Ending Hunger: A Matter of Political Will

Corporate Accountability Project | Wed, Jan 23, 2002

By Martin M. McLaughlin

On March 26 Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, flanked by United Nations Food and Agriculture (FAO) Director General Jacques Diouf and other colleagues, released to the public the US National Plan on Food Security. Entitled ""Solutions to Hunger,"" the plan attempts to fulfill one of the seven commitments the United States and 185 other countries made at the November 1996 UN-sponsored World Food Summit in Rome. It includes many worthy proposals and endorses a variety of ongoing programs both public and private; but its emphasis is on relieving hunger, not preventing it, and its proposals include no new funds, programs, or institutions.The plan was drafted by an inter-agency working group (IWG) led by the Departments of Agriculture and State and comprising 18 US Government agencies that have some relation to food policies and programs. The IWG worked on the plan for more than two years, putting off the release date repeatedly; and although, as noted above, it could not and does not offer any new resources, programs, or institutions for either national or international action, it is described as ""a long-term road map for reducing hunger and eliminating the conditions that lead to hunger and malnutrition."" Whether the plan will have that kind of impact will depend, in part, on how well it is implemented and how accurately it has understood the situation it is intended to remedy.The food insecurity (hunger) the world faces is not the result of shortages of food. In fact, in 1997, the year after the November 1996 World Food Summit, food production increased. That increase was more or less maintained in 1998, to the point that the food market is now in surplus worldwide, and farmers in food-exporting countries like the United States are complaining about a drop in prices. That drop and the accompanying market surplus stem largely from the economic decline of East and South Asia and Russia, which has caused former buyers in those countries to cut back on purchases and has continued to keep hungry those who were already unable to afford the food they need. People who suffer from hunger are essentially not in the market, because they lack effective demand, that is, the money to buy food.It was the plight of these chronically or newly hungry people that prompted the FAO to convene the World Food Summit at its headquarters in Rome two and a half years ago in an effort to reach agreement on steps to achieve food security for all. The delegates included more than 80 heads of state or government, over 100 ministers of agriculture, and representatives of multilateral institutions, international agribusiness, and nongovernmental organizations. Although no formal agreement was signed, after ten days of discussion the delegates committed their governments to a series of actions - oincluding drawing up national food plans - that they hoped would lead to the goal of food security for all. To date, these commitments remain largely unfulfilled.The Current Food SituationRegular readers of Center Focus who are interested in issues of global food security will not be surprised to learn that in 1998 the world once again produced just about enough food to maintain the food system's ability to provide everyone on the planet an adequate human diet; carryover food stocks (already grown or in the market) will, as usual, make up the very small shortfall. Regrettably, however, one-seventh of our brothers and sisters continue to lack access to the supply, because they cannot grow food or do not have the income to purchase enough of it. Both food production and trade are expected to decline slightly in the coming year, but the lack of access which measures food insecurity does not seem likely to change. In these circumstances we are led back to the fundamental question, posed here and elsewhere repeatedly over many years: why is there hunger when there is an abundance of food? Why does this almost miraculously productive food system deny its product to one seventh of the world's people? Is there some structural weakness in the food system, a critical sector of the rapidly globalizing world economy, that prevents it from achieving what would seem its logical goal--to get people fed?. Is it simply that the hungry seventh of humanity are marginalized, are not in the so-called free market which conventional wisdom is convinced will bring about economic growth that benefits everybody?One possible explanation for this failure is that the most powerful players in the rapidly and inexorably globalizing market-- corporations and the financial institutions that support and drive them--are interested more in maximizing profit than in promoting social justice and ending hunger. The food sector provides an outstanding example of this phenomenon: perhaps fewer than 20 corporations--suppliers, producers, processors, traders, and restaurant chains, most of them transnationals based in the United States--dominate both the production and the distribution of food. The influence of these corporate and financial entities results from their political and economic power and affects both supply and demand aspects of the global food system. On the supply/production side, landholding is badly skewed in favor of large farms and corporations, and against small, family, indigenous, and subsistence farmers. Wealthy farms have greater access to fresh water for irrigation from both surface and sub-surface sources. They are able to keep the price of water low for themselves, or even eliminate it. Large mechanized farms can afford to pay for far more petroleum for tractors and irrigation, as well as petroleum products like pesticides and fertilizers. Aggressive, wealthy producers and distributors determine research priorities, dominate governments, and largely set the goals, norms, processes, and technical applications of academic research. They resist environmental and other regulations that might interfere with their profits and their economic power. Small farms have little money and very limited access to the credit they need for purchased agricultural inputs; nor have they political power to compete effectively with their richer competitors.On the demand/distribution side, many of the same corporate entities are deeply involved in both domestic and international trade, as well as in determining what products will be marketed or converted from the basic food staples--grains, legumes, fish, meat, eggs, dairy