Hunger, a Specter that Haunts Mexico

Writing in defense of the concept of a guaranteed means of subsistence in the nineteenth century, the French philosopher Charles Fourier claims that “[t]he first right is the right to sustain life, to eat when one is hungry.” Clearly, if we are to examine the present situation in Mexico, as in many other parts of the world, we find this most basic right to be massively violated.

According to the 2008 findings of Mexico’s National Evaluation Council on Social Development (CONEVAL), nearly 49 million Mexicans — over 46 percent of the country’s population — suffered from some form of food insecurity at the time of research. Of these 49 million, 25.8 were subject to what is designated as “light food insecurity,” while 13.7 million suffered “moderate” such insecurity, and 9.3 million “severe.” Included within these 49 million are said to be 11.2 million individuals who consume less than the line at which CONEVAL marks the base-line of extreme material poverty, in addition to nearly 2 million “chronically malnourished” children. World-Bank statistics from 2006 show that 15.5% of Mexican children under 5 are stunted by malnutrition; for comparative purposes, this rate compares to a stunting-prevalence of 16.5% among children under 5 in Lebanon, or of 15.7% in Thailand.

The existence of hunger on such a scale in Mexico speaks to the material poverty and social marginalization experienced by many of its citizens. The drop-off in remittances from abroad, together with the price-inflation and attendant higher taxes experienced since the onset of the present economic crisis, has surely exacerbated food insecurity in the country, as has the increased unemployment rates that have followed from the crisis. Hunger in Mexico seems especially acute among indigenous groups; CONEVAL’s 2008 report states that 33.2% of indigenous Mexican children under 5 are stunted from malnutrition.

The effects of being deprived of food are well-known, but they nonetheless bear mention here. In children, hunger results in stunting and inhibits the ability to concentrate and learn. If prolonged, hunger in children can inhibit brain development; such effects, like those related to stunting, are permanent and irreversible. Hunger also contributes to weakened immune systems, and hence problematizes health outcomes. Generally considered, of course, food underpins human society; work, leisure, social interaction, and the creation of art are largely impossible without it.

Some Possible Structural Bases for Hunger in Mexico

The differences among the various degrees of food insecurity observed by CONEVAL are abstract, though their implications are hardly so: whether a food-insecure household is listed as suffering from “light,” “moderate,” or “severe” food insecurity depends upon the degree to which respondents answered affirmatively when asked such questions as the following, with severity increasing the more affirmative answers were provided: in recent months, has any member of your household skipped a meal, eaten less than s/he should have, or experienced hunger and gone without eating, due to a lack of means?

According to CONEVAL’s findings, populations suffering from “moderate” and “severe” food insecurity seem to be more concentrated in the middle and southeast of Mexico; CONEVAL’s 2008 report states that 24.6% of the population of Morelos suffered from either moderate or severe food insecurity at the time of research, while this number amounted at that time to 26.8% in Guanajuato, 31.3% in Michoacán, 27.2% in Puebla, 28.8% in Oaxaca, 25.4% in Veracruz, 26.3% in Chiapas, and 34.5% in Tabasco. Given that the present economic crisis has deepened since the time when the investigations upon which this study was based took place, the current situation today in mid-2010 is likely far more severe.

One structural factor that may already be contributing to the existence and persistence of hunger in Mexico as elsewhere — and which will undoubtedly contribute to such far more in the future, if matters are not made radically otherwise — is climate change. Climate change, or global warming, refers to the interference that human activities have had, and are having, on the Earth’s climate systems since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, which inaugurated growth economies, automation, and the mass-burning of hydrocarbons — oil, gas, and coal. It has been more than scientifically established that the mass-burning of fossil fuels since the late eighteenth century has caused the Earth’s atmosphere to retain more heat than it otherwise would have; these processes have caused the Earth’s average global temperature to increase by at least 0.7° C since pre-industrial times. The continuation of practices that contribute to global warming in the present day and the near future promises warming on a far greater scale as well.

The warming of the Earth’s atmosphere provoked by climate change threatens potentially catastrophic effects for human society: it will, if unchecked, cause the melting of the polar icecaps and hence cause sea-levels to rise dramatically, radically diminish the availability of freshwater across the globe by causing glaciers to melt away and rainfall patterns to drop off, provoke more frequent and destructive forest-fires, and acidify the world’s oceans.

Its first and most evident effect, though, will be a marked increase in hunger and starvation rates, as Jacques Diouf, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s director, reminded those assembled at the UN climate negotiations that took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, last December. It has been established that a shift toward a hotter world will bring about significant agricultural decline in those societies that find themselves within tropical latitudes; some estimates claim that parts of sub-Saharan Africa will suffer a 50% drop-off in agricultural yield by 2020, while others find that agricultural production will simply be impossible in many parts of Central America if average global temperatures increase by an additional 2° C, an eventuality that is entirely within the realm of possibility, given the entirely inadequate response that human society has presented to the problem of climate change.

Given these considerations, surely any means by which to diminish present and future hunger rates in Mexico and elsewhere must include strategies aimed at preventing predicted future climate-change scenarios from taking place.

Another factor that is likely hampering the struggle for food security in Mexico is the increasing role granted to biofuels in agriculture. Biofuels are the products of agricultural crops — ethanol and others — that are grown to be used as fuel for human transportation — cars, trucks, boats, and planes. They are being hailed in many circles as a viable alternative to the hydrocarbons that have traditionally fueled industrial mass-transportation systems, given questions regarding the political implications of dependence upon petroleum in addition to uncertainty regarding future supplies of such.

