A dialogue on sharing food
If we are concerned about stopping the enduring crime of starvation amidst plenty, we cannot restrict our actions to the level of our own country or community. We should rather think about sharing food in global terms and, above all, in relation to the politics of ending hunger, says Mohammed Mesbahi.
9th August 2013 - Published by Share The World's Resources
Today, the principle of sharing is increasingly being discussed as a solution to the manifold social, economic and political problems of humanity. There are many people and organisations that now talk about the importance of sharing as a way forward for society in terms of reducing consumption, conserving resources, preventing wastage or addressing poverty. And one notable recent development is a conversation on sharing in relation to food. This may concern the sharing of food through a charity, the salvaging of surplus produce from farms or supermarkets, the free distribution of food at some event or gathering, or even the sharing of a meal between friends or strangers. There are also many other contexts within which this emerging conversation is taking place, although the intention of this article is not to analyse the trends and characteristics of the various new food sharing movements. Rather it's to see if we can investigate for ourselves, in simple terms, the profounder significance of sharing food with respect to the most urgent humanitarian crisis of time - which is arguably the enduring existence of worldwide hunger.
To begin with, let's enquire into the origin of this growing appeal to share food in modern societies. Anyone may observe how animals share food, and some insects share food, and we may know that anthropologists have studied the subject of reciprocal food sharing for many years. But let's not adopt the opinions of scientists or academics with all their theories, and see if we can explore this issue from our own understanding. What has led to a situation in which people are now talking about the need to share food in a world of plenty? When we have a family meal, do we think or say to each other: ‘I am now sharing my food with you'? Of course not, no-one says that in a family because the food is for everyone to eat. A father will not think that he has to share his food with his children, and his children will not ask their father to share with them. We simply live and eat together as a normal part of our daily lives. The process is natural, automatic. So how did we come to a situation in which we say ‘let's share our food with one another', bearing in mind that the world produces more than enough food for everyone? Implicitly, it suggests that something is wrong with the way in which we relate to each other across society.
On the one hand, you have all of the problems that plague humanity, all the terrible things that happen every day - the widespread violence and suffering, the extremes of poverty and luxury, all of the divisions wrought into our social order. And then, in the midst of this turmoil, the idea to share our food suddenly takes hold. But if there was not such separation in the world, and no deprivation or hunger, we may not pay any attention to the idea of sharing food. Just as a family shares its food among everyone and doesn't think twice about it, so would the family of nations share the world's plentiful food as a matter of course, and no-one would have to mention the necessity of sharing. It would also be natural, commonsensical, and a normal part of our daily lives. So perhaps the question is not why we need to share our food with one another, but why have we organised the world in such a way that it does not allow the food to circulate freely among everyone? Is it a question of sharing the food that we have acquired for ourselves, or allowing everyone access to the food that is so lavishly available? There is a cruel injustice at the heart of this enquiry. Firstly, our world denies access to food for those who have no money to pay for it, so if you are poor then you have no right to feed yourself or your family. Secondly, and most appallingly, there is such a surplus of food produced in the world that corporations will waste or destroy that food rather than allow it to circulate freely.
The commercialisation of food
Then what is the root of the problem concerning food? We might say it is the commercialisation of food, and the way in which the production, distribution and consumption of food is being manipulated in the wrong way for profit. For example, the transnational agri-corporations which control vast amounts of food have no interest in making sure that their produce is grown and distributed freely, because they are only concerned with making money. So when it comes to the poor peasant farmer who is struggling to grow his own food, he can forget about it. He has no rights whatsoever compared to the big corporation. If he lives in a village that can feed itself, and has done for centuries, the corporation can come along and devastate his community by building whatever it is they want to build, because the government will help them to do it. Or perhaps a foreign country such as China will purchase the land encompassing that village, then claim that the food grown on that land now belongs to them, as if that could be literally true.
