Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What food crisis? (2008)

From the October 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Those suffering most from the “current world food crisis” may not know why they are but they probably do know that they can have very little impact on the outcome as the world is structured currently.
Corporate control
In 1921 36 companies were responsible for 85 percent of US grain exports. By the end of the 70s six companies controlled 90+ percent of Canadian, European, Australian and Argentinian grain and currently Cargill and Continental each control 25 percent of the world's grain trade. While 37 nations have been plunged into food crisis Monsanto has had record sales from herbicides and seeds and Cargill's profit increased by 86 percent. On the one hand these corporations use, wherever there is a perceived advantage, the poorer countries for cash crops, manufacturing using cheap labour, cheaper processing and they take advantage of huge subsidies for which they lobby constantly, and on the other show indifference to the employees and labourers in these countries. Wages are kept as low as can be managed and conditions of employment are almost non-existent. Long working hours, enforced, often unpaid, overtime, no sick-pay non-existent or poor compensation for accidents and no pension.

Of the world's people as a whole, 70 percent earn their livelihood by producing food, their own included. From these a growing number are now producing crops for fodder or alternative fuels, reducing the amount of land available for human food production and thereby increasing its cost. Profit is the bottom line.

Monsanto is huge in soy bean production having a virtual monopoly with their 'Roundup Ready' seeds. Genetically modified seeds grown to be used for cattle feed, fish feed, all manner of industrial uses plus 80 percent of processed foods contain soy bean. Why would you promote an oil-seed that has a relatively low oil yield – 18 percent, compared with coconut (75 percent), groundnut (55 percent) and sesame (50 percent), if it wasn't simply linked to your ownership of the means of their production? The health risks associated with soy bean consumption are becoming clearer, especially an oestrogen problem. One test revealed that soy-based infant formula yields a dose of oestrogen equivalent to 8-12 contraceptive pills daily.

Monsanto (originators of Agent Orange) acquired Unilever's European wheat-breeding business in 1998. They have a large stake in India's largest seed company and have also bought Cargill's international seed operations in Central and Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa thus virtually monopolising production, limiting choice and pushing genetically engineered wheat. Their intellectual property scams, internationally infamous, banning the saving and trading of seed (something done for thousands of years with no problems of ownership attached) have been followed by many court cases usually to the detriment of small farmers in both poor and ‘developed’ world. The infamous 'terminator' gene which makes plants' seeds infertile has perhaps been the most cynical invention, forcing farmers into buying seed every year, putting them in hock to the big corporations and resulting in penury.

Around the world farmers have been pressured by large companies to grow cash crops. Cotton started to displace food crops in India after trade liberalisation was introduced in 1991. Aggressive advertising campaigns were conducted by Monsanto, for one, to introduce hybrid cotton seed which, being more vulnerable to pest attack, required the use of more pesticide than the varieties traditionally grown. Having borrowed on credit for both seed and pesticide and finding themselves in unresolvable debt following crop failures, according to Vandana Shiva in Stolen Harvest, many hundreds of farmers committed suicide by ingesting the very pesticides that were supposed to have protected their crops. Suicide deaths of Indian farmers continue to be a huge problem.

Ecologically unsound
There are ecological issues surrounding the current world food system. Here there are many links between this and the previous section. In their pursuit of profit worldwide mega-corporations have been responsible for some of the worst degradation of land, water, air and sea. Particularly relevant to food production, however, it is being recognised in more quarters that industrial farming damages the environment (as well as concentrating profits in fewer hands) and that small farms are actually more productive and much less damaging. Only this year a UN commission of 400 agricultural experts concluded that the world needs to shift from current agribusiness methods to a more ecological and small-scale approach. It comes as no surprise to learn that neither the US government nor agribusiness agreed to endorse the recommendations. A US dairy farmer allied to Via Campesina which is a global movement of peasant and farm organisations said words to the effect that at last it's recognised that industrial GM crops and globalisation methods have led to more hungry people but why hadn't they listened to farmers instead of corporations in the first place? Good question, to which we know the answer.

The (mainly GM) soy bean comes in for another attack here. To produce its oil requires solvents – bad for the environment; producing it creates saturated fats – bad for health. To ensure that maximum benefit (i.e. maximum profit, not maximum nutrition) is derived from the humble soy bean a US company is now also producing look-alike pulses, lentils etc from some of this bulk. Mono-crops and intensive farming by their very nature create havoc with the land, with the soil, requiring an input of fertilizer to fulfil the role that mixed farming does automatically. The soil gradually becomes impoverished leading to the necessity for more fertilizer, itself a problem from leaching into and contaminating water. Fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides all alter the nature of the soil, the ecological balance, ultimately denuding the area of the very plants, microbes, insects, worms, birds, small animals etc that determine its replenishment in a natural cycle. Traditional farming is shown to be far superior both for the health of the soil and also for crop yield. Animals manure the land, worms and other creatures turn and aerate it, insects assist pollination, other insects, birds and small animals dispose of many of the pests naturally whilst also replenishing the soil with nutrients and crops of different types in rotation take nutrients from and return nutrients to the soil. In many parts of the world the 'weeds' that grow among crops are crops themselves, not to be sprayed and killed but to be picked and eaten by humans and animals or else to be ploughed back into the ground returning natural organic matter.

