Choices no one should have to make

June 26, 2008

More than 100 people gathered in San Francisco June 7 for a forum and discussion on the global food crisis featuring Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, and Elizabeth Terzakis, a contributor to the International Socialist Review.

Socialist Worker is reprinting the speeches from the meeting in two parts--Anuradha Mittal's remarks in this issue, and Elizabeth Terzakis' yesterday.

YOU PICK up any newspaper or turn on the TV, and for some of us who have worked on issues of hunger for a very long time, it is kind of pleasing to see finally people talk about hunger. It is the sensationalism of food riots and people taking to the streets that finally has people talking about something that has been impacting nearly half of humanity--3 billion people.

It was all quiet, not because people weren't protesting, but--whether it was the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) or your United Nations agencies--there was no task force, and nobody cared. Even last year, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food had mentioned the commitment made in 1996 at the World Food Summit to reduce the number of hungry people by half by 2015--and at that time, that would be 815 million people--was becoming a far-fetched idea, and the number had increased to 846 million people.

There was no coverage of the issue. Nobody really talked about how, in this amazing, wonderful world where we can clone sheep, we still have hunger. And if you talk about defining hunger, it's not about what you and me say when we miss lunch or when we're late for lunch, that "I'm really hungry."

Demonstration against economic policy in Mahalla, Egypt in April 2008
Demonstration against rising food prices in Mahalla, Egypt

We are talking about choices that no human being should have to make.

We are talking about a farmer in India having to sell off his kidney. We are talking about a mother in Indonesia who agrees to her daughter being sold off. We are talking about landless workers in Brazil who are willing to face the brutality of landowners, just to have a little bit of land so they can grow food and have dignity. We are talking about farmers from Korea, who are willing to battle with police as borders have opened up for trade and closed for the livelihoods of people.

Those are choices hunger makes you take, so thank God people are talking about hunger now.

Hunger was pretty bad last year. It was estimated that 854 million people in the developing world were hungry. I come from a country that I am very proud of, India, but it is also, I am ashamed to say, home to nearly half the world's hungry population. If you go to the World Food Program, the relief agency of the United Nations, it says nearly 315 million people in my country are food insecure.

What else to read

For updated statistics on world hunger, visit the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization Web site. The FAO's report "State of Food Insecurity in the World" is available online.

You can find more useful analysis of the roots of the food crisis at The Oakland Institute Web site.

The International Socialist Review has a special feature on the global food crisis, including Sharon Smith's "The revolt over rising food prices," an eyewitness report on "Haiti's food riots" by Mark Schuller and Hossam El-Hamalawy's "Revolt at Mahalla" on the eruption of class struggle in Egypt in connection with the food crisis.

So it is in the news. A lot of causes are being thrown out. We have heard about drought in Australia. We have heard about increased demand from emerging economies such as China and India. It almost makes you believe economic policies are really good, right? Those Indians and Chinese now have better diets and want to eat like the Americans. One could talk about the racism behind that discourse for another 15 or 20 minutes, and I won't.

Or you hear about climate change, and you hear about agrifuels--what are called biofuels. They are all true. Even the IMF's economic outlook for 2008 agrees that nearly half the world's food production crisis can be blamed on biofuels.

But these are all short-term factors, and we have to ask the larger question that we don't hear about: What are the structural causes that make countries vulnerable in the first place? Countries that were agrarian economies--how can they suddenly become food inefficient?

BEFORE I talk about that, I will mention two cases I have been involved in that actually provide me a good lens to look at the crisis.

In 1998, I was in Indonesia on a fact-finding mission, because this country, which received the gold medal in 1985 from the FAO for achieving self-sufficiency in food, had become the largest recipient of food aid in 1998-1999.

It is not that Indonesians suddenly forgot how to grow food; it was the Asian financial crisis. People were too poor to buy food. There was food in the markets--cheap food was being dumped in the markets, which was a double whammy for the poor Indonesian farmers--but it was a fact that they were too poor to buy food.

We have a publication at the back called Sahel: A Prisoner of Starvation. What we are talking about now at a global level, Sahel has experienced, but without making the kind of waves that the food price crisis is making now. It was a free-market famine.

