Food Aid as Dumping

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Monday, October 31, 2005

Some years back, a keynote speaker at the International Famine Centre at Cork, Ireland, detailed how maize was loaded on ships bound for Britain at the height of the great Irish potato famine that killed some 1.5 million people more than 150 years ago. He paused and then lamented: “I wonder what kind of people lived at that time who were not even remotely offended at the sight of millions dying of hunger in the same village where the ships were being loaded.”

A hundred years later, the same class of people were largely responsible for the great Bengal Famine in 1943, in which an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million people perished. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen explains in his now well-known theory of entitlements, the Bengal famine was not the result of a drastic slump in food production but because the colonial masters had diverted food for other commercial purposes. And if you are wondering whether the same evil class of the elite decision-makers has perished with the collapse of the erstwhile colonies, hold your breadth.

In the last 60 years or so, following the great human tragedy of the Bengal famine, food aid was conveniently used as a political weapon…

Food was then a political weapon. Food aid has now in addition become a commercial enterprise. Famine or no famine, the Shylocks of the grain trade must have their “pound of flesh”.

Devinder Sharma, Africa’s Tragedy; Famine as Commerce, November 10, 2002

Certain types of food “aid” (when not for emergency relief) can actually be destructive. Dumping food on to poorer nations (i.e. free, subsidized, or cheap food, below market prices) undercuts local farmers, who cannot compete and are driven out of jobs and into poverty, further slanting the market share of the larger producers such as those from the US and Europe.

Destroying local markets; increasing hunger in the name of aid

J. W. Smith, of the Institute for Economic Democracy, in his 1994 book titled the World’s Wasted Wealth II, has detailed research and summarizes the issue very well and is worth quoting at length:

Highly mechanized farms on large acreages can produce units of food cheaper than even the poorest paid farmers of the Third World. When this cheap food is sold, or given, to the Third World, the local farm economy is destroyed. If the poor and unemployed of the Third World were given access to land, access to industrial tools, and protection from cheap imports, they could plant high-protein/high calorie crops and become self-sufficient in food. Reclaiming their land and utilizing the unemployed would cost these societies almost nothing, feed them well, and save far more money than they now pay for the so-called “cheap” imported foods.

World hunger exists because: (1) colonialism, and later subtle monopoly capitalism, dispossessed hundreds of millions of people from their land; the current owners are the new plantation managers producing for the mother countries; (2) the low-paid undeveloped countries sell to the highly paid developed countries because there is no local market [because the low-paid people do not have enough to pay] … and (3) the current Third World land owners, producing for the First World, are appendages to the industrialized world, stripping all natural wealth from the land to produce food, lumber, and other products for wealthy nations.

This system is largely kept in place by underpaying the defeated colonial societies for the real value of their labor and resources, leaving them no choice but to continue to sell their natural wealth to the over-paid industrial societies that overwhelmed them. To eliminate hunger: (1) the dispossessed, weak, individualized people must be protected from the organized and legally protected multinational corporations; (2) there must be managed trade to protect both the Third World and the developed world, so the dispossessed can reclaim use of their land; (3) the currently defeated people can then produce the more labor-intensive, high-protein/high-calorie crops that contain all eight (or nine) essential amino acids; and (4) those societies must adapt dietary patterns so that vegetables, grains, and fruits are consumed in the proper amino acid combinations, with small amounts of meat or fish for flavor. With similar dietary adjustments among the wealthy, there would be enough food for everyone.

J.W. Smith, The World’s Wasted Wealth 2, (Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994), pp. 63, 64.

He goes on to show the effects of imports and exports with regards to food production:

The United States lent governments money to buy this food, and then enforced upon them the extraction and export of their natural resources to pay back the debt…

Not only is much U.S. food exported unnecessary, but it results in great harm to the very people they profess to be helping. The United States exported over sixty million tons of grain in 1974. Only 3.3 million tons were for aid, and most of that did not reach the starving. For example, during the mid-1980s, 84 percent of U.S. agricultural exports to Latin America were given to the local governments to sell to the people. This undersold local producers, destroyed their markets, and reduced their production.

