FOOD CRISIS (Part One): 'The greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model'
By Ian Angus
“If the government cannot lower the cost of living it simply has to leave. If the police and UN troops want to shoot at us, that’s OK, because in the end, if we are not killed by bullets, we’ll die of hunger.” — A demonstrator in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
In Haiti, where most people get 22% fewer calories than the minimum needed for good health, some are staving off their hunger pangs by eating “mud biscuits” made by mixing clay and water with a bit of vegetable oil and salt.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the federal government is currently paying $225 for each pig killed in a mass cull of breeding swine, as part of a plan to reduce hog production. Hog farmers, squeezed by low hog prices and high feed costs, have responded so enthusiastically that the kill will likely use up all the allocated funds before the program ends in September.
Some of the slaughtered hogs may be given to local Food Banks, but most will be destroyed or made into pet food. None will go to Haiti.
This is the brutal world of capitalist agriculture — a world where some people destroy food because prices are too low, and others literally eat dirt because food prices are too high.
Record prices for staple foods
We are in the midst of an unprecedented worldwide food price inflation that has driven prices to their highest levels in decades. The increases affect most kinds of food, but in particular the most important staples — wheat, corn, and rice.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that between March 2007 and March 2008 prices of cereals increased 88%, oils and fats 106%, and dairy 48%. The FAO food price index as a whole rose 57% in one year — and most of the increase occurred in the past few months.
Another source, the World Bank, says that that in the 36 months ending February 2008, global wheat prices rose 181% and overall global food prices increased by 83%. The Bank expects most food prices to remain well above 2004 levels until at least 2015.
The most popular grade of Thailand rice sold for $198 a tonne five years ago and $323 a tonne a year ago. On April 24, the price hit $1,000.
Increases are even greater on local markets — in Haiti, the market price of a 50 kilo bag of rice doubled in one week at the end of March.
These increases are catastrophic for the 2.6 billion people around the world who live on less than US$2 a day and spend 60% to 80% of their incomes on food. Hundreds of millions cannot afford to eat.
This month, the hungry fought back.
Taking to the streets
In Haiti, on April 3, demonstrators in the southern city of Les Cayes built barricades, stopped trucks carrying rice and distributed the food, and tried to burn a United Nations compound. The protests quickly spread to the capital, Port-au-Prince, where thousands marched on the presidential palace, chanting “We are hungry!” Many called for the withdrawal of UN troops and the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled president whose government was overthrown by foreign powers in 2004.
President René Préval, who initially said nothing could be done, has announced a 16% cut in the wholesale price of rice. This is at best a stop-gap measure, since the reduction is for one month only, and retailers are not obligated to cut their prices.
The actions in Haiti paralleled similar protests by hungry people in more than twenty other countries.
- In Burkino Faso, a two-day general strike by unions and shopkeepers demanded “significant and effective” reductions in the price of rice and other staple foods.
- In Bangladesh, over 20,000 workers from textile factories in Fatullah went on strike to demand lower prices and higher wages. They hurled bricks and stones at police, who fired tear gas into the crowd.
- The Egyptian government sent thousands of troops into the Mahalla textile complex in the Nile Delta, to prevent a general strike demanding higher wages, an independent union, and lower prices. Two people were killed and over 600 have been jailed.
- In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, police used tear gas against women who had set up barricades, burned tires and closed major roads. Thousands marched to the President’s home, chanting “We are hungry,” and “Life is too expensive, you are killing us.”
- In Pakistan and Thailand, armed soldiers have been deployed to prevent the poor from seizing food from fields and warehouses.
Similar protests have taken place in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Peru, Philippines, Senegal, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Zambia. On April 2, the president of the World Bank told a meeting in Washington that there are 33 countries where price hikes could cause social unrest.
A Senior Editor of Time magazine warned:
“The idea of the starving masses driven by their desperation to take to the streets and overthrow the ancien regime has seemed impossibly quaint since capitalism triumphed so decisively in the Cold War…. And yet, the headlines of the past month suggest that skyrocketing food prices are threatening the stability of a growing number of governments around the world. …. when circumstances render it impossible to feed their hungry children, normally passive citizens can very quickly become militants with nothing to lose.”
What’s Driving Food Inflation?
