If you Google “food scarcity,” you’ll find hundreds of thousands of links. It’s everywhere — including at the recent G8 Summit in Japan. Even as the members there enjoyed seven lavish courses and a “G8 Fantasy Dessert” — you can’t make this stuff up — food scarcity was all they could see.
The G8, the World Bank, and much of the international food establishment seem to be afflicted with a deadly disorder: a strain of amnesia, apparently contagious, that has erased memories of hunger-fighting failures and breakthroughs of the last four decades.
If they can recover, what insights might they retrieve that could save us? For starters, perhaps these four:
> There’s been no food shortage! What if we all remembered that food production has kept ahead of population growth for decades? Today almost 3,000 calories per person is available in the world — even after shrinking available calories by feeding over a third of grain to animals and now diverting a hundred million tons of corn to cars.
> But we’ve broken the link between food availability and people actually eating.During more than 90 percent of human evolution, as long as there was food, everyoneate; innately, we are a species of food sharers. Yet, even before the current crisis, nearly 900 million people were going hungry. By the late ‘90s, five million more faced hunger each year. Last year, that five million jumped to 50 million.
So we’re facing the biggest human rights crisis of my lifetime: The U.K.’s ActionAid estimates that current price spikes may have doubled the number of hungry and food-insecure people to 1.7 billion. If so, that’s a quarter of the world’s people.
> The dominant “development” strategy leaves us with more food and more hunger. Aid to agriculture has sunk to a tiny four percent of total development aid, and the G8 has called on its members to increase that aid, especially in Africa. Sounds good, if you are amnesic — if you’ve forgotten that as important as the amount of aid given are the assumptions behind it.
Take one now well-tested assumption: that the economic model centered in the industrial countries works: “All poor, hungry people need to do is get their feet firmly on the first rung of the economic ladder.” Hmm. Have we forgotten this model’s largest case study, India?
During the booming 1990s, India’s progress in reducing hunger came to a halt. Now, almost half of India’s children suffer malnutrition — a greater number than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the 1960s, millions of poor Indian farmers were encouraged to take on debt to buy costly hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation equipment. Rice and wheat displaced diverse, often highly nutritious foods. Over time, costs rose and yields flagged as pests gained resistance and soil became degraded. At the same time, prices sank, and beginning in the 1980s, as international lending agencies insisted on anti-public, pro-market policies, the Indian government reduced farmer (and consumer) protections. Many poor Indian farmers were bankrupt; and in desperation as many as 150,000 have committed suicide since 1993.
In India’s “breadbasket,” the state of Punjab, “water, people, animals, milk and agricultural produce are all poisoned with the stuff,” The Economist reported last year. What “stuff”? Farm chemicals resulting in “children young as ten... sprouting tufts of white and grey hair. Some are going blind... [and others] are afflicted by uncommon cancers.”
> We’ve proven what does work! Empowered farmers on every continent are working together to better use local resources, work with nature, and free themselves from dependency on forces beyond their control. A study of 286 farming projects across 57 countries looked at almost 13 million farmers who were moving toward sustainable, agroecological practices on almost 100 million acres. After four years it found an average 79 percent increase in yields. And, we can feel confident that those higher yields are actually filling the stomachs of the communities that produced them.
Over 30 years ago I sat in Rome at the world’s first world food conference. Today the G8 is striking the same old chord: If there is hunger, there’s gotta be lack of food, so the Summit calls for “strengthening the world market and trade system for agriculture and food, and stimulating world food production”; i.e. let’s lower trade barriers and bring on the agri-chemical and seed conglomerates.
Threatened with a world food crisis that makes the 1970s horror appear mild, let’s slap ourselves awake so that we can act from what we’ve learned: Freedom from hunger flows from the democratic empowerment of citizens making ourselves ever less vulnerable to concentrated, unaccountable power, and that includes food and energy cartels now posting record profits even as people riot, desperate to eat.
Originally published by Huffington Post on 7/19/08