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Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice

Dear Friends,


Can you name this Beautiful Creature?

As I promised in last weeks Newsletter, I will share the key points from the lecture Eric Holt-Gimenez, PhD, gave at the University of Washington, Nov 30, 2009, on the tenth anniversary of the WTO Protest in Seattle. The lecture was entitled, Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. My sharing will be in two parts—the problem and the solution, as Eric illuminated for us. We’ll look at the problem this week and save the solution for next week—Christmas week.

Eric is the Executive Director of Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy and the author of Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice (2009). He characterized Food First as a “people think and do tank,” and that they “produce information and analysis that amplifies the voices, and help to inform the social movements that are changing our food systems around the world.”

We all saw on the news the food crisis in 2008— food riots around the world in over 40 countries. They were presented on the news as riots of starving, crazed hungry people, chasing after food. Where did all these hungry people come from? The global South—Mexico, Italy, Morocco, Senegal, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Yemen, Egypt, Haiti plus forty more countries!

Why can’t they get food? How is it that people are starving while it is well known that we are producing more than one and one-half times the food necessary for every person on the planet? It wasn’t a lack of food; the world had food price inflation. The food was sitting in warehouses and silos because people didn’t have enough money to buy it.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has said the surging costs could mean “seven lost years” in the fight against worldwide poverty.

“In just two months,” Zoellick said in his speech, “rice prices have skyrocketed
to near historical levels, rising by around 75 percent globally and more in some markets, with more likely to come. In Bangladesh, a 2-kilogram bag of rice now consumes about half of the daily income of a poor family.”

“The price of wheat has jumped 120 percent in the past year, he said — meaning that the price of a loaf of bread has more than doubled in places where the poor spend as much as 75 percent of their income on food.”

Dr. Holt-Gimenez pointed out that governments were not able to deal with this contradiction that food was there and people didn’t have enough money to buy it. In Haiti, the people didn’t storm the warehouses. They stormed the national palace and drove the Prime Minister off the Island.

What added insult to injury last year was that we had record levels of harvest and at the same time record levels of hunger. We also had record profits in corporations who are part of the monopolies that control our global food system—i.e. ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) profits up 28%, Monsanto (genetic engineering) up 45%, Cargil (fertilizers) up 89% and General Foods (food distribution) up 81%.

What is the problem?

According to Eric there are two causes—the proximate cause and the root cause.

The proximate causes were brought about by climate change (the world wide droughts and floods), the rising meat consumption in China and Brazil, the 5% fall in cereal production, low grain reserves, high oil prices (two times transport costs and three times fertilizer costs), agro-fuels (biofuels) and financial speculation.

Because of our renewable energy targets, we are forced to consume a certain amount of ethanol. Therefore we had a captive market so investors began to invest in agro-fuels, while the industrial agro farmers began to take land out of food production and into bio-fuel production. Companies like ADM horded food, kept grains off the market in order for the price of corn to go up.

But the root causes were never talked about in the news. What are they?

Our food system is in the hands of a few corporations that are monopolies—the Industrial Agri-foods Complex. It is made up of the large grain processors, the seed and genetic engineering companies, and large retailers and distributors. As Eric said, “they control our food from farm to fork”. It has created a highly volatile system, which is very vulnerable to economic and environmental shock.

How did we get here?

The First Step was— The Green Revolution- from 1960 to 1980.

We must go back to the green revolution that started in the 1960s through the 1980s in which the industrial model of food production from the Global North was exported to the Global South. This is with the help of all the agriculture research institutes (universities and government), which we funded by tax dollars. These institutions used tax dollars to go out into the centers of agro biodiversity (in the Global South) and collected seeds from the peasants and then churned out (engineered) hybrid seeds. These high yielding varieties were also high consuming varieties for they produced double what the local varieties could produce, because they were grown closer together. They also required large amounts of fertilizers, and large amounts of water and eventually larger and larger amounts of pesticides.

The poor peasants (as opposed to the rich peasants) could not afford these varieties. They had no access to credit, had no collateral to put up. So it was the larger farmers, the richer farmers who in the first instant benefited from the green revolution all around the world. The smaller farmers were slowly pushed off the bottom land, pushed off the good agricultural land which was dedicated to the green revolution, and pushed out on to the fragile hillsides and into the rain forest perimeters in search for nutrients for subsistence agriculture.

There was an immediate flush of grains around the world, both because of the intensity of industrial production but also because of the extension of the area being farmed by the peasantry. But very quickly, on the hillsides and the forest perimeters where the poor peasants were force to farm, the soil washed away and then nutrients volatilized. They lost organic material, and peasants began to go hungry. They fled to the cities and across boarders looking for work. Over one million Mexicans fled to the US.

