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Capitalism and food security – an oxymoron

Food security for all the people of the world will only be possible whem the profit motive is taken out of food supply.

It's official! Now more than one billion people are hungry and in desperate need of food aid according to the World Food Programme. To meet this need $6.7 billion will be required this year alone (of which less than half has been raised so far). $6.7 billion equates to less than 0.01 percent of that heaped on the needy banks and corporations during the recent and ongoing financial crisis.

But help is at hand, at least for Africa's hungry millions, in the form of a New Green Revolution courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Or is it? According to Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez and Annie Shattuck in 'Ending Africa's Hunger' (The Nation, September 21), “the conventional wisdom is wrong. Food output per person is as high as it has ever been, suggesting that hunger isn't a problem of production so much as one of distribution.” A leaked internal strategy document statement from the Gates Foundation stated, “over time this (strategy) will require some degree of mobility and a lower percentage of total employment involved in direct agricultural production.” The foundation claims that peasants will head for the cities “because there are a lot of them who don't want to be farmers” and “people make their own choices.” The translation from Newspeak reads like this: agribusiness will expand and drive more peasant farmers from the land, disenfranchising them and forcing them to seek employment elsewhere for economic reasons.

Outlining proposals which are largely in opposition to the development strategies of the Gates foundation is the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) whose 2500 page report was completed after 400 scientists spent four years researching the subject. They concluded that the present system of food production and the way food is traded round the world has led to a highly unequal distribution of benefits and serious adverse ecological effects and was now contributing to climate change. Science and technology should be targeted towards raising yields but also protecting soils, waters and forests. Robert Watson, director of the IAASTD and chief scientist at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, “Business as usual will hurt the poor. It will not work.” More of their conclusions found that there was little role for GM foods as it is practised now, that the short answer to whether transgenic crops can feed the world is no and that the global rush to biofuels was not sustainable. One response to this report from a group of eight international environmental and consumer groups was, “this is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the needs of communities.”

Some of the negative aspects and results of current farming practices widely available in the public domain and cited in this international group's response include bio-energy, bio-technology, climate change and trade and markets. One argument could be that some uses of bio-energy and some applications of bio-technology may be useful, however trade and markets only take into consideration profit and, therefore, climate change will continue unabated.

The big question is how to move from a model in which everyone recognises the profit imperative whether they love it or hate it; profit on a large scale or small, profit from agribusiness or market stall, from pure accumulation to simple survival, from the greedy to the needy, profit which favours minority over majority in all areas. Everyone recognises it but far fewer question the possibility, the sense, the imperative of implementing a different model, not a few reforms here and there to give temporary help to this sector or that, but one which takes into consideration the needs, aspirations, ideas and ideals of the many rather than the few.

Who produces the food anyway? Farmers do. And what are farmers saying about their position, as middlemen between consumers and profiteers? La Via Campesina is a “peasants' international” movement, politically pluralist and non-aligned, in 56 countries across 5 continents which came about in response to the global offensive against the countryside. Farmers from North and South united to confront agribusiness whose industrialisation removed the link of consumer to farmer. More than simply trying to defend their economic interests they advocate the right of people to define their own agricultural and food policy. Their list of demands includes safe, nutritious food in sufficient quantity for all, opposition to WTO, World Bank and IMF policies, opposition to displacement and urbanisation of small farmers and guaranteed input into formulating agricultural policies.

Farmers around the world tell of plummeting incomes and higher overheads in both rich and poor world, of farm closures, bankruptcies and suicides whilst financial pages boast of bigger and better profits for the industrial agricultural corporations. Farmers seek a solution which allows them to continue farming with input and policies emanating from them, the producers, not to the dictates of large corporations. This aim is understandable but, generally what they demand is increased subsidies or a watering-down of aggressive policies and trade deals, a redressing of their situation into one which is more economically viable and favourable to them.

Who does the consuming and what are they saying? Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now! speaks for many when he writes that “people are realising over the last 60 years that the ownership of our food supply has been consolidated into the hands of a few powerful multinational corporations,” that “the abundance of 'cheap' food comes at a high cost to society, to individual rights and to our collective future. The industrialisation of food in America has had fundamental health, environmental and economic consequences that can no longer be ignored. By placing a high value on cheap food Americans have unwittingly allowed corporate agribusiness to outsource the true cost of production onto society. The result has been the pollution of our nation's rivers and streams, damage to citizens' health and a severe breakdown in our nation's rural communities where small farmers have been pushed off the land.”

Food production should be about meeting the self-defined needs of people, not a profit-motivated venture for corporations, agribusinesses and their boards and shareholders. Food security is about meeting the dietary needs of all people, at all times, enabling them to live a healthy life and not to be constantly in fear of the vagaries of the market. Only by addressing the monetary element, by coming to terms with the absolute necessity of removing it and any profit motive from the food supply will farmers, consumers and all the peoples of the world have the security of knowing that sufficient food is available to all, at all times and in all situations. Food security for all the world's citizens is just not possible in a capitalist system. Prove me otherwise.

JANET SURMAN