products, fruit, and vegetables--and what prices they will command. Small farms are rarely competitive in domestic markets, let alone in international trade. Big agricultural and food firms dominate distribution and marketing; and their food advertising represents a big part of marketing expenditures in both the industrialized and the developing countries. Attempting to encompass all points of view, the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome reaffirmed its objective of helping poor farmers grow more food, but at the same time endorsed an expanded ""free market"" in agriculture as the best way to achieve global food security, because it would stimulate food-deficit countries to grow crops for export that would enable them to earn foreign exchange with which to buy more food for their people.The 1996 World Food SummitFacing similar problems 25 years ago, delegates at the World Food Conference of 1974, called at that time for the end of hunger within a decade. Twenty-two years later, the persistence of these realities, prompted the 1996 World Food Summit participants to downgrade their earlier commitment to one of cutting hunger in half in two decades, by 2015. Only one participant, Fidel Castro, acknowledged what this backtracking meant; he called the new pledge ""shameful."" At the January 1999 International Development Conference in Washington, World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin, noting that the world has never been in a better economic position to end hunger, called this weakened Summit goal ""an insult"" to our common humanity.More than two full years after the World Food Summit's modest pledge was made, it is sad not to be able to report more progress toward food security for all people. Only two countries (Canada and the United States) have published national food plans, and there has been no noticeable change in food distribution. While it is hard to conceive of a human right more fundamental than the right to the food that sustains life, it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospect of securing that right for those hundreds of millions of people now denied it. This new year, 1999, may also be marked by other significant policy developments in the area of food security: The powerful and secretive new World Trade Organization (WTO) will convene its periodic Ministerial Meeting, in Seattle at the end of November, against a backdrop of bubbling trade disputes involving mainly the industrialized countries - on bananas (now temporarily ""resolved""), genetically modified organisms (GMOs), bovine growth hormones (BGH), food labeling, and food safety. The agenda may also include implementation of the Marrakech codicil (to the basic WTO document) designed to relieve poor food-importing countries of some of the more onerous trade-liberalizing requirements of WTO membership. Many nongovernmental organizations are lobbying both governments and multinational institutions to embody the right to food in a binding Convention or Code of Conduct for food trade. And there is a strong sentiment to take into account the impact of food trade (indeed, all trade) on particularly vulnerable groups in society--women, children, the elderly, and indigenous peoples).Catholic Social Teaching and Food SecurityOver the years Catholic social teaching has been consistent on the urgency of ending hunger, or, to put it more positively, achieving food security: Hunger in the midst of abundance has been termed a ""scandal"" by the Holy See. The Pontifical Council ""Cor Unum,"" in its publication for the World Food Summit insisted: ""The primary cause of hunger is poverty. Food security essentially depends upon an individual's purchasing power and not the physical availability of food."" The Vatican delegate to the Summit called the problem ""in the first place an ethical and spiritual one."" In his opening address to the Summit, Pope John Paul II reiterated and expanded on these themes, insisting that we must ""no longer have, side by side, the starving and the wealthy, the very poor and the very rich, those who lack the necessary means and others who lavishly waste them.""ConclusionIn this final year of the 20th century we can expect a spate of ringing public rhetoric on the approaching millennium which will sound promising, hopeful, futuristic, and challenging, but also redundant, or even irrelevant. The 20th century turns out to have been, as composer Gustave Mahler predicted at its beginning, a century of death; will the 21st be a century of life? Pope John Paul II clearly and eloquently calls for this (cf. Evangelium Vitae and Tertio Millennio Adveniens).At this point we can return to an insight of nearly four decades ago: We know what the problem of hunger is. We know its causes, its results, and its solution. We have the means to eliminate it. What we (the world) lack is the will. But the United States also lacks what the Presidential Commission on World Hunger called for again in 1980: a national food policy, which should come from the people's elected representatives. Unfortunately the IWG effort on the national food plan did not include the Congress, which has more than 30 committees and subcommittees relating in some way to food policy (in addition to the 23 executive-branch agencies). This proliferation of agencies and the diffusion of legislative power have seriously hampered US government agricultural efforts over the years and have helped prevent the formulation of an overall national food policy. Such a policy is further undercut by the reluctance of policymakers to acknowledge the causes of hunger and to deal with them by requiring the various actors in the global food system to contribute their fair share toward the goal of getting everyone fed.Flawed though it may be, however, and largely ignored by the media, the appearance of the US National Plan on Food Security provides an opportunity to remind both policymakers and the public of the persistence and the dimensions of hunger in the world and in the United States. The Center of Concern will continue to work with like-minded persons and organizations in efforts to increase public awareness of this situation, to develop policies to achieve world food security, to help design and enact these policies, and to advocate effective action to reduce hunger and poverty everywhere.""We have the means, we have the capacity, to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime. We need only the will.""President John F. KennedyThe First World Food CongressWashington, D.C., 1963