So how can a poor farmer share his freely produced food among his family, when his land has been effectively stolen from him by the big corporations, or by the government with its misguided policies? And what does food sharing mean for the millions of smallholder farmers in poor countries who are forced to stop selling their surplus produce to the local market, and instead export it to the richer countries, like ours (England), for a cheap price? And how many supermarket chains now exist in this country alone that gladly profit from that cheap food? Thousands of them. And how many tonnes of food are they throwing away at night? We don't even know, because the food belongs to them. They have no interest in sharing the bounty of Nature that is freely provided, or allowing the food that belongs to everyone to circulate freely.
It is therefore correct to say that food should never be commercialised, but should rather be put in its right place for the benefit of all humanity, not only the profit-making corporations. When food is commercialised we might say there is less food for all in a world of plenty. Let's put it this way. There is plenty of food available in the global marketplace, but it is so expensive that there is less access to staple provisions for the majority, and too much access to a cornucopia of food for the few. So when food is commercialised, it makes no sense to say that we should all share our food with one another. Who is sharing their food with whom, and to whom did that food belong in the first place? Food needs to be understood first, not shared. We need to understand the role of food in relationship to the whole of humanity, and direct food to its right place. Indeed, we should fundamentally question why it is that our world is producing such a surplus of food per capita, with such spurious methods of industrial farming. Is it to feed the people? If so, then the world's food belongs to everyone; it doesn't belong to the immense grain silos where it is kept rotting in thousands of tonnes, ready to be shipped overseas for profit. To commercialise food in this way is extremely dangerous, in the same way that it is ill-fated to commercialise water. By definition, the food of the world belongs to those who need to eat it for their daily sustenance, which has nothing to do with sharing - it has to do with common sense!
Hopefully, the people who are beginning to talk about sharing in relation to food will also consider the issue in terms of justice. Remember, if we lived in a world that was equal and without poverty or deprivation, then the idea of sharing our food would hold no meaning, and may never have existed. The only reason that it makes sense to talk about sharing food is because the world is divided, inequitable and in conflict. And even then, it is only a meaningful idea if we are talking about sharing food between countries on the basis of ending hunger. The nature of the food problem in its essence could not be simpler: there's a huge surplus of food in the world, there are mountains of grains and rice produced, and that produce has to be directed to where it is needed for sustaining life. In a global sense, when there are millions of people who are hungry in the poorest regions, that means we have to redirect food as a matter of emergency in order to prevent anyone from dying from starvation or malnutrition. Surely this stands to reason; before the parents in a family feed and clothe themselves, they first make sure that the children have everything they need, which also applies by analogy to the family of nations. Before we talk about sharing food in the context of the richest countries, we have to first make sure that the children in the poorest regions of the world are well fed and looked after. We would never dream of sharing our food with friends or neighbours while our children are all alone at home, without anything to eat. So the word ‘emergency' is much nearer to the problem of food than the word ‘sharing'; it infers the need for international cooperation, for effective global governance, for the food and resources of the world to be navigated by whatever means necessary - even the military services - to ensure that hunger is completely eradicated as a leading priority for all nations.
The art of economic sharing
Let's try to be clearer about what we mean when we talk about sharing in relation to food. The art of sharing in economic terms is to direct the world's resources to where they are needed in order to end separation and deprivation in all its forms. If we are talking about sharing food, that means we cannot restrict our thinking to the level of our own country or community. We have to think in global terms and, first and foremost, in relation to the politics of ending hunger. Otherwise the concept of sharing food is just a lofty idea that has no substance in the end. Anyway, it has happened many times before that people come together within a community and share their food among themselves, secluded from the rest of humanity. Their experiments and sharing activities may make a difference to themselves within a collective, but it will mean little for anyone else unless their actions are understood in relation to the problems of the world as a whole. Similarly, in Greece and Portugal and other countries that are stricken by the economic crisis, many people are now donating food to charities or to other families that don't have enough money. Sharing food within communities is undoubtedly the right thing to do considering that there is an increasing problem of hunger in the affluent countries too. But then again, when is this awareness going to become planetary; not only ‘I feed my neighbour', but ‘I feed the world'? Now that the European Union is collapsing we may begin sharing food among ourselves, yet millions of people are dying from hunger in other parts of the world, and have done for many decades. Would we think of them, and not only our neighbours, if the economic crisis in our own countries was resolved?