Since the 1970s, food production has become increasingly globalized and concentrated. A handful of countries dominate the global trade in staple foods. 80% of wheat exports come from six exporters, as does 85% of rice. Three countries produce 70% of exported corn. This leaves the world’s poorest countries, the ones that must import food to survive, at the mercy of economic trends and policies in those few exporting countries. When the global food trade system stops delivering, it’s the poor who pay the price.
For several years, the global trade in staple foods has been heading towards a crisis. Four related trends have slowed production growth and pushed prices up.
The End of the Green Revolution: In the 1960s and 1970s, in an effort to counter peasant discontent in south and southeast Asia, the U.S. poured money and technical support into agricultural development in India and other countries. The “green revolution” — new seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural techniques and infrastructure — led to spectacular increases in food production, particularly rice. Yield per hectare continued expanding until the 1990s.
Today, it’s not fashionable for governments to help poor people grow food for other poor people, because “the market” is supposed to take care of all problems. The Economist reports that “spending on farming as a share of total public spending in developing countries fell by half between 1980 and 2004.” Subsidies and R&D money have dried up, and production growth has stalled.
As a result, in seven of the past eight years the world consumed more grain than it produced, which means that rice was being removed from the inventories that governments and dealers normally hold as insurance against bad harvests. World grain stocks are now at their lowest point ever, leaving very little cushion for bad times.
Climate Change: Scientists say that climate change could cut food production in parts of the world by 50% in the next 12 years. But that isn’t just a matter for the future:
- Australia is normally the world’s second-largest exporter of grain, but a savage multi-year drought has reduced the wheat crop by 60% and rice production has been completely wiped out.
- In Bangladesh in November, one of the strongest cyclones in decades wiped out a million tonnes of rice and severely damaged the wheat crop, making the huge country even more dependent on imported food.
Other examples abound. It’s clear that the global climate crisis is already here, and it is affecting food.
Agrofuels: It is now official policy in the U.S., Canada and Europe to convert food into fuel. U.S. vehicles burn enough corn to cover the entire import needs of the poorest 82 countries.
Ethanol and biodiesel are very heavily subsidized, which means, inevitably, that crops like corn (maize) are being diverted out of the food chain and into gas tanks, and that new agricultural investment worldwide is being directed towards palm, soy, canola and other oil-producing plants. The demand for agrofuels increases the prices of those crops directly, and indirectly boosts the price of other grains by encouraging growers to switch to agrofuel.
As Canadian hog producers have found, it also drives up the cost of producing meat, since corn is the main ingredient in North American animal feed.
Oil Prices: The price of food is linked to the price of oil because food can be made into a substitute for oil. But rising oil prices also affect the cost of producing food. Fertilizer and pesticides are made from petroleum and natural gas. Gas and diesel fuel are used in planting, harvesting and shipping.
It’s been estimated that 80% of the costs of growing corn are fossil fuel costs — so it is no accident that food prices rise when oil prices rise.
* * *
By the end of 2007, reduced investment in third world agriculture, rising oil prices, and climate change meant that production growth was slowing and prices were rising. Good harvests and strong export growth might have staved off a crisis — but that isn’t what happened. The trigger was rice, the staple food of three billion people.
Early this year, India announced that it was suspending most rice exports in order to rebuild its reserves. A few weeks later, Vietnam, whose rice crop was hit by a major insect infestation during the harvest, announced a four-month suspension of exports to ensure that enough would be available for its domestic market.
India and Vietnam together normally account for 30% of all rice exports, so their announcements were enough to push the already tight global rice market over the edge. Rice buyers immediately started buying up available stocks, hoarding whatever rice they could get in the expectation of future price increases, and bidding up the price for future crops. Prices soared. By mid-April, news reports described “panic buying” of rice futures on the Chicago Board of Trade, and there were rice shortages even on supermarket shelves in Canada and the U.S.
Why the rebellion?
There have been food price spikes before. Indeed, if we take inflation into account, global prices for staple foods were higher in the 1970s than they are today. So why has this inflationary explosion provoked mass protests around the world?
The answer is that since the 1970s the richest countries in the world, aided by the international agencies they control, have systematically undermined the poorest countries’ ability to feed their populations and protect themselves in a crisis like this.
Haiti is a powerful and appalling example.
