Causes of Hunger are related to Poverty

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, October 03, 2010

Consider the following:

  • Over 9 million people die worldwide each year because of hunger and malnutrition. 5 million are children.
  • Approximately 1.2 billion people suffer from hunger (deficiency of calories and protein);
  • Some 2 to 3.5 billion people have micronutrient deficiency (deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
  • Yet, some 1.2 billion suffer from obesity (excess of fats and salt, often accompanied by deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
  • Food wastage is also high:
    • In the United Kingdom, “a shocking 30-40% of all food is never eaten;”
      • In the last decade the amount of food British people threw into the bin went up by 15%;
      • Overall, £20 billion (approximately $38 billion US dollars) worth of food is thrown away, every year.
    • In the US 40-50% of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten
      • Of the food that does eventually reach households, some 14% is wasted, resulting in something like $43 billion of wastage
      • If food reaching supermarkets, restaurants and cafeterias is added to the household figure, that wastage goes up to 27%.
    • In Sweden, families with small children throw out about a quarter of the food they buy
    • In some parts of Africa a quarter or more of the crops go bad before they can be eaten. More generally, high losses in developing nations are mainly due to a lack of technology and infrastructure as well as insect infestations, microbial growth, damage and high temperatures and humidity.
    • The impacts of this waste is not just financial. Environmentally this leads to:
      • Wasteful use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides;
      • More fuel used for transportation;
      • More rotting food, creating more methane — one of the most harmful greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change.
      • Reducing wastage in the US by half could reduce adverse environmental impacts by 25 percent through reduced landfill use, soil depletion and applications of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
  • The direct medical cost of hunger and malnutrition is estimated at $30 billion each year.
  • Sources

    The first three stats come from a report by UK-based Centre for Food Policy, Thames Valley University and UK Public Health Association, titled Why health is the key for the future of farming and food, January 24, 2002. See page 10, Table 1 for the data.

    The stats on food wastage come from

    • The best meal you'll never have!, Costing the Earth, BBC Radio 4, April 14, 2005.
    • Wasted Food blog also notes that more than 40% of food is wasted in the US
    • U.S. Throws Away Half Its Food by Kate Melville, ScienceAGoGo, November 24, 2004. This article also notes that “households waste 14 percent of their food purchases” and is also the source for the bit about reducing environmental impacts by 25%.
    • One Country’s Table Scraps, Another Country’s Meal, by Andrew Martin, New York Times, May 18, 2008 makes the note about 27% of wastage in American supermarkets, restaurants, cafeterias and homes, and is also the source for the Sweden, Africa and developing nations figures.

    See also, for example, this site’s section on consumption effects for more issues.

    Stats on annual deaths and medical costs from from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004 report.

    Notes from SellingPower.com points out that:

    • “Numerous studies suggest that every dollar invested in well-targeted interventions to reduce undernourishment and micronutrient deficiencies can yield $5 to $20 in benefits.”
    • The number of children that die every day due to hunger is the “technical equivalent of 45 jumbo jets crashing every single day”

In a world of plenty, a huge number go hungry. Hunger is more than just the result of food production and meeting demands. The causes of hunger are related to the causes of poverty. One of the major causes of hunger is poverty itself. The various issues discussed throughout this site about poverty lead to people being unable to afford food and hence people go hungry.

There are other related causes (also often related to the causes of poverty in various ways), including the following:

  • Land rights and ownership
  • Diversion of land use to non-productive use
  • Increasing emphasis on export-oriented agriculture
  • Inefficient agricultural practices
  • War
  • Famine
  • Drought
  • Over-fishing
  • Poor crop yield
  • Lack of democracy and rights
  • etc.

Some of the above are introduced here. (Over time, this will grow, and more will be added so do check back for updates.)

Land rights and ownership

Two inter-related factors which influence hunger that are often ignored are land ownership and who controls land.

The following passage summarizes it very well, asking “Is It Overpopulation or Who Controls the Land?”

The often heard comment (one I once accepted as fact) that “there are too many people in the world, and overpopulation is the cause of hunger”, can be compared to the same myth that expounded sixteenth-century England and revived continuously since.

