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 programs.

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 would increase.

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 growth.

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 and deceit."

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 transnational corporations."

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.

Life and death in Third World