Rice has been grown in Haiti for centuries, and until twenty years ago Haitian farmers produced about 170,000 tonnes of rice a year, enough to cover 95% of domestic consumption. Rice farmers received no government subsidies, but, as in every other rice-producing country at the time, their access to local markets was protected by import tariffs.
In 1995, as a condition of providing a desperately needed loan, the International Monetary Fund required Haiti to cut its tariff on imported rice from 35% to 3%, the lowest in the Caribbean. The result was a massive influx of U.S. rice that sold for half the price of Haitian-grown rice. Thousands of rice farmers lost their lands and livelihoods, and today three-quarters of the rice eaten in Haiti comes from the U.S.
U.S. rice didn’t take over the Haitian market because it tastes better, or because U.S. rice growers are more efficient. It won out because rice exports are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government. In 2003, U.S. rice growers received $1.7 billion in government subsidies, an average of $232 per hectare of rice grown. That money, most of which went to a handful of very large landowners and agribusiness corporations, allowed U.S. exporters to sell rice at 30% to 50% below their real production costs.
In short, Haiti was forced to abandon government protection of domestic agriculture — and the U.S. then used its government protection schemes to take over the market.
There have been many variations on this theme, with rich countries of the north imposing “liberalization” policies on poor and debt-ridden southern countries and then taking advantage of that liberalization to capture the market. Government subsidies account for 30% of farm revenue in the world’s 30 richest countries, a total of US$280 billion a year, an unbeatable advantage in a “free” market where the rich write the rules.
The global food trade game is rigged, and the poor have been left with reduced crops and no protections.
In addition, for several decades the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have refused to advance loans to poor countries unless they agree to “Structural Adjustment Programs” (SAP) that require the loan recipients to devalue their currencies, cut taxes, privatize utilities, and reduce or eliminate support programs for farmers.
All this was done with the promise that the market would produce economic growth and prosperity — instead, poverty increased and support for agriculture was eliminated.
“The investment in improved agricultural input packages and extension support tapered and eventually disappeared in most rural areas of Africa under SAP. Concern for boosting smallholders’ productivity was abandoned. Not only were governments rolled back, foreign aid to agriculture dwindled. World Bank funding for agriculture itself declined markedly from 32% of total lending in 1976-8 to 11.7% in 1997-9.”
During previous waves of food price inflation, the poor often had at least some access to food they grew themselves, or to food that was grown locally and available at locally set prices. Today, in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that’s just not possible. Global markets now determine local prices — and often the only food available must be imported from far away.
* * *
Food is not just another commodity — it is absolutely essential for human survival. The very least that humanity should expect from any government or social system is that it try to prevent starvation — and above all that it not promote policies that deny food to hungry people.
That’s why Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was absolutely correct on April 24, to describe the food crisis as “the greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model.”
What needs to be done to end this crisis, and to ensure that doesn’t happen again?
Part Two of this article will examine those questions.
Ian Angus is the editor of Climate and Capitalism
 Kevin Pina. “Mud Cookie Economics in Haiti.” Haiti Action Network, Feb. 10, 2008. http://www.haitiaction.net/News/HIP/2_10_8/2_10_8.html
 Tony Karon. “How Hunger Could Topple Regimes.” Time, April 11, 2008. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1730107,00.html
 “The New Face of Hunger.” The Economist, April 19, 2008.
 Mark Lynas. “How the Rich Starved the World.” New Statesman, April 17, 2008. http://www.newstatesman.com/200804170025
 Dale Allen Pfeiffer. Eating Fossil Fuels. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC, 2006. p. 1
 Oxfam International Briefing Paper, April 2005. “Kicking Down the Door.” http://www.oxfam.org/en/files/bp72_rice.pdf
 OECD Background Note: Agricultural Policy and Trade Reform. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/52/23/36896656.pdf
 Kjell Havnevik, Deborah Bryceson, Lars-Erik Birgegård, Prosper Matondi & Atakilte Beyene. “African Agriculture and the World Bank: Development or Impoverishment?” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, http://www.links.org.au/node/328
FOOD CRISIS (Part Two): Capitalism, Agribusiness, and the Food Sovereignty Alternative
By Ian Angus
"Nowhere in the world, in no act of genocide, in no war, are so many people killed per minute, per hour and per day as those who are killed by hunger and poverty on our planet." —Fidel Castro, 1998
When food riots broke out in Haiti last month, the first country to respond was Venezuela. Within days, planes were on their way from Caracas, carrying 364 tons of badly needed food.