Exporting food may be profitable for the exporting country, but when their land is capable of producing adequate food, it is a disaster to the importing countries. [Note that many of the poor nations today are rich in natural resources and arable land.] American farmers would certainly riot if 60 percent of their markets were taken over by another country. Not only would the farmers suffer, but the entire economy would be severely affected.

Imported food is not as cheap as it appears. If the money expended on imports had been spent within the local economy, it would have multiplied several times as it moved through the economy contracting local labor (the multiplier effect) …

This moving of money through an economy is why there is so much wealth in a high-wage manufacturing and exporting country and so little within a low-wage country that is “dependent” on imports. With centuries of mercantilist experience, developed societies understand this well.

… [S]ubsidies, tariffs and other trade policies eliminate the comparative advantage of other regions to maintain healthy economies in the developed world. … The result of these First World subsidies [for export] are shattered Third World economies.

J.W. Smith, The World’s Wasted Wealth 2, (Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994), pp. 66-67.

(One of the U.S. food “aid” programs that J.W. Smith is referring to above is the Food for Peace, or Public Law 480 (PL 480).)

In that final paragraph above, Smith also points out that subsidies to protect industries in the developed world allows products to be produced, which can then lead to dumping on developing countries, whose tariffs etc have been removed due to “free trade” policies and Structural Adjustment, as described earlier.

Anuradha Mittal, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy describes some of the harsh realities of this and is worth quoting at length:

The victims of free market dogma can be found all over the developing world. An estimated 43 per- cent of the rural population of Thailand now lives below the poverty line, even though agricultural exports grew an astounding 65 percent between 1985 and 1995. In Bolivia, following half a decade of the most spectacular agricultural export growth in its history, by 1990, 95 percent of the rural population earned less than a dollar a day. In the Philippines, as acreage under rice and corn declines and the area under “cut flowers” increases, 350,000 rural livelihoods are set to be destroyed.

Similarly, in Brazil during the 1970s, agricultural exports, particularly soybeans (almost all of which went to feed Japanese and European livestock), were boosted phenomenally. At the same time, however, the hunger of Brazilians spread from one-third of the population in the 1960s to two-thirds by the early 1980s. Even in the 1990s, as Brazil became the world’s third largest agricultural exporter — the area planted to soybeans having grown 37 percent from 1980 to 1995, displacing forests and small farmers in the process — per capita production of rice, a basic staple of the Brazilian diet, fell by 18 percent.

The Mexican government, meanwhile, has put over 2 million corn farmers out of business over the past few years by allowing imports of heavily subsidized corn from the United States. A flood of cheap imported grain has also driven local farmers out of business in Costa Rica. From 1984 to 1989, the number growing corn, beans, and rice, the staples of the local diet, fell from 70,000 to 27,000. That is the loss of 42,300 livelihoods. The same has taken place in Haiti, which the IMF forced open to imports of highly subsidized U.S. rice at the same time as it banned Haiti from subsidizing its own farmers. Between 1980 and 1997, rice imports grew from virtually zero to 200,000 tons a year, at the expense of domestically produced staples. As a result, Haitian farmers have been forced off their land to seek work in sweatshops, and people are worse off than ever: according to the IMF’s own figures, 50 percent of Haitian children younger than 5 suffer from malnutrition and per capita income has dropped from around $600 in 1980 to $369 today.

Kenya, which had been self-sufficient until the 1980s, now imports 80 percent of its food, while 80 percent of its exports are accounted for by agriculture. In 1992, European Union (EU) wheat was sold in Kenya for 39 percent cheaper than the price paid to European farmers by the EU. In 1993, it was 50 percent cheaper. Consequently, imports of EU grain rose and, in 1995, Kenyan wheat prices collapsed through oversupply, undermining local production and creating poverty.

Far from ending hunger and promoting the economic interests of small farmers, agricultural liberalization has created a global food system that is structured to suit the interests of the powerful, to the detriment of poor farmers around the world.

