MM 2001: Fat leads to famine

December 21, 2000

The world could feed itself and have plenty left over. Instead, we allow 800 million people to be malnourished. George Monbiot explains

It is the fattest of times, it is the thinnest of times. The world has never been better fed, yet seldom have greater numbers been in imminent danger of starvation. Fifty-two per cent of Americans are classed as overweight or obese. India, in which 30 per cent of the world's hungry people live, is struggling to handle an excess 44 million tonnes of grain. Were the world's food to be distributed evenly, we could adequately feed not only all those alive today, but an extra 800 million imaginary souls.

Yet our 800 million-mouth surplus is accompanied by an 800 million-mouth deficit: this is the number of people on earth who are officially malnourished. In East Africa, Angola and Afghanistan, tens of millions of people are in mortal danger.

The world's great hunger arises in part from earlier attempts to prevent it. From the late 1960s onwards, a series of "miracle seeds", producing far higher yields than before, were developed to feed the world. The "green revolution" delivered much of what it promised. Yet it has also led, paradoxically, to catastrophe.

Many of the miracle seeds were bred to respond to artificial fertilisers and irrigation. As the disastrous collapse of farming this year in Punjab and Haryana - the Indian states long celebrated as the green revolution's great success stories - suggests, these technologies are unsustainable. The irrigation the new seeds require has consumed the groundwater and left toxic salts in the soil. The new crops have mined the earth of the micro-nutrients that artificial fertilisers do not supply. Some of the most productive parts of India are being reduced to little more than desert. But even where the green revolution has led to continued increases in yield, people have still become hungrier. In Latin America, for example, food production per head rose by 8 per cent between 1970 and 1990, and hunger rose by 19 per cent. Worldwide, the number of malnourished people has fallen since 1970, but this is largely because China has recovered from the Great Leap Forward. Outside China, hunger has risen by 11 per cent, even as food production per person has increased by precisely the same figure. It is not hard to see what has been going wrong. Green revolution technologies (new seeds, fertilisers and pesticides and the equipment required to deploy them) favour farmers who are well capitalised and well connected. They have little incentive to produce staple crops for local markets. Rather, they have been using the new techniques to supply the hard-currency markets of the First World, providing the vast quantities of animal feed required to produce the meat, milk and eggs that make us so fat.

As big, rich farmers have captured the subsidies, credit and infrastructure that have underwritten the green revolution, peasant farmers have been driven out of the market. But it is they who feed the poor. In Brazil, for example, farms of less than 100 hectares occupy just 3 per cent of the agricultural land. But they produce 37 per cent of the rice, 68 per cent of the maize, 79 per cent of the beans and 82 per cent of the manioc Brazil consumes. These are the country's staple foods. They grow them because, without access to capital and international networks, they have no choice.

Interestingly, several studies have shown that small farmers are more productive than large ones. They tend to use the land more intensively, filling the spaces between main crops with other plant species and moving in animals as soon as crops have been removed. A study in the United States suggests that the total output per hectare of the smallest farms can reach a remarkable ten times that of the largest farms. As small farmers leave the land, the food market bypasses the poor. People go hungry not because there is insufficient food being grown, but because it is not destined for them, for the simple reason that their purchasing power cannot compete with ours.

The problem is exacerbated by the latest green revolutionary technology: genetic engineering. The patenting and corporate control of the new technologies and the concentration on animal feed has led to a further shift of food and power from the poor and hungry to the rich and transnational. World hunger is a political and economic problem. It does not have a technical solution.

It would be unfair to blame the growing global food crisis entirely on the failures of the green revolution. As rich nations have dumped subsidised crops on world markets, they have undermined the farming industries of poorer nations, damaging their capacity to feed themselves. As redundant farm labourers flee to the cities, urban infrastructure swallows up the pockets of fertile soil and fresh water in which most large settlements have been built. Climate change already appears to have exacerbated the catastrophic droughts in East Africa and India. War creates famine in the midst of fertility.

But examining the failures of the green revolution should help us to identify some of the necessary solutions. If small farms are more productive and more distributive than big farms, we must ensure that farm subsidies, credit and infrastructure support small farms, not big ones.

Organic farming might also help combat world hunger. Jules Pretty of Essex University has documented an increase in production of between two and three times on some 800,000 farms in Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, India and Kenya that have adopted organic or quasi-organic techniques.

However productive and effective small-scale, sustainable farming might be, governments will remain wedded to big farming and the agrochemical industry until popular pressure drags them away. In November 1999, small farmers' organisations from all over the world arrived at the trade talks in Seattle to contest the global policies destroying their economic lives. In India, Brazil, Mexico, France, the Philippines and many other places, farmers' movements are demanding that credit and subsidies are not reserved for the largest farms, that First World food surpluses are not dumped on the Third World, and that government research - which tends to concentrate on high-tech, capital-intensive farming - is also used to help small producers.

Most important, however, they want land reform. Reallocating farmland can deliver both more small farmers and the redistribution of wealth required to enhance the purchasing power of the poor. As Peter Rossett of the Institute for Food and Development Policy has pointed out, when good land is distributed to the poor and when big landowners are prevented from subverting the redistribution programme, land reform leads invariably to massive improvements in human welfare. This is what happened, for example, in Japan, Korea and Taiwan during the second half of the 20th century, after devastating wars broke the grip of the feudal aristocracy.

The spectacular economic growth these countries experienced arose in large part from their successful land reform programmes. When, on the other hand, big landowners continue to dominate rural life, ensuring, as in Mexico and the Philippines, that only the worst and least developed land is redistributed, land reform will neither improve the lives of rural people nor help to feed the urban poor.

Feeding the world means redistributing both the land itself and the power to decide how that land is used. We need, in other words, a real green revolution, in which the poor and the dispossessed regain control of the food economy from which they have been excluded.

George Monbiot is the author of Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain and a columnist for The Guardian .

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