The people of Haiti are "suffering from the attacks of the empire's global capitalism," Venezuelan president Hugo Chàvez said. "This calls for genuine and profound solidarity from all of us. It is the least we can do for Haiti."
Venezuela's action is in the finest tradition of human solidarity. When people are hungry, we should do our best to feed them. Venezuela's example should be applauded and emulated.
But aid, however necessary, is only a stopgap. To truly address the problem of world hunger, we must understand and then change the system that causes it.
No shortage of food
The starting point for our analysis must be this: there is no shortage of food in the world today.
Contrary to the 18th century warnings of Thomas Malthus and his modern followers, study after study shows that global food production has consistently outstripped population growth, and that there is more than enough food to feed everyone. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, enough food is produced in the world to provide over 2800 calories a day to everyone — substantially more than the minimum required for good health, and about 18% more calories per person than in the 1960s, despite a significant increase in total population.
As the Food First Institute points out, "abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food in the world today."
Despite that, the most commonly proposed solution to world hunger is new technology to increase food production.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, aims to develop "more productive and resilient varieties of Africa's major food crops … to enable Africa's small-scale farmers to produce larger, more diverse and reliable harvests."
Similarly, the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute has initiated a public-private partnership "to increase rice production across Asia via the accelerated development and introduction of hybrid rice technologies."
And the president of the World Bank promises to help developing countries gain "access to technology and science to boost yields."
Scientific research is vitally important to the development of agriculture, but initiatives that assume in advance that new seeds and chemicals are needed are neither credible nor truly scientific. The fact that there is already enough food to feed the world shows that the food crisis is not a technical problem — it is a social and political problem.
Rather than asking how to increase production, our first question should be why, when so much food is available, are over 850 million people hungry and malnourished? Why do 18,000 children die of hunger every day?
Why can't the global food industry feed the hungry?
The profit system
The answer can be stated in one sentence. The global food industry is not organized to feed the hungry; it is organized to generate profits for corporate agribusiness.
The agribusiness giants are achieving that objective very well indeed. This year, agribusiness profits are soaring above last year's levels, while hungry people from Haiti to Egypt to Senegal were taking to the streets to protest rising food prices. These figures are for just three months at the beginning of 2008.
- Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Gross profit: $1.15 billion, up 55% from last year
- Cargill: Net earnings: $1.03 billion, up 86%
- Bunge. Consolidated gross profit: $867 million, up 189%.
Seeds & herbicides
- Monsanto. Gross profit: $2.23 billion, up 54%.
- Dupont Agriculture and Nutrition. Pre-tax operating income: $786 million, up 21%
- Potash Corporation. Net income: $66 million, up 185.9%
- Mosaic. Net earnings: $520.8 million, up more than 1,200%
The companies listed above, plus a few more, are the monopoly or near-monopoly buyers and sellers of agricultural products around the world. Six companies control 85% of the world trade in grain; three control 83% of cocoa; three control 80% of the banana trade. ADM, Cargill and Bunge effectively control the world's corn, which means that they alone decide how much of each year's crop goes to make ethanol, sweeteners, animal feed or human food.
As the editors of Hungry for Profit write, "The enormous power exerted by the largest agribusiness/food corporations allows them essentially to control the cost of their raw materials purchased from farmers while at the same time keeping prices of food to the general public at high enough levels to ensure large profits."
Over the past three decades, transnational agribusiness companies have engineered a massive restructuring of global agriculture. Directly through their own market power and indirectly through governments and the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organization, they have changed the way food is grown and distributed around the world. The changes have had wonderful effects on their profits, while simultaneously making global hunger worse and food crises inevitable.
The assault on traditional farming
Today's food crisis doesn't stand alone: it is a manifestation of a farm crisis that has been building for decades.
As we saw in Part One of this article, over the past three decades the rich countries of the north have forced poor countries to open their markets, then flooded those markets with subsidized food, with devastating results for Third World farming.