Through repeated acts of enclosure the peasants were pushed off the land so that the gentry could make money raising wool for the new and highly productive power looms. They could not do this if the peasants were to retain their historic entitlement [emphasis is original] to a share of production from the land. Massive starvation was the inevitable result of this expropriation.

There were serious discussions in learned circles about overpopulation as the cause of this poverty. This was the accepted reason because a social and intellectual elite were doing the rationalizing. It was they who controlled the educational institutions which studied the problem. Naturally the final conclusions (at least those published) absolved the wealthy of any responsibility for the plight of the poor. The absurdity of suggesting that England was then overpopulated is clear when we realize that “the total population of England in the sixteenth century was less than in any one of several present-day English cities.”

The hunger in underdeveloped countries today is equally tragic and absurd. Their European colonizers understood well that ownership of land gave the owner control over what society produced. The most powerful simply redistributed the valuable land titles to themselves, eradicating millennia-old traditions of common use. Since custom is a form of ownership, the shared use of land could not be permitted. If ever reestablished, this ancient practice would reduce the rights of these new owners. For this reason, much of the land went unused or underused until the owners could do so profitably. This is the pattern of land use that characterizes most Third World countries today, and it is this that generates hunger in the world.

These conquered people are kept in a state of relative impoverishment. Permitting them any substantial share of the wealth would negate the historic reason for conquest — namely plunder. The ongoing role of Third World countries is to be the supplier of cheap and plentiful raw materials and agricultural products to the developed world. Nature’s wealth was, and is, being controlled to fulfill the needs of the world’s affluent people. The U.S. is one of the prime beneficiaries of this well-established system. Our great universities search diligently for “the answer” to the problem of poverty and hunger. They invariably find it in “lack of motivation, inadequate or no education,” or some other self-serving excuse. They look at everything except the cause — the powerful own the world’s social wealth. As a major beneficiary, we have much to gain by perpetuating the myths of overpopulations, cultural and racial inferiority, and so forth. The real causes must be kept from ourselves, as how else can this systematic damaging of others be squared with what we are taught about democracy, rights, freedom, and justice?

J.W. Smith, The World’s Wasted Wealth: the political economy of waste, (New World’s Press, 1989), pp. 44, 45.

Some have pointed out over the years that even the US Founding Fathers understood this very well, to the effect that some elites were able to affect the Constitution in this manner:

Despite the egalitarian rhetoric of the American Revolution and an attempt to place a proclamation in the Constitution for a “common right of the whole nation to the whole of the land,” the powerful looked out for their own interests by changing Locke’s insightful phrase: “all men are entitled to life, liberty and land.” This powerful statement that all could understand coming from a well-read and respected philosopher was a threat to the monopolizers of land, so they restructured those words to “life, liberty and [the meaningless phrase] pursuit of happiness.” Knowledge of the substitution for phrases in America’s Constitution which would protect every person’s rights with phrases that protect only the rights of a few should alert one to check the meaning and purpose of all laws of all societies carefully.

J.W. Smith, Regaining Rights to a Modern Commons through Eliminating the Subtle-Monopolization of Land, Chapter 24, Economic Democracy; The Political Struggle for the 21st Century, (1st Books, 2002, Second Edition) [Bracketed text is original]

In addition to local elites and governments changing the rules in the past, globalization in the modern era is seeing another assault on local communities’ lands. A number of countries are buying up or securing deals with poorer countries to use their land. But this use is not for helping the poor country with their food security issues. Instead it is to ensure food security for the investor country, or it is for the investor’s own commercial benefit.

The Financial Times revealed that “Investors in farmland are targeting countries with weak laws, buying arable land on the cheap and failing to deliver on promises of jobs and investments, according to the draft of a report by the World Bank.” But despite those promises, “investors failed to follow through on their investments plans, in some cases after inflicting serious damage on the local resource base” according to the report.

Furthermore,

The overall picture it gave was one of exploitation, warning that investors either lacked the necessary expertise to cultivate land or were more interested in speculative gains than in using land productively.

It stated that “rarely if ever” were efforts made to link land investments to “countries’ broader development strategy”.