It's not even a question of sharing our food with the world's hungry, but of stopping the crime of starvation in a world of plenty and the ongoing theft of resources from the world's poor. It is really a question of theft, and of illegality; it should be illegal for governments to allow anyone to die for want of the food that is copiously produced. Sharing food in this respect doesn't mean that we, the people, have to share our food with the hungry in remote countries. If somebody near to us is suffering from hunger and we share our food with them, then clearly the result would be good - that person could be saved from needlessly dying. But there is more than enough food, enough boats, enough planes, enough technology in the world to ensure that food is distributed to everyone who needs it. So how does a person come to a point when they do not have enough to eat, and are incapable of providing for their family? This is the line of enquiry we need to pursue if we want to think for ourselves on this matter in terms of justice, and it can never be answered by sending food parcels from affluent households to distant regions overseas.
Broadly speaking, it appears that the emerging conversation on sharing food can go in one of two different directions. We can either invent a new concept around the idea of sharing food that is limited to our own society or community. Or we can focus our attention on the understanding that food belongs to everyone, and expand our awareness to the planetary level in order to uphold a vision of the one humanity. One direction is essentially conservative and self-centred if we think only in terms of what is good for ourselves and our own country. But if we think about the necessity of sharing food globally, and if we re-educate ourselves to think in terms of what is good for the world as a whole, then the idea of sharing to end hunger holds within itself the true meaning of revolution. It will be a revolutionary explosion within our collective consciousness the day we intuit the revelation of sharing on the basis of justice, on the basis of compassion, on the basis of our common sense, and especially on the basis of our maturity and responsibility. If we are clear on what sharing means in global terms, and if our actions are based on a revolution led by the common sense of the heart, perhaps then we can talk about the meaning of sharing in relation to food.
If we only think about sharing food on the basis of charity, however, then we will never reach the economic understandings needed to ensure freedom from want for all the world's inhabitants. When we are truly interested in making sure that every person in the world is fed, sheltered and cared for, charity is an outmoded form of thinking in our societies that has to be dissipated and eventually relegated to the past. And unless we think about sharing food in relation to justice and ending hunger, then we are stripping the principle of sharing of its nobility and integrity. The principle of sharing has its dignity too, so let us not degrade this noble principle with sentimentality or notions of charity. Of course it's right and crucial to share food on the basis of charity within a divided society that fails to guarantee everyone access to the essentials of life, but that is a very different thing from sharing the world's resources. Economic sharing in global terms is a prerequisite to the art of living. It means to put things in their right place, to direct and redirect the world's goods in order to meet everyone's common needs. And with respect to food, that means we have to restructure the economic framework in order to direct the world's grain, vegetables, fruit and other foodstuffs to where it belongs - which is firstly, above all other concerns, on the empty plates of the destitute and hungry. Considering the vast scale of the crisis, it is less about the global sharing of food in the first instance than it is about global food redistribution. Because how are we going to redistribute food that is produced and transported around the world on the sole basis of commercial profit? This is where the root of the problem lies - in the resistance of those who are only interested in selling food for material gain. And that is why the global redistribution of food to end hunger will herald the first trumpet call on this earth for right human relations and justice.
Let's also see if we can be clearer about the meaning of justice in relation to food. When a person in our society commits a crime by killing other people, that person is sent to prison. But even that prisoner is provided with basic amenities and given enough food to eat, and is not permitted by the government to starve. That is what we call justice. And yet we have millions of people around the world who subsist from day to day in a life-threatening state of poverty, and the government does almost nothing for them. What social crime are these people guilty of? What kind of justice is there for them? Obviously, there can be no justice in a world ridden with inequity and impoverishment unless the government fulfils its duty to help all its people. So what does that mean for the millions of people who are blamelessly destitute or hungry? As a bare minimum, it means that even if you are poor, even if you do not have many possessions, even if you do not have enough money to fly around the world in a plane, at least you will have enough food to make sure that you are not at risk of dying from starvation or malnutrition. It means that Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must become the founding principle of every nation, which is almost the opposite of the current situation. Even in India, the country with the highest number of undernourished people in the world, the government spends some $40bn on its military budget each year despite the fact that it isn't at war. Who is the government fighting to protect, when several thousand of the nation's children die each day due to illnesses related to poor diets? There is more than enough food produced in that country alone to feed all of its people. What's to stop the government from putting a bill through parliament that says: ‘redirect the food to the hungry millions!'