Anuradha Mittal, Land Loss, Poverty and Hunger, Alternet.org, December 3, 2001

Mittal, quoted above, is also worth quoting again, in an interview:

Of the 830 million hungry people worldwide, a third of them live in India. Yet in 1999, the Indian government had 10 million tons of surplus food grains: rice, wheat, and so on. In the year 2000, that surplus increased to almost 60 million tons — most of it left in the granaries to rot. Instead of giving the surplus food to the hungry, the Indian government was hoping to export the grain to make money. It also stopped buying grain from its own farmers, leaving them destitute. The farmers, who had gone into debt to purchase expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the advice of the government, were now forced to burn their crops in their fields.

At the same time, the government of India was buying grain from Cargill and other American corporations, because the aid India receives from the World Bank stipulates that the government must do so. This means that today India is the largest importer of the same grain it exports. It doesn’t make sense — economic or otherwise.

This situation is not unique to India. In 1985, Indonesia received the gold medal from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization for achieving food self-sufficiency. Yet by 1998, it had become the largest recipient of food aid in the world. I participated in a fact-finding mission to investigate Indonesia’s reversal of fortune. Had the rains stopped? Were there no more crops in Indonesia? No, the cause of the food insecurity in Indonesia was the Asian financial crisis. Banks and industries were closing down. In the capital of Jakarta alone, fifteen thousand people lost their jobs in just one day. Then, as I traveled to rural areas, I saw rice plants dancing in field after field, and I saw cassava and all kinds of fruits. There was no shortage of food, but the people were too poor to buy it. So what did the U.S. and other countries, like Australia, do? Smelling an opportunity to unload their own surplus wheat in the name of "food aid," they gave loans to Indonesia upon the condition that it buy wheat from them. And Indonesians don’t even eat wheat.

Remember the much-publicized famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s? Many of us don’t realize that, during that famine, Ethiopia was exporting green beans to Europe. [Emphasis Added]

But the deeper issue here has to do with the fact that food aid is not usually free. It is often loaned, albeit at a low interest rate. When the U.S. sent wheat to Indonesia during the 1999 crisis, it was a loan to be paid back over a twenty-five-year period. In this manner, food aid has helped the U.S. take over grain markets in India, Nigeria, Korea, and elsewhere.

Anuradha Mittal, True Cause of World Hunger, Institute for Food and Development Policy, February 2002

More generally, international policies relating to agriculture have been politically weighted towards the more powerful nations who are more influential. While the European Union (EU) and U.S. for example are strong and vocal in demanding that poor countries remove tariffs and other barriers to trade and that it will give them prosperity, they do the opposite. Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst comments:

a new Farm Bill pending before the U.S. Congress provides for support of a staggering $170 billion to American agriculture in the next ten years. On the other hand, the EU, paradoxically one of the leading proponents of trade liberalization, has one of the most protected agricultural sectors in the world through its Common Agricultural Policy. Such is the double standard of the EU that it forces developing countries, through the Western-dominated World Trade Organization (WTO), to open up their economies when Europe’s agriculture sector is the most subsidized in the world.

“Dollar for dollar, America exports more meat than steel, more corn than cosmetics, more wheat than coal, more bakery products than motorboats, and more fruits and vegetables than household appliances,” Mattie Sharpless, Acting Administrator, Foreign Agriculture Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently told the Senate Agriculture Committee. She also added that agriculture is one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy that consistently contributes a surplus to its trade balance. In fact, the U.S. projections for the current year are that 53% of its wheat crop, 47% of cotton, 42% of rice, 35% of soybeans, and 21% of corn will be exported. This has only been made possible by the heavy subsidies and the removal of trade barriers or QRs in the developing countries.

Devinder Sharma, Food Supremacy, Foreign Policy In Focus, 13 February, 2002

This mercantile process above shows how “aid” can be used as a foreign policy tool.

Farm subsidies have also contributed to surpluses which have been dumped on poorer nations, as discussed in further detail on this site’s section that looks at foreign aid from rich nations. For example, Europe subsidizes its agriculture to the tune of some $35-40 billion per year, even while it demands other nations to liberalize their markets to foreign competition. The U.S. also introduced a $190 billion dollar subsidy to its farms through the U.S. Farm Bill, also criticized as a protectionist measure.

