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The politics of hunger

About a billion people or 1/6th of humanity goes to sleep hungry each day. Most assume it is because not enough food is there to go around. Though this may become true in future unless we have an urgent course correction, at the moment this abomination is the result of lack of access to food, not its absence. In India, where a large fraction of hungry lives, food grains rot in the open while the Food Corporation of India which is tasked with buying & s toring grains, and thereby ensuring food security for Indians has been starved of much needed funds to build storage space. There is a lot of hair splitting around the Right to Food legislation that recognises access to food for everyone as a basic human right or around the Unique Identity project that is deemed necessary to assuredly deliver such rights to those who actually need them. Yet the government of India cannot bring itself to distribute the grains, which would otherwise surely be wasted, to the hungry for free. This is really the paradox of hunger - what is obvious is either missed through ignorance or misinformation, or worse deliberately overlooked or fudged for ulterior motives.

Year 2008 saw the hungry rioting in desperation for food in several countries as their already precarious position was made worse by food-inflation. Prices of staple food increased by as much as 83% between 2005-08. Trouble is that rising prices are readily attributed to demand-supply mismatch, while the hefty speculation and cornering that is indulged in by the few multinationals who control the world food and feed markets goes unrecognised. Last Friday saw the prices of corn jump on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBoT) by 8.50% - the largest single jump since 1973 when the first oil crisis hit.  Soya bean, wheat & other basic agriculture produce too soared in sympathy. That day the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) revised downwards its forecast for corn crop yields by 4% after having assured Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) around 2 weeks earlier of high estimates. What happened between 24th September and 8th October to warrant such a huge revision is not known. Talking to Bloomberg Business week, Abdolreza Abbasian - senior economist with FAO - said that " Something like what happened on Friday is totally unacceptable ". This has come on top of a failed wheat crop in Russia due to unprecedented weather. Poor weather is claiming its toll elsewhere too such as in Canada. European livestock industry is dependent upon Russian wheat and would now be making good that shortfall by buying the US corn. Diversion of  more grains to meat production and to bio-fuels coupled with vagaries of weather heightened by climate change are going to be some of the major drivers affecting food availability going into the future. Weakening of the dollar in recent weeks is also driving the speculators into the commodities market where they see an opportunity to make quick bucks on the back of a tightening situation. This makes an already bad situation terrible.

As if this wasn't enough, there are some others who want to make fortune from the fear of the spectre of want. There are some well meaning initiatives such as Feed the Future of USAID that is cosponsored by ONE ( The global anti-poverty advocacy organization ). Unfortunately, these tend to fall prey to the advocacy of the industry, which wants to promote high energy intensive farming that depends upon heavy doses of fertilizers, abundant water, pesticides protection, and of course hybrids/ Genetically modified seeds. 'Animals for food' industry has turned into a one of the most prolific contributors of green house gases. Future looks alarming even with whatever carbon foot print the developed and some developing countries already have to warn away anyone from pursuing this path, yet the visions of hungry hordes destabilizing the world are forcing common sense approaches to retreat and yield timidly to the juggernaut of a clutch of companies led by the likes of Monsanto. Industrial Agriculture hasn't helped the developing countries with small land-holdings pattern notwithstanding the runaway success of green revolution in the late 60s & early 70s in India riding on Norman Borlaug's dwarf wheat variety. But the era of cheap energy is back in the past, which then sustained viscerally the green revolution. Secondly, whatever the climate change deniers may say, sufficient evidence has been collected by the climatologists which proves undeniably that the time for human specie to act is now to avoid a certain catastrophe. Does it mean there is no alternative before us that can save the climate and feed all of us going into the future? The answer luckily is yes, provided we care to look for it by pushing aside all the cacophony unleashed by the drum beaters of industrial farming, more specifically by the GM food companies.