We will never succeed in changing the government's warped priorities if we limit our activity to sharing food between ourselves. What we should also do is come together, unite and demonstrate in front of the government to say: ‘stop what you're doing!' But instead of collectively demanding that our governments immediately distribute food to the hungry, many of those involved in food sharing initiatives are behaving as if there's a war going on. Food is being donated, collected, salvaged and redistributed to help ensure that those who have no money at least have access to the nation's food surplus. That is a venerable thing to do, but there are no bombs being dropped on our streets or any restrictions being placed on the availability of food. Then why isn't the world's food reaching the people who need it most, despite there being more than enough to go around? The reasons are well discussed: because the price of food is being dictated by the vagaries of market forces. Because the wholesale commercialisation of food allows it to be hoarded, wasted, speculated upon for profit and sold as animal fodder to industrial feedlots. In response to the monstrous injustices that ensue from this state of affairs, are we going to feed somebody in our neighbourhood and then go home and be happy? The overwhelming extent of avoidable deaths due to hunger demands an emergency response from the world's governments. So the very first step towards changing this situation is to understand that we are not at war, that there is plenty of food available in the world, and it is our governments that are to blame for causing food deprivation through their reckless policies. How else can food crises of biblical proportions keep repeating themselves, again and again? The time has come when we must say: enough is enough!
It is the world's governments that have the power to change the laws, to regulate the corporations and redirect the food to where it is needed. Even the corporations, despite all their deviousness, are no match compared to a united voice of the world's people. From whichever way you look at it, the key to change is the collective power of ordinary people. If enough people unite and tell a corrupt government leader that they have to leave office, then that politician will leave, as we have seen in Egypt. And if enough people boycotted the products of major agri-corporations, then those corporations would be forced to change their destructive practices that are causing poverty and perpetuating hunger. It is up to us, the everyday men and women of goodwill, to make a stand for the kind of world we want to live in. We are born to serve, we are born with compassion, we are born to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and the governments are taking that away from us with their perfidious laws and policies; for how much longer are we going to conform while our brothers and sisters are dying of starvation and disease?
We have to become activists and unite no matter where we live in the world, and together we can stop this injustice. It is time for a huge demonstration that doesn't cease until the crisis of hunger is adequately addressed by our governments. It cannot be like the protests against the Iraq war in 2003 when millions of people amassed internationally for one weekend and then went home, permitting the politicians to carry on with their mercenary strategies. We have to carry on and on and on, in every country and capital city, until an emergency programme of food redistribution is coordinated by governments at an international level. It will never be enough if we target our efforts at sharing food within our own localities; the critical magnitude of the situation behoves us to come together with awareness of what is happening around the world, to organise ourselves and demand from our governments that everyone is fed. Even the people who are sharing food locally and those who are receiving that food should join forces, go outside and demonstrate for an irrevocable end to hunger!
The rise of an indignant public
Without the rise of an indignant public we will never witness a re-ordering of global priorities, a massive redirection of funds to the poorest areas of the world, and a concerted restructuring of the global economy to ensure that extreme poverty is completely eradicated and never allowed to happen again. However, let's not be tempted to believe that the existing government leaders will automatically accede to an overwhelming call from the public to end hunger. We know that the world's governments have the means to rapidly end the suffering of millions of people, but that doesn't mean it is in their best interests to do so. For instance, it is taken for granted that only strategic or economic interests will incentivise a foreign intervention in the forgotten conflict zones of Africa, let alone the prospect of enacting an intergovernmental emergency programme to rebuild those devastated regions and care for the dispossessed. And even if the political will was there for such extensive relief and support, the current methods used to help the poor in less developed nations will always remain insufficient, such as Official Development Assistance. This is the remnant of a very old and malefic system, and it's high time that institutionalised charity was replaced by an international programme of coordinated action to forever end hunger and needless deprivation.
