Volume 42, Number 4: July/August 2008

The Structural Roots of Hunger, Food Crises and Riots

In recent months major international banks, financial newspapers and mass media have been forced to recognize that there is a major food crisis and that hundreds of millions of people face hunger, malnutrition and outright starvation. World conferences have been convoked and national emergencies have been declared, as millions riot in nearly fifty countries, threatening to overthrow regimes. In North America and Europe, skyrocketing food prices, combined with stagnant wages, home evictions and debt payments threaten incumbent regimes and increase pressures on all governments to take urgent action.

Mainstream responses are predictably inadequate, and their explanations for the crisis range from inadequate and self-serving to silly. The World Bank repeats the call for emergency food aid and several hundred-million-dollar grants to the “most needy,” which usually turn out to be regimes who have been model pupils of the World Bank and IMF policies.

Academics and policy advisers blame China, “for eating too much meat.” Others point to the diversion of production to biofuels like “ethanol” and “bio-diesel.” But they fail to ask which classes fashioned the economic policies that enabled this “diversion” to take place. In any case, as Bruce Burnett, director of market analysis with the Canadian Wheat Board, has said, ethanol’s impact has been greatly exaggerated: “the tightness in wheat supplies was not driven by ethanol; it was driven by our tight wheat stocks globally. Perhaps ethanol got us into this situation more quickly.”

It’s true that there is a supply problem, but from where does it really stem? While food shortages and food inflation have taken on crisis proportions in recent months, it’s a crisis whose roots can be traced to decades-old policies.

Heavy private and state borrowing in the 1970s owing itself to the availability of cheap credit led to a growth of indebtedness in the so-called Third World. Indebted private banks, businesses, manufacturers and real-estate developers foisted their private debts onto the state. The state, faced with mounting debt obligations, turned to the IMF and World Bank to secure loans and, more important, to gain their certification for jumbo loans from commercial banks.

The IMF and World Bank demanded fundamental structural changes from states to grant loans. These conditional loans involved a comprehensive transformation in investment, trade, consumption and income policies, including the elimination of protective trade barriers in agriculture and manufacturing. As a result, there were massive inflows of subsidized agricultural commodities from the U.S. and the European Union, which destroyed small- and medium-sized family-farm producers of basic foodstuffs. Bankruptcy of food producers led to massive displacement of farmers and farm workers to the cities, and the concentration of land in the hands of agro-business plantations owners who concentrated on growing crops for export.

IMF and World Bank demands included the re-allocation of state credit, loans and technical assistance toward big agro-exporters in single commodities because such crops earned hard currency needed to pay back loans and for-profit remittances of the multinational corporations back to their stock holders, directors and owners.

The middle-term consequences of these policies manifested themselves after a little more than a decade. Family farmers were bankrupted, their land bought up by real-estate speculators (self-styled “developers”) for commercial uses, golf courses, resorts, gated luxury communities and export staples. Rice fields were turned into country clubs. This restructuring has produced the absurd and tragic result that millions of people are starving in countries that export large amounts of food.

Between constrained food supplies, increased food-import demands from China and India, diversion of crops from foods to fuels, rising farm-input costs of oil-derivative imports like fertilizers, rising transportation costs and, finally, the actions of huge investment funds in buying up enormous amounts of grain – bringing the story up to the present, this combination of factors was bound to drive up prices.

So, it was not simply that “demand” was up, as the orthodox pundits would have it. Under conditions of markets tightly controlled by big agribusiness, grain stocks fell to their lowest levels in 35 years relative to demand, largely because big agro-capital sought to limit the supply of food, increase production of biofuels and divert capital to commodity speculation. As a result of the ascendancy of giant agro-capitalist rule and their investment and land-use policies, average food prices rose by 45 per cent between July, 2007, and April, 2008, and are projected to rise by an additional fifteen per cent by July.

Frightened more by mass protests toppling compliant client regimes than by mass hunger and rising mortality among the poor, leaders from around the world met in Washington earlier this spring. They whined about the food riots and moaned over the “loss of a decade’s progress [sic] in Africa,” and even called for “action.” As might be expected, a few hundred million dollars in emergency food aid was promised.

Some countries were frightened into blocking exports of basic food items in order to prevent food riots turning into mass insurrections. Yet these actions and food handouts have had little positive effect at home, and have exacerbated scarcities for food importers.

None of the world leaders meeting in Washington “concerned” about hunger proposed agrarian reforms – redistributing land to peasants and farmers to produce food. None of them even proposed reforms like price and profit controls, or the re-conversion of land use to agricultural production, or outlawing speculation in commodity futures in the world bourses. It is no wonder that the IMF predicts food prices will continue rising until 2010.

The bankruptcy of export-product specialization at the expense of food security is abundantly clear. What was once the demand of a radical minority is now at the top of the agenda for a multi-billion-person movement: a return to policies of food self-sufficiency.

Food Sovereignty

La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way) is an umbrella body that encompasses more than 120 small farmers’ and peasants’ organizations in 56 countries, ranging from the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil to the National Farmers Union in Canada.

Simple access to food is not enough, La Via Campesina argues. What’s needed is food sovereignty: access to land, water and resources. 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.

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, agro-export policies, it urges a focus on domestic consumption and food self-sufficiency.

La Via 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 industrialization and globalization of food and farming.

We in the Global North can and must demand that our governments stop all activities that weaken or damage Third World farming. In particular: stop using food for fuel; cancel the debts of developing nations (ending that cash drain would provide essential resources to feed the hungry now and rebuild domestic farming over time); get the WTO out of agriculture; and self-determination for the Global South.

Current attempts by the U.S. to destabilize 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 developing countries from asserting control over their own destinies. Organizing against such interventions “in the belly of the monster” is a key component of the fight to win food sovereignty around the world.