It turns out that the green revolution produced as many hungry people as they say they’ve saved.

The Second Step in the establishment of the corporate food regime was the structural adjustment policies that the World Bank and the IMF imposes on the Third World.

Back in the 70s we had an oil crisis. We had inflationary crisis. We had a farm crisis in the US and lost ½ of our farmers to the big Industrial Agri-farms.

A tremendous over production of grains ensued, which caused the price of grain to drop through the floor. Right at the time petroleum became more expensive, and the price farmers were getting for their crops dropped—banks demanded farmers to pay back their loans. Many farmers went out of business. This happened here in the states.

Overseas, countries went bankrupted. Countries that had borrowed heavily for development and could no longer pay off these loans had the World Bank and the IMF stepped in and restructure the loans, but only to pay off the interest and with a caveat.

The Global South was required to restructure their economy. The first thing they had to do was to stop growing food and grow export crops—“because you need dollars.” Also, they were “convinced” to buy their food from the Global North—“We produce lots of it in the US anyway.”

They also said that the Global South countries had to dismantle their tariffs because otherwise Northern grains were not going to be able to get into their country. Tear down protective tariffs.

While they were at that, they also got rid of their grain reserves. (Grain reserves are incredibly important not just in times of scarcity, but to stabilize prices. Because when the price of grains go up, if you have a reserve, the government can just release grain on the market and bring the price down. If the price of grain goes down too low for farmers to make it, the government can buy up the grain and raise the price.) If you get rid of your grain reserves you have no control over price. No control over the market. But that is precisely what the Global North, more particularly; the World Bank and IMF wanted the Global South to depend on the global market. Not on their own markets.

They had to dismantle their marketing boards. These are the boards that control supply.

This was all under the discourse of “Free Trade”—the notion that everybody would eat better if we traded freely around the world. Unfortunately, the comparative advantage of food production was deeply anchored with the US and Europe, and not in the countries of the Global South.

Read more in Dohrea’s research essay on the situation in Africa in our social equity section on our publishing blog

The third and fatal step in the construction of the Industrial Agri-food Complex was the Free Trade Agreements and the WTO.

The free trade agreements, like NAFTA and CAFTA, and the rules governing the WTO signatories cement the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and the World Bank into International Law—into International Treaty that overrides national law.

So now the countries of the global South, even if they wanted to, would not be able to protect their own agriculture because they would be in violation of the WTO.

What are the Results?

The Global South from 1970 -2001 went from 1 billion dollars of food surplus to 11 billion deficit. Industrial agriculture creates 20% of green house gas in the world, and uses 80% of the world’s water. It is the highest polluter in terms of global warming. In the South they have lost 75% of their crop diversity. For example, in the Philippians they used to have 1200 varieties of rice. Today they use 4 or 5. The other seeds, now owned by Monsanto and other institutions are rotting in seed banks. You have to keep these seeds in vivo (keep planting and using them). We are all loosing our global heritage because we can’t plant our indigenous seeds. Farmers everywhere can only get credit to plant Monsanto’s seeds. Biodiversity is essential to survival during climate change, yet a few corporations hold us hostage.

The farmers have been displaced. There have been a steady consolidation of profit and control of the food system within just a handful of monopolies. The green Revolution basically transferred 10 billion dollars of wealth to the US from the Global South with just the production of corn and soy.

A four-year study conducted by 400 scientists, entitled The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), and ironically sponsored by the World Bank, came out with conclusion that were unfavorable to the World Bank, WTO, Monsanto, the Gates Foundation. The results were tabled because they were contrary to the way the Industrial Agri-food Consortium has operated and is planning to operate in their “development” of Africa under the second green revolution—AGRA.

The conclusion of IAASTD were, “The way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better save the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse.”

Next week we will look at another way. A real solution.

Sincerely yours,

Seann Bardell

Clinical Note:

As also promised last week, I would have created a one-page Therapeutic Foods Systemic Support. What do you think? Would love your feedback.

The Last Quiz Answer: Last weeks Creature: On average an adult moose stands 6-7 feet high at the shoulders. Males weight around 1400 lbs. The span of their antlers can be up to 6 feet. Though they are not usually aggressive towards humans, in terms of raw numbers, they attack more people than bears and wolves combined.

The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First shapes how people think by analyzing the root causes of global hunger, poverty, and ecological degradation and developing solutions in partnership with movements working for social change. Check out the Food First website.

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