One obvious negative effect of growing mono-crops for export or as non-food products such as biofuels is that it impacts on the amount of land available for growing food for local consumption, pushing small farmers off the land altogether or to patches of less productive land. Aggressive growth in agricultural exports has been linked to increasing poverty and hunger in the exporting country. Examples include the Philippines where the acreage for growing cut flowers was massively increased with a corresponding decline in acreage for food staples resulting in the destruction of approximately 350,000 livelihoods and increasing rice imports by a factor of ten; Brazil, when soy bean exports increased dramatically (1970s) as animal feed for Japan and Europe, hunger increased from one third to two thirds of the population. By the 90s Brazil became the third largest exporter of soy bean having increased acreage by 37 percent over 15 years displacing millions of small farmers and decreasing rice production by 18 percent further exacerbating hunger and poverty. On this topic Vandana Shiva gets right to the point, “The food security of the US and other wealthy food-importing countries depends largely on the destruction of other people's security” (in Alternative Globalization, ed. By John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander),

Other ecologically unsound farming practices such as raising animals intensively leads to massive problems for the animals, for the humans raising them and eating them and for the environment in which they are kept. For instance, as fish farms have become more extensive in acreage and more intensive in production bacterial infections have spread to fish in the wild. Whereas it used to be recommended to eat fish regularly as part of a healthy diet there are now warnings to limit drastically intake of farmed fish. Shrimp farming is known as a 'rape and run' industry because of its unsustainability and the inevitability that after a handful of years the site will be ecologically devastated and susceptible to massive outbreaks of disease, leaving hectares of former good fishing coastline unfit and unable to supply locals with a catch of any kind – coastal wastelands.

Shrimp farms and fish farms require more wet fish, processed into meal, pro rata than they ultimately produce, consuming more resources than they produce. The fish caught by trawling and purse-seining for the production of meal deprives people of both food and livelihood, depletes fish stocks drastically, kills all kinds of aquatic life – and this to provide shrimp for people living a long way from the devastation and knowing little about it. Mangroves, crucial in many coastal areas for protection against storms, preventing erosion and recognised as important habitat for much marine life have been devastated around the world in order that some of us may eat shrimp. Sri Lanka lost nearly half their mangrove area in 10 years; Vietnam lost more than 100,000 hectares in 4 years; most of Ecuador's shrimp comes from former mangrove swamps; a third of Thailand's lost mangroves was as a result of shrimp farming over 30 years up to 1993. Ecological and environmental man-made disasters. Intensive shrimp farming also leads to permanent salinisation of groundwater and has created water famine in formerly water abundant areas in India, causing death of cattle and gradual contamination of former productive rice paddies. Because of intensive shrimp production in Bangladesh rice production fell from 40,000 to only 36 (not 36 thousand) metric tonnes between 1976-86 with similar losses reported in Thailand. Shrimp and prawn have been 'farmed' traditionally in India for hundreds of years without this serious adverse effect on the ecology. The traditional methods have proved effective and have produced good income for farmers combining paddy growing in the monsoon season with shrimp 'farming' in other seasons when the fields are filled temporarily with saline water. Whether aquaculture or agriculture, natural methods prove to be more economical in terms of input, more productive in terms of output showing biodiversity and labour intensification to be both more efficient and sustainable.

The deregulated global market.
There is a raft of trading practices stacked against the poorer 'developing' countries, which incorporate the majority of the world's population, in favour of corporations in the ‘developed‘ countries. The international monetary organisations, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund all function to ensure maximum returns flow into the coffers of and trans-national corporations including agribusinesses. All loans have to be paid back with interest. Aid is tied to agreements, purchases and long-term commitment to remittances back to the donor country. Subsidies to agriculture flow freely in the ‘developed’ world, especially to agribusiness; in the poor world subsidies are called a barrier to free trade and have to be removed. Markets must be open – to subsidised products from the rich. Traditional local production systems have been consistently undermined to favour global corporations causing increased landlessness in the process. Many of these landless, former farmers now work for poverty wages in factories sub-contracted to big-name sportswear labels, unable to grow any food of their own now, just part of the growing number of consumers struggling to buy enough food to put on the table.

