Food as carrot

Friday 15 November 2002

In a world where corporate gains feed on hunger and poverty, could food be a human right?

-- Hunger and poverty are essentially a human-made problem and can, hence, be overcome by human beings. The apologists of status quo would have us believe that being poor is 'fate'. And that is by far one of the most striking ironies of the day -- abundance, not scarcity, describes the world's current food supply situation. More than sufficient quantities of grains are available to feed every human being on every continent with 3,500 calories a day. "In a world of plenty, ending hunger is within our grasp. Failure to reach this goal should fill every one of us with shame," says Kofi Annan, un chief (in his address to the second World Food Summit, Rome, June 2002).

But in the corporate world-view, there is no room for shame. The us grows 40 per cent surplus food every year. It will not, however, rush that extra food to famine areas because that will bring in no profits. If that were the course of things, food would have been a human right. We are in the free market age. The long-term objectives of the free market ideology demand that a sizable population in the impoverished countries remain hungry, poor and malnourished. It is the big powers, the multinational corporations and their institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (imf), World Bank (wb) and the World Trade Organisation (wto) that collectively decide who should eat and who should starve.

That hunger and poverty are a desirable phenomenon for the corporate sector became evident when the us vehemently opposed a proposal at the recent world food summit, which called for declaring food a human right.

As pointed out by John Vidal of The Guardian , the prevailing world food scenario is characterised by two paradoxes. First, the world has never grown so much food before, and food has seldom been so cheap. The simple equation in the politics of food today is that hunger equals poverty. What we see is the relatively new phenomenon of increasing hunger amid ever-greater plenty.

The second paradox is that the farmers in the poor countries are, in this time of global plenty, abandoning agriculture because they just cannot compete with the heavily-subsidised foods that are flooding in on the back of the wto rules. In Pakistan, many farmers, says Vidal, have reportedly burnt their harvests in desperation because the prices they could fetch are too low.

Statistics show that a third of the 830 million hungry people worldwide live in India. By 2000, India had a surplus food grain of 60 million tonnes -- most of it left in the granaries to rot. Instead of giving surplus food to the hungry, the Indian government was hoping to export it to make money. It also stopped buying grain from its own farmers, instead, buying grain from Cargill and other us corporations, because the aid India receives from the wb stipulates that the government must do so. India has become the largest importer of the same grain that it exports.

Another disturbing aspect of the situation is the fact that food aid is usually fettered. When the us sent wheat to Indonesia during the 1999 crisis, it was a loan to be paid back over a 25-year period. By using this tool, food aid has helped the us take over grain markets in India, Nigeria, Korea and elsewhere. Secondly, it is used as a political tool, as in North Korea, where famine was deliberately allowed to aggravate so as to bring the country to its knees before food assistance was sent.

According to Anuradha Mittal, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, the hard fact is that destroying local agricultural infrastructures is a central function of food aid. Once local farmers have been driven out of business, the region becomes dependent on the West for survival.

Food aid is a euphemism for food business. After the end of the cold war, aid turned into a device for finding new markets for us agribusiness, and now for dumping foods containing genetically modified (gm) organisms. Consumers in the West are rejecting these foods because so little is known about their long-term effects on human beings. Small wonder then that suddenly, transnational corporations like DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and Syngenta are casting themselves as poor-friendly corporations. Now they claim that biotech food can end world hunger. Civic groups that oppose gm foods are dubbed as selfish people who want to deny developing countries the benefits of modern technology.

In the 1970s, there were riots in Peru because the World Bank demanded an increase in the price of bread. In the 1990s, the Zapatista uprising and the protests in Bolivia were spurred by food shortages and privatisation of the basic necessities of life. The same is true of Pakistan and India. In 1995, villagers in Mexico stopped trains to loot them -- not for gold, but for corn.

What hope does this scenario present then for food as a human right?

Ashfak Bokhari is assistant editor, Dawn , published from Pakistan

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