Monday, June 6, 2011


When I was eight, the starving kids in Ethiopia didn't get any of my food. Not because I had to clean my plate, although I did. I would have gladly given them the brussels sprouts, or the headcheese. I had plenty to spare. But they didn't get any of my food because the global food distribution system doesn't work that way.

No new article on the food system today is complete without a mention of the need to increase production drastically in the near future to feed either a growing global population or the growing Chinese and Indian middle class who will demand our obesity-based diet. Food is scarce or about to be, and genetically modified crops are increasingly touted as the way to increase production, despite the fact that they have shown only negligible increase in yields of staple crops. (For example, The USDA recently said, in its assessment of Monsanto's drought-tolerant corn,  "The reduced yield [trait] does not exceed the natural variation observed in regionally-adapted varieties of conventional corn".)

There used to be other accepted theories about hunger out there. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen caused a sensation in 1981 when he proposed that famines aren't caused solely by a lack of food, but from social and economic inequalities that affect food distribution. This seems obvious when we juxtapose the need for Food Banks in Canada with the 40% of food that Canadians waste in their households. We might also wonder, if there is a present or near-future global food scarcity, why millions of hectares of land are devoted to crops for biofuels or for feed for cattle that are turned into McDonalds hamburgers

But a lot of food movement organizations and activists believe in this scarcity, and this bothers me. It obscures the power relations in the world that not only decide who gets food and who doesn't, but create the hungry. Why did those Ethiopian kids on TV have big bellies? Yes, there was a drought. There was also a number of other factors: insurgencies in the country, lack of government preparation, the removal of peasants from their land, poor infrastructure, instability of land tenure, cash cropping for export rather than domestic production, and more. And as Amartya Sen remarked, "The rulers never starve." There is only relative scarcity.

Historian Iain Boal was recently interviewed on the philosophy of scarcity. He discusses Malthus' belief that population increases exponentially while food production increases arithmetically and therefore, without conscious checks on population growth, a population-reducing catastrophe is inevitable. It is not a coincidence that Malthus came up with his theory in the era when a forced scarcity occurred - the enclosure movement where peasants were forced off the common land and into the cities. Boal says:

The people of England, I mean the commoners, in 1800 are being literally excluded by fences enclosing the common lands that had sustained them for centuries. They are living the new scarcity that is being produced around them....And Malthus was the economist rationalizing and justifying the cutting off, or another way to put it is the rendering scarce, of the means of subsistence for the laboring poor, in the name of thrift and self-control and the efficiency of private property... 
I am not in any way saying that the earth's resources should be used up willy-nilly, that societies shouldn't concern themselves with how to live on the planet in the most sane and sustainable way possible....I'm not saying ecological destruction hasn't occurred in the human past - the deforestation of the coastal areas around the Mediterranean sea is a classic case, caused by centuries of Imperial Roman overfarming - but it tends to be by non-locals and elites. Let's call it the state. The major culprit in modern times is capitalist farming in private hands...

So what we're saying here is: it's important to notice the ideological move that naturalizes events which are the result of human decisions. It turns disasters that have as much to do with human agency and decision into natural and inevitable events.... 

For one thing, it's interesting to ask,  "Why all this talk of scarcity and collapse now? " After all, catastrophes are a permanent feature of history. So when you hear someone say,  "The world's food supply is going to run out in such and such a year, " well, excuse me! Forty thousand children die each day from the effects of malnutrition. Or perhaps I should say – from the causes of malnutrition....

Everywhere you look, there nothing much natural about it, this kind of scarcity. It's a story of artifice and force.

As an update, here's what's happening in Ethiopia right now. Chinese, Indian, and Saudi investors are renting millions of hectares for what amounts to pennies in order to produce food to export to their own countries.  Ethiopia exports many agricultural commodities as well. Surely, since Ethiopia can be so generous with its land and food, this means there is no famine now?

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