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The troubles with food

Raj Patel, Red Pepper
Food prices have soared over the past year. One might think that this would provide a welcome boost to the incomes of the world’s poorest people, most of whom are farmers and farm workers. But it doesn’t work that way, as Raj Patel explains

The return of the food riot

Across the world, from Mozambique to Mexico, from the Philippines to Pakistan, countries have been surprised by the re-emergence of one of the oldest forms of social protest – the food riot. Food is getting more expensive, and many people are less able to afford it. In 2006, food prices increased by 9 per cent. Last year, they went up by at least 37 per cent. This year doesn’t look like it will be any better.

… There’s a bitter irony here. Most of the world’s poorest people are the farmers and farm workers who actually produce food. One might think that they’d benefit from the fact that food prices are going up. And some farmers will undoubtedly be better off, particularly those growing cereals for export.

But most countries in the global South have a very particular pattern of agricultural production, which involves a few, very large scale farmers producing the bulk of export crops. The majority of poor rural people – and four out of five poor people on the planet live in rural areas – either work on or, if they’re lucky, own a very small amount of land. Their food production has been largely destined for the home market. With the World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO) pushing for increased levels of free trade, they’ve found themselves shut out of their own markets by imports dumped from the global North.

… There is a gamut of reasons both why prices are higher and why farmers are seeing less and less of the revenue. Those hurt the hardest are rural workers and small farmers. So it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that farmers are at the forefront of understanding the effects of international agricultural trade. For decades, they’ve been schooled in the violence of the market, and in the use of food as a political weapon by agribusiness.

Recently, though, modern communications technologies have allowed conversations between different struggles in different parts of the world. One of the largest farmers’ movements in the world, La Via Campesina (Spanish for ‘the peasant way’) is an international association of millions of farmers, peasants, and landless labourers.

… One of the movement’s major outcomes has been the development of a coherent international alternative to modern industrial agriculture. It’s called ‘food sovereignty’. To fully understand it, it’s important to contrast it with the dominant liberal goal – food security. Food security has a technical definition, along the lines of this, taken from the US government: food security is characterised by ‘access by all people at all times to sufficient food and nutrition for a healthy and productive life’. This sounds all well and good until you realise that it’s compatible with everyone getting vouchers for McDonald’s and a baggie of vitamins to fill the nutritional gaps.

Crucially, what the definition of food security omits is any idea of who controls what and how food is grown and distributed. The definition of food sovereignty is fairly long; Wikipedia has a good summary. The most recent iteration of it is this:

‘Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.’

Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Portobello Books) He is a researcher at the University of California, at Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, and at the University of KwaZulu-Natal
(April?? 2008)

Anti-Hunger Protests in Haiti

Jeb Sprague, Upside Down World via Znet
Demonstrations that started in Le Cayes on Thursday, April 3rd, against soaring food prices spread across Haiti to Petit-Goagve, Gonaïves, Aquin and, by April 7, to the capital, Port-au-Prince. Anger over rising prices has been building for many months with basic food stuffs increasingly out of reach for the poor. Tires were set ablaze in the streets and thrown together to form barricades that paralyzed traffic for days.

Numerous businesses were vandalized and looted, especially those selling food, as crowds vented their anger at the perceived indifference to their plight by the nation’s elite, including the René Préval /Jacques Edouard Alexis administration. Broken glass on the streets near targeted buildings and cars became a common sight.

Hunger now termed “Klorox” and “Battery Acid” by Haiti’s poor, likens hunger to a chemical acid eating away at empty stomachs. These new slang terms to describe the mounting hunger have come into usage over the last few months. Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis resigned April 12, a move that was partly the work of sixteen senators who claimed they were responding to the huge demonstrations. Alexis appears to have sealed his fate by saying in a speech that many of the protesters were merely gangsters and drug dealers.

ImageSome early reports in Haitian media outlets, owned by some of the small elite families in the country, also took this line, but it quickly became clear that the demonstrations were a massive outpouring of anger and that it would be unwise to dismiss as just criminal activity.

Alexis correctly pointed out that Haiti is not the only country in the world that has been hit hard by rising food prices. One Haitian media outlet, Agence Haitienne de Presse, in an editorial criticized the senators who helped remove Alexis, explaining that Alexis was used as a convenient scapegoat for deep seated problems.
(26 April 2008)

Avoidable hunger

Conor Foley, Guardian

OK, I want to talk about Ireland
Specifically I want to talk about the “famine”
About the fact that there never really was one
There was no “famine”
See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes
All of the other food
Meat, fish, vegetables
Were shipped out of the country under armed guard
To England while the Irish people starved

Sinead O’Connor, “Famine”, from the Universal Mother album.

Since the publication of Susan George’s book How the Other Half Dies and Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines it has been widely accepted that hunger is caused not by an absolute lack of food, but the inequities of its distribution. Sen’s widely quoted claim that famines don’t occur in democracies was based on his own experiences of the Bengal famine of 1943 in British ruled-India. It could also have applied to my own family’s stories from Ireland almost a century earlier.

Around 2.5 million people died or emigrated during the Great Hunger while food in abundance continued to be exported from Ireland. The famine entered folk memory as symbolising the cruelty and ineptness of English rule. It became a rallying point for future generations of physical force separatists and created a diaspora, particularly in America, who were prepared to support them, with money and guns.

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar at the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) regional headquarters in Bangkok. A number of heads of mission from the Asian regional programmes were there and all had similar stories to tell about the devastating effects that the current worldwide rise in food prices is causing.

… The current food price hike also reverses a 30-year trend of falling prices, which has had a devastating impact on the lives of small farmers. Most of the world’s poor live in rural areas and so a gradual increase in prices is actually good news for them. In the longer term it could make it economic to bring more land under cultivation and provide a boost in exports for some poor countries. Africa currently has less commercial agriculture than it did 50 years ago and, as everyone who has ever visited the continent knows, there is a huge amount of fertile land that is currently lying fallow.

Agriculture is one of the few economic sectors where developing countries could compete with the rich world on equal terms, but tariffs and subsidy regimes have blocked their exports. Rich countries currently spend about 10 times more subsidising their own farmers than they give to the poorest countries in aid, and the average EU cow receives more financial support than half the world’s population has to live on. Some of this aid actually consists of food surpluses that are shipped across the world at great expense and then dumped on poor countries, where they price local farmers out of the market. The root cause of the current instability of the world’s food markets is directly related to the long-term distorting effect these subsidies have created.

This is not to deny that the rise in the world’s population has serious long-term consequences, but addressing the problem in the short and medium term will require different measures. ,,,

Conor Foley is a humanitarian aid worker. He has worked for a variety of human rights and humanitarian aid organizations, including Liberty, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Colombia…
(25 April 2008)
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Global Emergency Triggers Food Riots

Anand Gopal, IPS News
In the teeming, dense flour bazaars of Kabul, it’s hard not to miss the anger.

“Something has to change… my life is horrible,” Zahir, an Afghan trash collector says. Zahir is buying flour for his family of 11, a simple act that has become increasingly difficult for Afghan residents in recent months. “We cannot eat more because the cost has become so high.”

“My small son cries everyday for some bread,” he continues. “Look at the people around me,” he says, waving his arm around a group of disheveled labourers. “They can’t afford to eat every day now.”

Afghans across the country are expressing frustration at the sharp rise in food prices, mirroring trends elsewhere around the globe. Observers worry that the continuing food insecurity will force millions to go hungry and spark widespread instability.
(25 April 2008)