Stealing from the Poor
to Feed the Rich

by Carol Welch

Friends of the Earth magazine, Summer 1998


In the 19th century, the British government exported food grown in Ireland while millions of Irish suffered from starvation. Could this happen today? Sadly, the new global economy may be promoting a similar policy-prompting developing countries to meet demands to increase trade and service international debts by producing food for export rather than local consumption. This misguided approach to national production has severe impacts on food security and the environment.

Take palm oil, for instance, which is used in soaps and a variety of processed foods. Much of this oil comes from Indonesia, which is currently grappling with a severe economic crisis. To meet short-term revenue targets set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), now spearheading a $43 billion bailout package for the country, Indonesia is increasing exports like palm oil to earn hard currency. In the last few years, Indonesia has ravished its rainforests to clear land for palm oil plantations. As a result, forest fires in Indonesia have dramatically increased, decimating natural habitat for rare species, displacing indigenous peoples and spewing harmful greenhouse gases.

Cash Crops Harming Lands

Around the world, developing countries are converting their best agricultural land to produce cash crops, such as coffee, tobacco, sugar, and even roses, to meet the demands of the IMF and World Bank. Farmers producing food for local consumption are then forced onto marginal lands, diminishing soil fertility and increasing erosion. This in turn causes yields on these lands to decline, creating more food security problems.

Around the world, developing countries are converting their best agricultural land to produce cash crops, such as coffee, tobacco, sugar, and even roses.

The misguided lending policies of institutions like the World Bank and IMF, which are financed by taxpayers, are a driving force behind these problems. The IMF's tight budgetary policies prevent governments from investing in roads, irrigation, and other infrastructure that will enable poor rural farmers to access markets. They also jack up interest rates and make it impossible for local farmers to borrow and invest in the seeds, fertilizers and other inputs they need to increase production.

Promoting Access to Food insecurity- the uncertainty of affordable food supplies-is expected to accelerate rapidly in Africa and parts of Asia. By 2010, one out of three people in sub-Saharan Africa will likely be unable to get enough food to eat. Ironically, scientists predict that worldwide per capita availability of food will actually increase in the coming years. The problem is not food supply, but rather accessibility and affordability of food.

Until these inequities are resolved, debts are forgiven, and beneficial aid for local sustainable development is increased, the poorest people in the world will continue to lose access to food. ...

New Global Economy