Nobody is talking about what has happened to make these countries so vulnerable. Nobody is talking about the fact that in the 1970s, developing countries were net food exporters. They had a food trade surplus of $1 billion. Come 2001, we have become net food importers, our bill was over $11 billion.

So given that, I think it is really important to talk about what has happened. What have been the drivers of our economic engines and were supposed to cure our problems--the IMF, the World Bank and the others--are the same institutions that have told Third World countries you need to become small, so small, as some people say, that you could drown it in the bathtub. And the net result of that has been state intervention--for example, grain-marketing boards that ensured fixed prices to the farmers and insured fixed prices to the consumers. They were all dismantled.

BULOG in Indonesia was dismantled, and suddenly, prices were skyrocketing and people were starving. In the case of Malawi, ADMARC was dismantled. In my country, India, public distribution systems and the social safety net were all done away with because hunger was going to be solved by the free market.

Now, a free market, if you actually have one, responds to profits; it doesn't respond to the needs of the people. So what we really have is that all kinds of social safety nets are gone, and then you have the free trade agreements move in. Free trade agreements and the WTO were promoted through agriculture--that was the carrot given to the Third World countries, and that has instead become a stick for us.

When you talk about NAFTA, you have a campesina in Mexico competing against Cargill, Continental, ADM and ConAgra, who are full of rich subsidies from taxpayer money, whereas a campesina in Mexico has no subsidies, because the Mexican government was told to get rid of that social spending. And there is no way they can compete.

They cannot compete not because American agribusiness is more efficient or superior. They cannot compete because agribusiness are liars--they have control of the food system, they have the policy makers in their pockets, and they are the ones who drafted the agreement on agriculture of the WTO.

Just in the case of Mexico, it is estimated that 500 farmers are displaced from their land each day. So all those of you who run into people who say, "Yes, sweatshops are problematic, but thank God people have employment," we were not sitting around twiddling our thumbs doing nothing. We had jobs, we were growing our food. And that is the kind of model of agriculture that you have seen move to the rest of the world--where farmers have been replaced with corporate farms, where biodiversity has been replaced with monocultural farming and you have a sheer recipe for famine.

In the Economist magazine, it talked about policy measures Third World governments are taking. It is not that they suddenly had a change of heart. Shit has hit the fan. The government has been toppled in Haiti. They need to do something about it. The Indian government is petrified, and the coalition government is going to come down. So what do you do? For the first time, they go ahead and impose export bans so they can meet domestic needs, something that should have happened a long time ago.

Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush are very upset about it, saying that is what is causing the food crisis, but we have news for them: India, they talk about consuming, the economic survey of India which is done by the government of India reports that the levels of consumption in India are today at the same level as we had at the start of the Green Revolution.

It is a situation that cannot be described. It is true that 750,000 people in my country make $250,000 a year or more. That is a lot of money in my country. What they don't tell you is that nearly 65 percent of the population lives on between 30 and 35 cents a day. These are people who are spending more than 80 percent of their income on food. It is not a choice between income and food; we are talking about selling your kidneys, selling your body parts, selling your children.

This is a very dire situation. We are talking about a country where, as I said, it is home to nearly 350 million people who are food insecure, but the figure that is really shameful in this century is that in my country, we are starving food producers. Even the government acknowledges that in the last eight years, 150,000 farmers have taken their own lives.

WE HAVE to start talking about the structural causes, because as the Economist said, we have to deal with this crisis because this is the biggest threat to economic globalization. And thank God it is the biggest threat to economic globalization, because India has put in place food subsidies worth $270 million, something they would not have done before. And it's not just India--Niger and Nigeria are putting in place export bans.

The FAO was at a high-level conference on food security, and several heads of state were there, and they said a lot of good things. They talked about supporting small farmers, they talked about policy space for Third World countries to manage their interests, and Pascal Lamy, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, all these white men, were there to talk about how we need more trade globalization and more free trade.

If we remove all the tariffs and all the barriers, food will flow, so people will eat. Thank you, where will the money come from?

So in response, what do we do? On one hand, it is an opportunity--and it makes me very uncomfortable to use the word opportunity, because we are talking about half of humanity, 3 billion people, living in poverty and destitution. And yet, we have to seize this moment, or we will see more of the free trade agenda.