Vandana Shiva commented aptly on the root causes of hunger and poverty in 2007 thus, “A combination of loss of land and loss of control of local resources like water, seeds and bio-diversity. All of these are basic to farming communities but are now in the hands of global corporations.” IMF loans to poor countries are channelled into export subsidies for US agribusinesses thus further assisting multinationals to dominate smaller, local businesses whether domestic or foreign.

The main goal of the WTO and its allies has been to remove all and any obstructions which may hamper corporations. National laws, standards and environmental protection rules have been subsumed by the WTO's rulings resulting in laxer rules across the board, reduced labour, environmental, food and health regulations. In effect deregulation has led to decreased local control, a worsening general environment, an increase in poverty and hunger whilst concentrating power, wealth and influence among the global corporations.

Biofuels were originally heralded as the wonder fuel, something to challenge fossil fuels and a way to save the world from its dependence on oil, a greener product, sustainable and easily grown around the world. David Moberg, in an August 2008 article “Let them eat free markets” in ,These Times, writes, “once seen as a way of using up European and US surpluses biofuels are now threatening to become a global, corporate-controlled, industrial farming and export business that could put US SUVs in competition with food for poor people in other countries whilst degrading tropical forests.” So, here again is monoculture on a grand scale, degradation of the environment, cash crops taking the place of food crops and small farmers forced off the land to increase production and profit. A further downside to biofuels and a good reason to take another look at the topic for those who still believe it to be a 'green' fuel is that it actually takes something like 18 percent more energy to process the fuel than will be available in the finished product. Not best use of agricultural land, resources or manpower.

Buying Power
Simple buying power – or rather lack of it – is a fifth factor.. If you're not growing your own food it has to be bought. One way or another customers have to pay. When half or more of your income is already spent on food, as it is for the majority world, then rising prices of basics like rice and wheat are an immediate threat. The priority becomes what can I eat? Not what can I cut out in order that might eat, just what is there I can afford to eat? In 2007 the price of rice on the world market rose 16 percent. Between January and April of 2008 it rose a further 141 percent. Rice is the staple diet of Haitians, Haiti, being one of the poorest nations on the planet, is also one of the countries that was devastated from the loss of domestic farm incomes when highly subsidised US rice was dumped on them following WTO instructions. There is a photograph showing a Haitian woman sitting on the ground mixing and spreading out row upon row of biscuits to dry in the sun. Biscuits made of clay, salt and vegetable fat. Let them eat cake!

Similar stories from around the world reveal how previously solvent farmers have been reduced to penury. Mexicans cannot compete with US maize and cotton. Jamaican dairy farmers can't compete with EU subsidised milk powder. Mali, Benin, Burkino Faso etc. have lost double from the fall in cotton prices than they receive in US foreign aid. All of these and similar unfair practices drastically reduce the buying power of millions of people. According to the environmental pressure group, the International Forum on Globalisation, “The ultimate sustainable agricultural solution is transition to non-corporate, small-scale organic farming as practised for millennia.”

Cause and Effect
What we have seen here are the effects of a system that is structured for the benefit of a few corporations at the expense of the many. Inevitably the food crisis will continue to grow for an ever-increasing number of the world's population unless and until the causes of the crisis are eliminated. Politicians of diverse leanings, human rights advocacy groups and pundits of various persuasions offer a medley of fixes. Level the playing field. Fair trade, not free trade. Restore national sovereignty to international trade. Limit the power of global corporations. Strengthen human rights laws to prevent eviction of people from their land. Allow landless peasants access to and ownership of privately owned, unused land. Make the international institutions more accountable to citizens not to capital. Increase regulation of outsourcing. Force companies despoiling the environment to clean up the mess and pay compensation. Implement tougher environmental standards at all levels.

The problem common to these and other 'solutions' is that none of them are comprehensive, none are for all time and none are for all people. There is already a UN charter for human rights which, in theory, covers all possible scenarios, which is ostensibly for the protection of the well-being of all but which, in practice, cannot work because it is not controlled by the democratic will of the people but by a few strong countries pursuing the economic policies of their elites.

The principles underlying socialism, whilst not offering an immediate panacea, do address all the issues of the rights of all individuals, “by the conversion into the common property of society the means of production and distribution and their democratic control by the whole people.” Unlike the UN and numerous international agreements, multi-lateral accords and protocols which are repeatedly undermined by one or more powerful states consistently overruling decisions and agreements the ethic of socialism is rooted in the people. As more and more of the common wealth is taken from the people more and more people experience the food crisis first hand. Cause and effect. Removing money, the incentive and purpose of accumulation (the raison d’ĂȘtre of capitalism) and transforming world society into one of free access and common ownership – the world belonging to all and to none – will be to eliminate the causes of hunger and to effect an end to further speculation about a world food crisis.
Janet Surman

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (70)

Dear Friends,

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