Myths and Root Causes of the Global Hunger Crisis

As we saw in the last module, industrial agriculture comes with a host of consequences and justifications. The most familiar justification, and possibly the most dangerous however, is the myth of global hunger and the messaging used to promote industrial agriculture as the only way to “solve it”.

Promoters of the dominant mode of industrial agricultural development often use language that makes it seem friendly to small farmers. For example, let’s review a recent publication by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation entitled “Helping Poor Farmers, Changes Needed to Feed 1 Billion Hungry.” In this article Gates stated, “If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture. Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty, and they have made life better for billions of people. The international agriculture community needs to be more innovative, coordinated, and focused to help poor farmers grow more. If we can do that, we can dramatically reduce suffering and build self-sufficiency.”

We can see that Gates’ statement represents the dominant explanation of hunger as a result of insufficient production. This school of thought justified the Green Revolution, and is now a justification for increased investment in agribusiness and technology for big Ag. Like many transnational aid agencies who are often funded by corporations, Gates believes that hunger is caused by the inherent inefficiency of traditional agricultural techniques practiced by small farmers and advocates for industrial agriculture as the only way to reduce hunger and poverty worldwide.

However, in this module we will explore the top myths surrounding global hunger and poverty and analyze the hidden assumptions and dangers of this type of messaging. We will look at who is benefiting from these myths, and explore the real root causes of global hunger.

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You choose! Watch a video or read an article exploring the global food crisis, and the proximate and root causes of hunger:

Lecture Excerpt 1: Food Justice, Food Sovereignty: Transforming our food systems

College of the Atlantic with Eric Holt-Gimenéz | Food First

If you prefer, you can read excerpts from an article by this lecturer that addresses similar topics as his presentation:

Excerpt 1: The world food crisis: what is behind it and what we can do

by Eric Holt-Giménez | World Hunger, 2008

…The food crisis appeared to explode overnight, reinforcing fears that there are just too many people in the world. But according to the FAO, there were record grain harvests in 2007. There is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. In fact, over the last 20 years, world food production has risen steadily at over 2% a year, while the rate of global population growth has dropped to 1.14% a year. Population is not outstripping food supply. People are too poor to buy the food that is available. “We’re seeing more people hungry and at greater numbers than before,” said World Hunger Program’s executive director Josette Sheeran. “There is food on the shelves but people are priced out of the market.”

The dramatic reversal of the global trend in cheap food quickly became known as the “global food crisis.” The proximate causes are well-known:

  • Poor weather—back-to-back droughts in major wheat-producing countries in 2005-06. Climate change will continue to impact food production in unpredictable ways
  • Low grain reserves—national grain reserve systems were dismantled in the late 1990s. Because nations now depend on the global market for their grains, global reserves are down from 115 to 54 days worldwide. This provokes price volatility
  • High oil prices—increasing twofold over the last year pushes up prices of fertilizers (3X), transport (2X) in the food system
  • Increasing meat consumption worldwide—the result of explosive growth in industrial feedlots. Apart from high consumption in the industrial North, there has been a doubling of meat production and consumption in developing countries—mostly from grain-fed feedlots that displace small producers and consume seven lbs. of grain for every pound of meat produced
  • Agrofuels—the diversion of 5% of the world’s cereals to agrofuels has increased grain prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims agrofuels are responsible for anywhere from 5-20% of grain price increases. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has put it at 30%. A leaked World Bank report claimed it was 75%.
  • Speculation—deregulation and poor oversight have contributed to the speculative bubbles in the futures markets. Following the subprime mortgage meltdown, investors searched for places to put their money. When they saw food prices going up, they poured investments into commodities futures, pumping up the price of grains and worsening food price inflation

The Root Causes

The food crisis is a symptom of a food system in crisis. Bad weather, high oil prices, agrofuels, and speculation are only the proximate causes of a deeper, systemic problem. The root cause of the crisis is a global food system that is highly vulnerable to economic and environmental shock. This vulnerability springs from the risks, inequities, and externalities inherent in food systems that are dominated by a global industrial agri-foods complex. Built over the past half-century—largely with public funds for grain subsidies, foreign aid, and international agricultural development—the industrial agri-foods complex is made up of multinational grain traders, giant seed, chemical, and fertilizer corporations, processors, and global supermarket chains.