“Consultations with local communities were often weak,” it added. “Conflicts were common, usually over land rights.”

The report said some countries allocated land to investors that was within the boundaries of local communities’ farmland.

Javier Blas, World Bank warns on “farmland grab”, Financial Times, July 27, 2010

Countries involved in this land grab range from developing countries such as China to industrialized nations such as the United Kingdom.

This continues decades-long policies of inefficient or inappropriate use of land which often benefits local and remote elites, but often leaves locals in rural and poorer communities left out.

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Diversion of land use to non-productive use

When precious arable land use is diverted to non-productive, or even destructive use, the overall costs to society can be considerable. Examples of such land use include, but is not limited to the following:

  • The tobacco industry
  • Tea and Coffee plantations the world over to be sold to the wealthier countries, primarily
  • Floriculture to sell flowers in the wealthier countries comes at a high cost to the growers
  • Certain dam projects
  • Beef and fast food industries using other people’s resources
  • Sugar cane growing for sugar exports
  • Pineapple growing can come with health and environmental consequences for workers and local communities
  • Increasing use of biofuels

The tobacco industry

Smoking kills, reduces economic productivity and exacerbates poverty, charges the world’s premier health body, the World Health Organization (WHO).

Smoking also contributes to world hunger, as the tobacco industry diverts huge amounts of land from producing food to producing tobacco:

Dr Judith MacKay, Director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control in Hong Kong, claims that tobacco’s “minor” use of land denies 10 to 20 million people of food. “Where food has to be imported because rich farmland is being diverted to tobacco production, the government will have to bear the cost of food imports,” she points out.

… The bottom line for governments of developing countries is that the net economic costs of tobacco are profoundly negative — the cost of treatment, disability and death exceeds the economic benefits to producers by at least US$200 billion annually “with one third of this loss being incurred by developing countries”.

John Madeley, Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, (Zed Books, 1999) pp. 53, 57

Madeley also describes in detail other impacts on land from tobacco use:

  • The land that has been destroyed or degraded to grow tobacco has affects on nearby farms. As forests, for example, are cleared to make way for tobacco plantations, then the soil protection it provides is lost and is more likely to be washed away in heavy rains. This can lead to soil degradation and failing yields.
  • A lot of wood is also needed to cure tobacco leaves.
  • Tobacco uses up more water, and has more pesticides applied to it, further affecting water supplies. These water supplies are further depleted by the tobacco industry recommending the planting of quick growing, but water-thirsty eucalyptus trees.
  • Child labor is often needed in tobacco farms.
  • For more detail, refer to Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, by John Madeley, (Zed Books, 1999) ch. 4.

Madeley continues on to point out that heavy advertising of tobacco by TNCs can “convince the poor to smoke more, and to use money they might have spent on food or health care, to buy cigarettes instead.”

A report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says that from a socioeconomic and environmental perspective, there is little benefit in tobacco growing, and that “While a few large-scale tobacco growers have prospered, the vast majority of tobacco growers in the Global South barely eke out a living toiling for the companies.” Furthermore, “the cigarette companies continue to downplay or ignore the many serious economic and environmental costs associated with tobacco cultivation, such as chronic indebtedness among tobacco farmers (usually to the companies themselves), serious environmental destruction caused by tobacco farming, and pesticide-related health problems for farmers and their families.”

In fact, it is interesting to note that the tobacco industry has gone to extraordinary level to discredit the World Health Organisation (WHO) and others that are fighting tobacco issues , as a report from the WHO describes. A Committee of Experts had been set up in October 1999 to “enquire into the nature and extent of undue influence which the tobacco industry had exercised over UN organisations.” This Committee produced the report that “found that the tobacco industry regarded the World Health Organization as one of their leading enemies, and that the industry had a planned strategy to ‘contain, neutralise, reorient’ WHO’s tobacco control initiatives.” They added that the tobacco industry documents show that they carried out their plan by:

  • staging events to divert attention from the public health issues raised by tobacco use;
  • attempting to reduce budgets for the scientific and policy activities carried out by WHO;
  • pitting other UN agencies against WHO;
  • seeking to convince developing countries that WHO’s tobacco control program was a “First World” agenda carried out at the expense of the developing world;
  • distorting the results of important scientific studies on tobacco;
  • discrediting WHO as an institution.

