The Politics of Hunger
by Anuradha Mittal
ROME-In 1974, the United Nations' first World Food Summit
in Rome declared its intention to wipe out starvation within a
decade. Twenty-three years later, the world is populated by 840
million chronically undernourished individuals.
Last November, 1,200 representatives of farming, human rights
and anti-hunger associations; women's organizations; and environmental
groups from more than 80 countries assembled in Rome for the second
World Food Summit (WFS) and Non-governmental Organization (NGO)
Forum, convened by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
This time, bureaucrats and politicians declared their more modest
intention to reduce by half the number of malnourished people
within the next 18 years.
Unlike most nations, whose delegations included presidents,
vice presidents and prime ministers, the US refused to send any
of its top elected officials. The US also rejected the goal of
the WFS's final declaration, which pledged to reduce the number
of the world's hungry to 420 million by the year 2015. Delegates
from the G77 countries (a group of Third World nations formed
to counter the dominance of the world's seven industrialized countries)
called the US performance "shameful . "
The US rejected language guaranteeing the fundamental right
to safe and nutritious food consistent with the right to be free
from hunger. The US delegation maintained that this was "a
goal or aspiration to be realized progressively, but [one that]
does not give rise to any international obligations." Melinda
Kimble, head of the US negotiating team, stated that an endorsement
of the right to food would place new US welfare reform laws-mandating
drastic cuts in food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent
Children-in violation of international laws. Therefore, Kimble
explained, the US could not sign the declaration.
Free Trade Reply to Hunger
The WFS's goal of merely halving the number of hungry humans
has been shaped by a free market ideology that argues that the
way to fight global hunger lies in deregulation, privatization
and increased foreign investment. On the WFS's opening day, US
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman declared: "Domestic
market reforms have unleashed the full potential of American world
demand instead of for government programs."
What Glickman called "our farmers" are really the
US-based transnational corporations that dominate global food
production and commercialization. "Free and fair trade promotes
global prosperity and plenty," Glickman proclaimed. "The
private sector is the great untapped frontier in the world war
on hunger." Driving the point home, the US insisted that
"commitment four" of the Rome declaration be written
to read: "We will strive to ensure that food, agricultural
trade and overall trade policies are conducive to fostering food
security for all through a fair and market-oriented world trade
system" . The objective is to strengthen the hegemony of
the World Trade Organization (WTO) over the world's production
and distribution of food.
World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn backed the US position
with a call for governments to "reduce heavy intervention
in the rural economy and concentrate on creating an economic regulatory
environment that fosters agricultural growth."
Self-Sufficiency vs. Globalization
Glickrnan and Wolfensohn are advocates of a new global resolve
to destroy the national self-sufficiency food systems set up after
World War II. Those systems were based on subsidies and tariff
barriers designed to protect domestic producers, particularly
in the US, western Europe and Japan. Communist countries created
their own separate agricultural systems, while Third World countries
such as Mexico, Brazil and India attempted to subsidize and protect
their local producers.
The new international food regime has three central objectives:
first, to remove national agricultural subsidies and protective
tariffs in accordance with regional agreements like NAFTA and
the Uruguay round of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade);
second, to promote a greater role for transnational capital in
food provisioning systems worldwide under the guise of free trade;
and finally, to demolish national economies in the Third World
and the former Soviet bloc under the auspices of structural adjustment
These policy changes are contributing to a new export-oriented
emphasis in agriculture and the unprecedented escalation of economic
inequalities within and between countries and regions.
In response to the WFS's official trade based plan of action,
NGO representatives maintained that policies must be shifted to
ensure that food security through self-sufficiency takes priority
over world market integration.
The NGO statement, "Profit for Few or Food For All,"
saw food as a basic human right that national governments-not
the market-have the responsibility to provide. The statement went
on to indict globalization and the lack of transnational corporate
accountability as chief causes of increased world poverty.
The NGOs were struck by one spurious argument at the core
of all of the official documents-the assertion that the way to
achieve food security is not by helping farmers to grow more food
for local markets, but rather by boosting international trade.
Three interrelated assumptions show the hollowness of the
FAO's trade policies.
More Trade = More Food?
The FAO documents state: Trade has a major bearing on access
to food via its positive effect on economic growth, incomes and
employment.... Without trade, people and countries would have
to rely exclusively on their own production: Average income would
be far lower, the choice of goods would be far less and hunger
A look at India proves otherwise. During the last five years
of trade liberalization, agricultural exports increased by more
than 70 percent. At the same time, domestic food prices increased
by at least 63 percent. A survey by India's National Institute
of Nutrition shows that the average daily per capita consumption
of cereals has dropped by 14 grams per person since the late 1980s.
The Indian government is pushing exports, while denying ration
cards to poor people and cutting family food quotas . Large segments
of India's population are at the mercy of the open market's skyrocketing
prices. Free trade has not led to increased food security.
Market Gains Trickle Away
The FAO argues that increased trade raises overall income,
which "trickles down" to each household. In 1987, in
India, 361 million people lived in abject poverty. Today, the
proportion of households below the poverty line has in creased
in both rural and urban areas.
In the 200 million-strong Indian middle class, lower-end incomes
are dropping off, while upper-end incomes are increasing dramatically.
If anything, free trade has caused benefits to trickle up.
Higher Income = Food Security?
The third FAO assumption-that increasing household income
will lead to greater food security-is made even as the FAO document
acknowledges that the trickle down approach may make matters worse
for farmers and peasants: Because small-scale producers often
lack the resources necessary to grow export-oriented crops...
they may find that commercial expansion has an inflationary effect
on production costs and on land rent that may even make their
traditional production less feasible. Small producers may abandon
their land or be bought out by larger commercial interests...
and export agriculture may worsen the position of the poor majority.
