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World Food Day 2004:
The Political Economy of Hunger

by Sean Cain
October 26, 2004

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Last week the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations celebrated World Food Day, an annual event started in 1979. This year’s theme was “Biodiversity for Food Security” and focused on the massive loss of genetic diversity of agricultural crops over the last century. Of all the serious failures of global capitalism, starvation and malnutrition are among the most devastating, the most shameful, and compared to other seemingly “important” issues covered by the corporate media, the most ignored.

The numbers are staggering. According to the United Nations, starvation and malnutrition (or hunger, officially defined as a chronic absence of proteins and caloric energies that lead to declining health and in extreme cases, death) takes the lives of approximately 24,000 people every day, or almost nine million a year. Children consist of 75% of these deaths. 840 million people, or approximately 14% of the world’s population, are currently malnourished. Two billion people, almost a third of our world, suffer from anemia, a red blood cell disorder caused by a lack of iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid. The World Bank states that of the four billion people who live in developing countries, 1.3 billion have no drinking water.

Speaking to the inequality that exists today, for the first time in earth’s history, there are as many underweight people as there are overweight – 1.1 billion – according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the founding of the FAO in 1945, it is estimated that 400 million people have died from hunger and poor sanitation, more than three times the number of people killed in wars fought during the entire 20th century. Yet the basic nutrition and health needs of the world’s poorest people would cost only $13 billion a year, or roughly 10% of what the American government has spent on the war in Iraq.

These numbers mirror some of the great famines of the 20th century, including the estimated 13 million who died in the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1933, the 30 million who perished during Mao’s Great Leap Forward in China over a four year period from 1958 to 1962, and most recently, the 2.5 million who died in North Korea during the late 1990s. Yet whereas the barbarity of the Stalinist system is condemned for these tragedies – and rightly so – the free market system seems to be let off the hook by today’s economists for its own crimes against humanity. We are supposed to believe that hunger and malnutrition are not caused by the unemployment or poverty created by global capitalism, but largely by overpopulation, a lack of food production, war or bad weather. These myths perpetuate the false idea that hunger or malnutrition cannot be stopped, and that they are simply a “natural” occurrence in today’s world. At the most extreme, the thoughtless and racist idea that “feeding them now will only result in more children and even greater malnutrition in the future” has also been used by the Right to excuse global hunger.

It may surprise some to learn that war and famine together account for only 10% of hunger deaths, or that many industrial countries suffer from the same kinds of flash flooding and extreme heat waves that poor countries face. The only difference is that wealthy countries can afford such technologies as refrigeration, advanced watering methods and highly developed transportation systems (not to mention government subsidies and protective trade barriers) which significantly enhance the ability to protect food stuffs from the elements and deliver it to communities in a timely fashion. The huge scarcities created by global capitalism does not allow most poor countries to afford such tools. Ironically, the FAO maintains that our world produces enough food to provide every person with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) every day – more than enough for everyone to enjoy a healthy lifestyle.

The other causes of world hunger are more obvious. The global debt trap is certainly one of them. The World Bank has admitted that the developing world now spends $13 on debt repayment for every $1 it receives in grants. Tens of billions of dollars that could be used for investments in water systems, infrastructure to rural communities, education and health care are instead being used to pay off debts to western banks. At the same time, pro-corporate trade policies have the peculiar effect of opening markets for them to sell products to developing countries (that helps put small farmers there out of business), yet at the same time also allows them to export other foods to the industrialized world from poor countries where malnutrition already exists, an activity that many economists do not seem to have much trouble with. Capitalism 1 : Humanity 0.

Over the last ten years, little progress has been made, with worldwide malnourishment decreasing by only 2.5 million people each year, which even the FAO admits is a drastic slowdown in comparison with previous trends. It is nowhere close to matching the 2015 targets originally laid out at the 1996 World Food Summit. When it comes to food security, global capitalism can be called nothing but a spectacular failure. Like Stalinism, fascism or any other form of tyranny that has bloodied the pages of human history, it should be condemned as a monstrous crime. The most right-wing of free market economists no longer even pretend to believe that the market can properly provide the basics of life to everyone on earth.

If hunger and malnutrition are ever to be brought to an end, than a massive redistribution of wealth and power must be transferred to the world’s poor, including the cancellation of debts to western banks and the breaking up of large, mono-cultured, corporate-based “factory” farms into smaller plots controlled and owned by family farmers and rural communities (which, according to recent evidence, relies on fewer inputs and actually produces higher yields). Improving equal rights, education and access to fairly-paid work and to land for women would also improve food security. Large-scale investments would also have to be made to rural areas, improving health care, housing and transportation systems for farmers. Global dominance of agriculture by big business must give way to social and economic democracy and agricultural diversity at the local level.

What is most hopeful about these ideas becoming a reality is the massive uprising of farmers’ groups and peasant-based organizations throughout the world. As reported by independent media - and ignored by the corporate press - tens of thousands of farmers from Indonesia to Mexico to Brazil have taken up struggle to seize agricultural lands and use them cooperatively for the benefit of local communities and the poor. In other countries like India, in the face of corporate interests that want to patent life and other agricultural products, farmers united and fought to retain ownership of seeds which have been used by rural communities there for thousands of years. This is only the beginning. From these developments, people in the industrialized world are becoming increasingly aware of the issue and are taking action. If only governments would do the same.

Sean Cain lives in Oakville, Ontario and is an unrepentant supporter of socialist democracy. He can be reached at: Copyright © 2004 by Sean Cain.