The main problem with switching to biofuels, nonetheless, is that the growing of biofuels competes with the growing of crops for food, and hence that favoring the former would have adverse consequences for the latter. It is also the case that biofuels require far more water than other crops, so their mass-production would then divert much-needed water for food-crops. Given such considerations, it is not inconceivable, as the British environmental journalist, George Monbiot, has noted, that the greater purchasing power of those who would drive cars and fly in planes in a biofuel-powered future would have highly negative effects on food security worldwide, bringing about starvation on a mass scale. Biofuel production, in the estimation of former UN special rapporteur, Jean Ziegler, is a “crime against humanity.”

Despite these considerations, the Mexican government aims to have 200,000 hectares of its productive lands dedicated to biofuel production by 2013. This is a lower target than the 300,000 hectares by 2012 that was originally planned, though the scaled-down goal seems to have come about because of low oil prices and hence a lack of marketability for biofuels rather than rational, humane considerations. The aim to have 200,000 hectares set aside for biofuel-production is nonetheless alarming, given its implications for hunger among the Mexican people. Such efforts must somehow be resisted and overcome.

Given these structural explanations that find the existing socio-economic system and the power relations it propagates responsible for the hunger crisis in Mexico, it does also bear mentioning that dominant Mexican dietary choices may, themselves, bear some responsibility for those who suffer hunger today in Mexico. Data from 2002 indicate that, on a per-capita basis, Mexicans consume nearly 59 kilograms of meat a year; this is far short of average for that year for the U.S. (124) or Spain (118), but it is considerably higher than the equivalent to be found in Jordan (29), Morocco (20), Pakistan (12), India (5), or Bangladesh (3); cases comparable to Mexico’s per-capita meat-consumption would be that of China (52) and Russia (51).

As is well-known, the rearing of non-human animals for slaughter and consumption is a highly inefficient process; it is estimated that about 15 kilograms of grain are needed to produce 1 kilogram of meat. In fact, over half of the world’s grain is presently fed to livestock in preparation for their slaughter, while some 30% of the world’s arable land is dedicated to the raising of such animals. If the rights-claims of the nearly 50 million hungry in Mexico or the more than billion global hungry matter, it would seem that the resources currently dedicated to the raising of animals for slaughter could be more humanely re-directed for the growing of food for human consumption, both in Mexico and elsewhere.

Prospects for the Future

As the German social critic, Theodor W. Adorno, writes, “[n]o other hope is left to the past than that […] it shall emerge from it as something different.” Is it nonetheless likely or even possible for there to emerge in the future something “different” than the hunger suffered in Mexico at present? Under most scenarios that will likely come to pass. It unfortunately seems to be the case that the millions of Mexicans who presently suffer from food insecurity will in the future continue to do so, that many more Mexicans will come to be subjected to hunger, and that hunger will deepen.

Recent estimates by the World Bank indicate that the global economic crisis will continue unabated in the coming years, greatly increasing the number subject to extreme poverty and hunger across the globe. A worrying possible eventuality is that Mexico will come to experience the neo-colonial land grabs that speculators from Western, Arab, and Asian countries have been visiting upon Latin American and African societies in recent years: that is, their buying-out of much of the arable lands found in such countries so as to produce food for export to their home countries. Present global economic inequalities, combined with the extant market system, entirely allow for this to occur in the Mexican context.

The alarming and to-date largely inexplicable recent disappearance of honeybee populations across the globe also has disturbing implications for food production in Mexico, as elsewhere, given that honeybees’ contributions to the pollination of the Earth’s plants is clearly central to the continuation of world agricultural production. Furthermore, the possibility that world oil supplies are expected to decline in the coming decades — that humanity has, in fact, passed ‘peak oil’ — also bodes badly for future food supplies, given that many of the fertilizers that underpin the present agricultural-production system are, themselves, products of hydrocarbons. Were oil supplies to so diminish in the near future, though, it is possible that the specter of climate catastrophe could be averted, seeing as how the consumption of petroleum is the primary contributing factor to such, though the prospect of such a fortuitous outcome in this sense could be negated if the role presently played by petroleum were to be filled by coal and other highly-destructive fuels, such as oil shale and tar sands.

It is, in any case, clear that likely future scenarios of climate change, if not somehow prevented in the here and now, will, without question, disrupt agricultural production processes across much of the globe and hence bring about hunger and starvation of monumental proportions. Recent proposals to codify the right to food within the Mexican constitution, then, are for all their progressiveness largely impotent, if they leave the power relations and prevailing socio-economic structures of existing society intact.

These grave considerations notwithstanding, it is still not impossible that this myriad of life-negating realities be overturned — that a world, in Adorno’s words, in which “no one shall go hungry” be born from the present. The prospect held out by the Global Scenario Group of what it terms a “great transition” toward a world characterized by liberty, equality, and harmony with nature is theoretically still possible. Let us hope it can come to be realized.

Perhaps most generally conceived, it should be said that the existence of mass hunger today in Mexico, as in human society generally, finds its most ultimate basis in the presently dominant mode of economic organization: that of capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system that values private property, the accumulation of wealth, and economic growth above all else; as dramatically evidenced in its recent neo-liberal phase, it requires the exclusion of popular participation over production and consumption decision-making processes to function normally.

The unfortunate result of this economic framework, as the renowned North-American philosopher, Noam Chomsky, has succinctly put it, is that the interests of profit are placed above those of people. The inability of nearly 50 million Mexicans to afford something so basic as food — or, indeed, the inability of over 1 billion humans worldwide today to do so — is an irrelevant consideration to the workings of this system and its defenders, as long as profits are to be made. The struggle to do away with the tragedies of hunger and human poverty, then, necessitate the abolition of capitalism, so as to allow for the possibility of an economic system based on need and societal rationality.

Javier Sethness is an educator, translator, and libertarian socialist. He the author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism, and he is currently finishing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse. Read other articles by Javier, or visit Javier's website.