According to government estimates, some 2 million small and marginal
Indian farmers lose their subsidies or even their land each year.
Putting India's food security in the hands of a few giant agribusinesses-
while the poor are landless and unemployed -is a sure recipe for
famine. Land loss will become more common as new farm policies
further relax rural land-holding laws for businesses.
For almost a decade, the goal of national and international
food and farm policies has been to lower consumer food prices
by increasing food imports. Trade liberalization has kept farm
prices in most countries at below-cost-of-production levels, putting
many farmers (both in major exporting countries and importing
countries) out of business.
The US government currently plans to make more aggressive
use of trade negotiations to dismantle foreign import tariffs,
import quotas, production subsidies and other "trade barriers"
to build food import demand abroad and fuel agricultural export
US dumping of underpriced grain surpluses has destroyed poor
farmers in many food-importing countries. In 1965, the US unloaded
grain in India in the name of "food aid," driving down
the price of domestic wheat and curtailing native production.
Over the past few years, the Mexican government put 1.8 million
corn farmers out of business by choosing to import heavily subsidized
corn from the US.
Rock-bottom world corn prices (set by the US) averaging about
half the cost of production have encouraged cattle farmers to
concentrate on confined livestock operations (where cattle eat
grain that otherwise would be used for human consumption). Low
grain prices have made corn sweeteners so cheap that Pepsi and
Coca-Cola have abandoned cane and beet sugar in favor of corn
syrup, driving world sugar prices to all-time lows and cutting
into the foreign exchange earnings of many Third World countries.
Ill-Founded Green Revolutions
New WTO agricultural trade rules may lead to more effective
food embargoes as they result in the elimination of national food
storage programs. US doubling of export prices for basic grains
in the summer of 1996 was essentially an embargo against the poor
countries that most needed these supplies.
Most governments still see hunger as a problem of production
shortfall. The US, for example, argued that the solution to hunger
lies in more intensive use of biotechnology, pesticides, artificial
fertilizers, irrigation and greater freedom for transnational
food corporations. While countries like India still are taking
stock of the socioeconomic and environmental costs of Green Revolution
I (the introduction of hybrid crops, chemical fertilizers and
pesticides from the mid-60s to the mid-80s), the FAO has found
it opportune to launch Green Revolution II, betting the world's
food future on the promise of genetic engineering (with all the
corresponding environmental safeguards, of course). The NGOs insisted
that any revolution, green or otherwise, must be undertaken in
partnership with the peasants and the local society.
A Century of Food Rebellions?
Since the 1976 mass demonstrations in Peru in response to
food price increases imposed by the International Monetary Fund
(IMF), riots and protests have taken place in dozens of countries.
In 1994, the Zapatistas burst forth in Chiapas, Mexico, demanding
land, food and an adequate standard of living. Food shortages
fostered by drought, peso devaluation and the impact of NAFTA
and GATT on peasant farmers have driven bands of women and children
to rob grain trains.
In July 1996, protests forced the Jordanian government to
abandon IMF-imposed plans to triple the price of bread. Last September,
Argentines rose up against government plans to increase the cost
of food and other basic amenities by 10-46 percent.
Last October, Bolivian labor unions called a general strike
after tens of thousands of peasants camped out in La Paz to protest
government plans to expropriate their land and sell it to agribusiness.
Similar protests have rocked Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Bulgaria.
The current period of widespread protest against hunger and
austerity measures is reminiscent of a similar period in the late
18th century in western Europe. The French Revolution was driven
not only by demands for political freedom, but also by the lack
of bread in Paris. Food riots have occurred throughout the history
of market societies, whenever govemment policies caused severe
economic hardship, betrayed the moral basis of society and clashed
with the basic human right to food.
For most of the Third World, trade liberalization really means
neocolonialism and a hegemonic worldwide capitalist system, represented
largely by the US and a few other powers.
During the WFS, Cuban President Fidel Castro was one of the
few world leaders to challenge participants to look squarely at
reality. "Hunger," he said, "is the offspring of
injustice and the unequal distribution of the wealth in this world....
What kind of magical solutions are we going to provide so that
in 20 years from now there will be 400 million instead of 800
million starving people?... Let the truth prevail, and not hypocrisy
Despite US intransigence, there was consensus among governments
and NGOs for making "the human right to food" the summit's
chief demand and commitment. In the official plan of action, the
UN commissioner for human rights was given the task of pulling
together global agencies to ensure implementation of the right
to food. In his speech to the NGO forum, the chair of the FAO's
Food Security Committee, Chile's ambassador to the FAO, vowed
to take this concept to all of the important UN forums.
Thousands of WFS delegates from more than 50 countries signed
an NGO declaration calling for the creation of "effective
instruments to implement the right to food. These instruments
should include a code of conduct to govern the activities of those
involved in achieving the right to food, including national and
international institutions, as well as private actors, such as
The WFS made it clear that the issue of food security is too
important to be left to politicians, national governments or the
marketplace. The transition to a restorative, sustaining democracy
requires profound changes in our values and the way we understand
human rights. The time has come to make freedom from hunger a
reality. If we fail to exercise this right, we may lose other
human rights as well.
from Earth Island Institute Journal, Spring 1997
Anuradha Mittal is policy director at the Institute for Food
and Development Policy and coordinator of the US section of FIAN.
For more information, contact: FIAN US c/o Food First, 398 60th
St., Oakland, CA 94618, (510) 654 4400.
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