Friday, November 21, 2014

Hunger? What's the real problem?


Whereas progress was made in reducing chronic hunger in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, hunger has been slowly but steadily on the rise for the past decade, FAO said. The number of hungry people increased between 1995-97 and 2004-06 in all regions except Latin America and the Caribbean. But even in this region, gains in hunger reduction have been reversed as a result of high food prices and the global economic downturn that started in 2008.

Today, one in nine people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life, making hunger and malnutrition the number one risk to health worldwide -- greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. The greatest scandal of our age is the fact that just under 1 billion people on the planet go to bed hungry every night. This is despite the fact that we produce more than enough to feed every single person in the world.

Why is there hunger? The obvious answer to this question is that there must be a lack of food. It’s nothing to do with a lack of food. Can the world feed itself? The answer is: “Yes”. The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 claimed 1.5 million lives. Yet food production was only marginally below the previous year, and in fact higher than other years which had not seen famine. The Ethiopian famines of 1972-74 also saw only single-digit declines in food production, too small to account for the 50-200,000 deaths. In the 1974 Bangladesh famine, food availability actually hit a four-year per capita high. In the Sahelian famine which peaked in 1973, drought did lead to significant declines in food availability. During the food crisis in 2008 there was enough food for everyone in the world to have 2,700 kilocalories. Yet a silent tsunami threw more than 115 million into abject hunger. Food being exported from famine-stricken areas may be a ‘natural’ characteristic of the market which respects the rights of private poverty and commerce rather than needs.

 The opening lines of  Amartya Sen’s hugely influential 1981 essay on poverty and famines:
“Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat.”

The fact there’s enough food to feed everyone has been acknowledged by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which statedclearly that:
“There is sufficient capacity in the world to produce enough food to feed everyone adequately; nevertheless, in spite of progress made over the last two decades, 805 million people still suffer from chronic hunger.”

There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life. By 2030, with population growth continuing to decline and agricultural output predicted to rise, the UN forecasts enough food will be grown worldwide, despite a global estimated population of 8.3 billion, to give everyone 3050 kilocalories per day. In the United States, enough food is produced for everyone to eat eight full plates of food per day—yet almost 40 million Americans struggle to put food on the table and are classified as “food insecure.”

Solving World Hunger is not rocket science. We have the tools, and the technology to put an end to hunger. There is enough food to go around. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day  according to the FAO in  2002.  The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food. So what needs to change? Discussions of world hunger almost invariably assume that food production is and will continue to be commodity production, whilst simultaneously assuming that food is produced for use. But whatever climate change has to throw at us, there is always a gap between what is possible and what is possible in capitalism. All other things held equal, declining crop yields and loss of arable land can be expected to increase world hunger. But all other things need not be held equal. The social relations through which our natural resources are organised are not themselves laws of nature: they are subject to change. Essentially control over resources and income is based on military, political and economic power that typically ends up in the hands of a minority, who live well, while those at the bottom barely survive, if they do.

Again a very basic question people ask is “Does population growth explain food shortages?” and again many will instinctively answer “Yes”. It seems commonsense that more people in the worls must mean more resource use, therefore fewer resources to go around for everyone. It is a false logic that has led to some highly unsavory arguments and policy decisions. By arguing that population growth is the main cause of mass starvation and environmental ruin we play into the hands of ruling elites who want to blame the victims. One such consequence is that helping the poor not only hurts them, but also threatens to drag the well-fed down to their subsistence level. Under this credo, no sharing is permitted, as it will only generalise starvation to the entire population because there is only so much to go around. The more sophisticated of the Malthusians talk of the carrying capacity of the planet. The number of humans a local or global environment can support depends not on numbers but on the level of economic development and the social relations of that society. Humans can both grow more food and, given the opportunity, consciously self-limit our reproduction based on rational economic and social considerations. The overpopulation argument obscures the more immediate causes of suffering under capitalism. How many people the Earth can support depends primarily on the level of productivity of the existing population and the social relations within which they are embedded. “Carrying-capacity” is as much socially as it is materially determined from the given level of productive development, not some arbitrary measure of what constitutes “too many” people. Poverty and hunger are the  products of social relations, not overpopulation. At no point in the last thirty years, as hunger has increased, has world population growth exceeded growth in food production.