While some countries, such as the US have had the resources and political will to tackle the large tobacco corporations, these multinationals have intensified their efforts in other regions of world such as Asia, to continue growing and selling cigarettes, as well as expanding advertising (to create demand, not meet).

Reports from the WHO show that there is a lot of political maneuvering by large tobacco companies to lower prices, to increase sales, etc. In addition, the poor and small farmers are the ones most affected by the impacts of tobacco companies. The hard cash earned from this “foreign investment” is offset by the costs in social and public health. In effect, profits are privatized; costs are socialized.

If one doesn’t wish to give up smoking because it is considered their free choice, how about giving up smoking so others may have a choice?

More issues around tobacco and its impacts, the actions of the tobacco industry, attempts at global regulation, and more are provided on this site’s tobacco section.

Environmental and Economic damage from coffee production

“Coffee drinkers will be astonished to learn that they hold in their hands the fate of farm families, farming communities, and entire ecosystems in coffee-growing regions like Costa Rica,” as Old Dog Documentaries notes. Furthermore:

25 million coffee growers worldwide are paid a mere pittance in the corporate marketplace while bearing the full brunt of global price fluctuations. When prices crash, farmers go hungry and their children are forced to drop out of school. Families are separated, communities disintegrate, and the land is cleared for other crops or other means of livelihood. That clearing of the land disrupts the ecosystem in ways that have deadly consequences for migratory birds in particular and for global ecological balance in general.

Birdsong & Coffee: A Wake Up Call, Old Dog Documentaries, Inc., March 2006

The ID21 research organization summarizes some the impacts of coffee production:

“Coffee production provides a livelihood for 25 million people in developing countries and globally, 10.6 million hectares of land are used for growing coffee beans.” Coffee is therefore “one of the most legally-traded agricultural commodities in the world and one of the most important income crops for small farmers in developing countries.”

Despite its importance,

Growing coffee is not always a reliable source of income, however. While coffee production increased by 61 percent between 1960 and 2000, prices fell by 57 percent during the same period.

…Growing coffee has significant environmental impacts:

  • Establishing coffee plantations results in the clearance of natural forest areas. This trend is made worse by the increasing demand for high-grade speciality coffee, which requires more land.
  • Chemical use contributes to soil degradation. A shift to new production methods (such as full-sun production) has increased pesticide use enormously, resulting in lower insect populations and reduced nutrient recycling by soil.
  • As coffee processing has moved away from the farms and fields, waste pulp is dumped in rivers, thus reducing levels of oxygen in the water and degrading freshwater ecosystems. It could instead be used as a soil amendment for coffee crops.

Counting the cost of a cup of coffee, ID21, 28 February 2005

Fair Trade Coffee is often highlighted as a better option than normally produced coffee, for it at least pays the producer a fairer wage. Yet, in a wider context, is such mass coffee consumption healthy for the producing country?

Coffee consumption, in the amounts typically done today, may also be unnecessary. Many consume it in vast quantities believing the caffeine intake will help them get through the day, especially if working long, stressful hours. A recent program by the BBC called the Truth about Food compared coffee with a decaffeinated substitute and concluded the following:

Does caffeine give us the edge over decaf users? No. Once we’ve recovered from caffeine we can do just as well without it.

Caffeine and the Brain, BBC, accessed February 15, 2007

Some may choose to consume coffee for its taste, but if so many are consuming it to get through work, then it may not be necessary. This may implied “wasted labour” and resources (the details and implications of which are discussed further on this site’s section on Behind Consumption and Consumerism).

Growing flowers can have a high cost to growers

Floriculture too is a growing field in some developing countries. However, as Madeley explains, it too has some negative effects, such as:

  • Divert land use away from growing needed food. (In Colombia for example, floriculture was seen as a way to avoid cocaine growing. Food growth could have been more directly positive for the growers and local communities.)
  • Very low wages
  • Child labor
  • Pesticide poisoning and other severe health problems. (Some of these pesticides are banned in the West.)
  • Women suffer high miscarriage rates
  • For more detail, refer to Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, by John Madeley, (Zed Books, 1999) ch. 4, pp 64 - 70 (Non-traditional export crops).

