1990s >> 1997 >> no-1109-january-1997

Food for thought in Rome

Twenty-three years ago, the then US Secretary of State. Henry Kissinger, vowed to a World Food conference that world hunger would be eradicated within the next decade. There were then 435 million chronically malnourished people on earth—a 75 million increase over the previous five years.

In spite of the “green revolution” in agriculture, the introduction of high yield crops, genetic engineering and advances in farming technology since the 1984 deadline set by an optimistic Kissinger, there are now as many chronically malnourished people on earth than ever— over 800 million. And although some expect conditions to improve, the United Nations Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reckons there will still be 680 million malnourished people in the year 2010.

Faced with this alarming scenario, delegates representing 194 nations attended the November 1996 UN World Food Summit in Rome, ostensibly to tackle the problem.

The gathering had been blasted by many as a farce before it had begun, in fact even before a 31 October meeting at which delegates had negotiated the bulk of the Summit agreement in advance which, incidentally, was to strive for food security “through a fair and market-oriented world trade system”.

In spite of the October meeting, at which possible disputes were supposedly resolved in advance, the FAO remained confident it could focus attention, in Kissengerian fashion on what it sees as its central purpose, which it defines as a renewal of a “high level commitment around the world to the eradication of hunger and malnutrition and to the achievement of lasting food security for all” (Guardian, 1 November). If this did not smack of a complete misunderstanding of the rules of capitalism, the FAO went on to state that it did not seek pledges of food aid from rich to poor countries, even though this had halved in the past three years.

As could only be expected, the November Summit attracted only a few “leaders” from the industrialised world— no doubt only too aware of what to expect and similarly all too familiar with the fact that such global dilemmas cannot be solved within the context of capitalism. Furthermore, although the UN is supposedly committed to the idea that each person has a right to food and to be free from hunger, it can well be imagined how such “leaders” feared the legislation they might one day run into should they turn up at the Summit and consent to the right of their citizens to food.

Needless to say, a lot of crap came out of the Food Summit—and not the kind that fertilises barren land. There was a lot of finger-pointing at wars and the western arms industries and ethnic and civil strife as being the cause of much hunger. Overpopulation cropped up, with Vatican anti-abortionists objecting to the promotion of “reproductive health care” (as they had at the recent Cairo and Beijing summits) and the issue of free trade in agricultural goods for third world countries was also raised. Nowhere was the problem located in a wider context—the capitalist system itself.

Little wonder, then, that instead of agreeing to abolish world hunger, the 200 or so fat-arsed delegates could only consent to the idea of world hunger being reduced by 50 percent within 20 years—in other words, in the year 2015 world hunger would still be as high as when Henry Kissinger vowed to eradicate it 43 years earlier.

Neither did the Summit extract one single cash commitment, trading reform or agriculture policy shift from any major donor nation. After much prevarication, procrastination and pontification, the world’s hungry were quite simply left to fend for themselves, the Summit declaration stating that primary responsibility for food security rests with individual governments operating with a “market- oriented world system”.

Such news will not doubt be as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool for the likes of the 15 sub-Saharan countries who produce less food per person then they did 30 years ago—thanks largely to IMF structural adjustments programmes and the subverting of arable land to the production of cash crops to meet debt repayments. Meanwhile, the fat cats of the 6 multinationals who control the grain trade (Cargill, for example, has an income larger than that of the 9 largest sub-Saharan countries) can relax—their profits are safe.

The only sense to come out of the Summit came in form of criticism levelled by the major charities.

Save the Children lambasted the Summit as “a forum for legitimising a new international code of practice which . . . subordinates basic rights to the market philosophy”. Actionaid blamed the free trade system itself for global hunger and Oxfam pointed out that the “enhanced competition between the surplus agricultural systems of the industrialised world and the deficit system of the developing world” could only “exacerbate problems” (quotations from the Guardian, 13 November).

Although the FAO admitted that the world produces enough to ensure “adequate” food for all (2,700 calories per person per day), they nevertheless maintained that a 75 percent increase in food production was needed.

It may well be the case that the world is already producing more than enough food to feed the present world population, bearing in mind, for instance, that in one season in 1995 French peasant cooperatives were paid to destroy 972.000 tons of food, and that in 1993 the European community destroyed 3 millions tons of food at a cost of £439 million.

Add to this facts such as the US taking 8 million acres of arable land out of production to reduce their surplus in recent years, the 651 British farmers paid £ 100,000 each in 1994 for not growing food, the Indian army guarding food mountains, and you begin to realise what a waste of time such summits are.

The problem is not a shortage of food, or even a deficiency of “common- sense” among world leaders—it is the system they believe can be run in our interests, a system that says “can’t buy, can’t have”. A system which allows the ruling élite in almost every country to destroy food and pay farmers for not growing food in order to guarantee profits.

Neither is the problem one of overpopulation. Twice the present world population could stand up in Cornwall. Africa is supposedly overpopulated, yet it is now acknowledged that Africa could feed a population six times its present size were western farming techniques to be introduced there.

Capitalism is solely responsible for world hunger, just as it is the root cause of war, diseases that are returning to haunt humanity, homelessness, unemployment and a thousand other social ills. And we call them “social ills” because all of these problems are rooted in the way society is at present organised for production—production for profit, not social need.

John Bissett