Oxfam illustrates how this can then translate into dumping and other effects:

Europe’s sugar-production costs are among the world’s highest but, paradoxically, the EU is the world’s second biggest sugar exporter. This is made possible by setting the domestic sugar price at three times international prices, and subsidizing exports of excess production onto the world market. EU consumers and taxpayers are forced to pay the hefty bill of (Euro)1.6bn, but the impact falls hardest on developing countries. This is because the EU sugar regime has the following effects:

  • It blocks developing-country exporters, including some of the world’s poorest countries like Mozambique, from European markets,
  • It undercuts developing countries in valuable third markets, such as the Middle East, by subsidizing exports to prices below international costs of production,
  • It depresses world prices by dumping subsidized and surplus production, so damaging foreign-exchange earnings for low-cost exporters such as Brazil, Thailand, and southern Africa.

… the real winners are a few European sugar processors, and large farmers, who together form a powerful lobby which has blocked change for decades.

…In Jamaica, some 3,000 poor dairy farmers are being put out of business because of unfair competition from heavily subsidized European milk dumped on their market. The subsidies on the 5,500 tons shipped annually cost the European taxpayer $3m. Many of the farmers are women running their own small businesses. They are literally throwing away thousands of liters of milk from overflowing coolers. Many are leaving the industry that has supported their families for decades.

Europe’s Double Standards. How the EU should reform its trade policies with the developing world, Oxfam Policy Paper, April 2002, p.11 (Link is to the press release, which includes a link to the actual PDF document from which the above is cited.)

In addition, Oxfam also continues (p.12) that “Before the Bill passed, White House officials admitted that it would greatly encourage overproduction, fail to help US farmers most in need, and jeopardize markets abroad. According to the European Commission, ‘there is no doubt that the vast bulk of payments under the Farm Bill will go to the largest agri-businesses’. Third World producers will find it harder to sell to the US market and, since the USA exports 25 per cent of its farm production, they will find it harder to sell in other international markets or to resist competition from US products in their home markets. The disposal of increased US surpluses as ‘food aid’ is likely to compound the loss of livelihoods.”

Poverty and hunger are not just simple economic issues then; they are results of complex factors and decisions and aspects of a political economy; an ideological construct. President Aristide of Haiti faced this food dumping in Haiti as well:

What happens to poor countries when they embrace free trade? In Haiti in 1986 we imported just 7000 tons of rice, the main staple food of the country. The vast majority was grown in Haiti. In the late 1980s Haiti complied with free trade policies advocated by the international lending agencies and lifted tariffs on rice imports. Cheaper rice immediately flooded in from the United States where the rice industry is subsidized. In fact the liberalization of Haiti’s market coincided with the 1985 Farm Bill in the United States which increased subsidies to the rice industry so that 40% of U.S. rice growers' profits came from the government by 1987. Haiti’s peasant farmers could not possibly compete. By 1996 Haiti was importing 196,000 tons of foreign rice at the cost of $100 million a year. Haitian rice production became negligible. Once the dependence on foreign rice was complete, import prices began to rise, leaving Haiti’s population, particularly the urban poor, completely at the whim of rising world grain prices. And the prices continue to rise.

What lessons do we learn? For poor countries free trade is not so free, or so fair. Haiti, under intense pressure from the international lending institutions, stopped protecting its domestic agriculture while subsidies to the U.S. rice industry increased. A hungry nation became hungrier.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Eyes of the Heart; Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization, (Common Courage Press, 2000), pp. 11-12

Note in the above quote, the effect this created dependency has. Free trade and globalization and its effects are discussed on this web site as well.

As a further example, Aristide continues by describing how the eradication of the Creole pigs in Haiti in the 1980s and replacing them with “healthier” pigs resulted in further poverty and hunger:

Haiti’s small, black, Creole pigs were at the heart of the peasant economy. An extremely hearty breed, well adapted to Haiti’s climate and conditions, they ate readily-available waste products, and could survive for three days without food. Eighty to 85% of rural households raised pigs; they played a key role in maintaining the fertility of the soil and constituted the primary savings bank of the peasant population. Traditionally a pig was sold to pay for emergencies and special occasions (funerals, marriages, baptisms, illnesses and, critically, to pay school fees and buy books for the children when school opened … )

In 1982 international agencies assured Haiti’s peasants their pigs were sick and had to be killed (so that the illness would not spread to countries to the North). Promises were made that better pigs would replace sick pigs. With an efficiency not since seen among development projects, all of the Creole pigs were killed over a period of thirteen months.