The pioneer of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson, author of the ground-breaking Silent Spring in the 60s, was clear that the primary blame for destruction of the natural world lay with the “gods of profit and production” as the world lived “in an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged.” Capitalism is a system predicated on continual expansion with an ever-increasing throughput of energy and resources. For those corporations promoting their green credentials that do act to reduce their energy or resource use, the purpose is not to decrease their impact on the environment, however much money they spend touting their ecological awareness. Rather, the objective is to lower production costs so as to maximise profit in order to reinvest in expansion of production to corner market share, thereby negating the original reduction. Contrary to all claims of capitalist efficiency, the amount of senseless waste and pollution under capitalism is enormous. This includes not only the toxic byproducts of the production process that are routinely dumped into the surrounding environment, but also the production and distribution of useless products, the creation of mounting piles of garbage as a result of planned obsolescence and single-use products.the preponderance of inefficient transportation systems based on cars rather than effective public transportation, and, of course, all the wasted labour and materials spent on the military.

It should be clear from all of the above that it isn’t population growth that is causing food scarcity or is primarily responsible for the many accelerating global environmental crises. Even if population growth were to end today, worsening rates of starvation, the growth of slums, and ecosystem collapse would continue more or less unabated. Food production continues to outstrip population growth, and therefore cannot be considered the cause of hunger. There are very serious planetary problems of soil erosion, overfishing, deforestation, and waste disposal, to name only a few, which are putting pressure on the sustainability of food production over the long haul. However, these are all inextricably bound to questions of power and a system run in the interest of a small minority where profit continually outweighs issues of hunger, waste, energy use, or environmental destruction. Concentrating on population confuses symptoms with causes while simultaneously validating apologists for the system. Population growth arguments fit in with the ideological needs of the system rather than challenging them and is the primary reason that they receive so much publicity. It is completely acceptable to capitalism to place the blame for hunger and ecological crises on the number of people rather than on capitalism.

A central concept of capitalism is the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. There isn’t enough food, there aren’t enough jobs, there isn’t enough houses, or schools or hospitals.  “There isn’t enough…” really means “It isn’t profitable…”  The problem is capitalism. The motivation for big business to produce food is profit, not to provide for people. Despite the enormous advances in technology and knowledge, this system cannot provide the most basic necessities for the world’s population. It is not a question of there being too many people or not enough food available. Food production and distribution is not planned but is at the behest of the anarchy of the market, controlled by a handful of multi-national companies. Capitalism is unable to feed the world. The future under capitalism – one of increasing damage to the environment and austerity – will mean this terrible situation gets worse. Socialism is the only solution to stopping and reversing climate change. The world's population is larger than ever before - but so is world food production. Billions of people regularly struggle to get enough to eat but the problem isn't a lack of produce or a rising population. It is a system driven by profit. Despite all the pessimism of mainstream environmentalists, the problem we really face is that we have allowed a system to develop where there is hunger amidst plenty. What we need is to take control of the food system. This will enable us to deal with the wasteful system. Socialists look forward to a world of plenty built on the greatest gift of nature, that of human labour. Real change will only come when the power of those running the system for the purpose of profit is challenged.

Advances in nutrition and agricultural science could allow us to produce abundant, healthy, safe, and tasty food for everyone. Humanity could produce an enormous variety of foods, both to guarantee food security against pests, disease, and climate change through agricultural diversity, but also to keep meals interesting. The infrastructure exists to develop a vast network of public restaurants serving affordable, delicious and interesting food. Home cooking and eating could be transformed into relaxing social activities, not the compulsory drudgery it is for billions today. In short, the knowledge, technology, and collective potential to completely transform the way the world eats exists now. What doesn’t exist is a social structure that allows for a rational and balanced approach to food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption. But virtually all the proposals out there are limited to tinkering with the existing system or appealing to the good will and reason of the rich and powerful. This is utopian. In a system driven by and defined by commodity production and money, what matters to the capitalists is not food quality or human health, but maximising profits. The solution to this is not to be found in blaming individuals for their “individual choices,” or in changing this or that aspect of the status quo. The solution can only come from abolishing the dysfunctional system of capitalism itself.

At the Rome International Conference on Nutrition – organized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) 90 ministers and hundreds of government officials agreed on recommendations for policies and programmes to address nutrition across multiple sectors which “enshrines the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food” while committing governments to preventing malnutrition and hunger. A utopian aspiration under capitalism. But FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva confirmed one truth, “We have the knowledge, expertise and resources needed to overcome all forms of malnutrition.”

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