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Food: commodity or need?

Enough calories are already produced in the world today to avoid anyone having to starve. It’s just that millions can’t afford to buy the food containing them.

  Air, water, food; the three essential requirements of life. Humans can survive for barely 2-3 minutes without air, several days without water and at most a few weeks without food. In our earliest days all were born with totally free access to these most basic necessities of life – access as required. Now we still have free air, if of questionable quality, although it is possible to buy a refreshing booster session of pure, clean oxygen in such cities as Tokyo. Water is still freely available to some – an ever-shrinking number – although many of these have to manage with a contaminated or disease-ridden supply, daily risking serious illness or even death. It has become a commodity denied to many, a basic requirement of life withheld, leading to aggressive acts in local, national and international arenas. Food, like water, finds those at the end of the supply chain, those who need the commodity rather than those who desire the profit, are the least likely to be consulted regarding the supply.

According to T. Lang in The Ecologist (March 2008) food is a $6.4 trillion-a-year economy, selling a necessity of life, which impoverishes more people than any other sector. There has to be a moral conundrum here if some of us are reduced to a daily recurring position of no money, no meal. .

The discussion as to whether the world does or can produce enough food for the current population is generally heard through the loudspeaker of the economic/political sector which suggests that overpopulation is the problem. However, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's figures for 2006 there are enough calories for everyone even in most of the poorer countries, pointing to the fact that hunger is simply a problem of the barriers to distribution.

For example, in India between 2001-3 where 20 percent of the population (212 million) were undernourished there were 2440 available calories per person per day.

Another example is that in Ethiopia in 2001-3 with 46 percent of the population (31.5 million) undernourished there were 1860 available calories per person per day.

So, if enough food to feed domestic populations is available, why do so many have to go without and where does the surplus go? Lack of money is the answer to the first part and export to the second. Remember the Irish 'potato' famine when thousands upon thousands died of starvation as a result of potato blight decimating the crops of the indigenous population? Food was not scarce, there was plenty of production of food for export and for the wealthy but beyond the means of the local poor whose staple diet was potatoes. What's different but the century, the geographical location and the sheer scale of the iniquity of the market? The “market” – as if this were a lifeless entity with no human input. The market – in control or out of control, controlling or controlled – can have no moral or ethical standards for these are human qualities to be included or discounted at the decision-making, policy-making processes.

The export of food from the South on a grand scale is part of what leaves millions undernourished but export is a two-way process. The North also exports food to the South, highly subsidised food which makes it untenable for farmers in the importing country to compete, forcing them to switch to crops for export or go out of business. Thus the cycle continues. More impoverishment. More hunger. A glance at the 2008 subsidy figures of the US reveals $50+ billion given in particular to export crops. In diminishing order, corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, rice, sorghum, barley, peanuts. Absent from the subsidy list are fruit and vegetables and crops grown for local US markets.

One of the legacies of the colonisation of the South by the North has been the imposition of methods of farming along with the types of crops to be grown. Huge areas of previously diverse multi-crop forests were reduced to plantations growing single crops specifically for export – bananas, sugar cane, pineapples – decimating the land through soil erosion from this unsuitable method of farming and taking away the land and livelihood of local peasants. The heavy-handed, arrogant approach of incomers showing no regard for centuries old successful sustainable methods of farming.

Reinforcing food's place as a commodity rather than a right to a need is the way decisions are made by transnational corporations with respect to environmental consequences. The North's subsidised food puts populations in poor countries off their lands and into urban environments where they then work in manufacturing; manufacturing that has been exported there for their cheap labour. A World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 reported that transferring manufacturing to the South was the same as exporting pollution. Lawrence Summers, when at the World Bank (he’s now Obama’s chief economic adviser), put his name to a document which only half-jokingly suggested that exporting pollution to the poorer countries was a good idea financially on another count – people in those countries died younger anyway from other diseases and we would be saving on our own pollution clean-ups and health-care bills by so doing. Had Southern pollution control met minimal Northern standards the annual bill would have been $14.2 billion more. In other words, make it impossible for peasant farmers to compete with your highly subsidised food crops, watch them migrate to cities where they can no longer even grow food for themselves and employ them cheaply in polluting manufacturing jobs producing goods for export back to you.

“You are what you eat” or “Food is Life” may be seen as mantras of diet-obsessed wacky people but on a science-based, physiological level they happen to be true. To be effectively nourished and maintain decent health requires an adequate supply in reasonable balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fresh, whole foods, uncontaminated by polluted air and water or dozens of chemical sprays and manufactured additives. More and more studies contradict the conventional view of the industrial agricultural complex, generally upheld by politicians, which pushes farming on a huge scale and uses manufactured fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, hormones and genetically modified seed, promoting the idea that bigger is better. It may yield more profit but that is about all. Outside the industrial agricultural complex it is recognised that organic methods are more favourable to producers, soil, sustainability of the environment and to the consumers. A 2007 report from the University of Michigan said that an organic world could yield over 2,641 calories per person per day and that small farms are the most productive. This could be interpreted that food viewed as a need rather than a commodity is a viable prospect and enough could be available for all when the requirement for profit is removed. Unfortunately, as yet, this is a disparate group of movements and pressure groups worldwide which has far from the political clout of the entrenched industrial agricultural complex and transnational corporations' lobby which leaves us with the obvious conclusion that the only solution is the urgent dismantling of the system of commodities in favour of one of free access for all.
(References from Wayne Roberts' “The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food” – one of a series from New Internationalist).

JANET SURMAN