Two years later the new, better pigs came from Iowa. They were so much better that they required clean drinking water (unavailable to 80% of the Haitian population), imported feed (costing $90 a year when the per capita income was about $130), and special roofed pigpens.… Adding insult to injury, the meat did not taste as good. Needless to say, the repopulation program was a complete failure. One observer of the process estimated that in monetary terms peasants lost $600 million dollars. There was a 30% drop in enrollment in rural schools, there was a dramatic decline in protein consumption in rural Haiti, a devastating decapitalization of the peasant economy and an incalculable negative impact on Haiti’s soil and agricultural productivity. The Haitian peasantry has not recovered to this day.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Eyes of the Heart; Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization, (Common Courage Press, 2000), pp. 13-15

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The impact on biodiversity and the environment

The way trade agreements and so called aid and economic policies such as the structural adjustment policies have been formulated with respect to agriculture is such that the diversity of crops and species is to be sacrificed for monocultures for their hard cash that exporting would earn. As seen in the biodiversity section of this web site, diversity is important because of the free services offered by nature, that allow species to survive, resist disease and provide resources for everyone. Reducing genetic diversity is therefore extremely costly.

Climate change will have a greater impact on the environment where biodiversity has been reduced.

The Guardian summarizes a United Nations warning that, “One in six countries in the world face food shortages this year because of severe droughts that could become semi-permanent under climate change.”

Drought and desertification are starting to spread and intensify in some parts of the world already.

Some of UK’s top environment and development groups have formed a coalition known as the Working Group on Climate Change and Development. In a report the coalition released, they say that efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa will ultimately fail unless urgent action is taken to halt dangerous climate change. “If not addressed, climate change is estimated to place an additional 80–120 million people at risk of hunger; 70 to 80 per cent of these will be in Africa.” (p. 6).

In addition, not only are smaller farms more productive, but they are less costly:

Highly diverse systems, as opposed to commercial monocultures, have been shown time and again to be more resilient — and more productive. Farming based on expensive and energy intensive artificial inputs will be both vulnerable to fuel price rises and further add to the problem of climate change.

Africa — Up in Smoke?, Second report from Working Group on Climate Change and Development, June 20, 2005, p. 3

The report also notes that

  • A lack of financial resources has meant there has been little investment in much-needed drought-resistent farming
  • Rainy seasons are become less predictable and frequent due to climate changes, yet some important types of farming in Africa relies on rain a lot
  • Farmers therefore need access to seeds that are adapted to drought or reduced rainfall at crucial stages in the growing season. However, “A variety of forces have led to a reduced availability of local seeds, and increased dependence on hybrid seeds and crops like maize that are not well adapted to these conditions.”
  • “Another pressure comes from the concentration of ownership in the seed industry into a handful of large corporations. Ten companies now control one-third of the global seed industry, further threatening agricultural biodiversity.”
  • Diverse cropping systems, rather than monocropping, “is also much more suited to the harsh conditions in which most farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa operate.”

(See also pages 6-18 of the above report for more details on climate change impacts, the environment, and agriculture.) The report hints at the fact that there are many, many things that can be done to improve agriculture in such a way that it does not require extensive — and expensive — inputs, while increasing yield and the integrity of the environment. Food security can increase, thus reducing dependency on others, and therefore minimizing the chances of food dumping, and the politicization and commercialization of food aid.

Indian scientist and activist, Vandana Shiva, for example, has done extensive research for many years on this aspect and is quoted here at length:

Industrial agriculture has not produced more food. It has destroyed diverse sources of food, and it has stolen food from other species to bring larger quantities of specific commodities to the market, using huge quantities of fossil fuels and water and toxic chemicals in the process.… Since cattle and earthworms are our partners in food production, stealing food from them makes it impossible to maintain food production over time, and means that the partial yield increases [during the Green Revolution] were not sustainable.

… More grain from two or three commodities arrived on national and international markets, but less food was eaten by farm families in the Third World.