Evidence supporting the claims of the proponents of sustainable living and organic farming came from an independent source that stumbled upon it quite unexpectedly. Ivette Perfecto, Professor of Natural Resources & Environment- University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (UOM-AA), and Catherine Badgley, research scientist at the Museum of Palaeontology, were teaching a class about the global food system and were taking the students on field visits to farms in Michigan. That is when an idea fuelled them to undertake an exhaustive review of data on farming practices & methods. Two of the killer arguments  put out by the GM food companies & synthetic inputs industry, which promote energy intensive agriculture, were the low yields of organic farming and the paucity of enough organic-nitrogen to support growing of sufficient food organically to feed the world's starved as well as the stuffed. Eating right food is going to be a key component of living sustainably, and for the overstuffed people even healthily too; whereas having enough to eat will promote the well being of the starved. Interestingly, the UOM-AA study has struck a blow for organic farming by busting the earlier cited two fond myths that have been assiduously cultivated by those opposed to organic farming. Comparing organic farming with 'low energy intensive' conventional farming practised in developing countries, they found that organic farms can produce up to 3 times higher food. Organic farming is not only helpful to work the small land-holdings that are ubiquitous to developing world, but even admirably come over the access deficit that poor farmers face in procuring GM seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and even large quantum of water. Access deficit is caused not just by monetary constraints, but even due to non-availability of these costly inputs on time and in required doses. When they studied the organic-nitrogen availability, there too they found that by planting what they call

"Green manure' crops (GM crops) would yield nitrogen in totally sufficient quantities. GM crops are those varieties that farmers all over the world have traditionally inter-cropped with main harvests such as legumes, which fix nitrogen (actually azo-bacteria do), or have ploughed back into soil fodder plants that are left over. For the purpose of their analysis,"

researchers defined the term organic as: practices referred to as sustainable or ecological; that utilize non-synthetic nutrient cycling processes; that exclude or rarely use synthetic pesticides; and sustain or regenerate the soil quality". To conclude, Perfecto adds :

" the idea that people would go hungry if farming went organic is ridiculous. Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions , with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies —all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food "

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Above UOM_AA research findings were published in 2007. What about it in 2010? The day before, i.e. 16th October, was the World Food Day. News came in that small farmers in Africa are rejecting the approach of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Farmers want to use local seeds, and instead of spending the precious money on GM seeds or chemicals, they want public agriculture research to understand and address their needs rather than that of big companies manufacturing pesticides, fertilizers or genetically engineered seeds. Michel Pimbert of International Institute of Environment & Development said,

"Food and agriculture policy and research tend to ignore the values, needs, knowledge and concerns of the very people who provide the food we all eat — and often serve instead powerful commercial interests such as multinational seed and food retailing companies".

AGRA is a $400 million initiative funded by Gates & Rockefeller foundations launched in the wake of 2008 food crisis that sparked riots in several countries in Africa. Opposing the approach adopted by AGRA, Hans Herren, who is credited with devising a biological control program that saved the African Cassava crop, said :

"its objective will make farmers dependent on inputs, dependent on markets, instead of the farmers being in charge. We have seen from the example in the U.S. and EU where this dependency leads...fewer farmers, lower prices for farmers… more jobless people".

Pimbert concluded evocatively,

" AGRA, many scientists and large NGOs believe the business approach of high-technology and public-private partnerships is the way to feed Africa, they can't accept the smallholders' world view. What will happen instead is that smallholders will buy the new hybrid seed, fertiliser and pesticide on credit, eventually be forced off their land to repay their debts and end up in the cities, while large corporate style farms will consolidate smallholder land. This what has happened to many of India's smallholders ".

Neither is it desirable, nor should it be allowed to happen - in India, Africa or anywhere. If someone talks of helping poor, first verify if poor have been consulted on how they desire to be helped.  Helping poor is often a ruse for helping oneself.  Now is the time for the chatterati to take note and not be mute spectators to the misleading propaganda unleashed by the corporates in the name of feeding the hungry.

Editorial Notes: Sadanand Patwardhan is a regular contributor to CounterCurrents and blogs at Chintan where he has an: Abiding interest in the present & future of humanity & nature. -KS

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