Anuradha Mittal also describes the effects in some parts of India:

In 1999, a UN Population Fund report predicted that India would soon become one of the world’s largest recipients of food aid. The report went on to blame the increasing population for the problem. What it did not mention is that the state of Punjab, also known as “the granary of India,” grows abundant food even today, but most of it is being converted into dog and cat food for Europe. Nor did the report mention that the neighboring state of Haryana, also traditionally a fertile agricultural state, is today one of the world leaders in growing tulips for export. Increasingly, countries like India are polluting their air, earth, and water to grow products for the Western market instead of growing food to feed their own people. Prime agricultural lands are being poisoned to meet the needs of the consumers in the West, and the money the consumers spend does not reach the majority of the working poor in the Third World.

Anuradha Mittal, True Cause of World Hunger, February 2002

And in Ecuador, Mother Jones magazine adds that

Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and soil fumigants used in the greenhouses are causing serious health problems for Ecuador’s 60,000 rose workers — especially the women and children who sort and package the flowers prior to shipping. In recent years, studies by the International Labor Organization and Ecuador’s Catholic University have found that as many as 60 percent of postharvest workers complain of pesticide-poisoning symptoms, including headaches, blurred vision, and muscular twitching. Women in the industry, who represent 70 percent of all rose workers, experience significantly elevated rates of miscarriages. Children under 18, who make up more than a fifth of the workforce, display signs of neurological damage at 22 percent above average.

Ross Wehner, Deflowering Ecuador, Mother Jones, January/February 2003 Issue

The effects of dam projects on the poor

While not necessarily a non-productive use as such, dam projects have long been criticized for displacing millions of people and not providing them the benefits promised, while also degrading the environment and even flooding arable land.

Every year, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, around four million people were displaced from their homes because of hydro-electric dam schemes. These schemes usually created huge resevoirs which flooded homes, forests and fertile land.… Since the electricity generated by the dams was intended to power factories and houses in urban areas, few of the rural poor benefitted from such schemes.

… These [multinational construction] corporations are a vital link in the “big dam” chain. Their experience of such projects means they can provide an expertise that national companies usually lack. Without the TNCs, the big aid-funded dam schemes of the last 40 years could not have gone ahead with such confidence. The schemes give the TNCs security of payment, as the money is coming mostly from foreign aid, and the opportunity to make good profits at low risk — if costs soar they can usually be passed on. Dams often cost more than the original estimates, leaving governments of developing countries to pick up an extra bill.

… The construction of the [Sri Lankan] Mahaweli River scheme effectively witnessed an enormous transfer of wealth from people in one of the poorest developing countries to some of the world’s largest TNCs. “We are a poor country”, said a critic of the scheme, “we cannot afford this kind of aid”.

… The UK had agreed to give aid for Pergau in 1989 as a sweetener for securing a £1.3 billion arms deal with Malaysia. In 1991, Sir Timothy Lankester, a former permanent secretary at the Overseas Development Administration, the British government department which then administered the aid budget, opposed aid for the dam, saying he believed it was neither economic or efficient. He was over-ruled.

John Madeley, Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, (Zed Books, 1999) pp. 115 - 117

After reactions to a pertinent report by the World Bank, a World Commission on Dams (WCD) was established in 1998 with a mandate to review the development effectiveness of large dams and develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for large dams.

The World Commission on Dams (WCD), released a report at the end of 2000 criticizing dam projects for failing to deliver promised benefits while affecting millions of poor people’s lives in developing countries and degrading the environment.

They also pointed out that “dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable.” However, “in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment. Lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives.”

The full report from the World Commission on Dams is on their web site.

The World Bank, involved in many dam projects, received criticism for choosing to only reference the WCD report rather than adopt them as rules governing its operations.