The gain in “yields” of industrially produced crops is based on a theft of food from other species and the rural poor in the Third World. That is why, as more grain is produced and traded globally, more people go hungry in the Third World. Global markets have more commodities for trading because food has been robbed from nature and the poor.

… [I]ndustrial breeding [and growing of crops] actually increases pressure on the land, since each acre of a monoculture provides a single output, and the displaced outputs have to be grown on additional acres, or “shadow” acres.

… Wasting resources creates hunger. By wasting resources through one-dimensional monocultures maintained with intensive external inputs, the new biotechnologies create food insecurity and starvation.

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, (South End Press, 2000), pp. 12-13

In fact, Shiva goes on to discuss other aspects that show economic factors overriding common sense, such as:

  • Dumping BSE-infected beef onto the Third World, after the people of the First World rejected it (Ibid, pp. 65-66)
  • Promoting beef, soy and other non-traditional diets into various developing countries that do not consume these foods normally, so that the first world can again benefit from these larger markets of consumers (Ibid, pp. 21-37, 66-70)
  • In 1991, then chief economist for the World Bank Larry Summers, (and currently US Treasury Secretary, until the elected Bush and the Republican party come into power), wrote in an internal memo:

    Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of dirty industries to the LDCs [less developed countries]?… The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that… Under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City… The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-five mortality is 200 per thousand.

    Lawrence Summers, Let them eat pollution, The Economist, February 8, 1992. Quoted from Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, (South End Press, 2000) p.65; See also Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp. 233-236 for a detailed look at this.

  • Dumping genetically engineered food to cyclone suffers in Orissa, India. (See bottom of this interview with Vandana Shiva.)

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Similar processes go on today, especially with Genetically Engineered Foods

And while the next section will describe how food dumping in the recent past has created hunger and poverty that doesn’t suggest it has stopped today. In fact, protests by farmers in Brazil and around the world in April 2001 marked an “International Day of Farmers' Struggle” highlighting and protesting various issues such as police massacres of rural workers, genetically modified seeds, and agricultural trade that jeopardizes food security.

The Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First) also reveals that “US taxpayer dollars are being used through foreign assistance programs to subsidize the export of genetically engineered (GE) foods to the Third World and to finance GE research” thus raising “very serious ethical questions about [U.S. tax payers'] foreign aid dollars.”

They additionally point out that this is a form of corporate welfare, at the expense of U.S. tax payers, because the U.S. government ends up “subsidizing agribusiness by buying surplus GMO crops and distributing them through foreign aid programs. This helps large corporations to penetrate new markets abroad. Funds intended to assist the poor instead wind up in corporate coffers.”

The science journal, Nature, also comments on the issue of GM food aid to African nations during the 2002 famine, adding that,

In the case of US food aid, including some of the emergency aid currently flowing into southern Africa, grants or loans are normally made available only for the procurement of grain from US farmers. That makes the decision to grant the aid more politically palatable, because it is, in effect, just a few dollars more on top of the billions already being lavished on domestic farm support.…

It is certainly to be hoped that the United States is not using the current famine threat to get its GM crops into Africa through the back door to expand the restricted export market for them.

The United States donates almost 60% of the world’s food aid and, as long as much of that aid is tied to the procurement of food from US farmers, the region facing famine will probably have to accept GM food.

Poverty and transgenic crops, Nature 418, 569, August 8 2002 (registration may be required to view content)

Friends of the Earth for example, have also started a campaign about GM food in food aid. Amongst other concerns, they have found that GM foods not approved for human consumption have been part of the food aid.

Furthermore, such foods, which are still controversial, as described in the Genetically Engineered Food section on this web site, for example, are often not labeled as such.

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Food Aid and Famines Exploited as Commercial Opportunity

When hunger’s roots are to be found in the inability to purchase available food, and in the lack of access to available food, then such food “aid” doesn’t do much for addressing such issues. Although, it does help corporations get funding for research and testing on unsuspecting people as pointed out by the following:

The US food aid system appears to disregard the rights and concerns of recipient citizens in order to assure profits for US agribusiness giants. It is a system that allows for the misspending of public funds in ways that benefit the private sector; a system that takes advantage of the lack of regulation concerning the genetic engineering of food; and a system that undermines democratic decision making about food consumption.

