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 37, p. 123

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