Beef and fast food industries using other people’s resources

Consider the following cited from this web site’s section on consumption and beef:

  • More than one third of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock.
  • Breaking that down a little bit
    • Almost all rice is consumed by people
    • While corn is a staple food in many Latin American and Sub-Saharan countries, “worldwide, it is used largely as feed.”
    • Wheat is more evenly divided between food and feed and is a staple food in many regions such as the West, China and India.
  • The total cattle population for the world is approximately 1.3 billion occupying some 24% of the land of the planet
  • Some 70 to 80% of grain produced in the United States is fed to livestock
  • Half the water consumed in the U.S. is used to grow grain for cattle feed
  • A gallon of gasoline is required to produce a pound of grain-fed beef

Anup Shah, Beef

The beef industry consumes a considerable number of resources, and for a product that is not a “need” as such, but more of a “luxury”. Excessive promotion of its consumption has led to many health issues as well as environmental problems. Furthermore, the resources used could be put to more productive uses. In addition, as an example of the vast first world subsidies which the third world often complains about as hypocritical, consider the following:

If water used by the meat industry [in the United States] were not subsidized by taxpayers, common hamburger meat would cost $35 a pound. You need 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat — 2,500 gallons to generate a pound of meat.

Simone Spearman, Eating More Veggies Can Help Save Energy, San Francisco Chronicle, June 29, 2001. (Emphasis Added) [Previous link is to a reposted version at Commondreams.org]

The issue of beef and fast food industry is discussed further on this site’s section on beef.

Sugar cane growing for sugar exports

Like beef, sugar too contributes to problems. From the obvious things like health, there are also other concerns such as the environment, and using vast resources to produce an unhealthy product for export when similar resources could be spent in other, more productive ways.

This too is further discussed on this site’s section on sugar.

Like beef, sugar exemplifies issues related to some of the negative aspects of liberalized, industrial agriculture.

Environment and health problems from pineapple farming

As this site’s section on pineapples shows, industrialized, mono-culture farming of pineapples requires intensive use of chemicals which has had noticeable effects on the local environment and health for people in Costa Rica. In addition, pay for workers are often below living wages and has been further exacerbated by European supermarkets’ drive for lower prices, because it is ultimately the workers that get squeezed.

Increasing use of biofuels

The food crisis of 2008 that has driven some additional 100 million people into poverty has been due to many of the concerns raised above. An additional cause has also been the increasing use of biofuels, which diverts land away from food production to growing crops for fuels such as ethanol.

For a long time, various people have believed that biofuels would have an impact on agriculture and hunger. However, rich countries, the main backers behind biofuels, have played down their impact. Wrongly, it turns out.

The US and some European countries have often insisted that the impact of biofuels on the food crisis has been small. It seems that this claim has been self-serving, because of interests in the biofuel industry. Yet, based on the most detailed analysis of the crisis so far,

Biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75%—far more than previously estimated—according to a confidential World Bank report obtained by the Guardian.

The figure emphatically contradicts the US government's claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food-price rises. It will add to pressure on governments in Washington and across Europe, which have turned to plant-derived fuels to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce their dependence on imported oil.

Senior development sources believe the report, completed in April, has not been published to avoid embarrassing President George Bush.

Aditya Chakrabortty, Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis; Internal World Bank study delivers blow to plant energy drive, The Guardian, July 4, 2008

Rich countries have attempted instead to blame demand from rising poorer countries as a bigger cause.

President Bush has linked higher food prices to higher demand from India and China, but the leaked World Bank study disputes that: “Rapid income growth in developing countries has not led to large increases in global grain consumption and was not a major factor responsible for the large price increases.”

Aditya Chakrabortty, Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis; Internal World Bank study delivers blow to plant energy drive, The Guardian, July 4, 2008

The report mentions the following ways in which biofuels have distorted food markets which had led to the 2008 food crisis:

  • Grain has been diverted away from food, to fuel; (Over a third of US corn is now used to produce ethanol; about half of vegetable oils in the EU goes towards the production of biodiesel);
  • Farmers have been encouraged to set land aside for biofuel production;
  • The rise in biofuels has sparked financial speculation in grains, driving prices up higher.

The World Bank has also estimated that an additional 100 million more people have been driven into hunger because of the rising food prices. Another institute, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that 30% of the increase in the prices of the major grains is due to biofuels. In other words, biofuels may be responsible for some 30-75 million additional people being driven into hunger.