Food Aid in the New Millennium — Genetically Engineered Food and Foreign Assistance, Institute for Food and Development Policy, December 2000

The International Relations Center (IRC) also notes the profit motive behind food aid dumping: “Agroexporters such as Cargill and Archer-Daniels Midland, which provide one-third of U.S. food aid, and U.S. charity organizations such as CARE, World Vision, and Catholic Relief Services, which account for four-fifths of food aid delivery, directly collaborate with and benefit from this” food aid policy. US food aid accounts for nearly 60 percent of the world’s food aid currently.

Canada, another large provider of food aid, has recently decided to use half its food aid budget to provide buy food locally in developing countries, rather than dump its own. This encourages local economies, rather than destroy them.

The IRC also summarized a report from the OECD noting that:

  • Foreign assistance shipped in the form of food often arrives late, disrupts local markets, and costs up to 50% more to deliver than cash.
  • Commodity shipments often arrive too late and are more expensive than local purchases.
  • US food aid being shipped to famine-struck Niger will likely coincide with the a bumper harvest in the region, thereby competing directly with area farmers.

Dumping Genetically Modified Food as Aid During Famine

Devinder Sharma, quoted right at the beginning of this article is quite blunt about how the tying the use of famine relief and food aid to genetically modified crops is leading to profiteering from famines:

What is arguably one of the most blatantly anti-humanitarian act, seen as morally repugnant, is the decision of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to offer US $50 million in food aid to famine-stricken Zimbabwe provided that it is used to purchase genetically modified maize. Food aid therefore is no longer an instrument of foreign policy. It has now become a major commercial activity, even if it means exploiting the famine victims and starving millions.

That is the official line at the USAID about the corn it has offered to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi, where an estimated 13 million people face severe hunger and possibly live under the spectre of an impending famine after two years of drought and floods.

For the genetically modified food industry, reeling under a growing rejection of its untested and harmful food products, there is money in hunger, starvation and death. Spearheaded by USAID, the industry has made it abundantly clear that it has only genetically modified maize to offer and was not willing to segregate….

… the biotechnology industry is using all its financial power to break down the African resistance [to GM crops]. Once the GM food is accepted as humanitarian aid, it will be politically difficult for the African governments to oppose the corporate take-over of Africa’s agricultural economy. For the industry, Africa provides a huge market.

Devinder Sharma, Africa’s Tragedy; Famine as Commerce, November 10, 2002

The previous sections above have shown commercial issues trumping famine and food aid issues. In the summer of 2002, the issue came to the forefront with various Southern African nations being offered aid as long as they purchased GM foods, while they were going through famine. In that context, as well as food aid being a foreign policy tool, famines and food aid is now also seen as a commercial opportunity.

Food Security Undermined by Debt Repayments

Countries ravaged by poverty are susceptible to this type of commercial opportunism. Devastating Structural Adjustment programs from the IMF and World Bank have left poor countries unable to determine their own economic future, as they are forced to export their raw materials and resources to earn foreign exchange with which to pay off debts. Health, education and other important services then get a back seat.

Basic food security has also been undermined. An example in 2002 at least made it to mainstream media attention in UK. As Ann Petifor, head of debt campaign organization, Jubilee Research noted, the IMF forced the Malwai government to sell its surplus grain in favor of foreign exchange just before a famine struck. This was explicitly so that debts could be repaid. 7 million of the total 11 million population were severely short of food.

“But its worse than that,” said Petifor. “Because Malawi is indebted, her economic policies are effectively determined by her creditors — represented in Malawi by the IMF.” Malawi spent more than the budget the foreign creditors set. As a result, the IMF withheld $47 million in aid. Other western donors, acting on advice from IMF staff, also withheld aid, “pending IMF approval of the national budget.” (Emphasis added).

“To add to the humiliation of the Malawian government, the IMF has also suspended the debt service relief for which she was only recently deemed eligible — because she is ‘off track.’”

That is not the end of the story unfortunately. As Petifor also mentioned, under the economic program imposed by her creditors, Malawi removed all farming and food subsidies allowing the market to determine demand and supply for food. This reduced support for farmers, leading many to go hungry as prices increased. As she also noted, the rich countries, on the other hand, do not follow their own policies; Europe and the US subsidize their agriculture with billions of dollars.