They are using this to promote the conclusion of the Doha negotiations of the WTO. These Doha negotiations have been dead because they have no credibility. In fact, even the World Bank study shows that if you conclude the Doha negotiations, prices of food will increase. So it is almost like saying, "We have a problem, food prices are increasing, so what do we do? We increase them further--that is how we solve the problem."

Depending on the World Bank and IMF for solutions is like giving a key to the bank robber and asking him to guard the bank. We have to fight back, because there is no other option. We need to deal with that.

At the same time, we do know that the economic system has no credibility, but if we don't fight back, we will still be reacting--because they are talking about more trade liberalization, about technological solution, about a Greener Revolution for Africa, about genetic engineering. So we need to be proactive in determining what we need to do now.

First of all, we need to be wary, because things are pretty bad in the U.S., too. Yes, we all need to do things at a personal level. I hope you shop local produce. I hope you eat in season. But we also know all the people who are hurting in the U.S. are not rushing to the farmers' market. If you're not making a living wage and you're not able to have a roof over your head, you're not going to be running to a farmers' market for food. So it will take political action.

At the Oakland Institute, we did get together with the Our World is Not For Sale Network. We were able to get 250 organizations--farmers' organizations, trade unions, development groups, from Oxfam to Public Services International to the International Union of Food Workers--to challenge the hijacking of the food crisis by Lamy and the others to promote their trade agenda.

At the same time, if you go to our Web site, there is an option where as an individual, you can sign a petition to Ban Ki-Moon, the head of the UN, and we already have almost 8,000 signatures. We will be hand-delivering those messages to the UN.

BEING IN the U.S., we have a job to do, and that is to fight the battle in the belly of the beast. We have to put pressure, especially in this year of the presidential elections. What do the presidential candidates stand for? Are they willing to take back the free trade agreements--there is nothing free about them.

It is really about demanding freedom from hunger for people. So it is time to review NAFTA, for example. It is time to stop pushing Korea and other free trade agreements down people's throats when they don't want it.

Two, the way the U.S. conducts its food aid, it has been a major player in creating hunger overseas. The U.S. is one of the only rich countries that says food aid must be bought in the U.S., packaged and shipped and dumped in Third World countries, destroying markets of local farmers.

So we have to start talking about markets for small farmers, because they do constitute 75 percent of the world's poor. But farmers want local and regional markets. They are not looking for outside markets. In my country, there are a billion of us--we have enough markets. We don't need markets outside.

So there is a lot of advocacy around what to be done. And yes, if I had to go through a set of options, all the countries that need help immediate relief right now should be provided to them. There is no question about the kind of crisis we are seeing. The World Food Program had asked for $755 million so it could meet its immediate needs. It is kind of ironic--it did get the money, most of it. From who? Saudi Arabia, because they are rich from the oil money.

At the same time, we need to ensure that countries have social safety nets, so that people who fall through the cracks are able to meet their needs. It is time to demand unconditional relief for Third World nations who have been paying loans for projects they didn't ask for.

It is time to stop warning about the moral hazard for Third World countries and worry about the morality of rich governments and corporations. Cargill has reported a profit increase of 86 percent in the first quarter of 2008, and ADM is talking about 60 to 70 percent profits in the last quarter of 2007. So there are corporations that are making a killing while people are starving, and there are many actions to be taken. Just talking about it is definitely not going to resolve the issue.

So it is really time to put pressure within this country--on the elected officials and the people planning to be in political office--that we need to have a different kind of policy.

I will conclude by saying that a lot of times, people say well, why should the U.S. care? Why should we do aid differently?

On the one hand, you can say, it is the right thing to do, it is the moral thing to do, it is the good thing to do. But I think if you really worry about security, I will never forget what I was once told in Nigeria--if you will not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you. So what I think the 9/11 Commission report said is very important: if you want a secure America, it is time to change the way rich countries behave and operate in this world, because there is nothing silent about hunger.

Hungry people are very angry people, and right now, people are angry, and they are marching in the streets, not because they are just hungry. Think of the French Revolution.

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