Will the existing government leaders therefore understand what has to be done to solve poverty and injustice, even if they are compelled to do so by world public opinion? Maybe, or perhaps they won't. Perhaps the first step is for the public to drive out all the old politicians that uphold the status quo, and put more ordinary people with common sense into positions of influence and authority. The trained ordinary person sees the world very differently from the wealthy politician who was educated in private schools and elite universities. Common sense belongs to the ordinary people in every country because they are the ones who see the need for justice, who don't want to become a ‘somebody' in the eyes of others, and who only want to serve the public good. They are not like the government bureaucrats who work without vision in accordance with an ideology that serves only the rich, the establishment and powerful corporations.
This is one reason why common sense has never prevailed in our societies, because it has long been abducted by domineering governments and their ill-advised leaders. In fact the conservative heads of state are not equipped for the transformations that lie ahead, and for obvious reasons. First of all, it's not their fault; they have not been trained to implement the policies that can feed the world's people and reverse decades of destructive commercialisation. Secondly, they will be shocked if you asked them to do so. They will say; ‘Excuse me, but I have billions of dollars of contracts with foreign countries, and now you're asking me to jeopardise all those years of working for our national self-interest? I cannot do that!' To ask such a politician of the old order to transform his policy priorities could be a dangerous mistake, because if you carry on asking the wrong person to heed the public's demands then you will end up violently asking them. And violence is not the way of sharing the world's resources, or of asking for sharing. That is why the old governments have to go. We should not waste our time voting for them any longer. And there is no point in protesting for those politicians to completely change their policies, because they will never do it. So they have to leave office! We need them out!
We have to replace the doctrinaire authorities with fresh blood, with ordinary people who are here to serve humanity with gratitude, humility and wisdom. Because the wise ordinary person will be aware of what they are elected for, which the erstwhile politician was never in office to do. There are many experienced people who work in non-governmental organisations (NGOs), for example, who work with an attitude of selfless service and know precisely the changes that are needed in different fields. These are the kind of people that we need to set out the policies that governments should implement, and together those policies should be taken to the United Nations and formulated into an international program of economic restructuring and resource redistribution. The multitude of NGOs around the world are doing the work that should always have been done by our governments, such as healing the environment, feeding the hungry, tending to the poor and working out the policies that will pave the road to a better world. What the progressive and humanitarian NGOs stand for, in effect, represents the best that our governments should be aspiring to do. So we have to get the orthodox politicians out, the trained ordinary people in, and the wisdom of the NGOs must be the guiding light of our new government administrations. Once we stop the mess being created by the governments who follow the divisive rules of commercialisation, then the hungry can finally eat, the damage can be slowly undone, and the rest will follow naturally. Every nation already knows what it wants. And if we only listen to the respected thinkers in the many people's movements and activist NGOs, they will give us the needed answers.
Our collective complacency
In response to these assertions, many people may contest that it is too idealistic to expect a united public voice to focus on the suffering of the abject poor. Of the many hundreds of protests that are spontaneously erupting in every country, for example, why have we yet to see any demonstrations in our city squares for an end to poverty-induced hunger? This is an important question to ponder, although perhaps we already know the answer. Because it's normal for there to be people dying from starvation in other parts of the world. We're used to it; it's been going on for decades. It's easy to say what we should do, which is to go in unison before our governments and with the power of millions of voices to hit hard with our simple demand, day after day in peaceful protest until something is done. But the nearest thing we have right now is people swapping food, donating to charities or sharing meals in community festivities. And of the many organisations springing up around the idea of sharing food, most don't even mention the fact that people are starving in distant countries. And why not? Because it's much safer to limit the idea of sharing to the level of our own country or community. We are far less inclined to take the view that sharing has to be applied globally, because then we may have to reflect on our own lifestyles in relation to the poorest people in the world, or else we may have to take a stand against the government and its policies.