But the US, for example, see this situation as exploitable. Petifor again:

US Secretary for Agriculture, Dan Glickman, illustrates well the US attitude to countries suffering famine and in need of food aid:

“Humanitarian and national self interest both can be served by well-designed foreign assistance programs. Food aid has not only met emergency food needs, but has also been a useful market development tool.” (OXFAM report: “Rigged Rules and Double Standards: Trade Globalization and the Fight Against Poverty” by Kevin Watkins and Penny Fowler)

Ann Petifor, Debt is still the lynchpin: the case of Malawi, Jubilee Research, July 4, 2002

It is not just the US that uses aid in this way. Most rich countries do this. And it isn’t just food aid, but aid in general that is often used inappropriately. The Guardian reported (August 29, 2005) how £700,000 (about $400,000) of £3 million in British aid to Malawi was mis-spent on US firms’ hotel and meal bills. Even notebooks and pens were flown in from Washington rather than purchased locally. See this site’s section on foreign aid for more details about the issue of foreign aid and its misuse.

Dumping Undesirable Food During Emergency Relief

Another example is British food aid to the United States, in the wake of the devastation caused to some southern states after hurricane Katrina:

The Washington Post (October 14, 2005) reported that most of the food that arrived at a particular facility, worth $5.3 million, “never reached the victims of Hurricane Katrina … because of fears about mad cow disease and a long-standing ban on British beef, the rations routinely consumed by British soldiers”.

On first thoughts, it may not be surprising that the US appears to have received criticism of this, especially as the entire disaster recovery effort after Katrina has been described (by the Post) as “slow, inefficient and at times wasteful”.

However, in this circumstance, the US government may be justified in their action:

  • Since 1997, the United States has banned beef products from Britain and several other European countries that have been affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease. This is fatal in cattle and can lead to a similar illness in humans.
  • As was noted further above, a few years earlier when some countries in Africa were facing famine, some chose to reject food aid that contained genetically modified food, on safety concerns, despite a lot of pressure (ironically, it may seem, from the US) to accept them.
  • The US should also be allowed to reject food aid on safety grounds, if they feel that is best for their citizens. In addition, as the Post noted, generally people were no longer going hungry in the aftermath of Katrina as they were mostly in shelter of some sort. As a result, the need for food has not been as urgent as it could have been, and in that case, there may have been more consideration about whether or not to accept this particular package of food.

However, there is a twist in this for which the US could be criticized, and that is what they want to do with all that food that’s been sitting in a warehouse in the meantime. As the Post adds,

State Department officials have considered sending the food to Guatemala, which was devastated by mudslides. But the impoverished country does not have vehicles to transport the enormous pallets. For cultural reasons, the meals would be inappropriate for Pakistani earthquake victims.

“Everyone wants a happy ending,” said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity, given the already bruised feelings in Britain. “No one wants them to go to waste. Everyone wants them to be put to good use.”

Ceci Connolly, Katrina Food Aid Blocked by U.S. Rules; Meals From Britain Sit in Warehouse, Washington Post, October 14, 2005; Page A01 (Emphasis Added)

What the Post did not seem to question was how it could be “good use” to dump this food onto another country if they themselves find it unfit for consumption by their own citizens. Would that really be a “happy ending?” Does “everyone” include the Guatemalan government and people in this case?

Such types of “aid” are not likely, therefore, to help the hungry, but instead, help those large agribusiness firms, and even risks increasing hunger even more, as the next section details.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Saturday, November 25, 2000
  • Last Updated: Monday, October 31, 2005

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Document Revision History

DateReason
October 31, 2005Added short note about food dumping being a profit driver for some companies.
October 15, 2005Small subsection added on Dumping Undesirable Food During Emergency Relief, how Britain has donated beef to the US, which the US has long banned.
October 2, 2005Very small note on how some aid to Malawi was misspent
June 25, 2005Added a note about climate change impacts on agriculture, and about the Malawi example of famines as commercial opportunities, where the IMF forced it to sell surplus grain before a famine struck and where GM food was offered, as there is commercial benefits for companies offering it.

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