The global South had yearly trade surpluses in agricultural goods of $1 billion 40 years ago. By 2001, after three “Development Decades” and the expansion of the industrial agri-foods complex, southern countries were importing $11 billion/year in food. Immediately following de-colonization in the 1960s, Africa exported 1.3 billion a year worth of food. Today African countries must import 25% of their food. The rise of food deficits in the global South mirrors the rise of food surpluses and market expansion of the industrial North.

The population factor

The Sub-Saharan African population has grown from 230 million in 1961 to 673 million in 2000, a 292% increase over 39 years. Domestic food production has not kept pace. Agricultural exports have fallen and imports are up ten-fold. Why? Poor soils, poor seeds, and poor people are the stock answers. These explanations do not look at why African family farmers have to farm poor soils, why their access to seeds is limited, or why so many people on such a resource-rich continent are poor. Through its structural adjustment policies, the World Bank and the IMF pressured African countries to abandon small farm agriculture, which was seen as unproductive. Development policies pushed people to the cities where they were to provide labor to manufacture and industry. African industrial agriculture would produce export crops (coffee, cacao, cotton) to pay off their foreign debt, and Africans would use revenues from industry to import their food. The bank insisted that this development strategy would result in increased family incomes and economic security, thus leading to lower population growth rates. The strategy failed miserably. The urban population increased seven-fold, swelling from 18% to 33% of the population. Millions of poor and unemployed workers have swelled the cities—with two-thirds of them living in slums. The manufacturing and industrial sector did not “take off” in African countries; the percent of the GDP coming from industry was 30% in 1961 and 32% in 2000. In the countryside, as plantations for agro-exports expanded, food production plummeted and poverty grew. Though the rural population, density increased by 180% as more farmers were crowded onto smaller plots. While the rest of the developing world lowered the amount of export earnings they spent on food imports from 42 to 24%, African countries increased the share they spent on food imports from 42 to 54%. The industrial transition did not slow population growth because it actually increased poverty and insecurity in both rural and urban areas. The rise in population is not the cause of hunger, but the result of poverty—brought on by the programmed destruction of African food systems.

The destruction of southern food systems occurred through a series of northern economic development projects:

  • The Green Revolution (1960-90) was a campaign led by the international agricultural research centers that aimed to modernize farming in the developing world. Impressive gains in national productivity were accompanied by the steady monopolization of seed and input markets by northern corporations. The highly celebrated Asian and Mexican “miracles” masked the loss of 90% of agro-biodiversity, the massive reduction of water tables, salinization and erosion of soils, and the displacement of millions of peasants to fragile hillsides, shrinking forests, and urban slums. Excluding China, the Green Revolution increased food per capita by 11%. However, the number of hungry people also increased by 11%.
  • Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the 1980s-90s imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund followed, dismantling marketing boards, eliminating price guarantees, closing entire research and extension systems, breaking down tariffs, and deregulating agricultural markets. Southern countries were flooded with subsidized grain from the U.S. and Europe that was sold at prices far under the costs of production. This destroyed national agricultural markets and tied southern food security to global markets dominated by rich northern countries.
  • Regional free trade agreements and  the World Trade Organization: “The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agricultural products, which are available, in most cases at lower cost.” U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block, 1986. The rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) cemented the policies of the Structural Adjustment Programs in international treaties that overrode national laws. WTO rules, like the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and the General Agreement on Trade in Services, further consolidated northern control over southern agricultural economies. The global South was forced to strip away genuine protections for smallholders and local producers to open its markets to northern goods while northern markets remained largely protected through a combination of both tariff and non-tariff barriers. Regional free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA, pushed through by the North, continued trade liberalization, forcing southern farmers out of business and making countries of the South dependent on northern food imports.
  • Northern subsidies to agriculture amount to $US 1 billion per day. This figure is six times the annual development assistance from northern countries to the global South. Fully one-quarter of the value of agricultural production in the United States comes from subsidies. In the European Union this figure is a bloated 40%.
  • World food aid in 2007 reached its lowest level since 1961 (5.9 million tons), precisely when more people than ever are going hungry. Why? Because when prices are high—and food is unavailable to the poor—food aid decreases. When prices are low—and food is abundant—food aid increases.

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