With such large numbers of destruction, it is understandable why politically the US and EU may wish to publicly minimize the impact of biofuels.

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Increasing emphasis on liberalized, export-oriented and industrial agriculture

In Less Developed Countries the problem of land use is even more acute. Whilst the majority of food produce tends to be grown on small, subsistence farms, the bulk of the best agricultural land is used for the growing of cash crops. Partly a legacy of colonial policies, partly a result of the debt problem and IMF and World Bank solutions to this problem, we find that people in the LDCs, particularly the rural poor, are going hungry whilst the bulk of these countries' agricultural output is exported to Europe and the USA.

Ross Copeland, The Politics of Hunger, University of Kassel, September 2000

In many cases where food is grown, it is often for exports. In some cases, while local people may be going hungry, they are growing food to export for the hard cash that would be earned. The increasingly export-oriented economies are being promoted by the wealthier Northern countries and the international institutions that they have strong influence over, the IMF and World Bank, as detailed in the Structural Adjustment section on this site. The result of this is that the wealthier nations tend to benefit while poorer countries generally lose out.

[Farmers] producing [fruit and vegetables] for export markets has recently become more common. TNCs are increasingly involved in the production of crops that have traditionally not been exported. But export crops are replacing staple foods in some areas, resulting in food scarcities and rising food prices that hit hard at the poorest.

… Yet [the market success seen by this exporting policy] “has frequently come at a cost in workers' health, inequitable distribution of economic benefits, and environmental degradation in many of the exporting countries.”

… Small-scale farmers and consumers in Latin America are paying the price of this drastic shift to export agriculture. In towns and cities across the continent, beans are now frequently scarce as land which once grew beans now grows vegetables for export. Beans contribute around 30 per cent of the protein consumption by the continent’s 200 million low-income families. Most bean farmers are now trying to grow vegetables for export and devoting less of their land (often already small) to beans for their own use.

John Madeley, Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, (Zed Books, 1999) pp. 64 - 66

Sometimes, the cost of the food produced can be more than what the local people can afford and has to be exported to earn cash. Land and labor is therefore diverted away from immediate needs. Additionally, the local food growers are then subject to the fashions and preferences of external communities and market demands. If they no longer like the range of products as much, the entire local economy could be affected. The banana trade in the Caribbean is an example of this.

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Joseph Stiglitz explains the effects of liberalization & subsidized agriculture on poor farmers(see link for transcript)

Free trade and other economic agreements that reduce subsidies on local farms etc, has a worse impact on developing countries. We hear of these subsidies being “barriers” for foreign investment and more open trade. Yet, as Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) have tried to do, it results in opening up economies that may not be ready to do so. This therefore results in unequal trade, as poorer countries and their industries often cannot compete with multinationals — especially if they end up competing with subsidized industries as Joseph Stiglitz explains earlier.

In addition, SAPs have opened up these economies in such a way that focus on “export” means base foods, commodities and resources are exported, while finished items are typically made from these in first world economies, which are more costly for poor nations to purchase. As J. W. Smith has described, this results in the Third World producing for the First World (which was the pattern during imperial and colonial times):

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.

Yet, the wealthier nations realize the importance of food security and heavily subsidize their own farming infrastructures:

While subsidies are viewed as barriers by companies outside the region, they are critical incentives for the smallholder farmers especially those in southern Africa, most of whom are still using traditional methods and are only just beginning to acquire vital modern technology. Large-scale commercial farmers in Europe and the US have been modernized for decades and have benefited from similar subsidies from their own governments for many years.

Paradoxically, the European Union, 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 highly subsidized in the world.