Even if we do know the true scale of food insecurity in poorer countries, we would rather respond to the idea of sharing in a limited and self-centred way, without stepping out of our comfort zone. We would rather have a party in the name of sharing food while millions of people are suffering from hunger. We may feel good about participating in such food sharing activities, but in the end it is an extension of our complacency that reduces the idea of sharing into an ‘ism' or a fantasy. It will mean nothing with respect to the critical world situation, and it will achieve nothing for the survival of humanity. Complacency is like water; it goes everywhere possible when disturbed, but always looks for its balance and seeks to return to the same place as before. Our complacency is the same because we are always looking for our own security, and we are all seeking a place to hide from our fear. Complacency and fear are one and the same thing, because one cannot exist without the other. We are all very scared, acting as if we will live for a thousand years even though the tensions in the world are so extreme that without drastic changes we'll soon be finished. And we are all to blame for the crisis of our civilisation, because no-one is absolved from the turmoil in our societies that we've together inherited and recreated, generation after generation.
Who then shall we point our finger at when it comes to the atrocity of hunger? We know that the governments are not interested in redistributing food to where it is most critically needed, and the big corporations are causing hunger by commercialising food and marginalising the poor. But maybe we are more culpable than the governments or the corporations, because out of our indifference we do little to prevent this situation from continuing year after year. Although unfortunately, no-one can rally other people to demonstrate in the streets for governments to end hunger as a global priority. Only awareness can lead to the understanding that preventing food deprivation is a moral imperative, and that it is not excusable that anyone should die for want of the food that is abundantly available. Which means that needless deaths due to hunger in a world of plenty is the final consequence of our collective complacency, and there is no escaping this brutal fact. It is not our governments, it is not the corporations, it is not a conspiracy by a secret cabal, but it is we who are most to blame.
Sharing to end hunger
What can we say the principle of sharing really means, then, in relation to food? As we have already ascertained, it means an end to hunger on the basis of an international emergency. It means ensuring that every man, woman and child has access to the food that is everywhere available. It really is as simple as that. It is not a complicated situation, despite what the exponents of commercialisation would have us believe. What we call the system has created such division in our societies through its complex laws and policies that in the end nobody really understands what the system is anymore. But that doesn't mean we have to think about the problem of food in a complicated way, because we are all the same in our common needs as human beings. The principle of sharing when applied to food distribution will mean, at the very least, that no-one in this world dies from starvation ever again. It will mean that everyone has access to safe and nutritious food, until eventually the word ‘sharing' is no longer associated with the word ‘food' in our vocabulary. The true significance of implementing sharing into world affairs is to bring balance within humanity and nature so that everyone and everything on this earth is granted their God-given right to evolve. Hence to share the world's food will mean much more than eradicating hunger in the end, because it will lead to a new global awareness about our relationship to each other and the natural world.
Of course, that awareness has to be reflected in deep-seated changes to governmental policies, such as unjust trade rules and perverse agricultural subsidies. Countless laws may eventually have to disappear if we are to untangle food from the complex processes of commercialisation. In the long run, we will have to learn to live more simply so that we do not produce more food than we need, or waste food unnecessarily. As long as we continually produce more and more food for the endless pursuit of commercial profit, we are wrecking the earth for no effective purpose while failing to ensure that everyone is fed and nourished. So the first stage of sharing food on a worldwide basis would involve the emergency redistribution of grains and other essential foodstuffs, and out of that redistributive process a second stage would necessitate a new simplicity in our relationship to food, so that we only produce what we need and no longer harm the earth's natural resources. And this in turn would clearly implicate the role of agri-corporations that must also be impelled, through the implacable strength of world public opinion, to pay their ‘fair shares' in redistributing food while dramatically reforming their current approach to industrial farming. Which all ultimately depends on our collective willingness to gather together and demonstrate in the streets, on and on like never before, until intergovernmental bodies and new economic arrangements ensure that everyone is guaranteed access to sufficient food. We know that we have the finances to do it, if only by redirecting our taxes that are wrongfully spent on armaments budgets. We know that we have the food, expertise, capacity and all other necessary resources. So what are we waiting for? Let's unite and go before our governments to demand unprecedented action to end world hunger!
Mohammed Mesbahi is STWR's founder.
This article was based on a series of dialogues and edited by Adam Parsons, who can be contacted at adam[at]stwr[dot]org.
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