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Just Who’s Doing the Hoarding? Food Independence and Real Democracy

As about 30 countries scramble to protect their citizens from hunger by limiting food exports, the title of a front-page New York Times article calls out: “Hoarding Nations Drive Food Costs Ever Higher.”

But where does responsible government action end and hoarding begin? (If the Irish government had begun a little hoarding instead of exporting grain in 1845, many deaths could have been avoided in the Irish potato famine.) It’s not an easy question to answer, which suggests that it might be a perfect time to ask how countries got into this no-win, export-or-not quandary to begin with.

Part of the answer is the longstanding premise, assumed by international lending agencies, that nations should use their farmland to grow what’s most profitable in world trade and use the proceeds to import food as needed. For decades countries have been “encouraged” — even by making it a condition of a needed loan — to use prime farmland to grow luxury and non-food items from coffee to cut flowers for export, and to adopt an agricultural model dependent on imported fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds.

At the same time international agencies, dominated by the industrial countries, have given this “advice,” the U.S. and Europe have also been busy subsidizing their own agriculture at almost a billion dollars a day. Their huge subsidies make their farm commodity exports so cheap they undermine the sales by the very poor farmers in the Global South who they encouraged to depend on exports.

Surely today’s deepening hunger crisis reveals the dangers of vulnerability to policies completely outside one’s control. The end of hunger and real food security require provisioning from domestic resources wherever possible.

This approach, combined with a solid international grain reserve to be released in response to unforeseeable setbacks, has the best chance of assuring adequate food supplies. Could we Americans ever breathe easy if we were dependent on imported food for our very survival? I doubt thatany people could. Why is it that “energy independence” is embraced by the left and right, but you never even hear anyone utter the phrase “food independence?”

Analysts go on vying to tease out the varied pieces of the puzzle of today’s renewed hunger crisis: Is it “hoarding” that’s to be blamed? Is it heightened speculation? Is it the growing Asian elite’s market-demand for grain-fed meat? The rising price of oil? The diversion of food to produce agrofuel? (A leaked World Bank repo