Munetsi Madakufamba, Unequal 'freetrade' threatens food security, The Mail & Guardian (a South African national newspaper), August 13, 2001

Additionally, some of the political dynamics that result in the poverty that most food growers are in, also leads to continued misery:

  • Historically, the poor have often been marginalized by forcing them off their lands on to land less suitable for agriculture. This has been achieved through (sometimes violent) change and control of legal land ownership and related laws, especially during the colonial times.
  • When much of the colonialized countries broke free from their imperial rulers, this pattern didn’t go away.
    • There was a continued concentration by the newer elites of poor countries (who, as discussed in some of the geopolitics sections of this site, were often placed in power by former colonial and imperial rulers).
    • In some cases the new elites were dictators and despots. In other cases, the economic relations of the society had been transformed so much, that systems like mass plantation systems continued as those in charge were in favor with former colonial masters, and now had more power.
    • Combined with the expansion in global trading today, and the promotion of export-oriented economies as a solution to poverty, this has led to local and national elites in poor countries exporting to wealthier nations where the only real “market” for their food and other products can be effectively sold.
    • For some emerging economies, the growing middle class is able to add to this consumption so that at least adds to the local economy. However, that still hides how the poor still lose out as the market rarely caters for their needs (which are many, but with little purchasing power).
  • A continuing circle like this produces a downward spiral of deeper poverty and further marginalization.
  • The less suitable land also leads to further environmental degradation of those and other areas as well such as forests.

Peter Rosset describes the above very clearly as part of a look at some of the causes of poverty and hunger in his essay “Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger and Lagging Productivity?” He goes on to show how this has led to the current downward spiral, quoted in summarized form below:

  • The marginalization of the majority leads to narrow and shallow domestic markets
  • So landowning elites orient their production to export markets where consumers do have purchasing power
  • By doing so, elites have ever less interest in the well-being or purchasing power of the poor at home, as the poor are not a market for them, but rather a cost in terms of wages to be kept as low as possible.
  • By keeping wages and living standards low, elites guarantee that healthy domestic markets will never emerge, reinforcing export orientation.
  • The result is a downward spiral into deeper poverty and marginalization, even as national exports become more “competitive” in the global economy.
  • One irony of our world, then, is that food and other farm products flow from areas of hunger and need to areas were money is concentrated, in Northern countries. (Bold emphasis added; italics emphasis is original)

Food as a Commodity

And when food is treated as a commodity, those who can get food are the ones who can afford to pay for it. To illustrate this further, the following is worth quoting at length (bulleting and spacing formatting is mine, text is original):

To understand why people go hungry you must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy.

  • Food is a commodity.…
  • Much of the best agricultural land in the world is used to grow commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and cocoa, items which are non-food products or are marginally nutritious, but for which there is a large market.
  • Millions of acres of potentially productive farmland is used to pasture cattle, an extremely inefficient use of land, water and energy, but one for which there is a market in wealthy countries.
  • More than half the grain grown in the United States (requiring half the water used in the U.S.) is fed to livestock, grain that would feed far more people than would the livestock to which it is fed.…

The problem, of course, is that people who don’t have enough money to buy food (and more than one billion people earn less than $1.00 a day), simply don’t count in the food equation.

  • In other words, if you don’t have the money to buy food, no one is going to grow it for you.
  • Put yet another way, you would not expect The Gap to manufacture clothes, Adidas to manufacture sneakers, or IBM to provide computers for those people earning $1.00 a day or less; likewise, you would not expect ADM (“Supermarket to the World”) to produce food for them.

What this means is that ending hunger requires doing away with poverty, or, at the very least, ensuring that people have enough money or the means to acquire it, to buy, and hence create a market demand for food.

Richard H. Robbins, Readings on Poverty, Hunger, and Economic Development

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Thinking about solutions to world hunger then, requires the recognition that there are political and economic causes related to poverty.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Sunday, February 25, 2001
  • Last Updated: Sunday, October 03, 2010

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Document Revision History

DateReason
October 3, 2010Added a small note about problems associated with mono-cultured pineapple growing
August 22, 2010Added a small note about increasing land grabs and food wastage
July 6, 2008Added a section on the impact of biofuels on hunger
February 15, 2007An additional note about coffee and one of its supposed benefits
March 04, 2006Some more information about impacts on coffee growers and the environment
November 19, 2005Added more statistics on impacts of hunger each year; number of deaths worlwide, and medical cost
April 18, 2005Some food wastage statistics added
March 04, 2005Added small section about impact of coffee production
June 19, 2004Mentioned beef and sugar as some specific examples of how land is diverted from productive to less productive use.

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