But the restructuring of global agriculture to the advantage of agribusiness giants didn't stop there. In the same period, southern countries were convinced, cajoled and bullied into adopting agricultural policies that promote export crops rather than food for domestic consumption, and favour large-scale industrial agriculture that requires single-crop (monoculture) production, heavy use of water, and massive quantities of fertilizer and pesticides. Increasingly, traditional farming, organized by and for communities and families, has been pushed aside by industrial farming organized by and for agribusinesses.
That transformation is the principal obstacle to a rational agriculture that could eliminate hunger.
The focus on export agriculture has produced the absurd and tragic result that millions of people are starving in countries that export food. In India, for example, over one-fifth of the population is chronically hungry and 48% of children under five years old are malnourished. Nevertheless, India exported US$1.5 billion worth of milled rice and $322 million worth of wheat in 2004.
In other countries, farmland that used to grow food for domestic consumption now grows luxuries for the north. Colombia, where 13% of the population is malnourished, produces and exports 62% of all cut flowers sold in the United States.
In many cases the result of switching to export crops has produced results that would be laughable if they weren't so damaging. Kenya was self-sufficient in food until about 25 years ago. Today it imports 80% of its food — and 80% of its exports are other agricultural products.
The shift to industrial agriculture has driven millions of people off the land and into unemployment and poverty in the immense slums that now surround many of the world's cities.
The people who best know the land are being separated from it; their farms enclosed into gigantic outdoor factories that produce only for export. Hundreds of millions of people now must depend on food that's grown thousands of miles away because their homeland agriculture has been transformed to meet the needs of agribusiness corporations. As recent months have shown, the entire system is fragile: India's decision to rebuild its rice stocks made food unaffordable for millions half a world away.
If the purpose of agriculture is to feed people, the changes to global agriculture in the past 30 years make no sense. Industrial farming in the Third World has produced increasing amounts of food, but at the cost of driving millions off the land and into lives of chronic hunger — and at the cost of poisoning air and water, and steadily decreasing the ability of the soil to deliver the food we need.
Contrary to the claims of agribusiness, the latest agricultural research, including more than a decade of concrete experience in Cuba, proves that small and mid-sized farms using sustainable agroecological methods are much more productive and vastly less damaging to the environment than huge industrial farms.
Industrial farming continues not because it is more productive, but because it has been able, until now, to deliver uniform products in predictable quantities, bred specifically to resist damage during shipment to distant markets. That's where the profit is, and profit is what counts, no matter what the effect may be on earth, air, and water — or even on hungry people.
Fighting for food sovereignty
The changes imposed by transnational agribusiness and its agencies have not gone unchallenged. One of the most important developments in the past 15 years has been the emergence of La Vía Campesina (Peasant Way), 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.
La Vía Campesina initially advanced its program as a challenge to the "World Food Summit," a 1996 UN-organized conference on global hunger that was attended by official representatives of 185 countries. The participants in that meeting promised (and subsequently did nothing to achieve) the elimination of hunger and malnutrition by guaranteeing "sustainable food security for all people."
As is typical of such events, the working people who are actually affected were excluded from the discussions. Outside the doors, La Vía Campesina proposed food sovereignty as an alternative to food security. Simple access to food is not enough, they argued: what's needed is access to land, water, and resources, and 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: world hunger can only be ended by re-establishing small and mid-sized family farms as the key elements of food production.
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, agroexport policies, it urges a focus on domestic consumption and food self-sufficiency.
Contrary to the assertions of some critics, food sovereignty is not a call for economic isolationism or a return to an idealized rural past. Rather, it is a program for the defense and extension of human rights, for land reform, and for protection of the earth against capitalist ecocide. In addition to calling for food self-sufficiency and strengthening family farms, La Vía Campesina's original call for food sovereignty included these points:
- Guarantee everyone access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity.
- Give landless and farming people — especially women — ownership and control of the land they work and return territories to indigenous peoples.
- Ensure the care and use of natural resources, especially land, water and seeds. End dependence on chemical inputs, on cash-crop monocultures and intensive, industrialized production.
- Oppose WTO, World Bank and IMF policies that facilitate the control of multinational corporations over agriculture. Regulate and tax speculative capital and enforce a strict Code of Conduct on transnational corporations.
- End the use of food as a weapon. Stop the displacement, forced urbanization and repression of peasants.
- Guarantee peasants and small farmers, and rural women in particular, direct input into formulating agricultural policies at all levels.