By Stephen Gowans
One billion people in the world – one-sixth of humanity – have too little to eat. One-half of humanity is malnourished. Some 18,000 children die every day from malnutrition. (1)
If that weren’t enough, rising prices are pushing food beyond the reach of numberless more.
Government leaders, corporate board members, the owners of large corporations, are concerned – not because billions are hungry, but because the hunger of billions threatens to destabilize their rule. Food riots have become too frequent to ignore. The head of the CIA worries that growing desperation and poverty in the world will degrade “the US security environment.”
The causes of rising food prices are manifold and interconnected. The industrialization of China and India has created growing demand for oil, putting upward pressure on the price of agricultural inputs based on petroleum, from fuel to run farm machinery, to fertilizers and pesticides. Downstream, rising oil prices increase the costs of transporting foodstuffs to market. Increased emission of greenhouse gasses has created droughts, desertification, and extreme weather, the latter responsible for considerable crop damage. For example, heavy rains last summer left tens of thousands of acres of farmland flooded in north Korea. The growing demand for oil has led agribusinesses to divert land use to ethanol production, reducing the supply of corn for human and livestock consumption. Finally, rising standards of living in China and India have led to an increased demand for food.
Global growth in demand for comestibles at a time supply is contracting has hurt Third World populations the most. Many were already precariously balanced between subsistence and famine. Now millions more are faced with starvation. Western domination long ago forced Third World countries into a pattern of monoculture farming, where a few cash crops are raised for export and most foodstuffs are imported. These countries are food insecure, relying on exports to earn sufficient foreign exchange to import what food they need. But as food prices rise, countries that export foodstuffs are imposing export tariffs, reducing even further the supply of food heading to straitened Third World countries. That has put even more upward pressure on prices in places where rising prices can be absorbed the least. Food aid from Western countries palliates the problem in the short-term, but reinforces the underlying causes. The food the West sends to the Third World to avert famine is grown in the West, which means the problem of Third World dependence on Western countries for food is never addressed. The Third World needs to become food independent, which means breaking the chains of neo-colonial bondage.
Rising food prices command considerable attention today, partly because their effect is felt in the West and partly because they threaten to touch off militant challenges to the system, but the real reason one-sixth of humanity is hungry and one-half malnourished has nothing to do with the rising standard of living in China and India (indeed, rising standards of living attenuate the problem.) The roots of hunger are found in the reality that food is produced and sold to earn a profit, and half of humanity doesn’t have the income to pay for food at prices that allow the producers to make a profit.
At root, it is a system that sets prices above the ability of half of humanity to pay that is to blame. It is not a paucity of food and water relative to the population that is creating privation, as William Blum, author of Killing Hope and the Anti-Empire Report, would have you believe. Blum recommends that birth rates “be radically curbed” because “all else being equal, a markedly reduced population count would have a markedly beneficial effect upon global warming and food and water availability.” There are simply too many people, he says. (2)
About the time Blum was revealing his neo-Malthusian sympathies, Fred Magdoff was pointing out in The Monthly Review that the fact billions are hungry has nothing whatever to do with population counts, but with capitalism. In the US, more food is produced than the population requires, yet hunger remains a problem. Cut the US population in half and there would still be an over-supply of food — only a bigger one. Would food banks suddenly disappear? The same is true elsewhere. Magdoff points to two headlines to make his case:
“Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots.” (3)
“Want Amid Plenty: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger.” (4)
Those who remember the Great Depression will recall that poverty and hunger co-existed with plenty. Indeed, poverty and hunger were the children of plenty, of “too much civilization,” as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto.
If the crises that threaten capitalism occur predictably so too do the regular bouts of Malthusianism that break out whenever the system threatens to fall into disrepute among those who must bear the brunt of its inhumanity. It is then that intellectuals, both left and right, raise the over-population alarm. Beneath their apparent hard-headed realism lurks the system-conserving message: poverty and hunger are not systemic; they happen because there are too many mouths to feed. In 1936, when Blum’s intellectual predecessors were attributing the Great Depression to over-population, one opponent of this deeply reactionary view replied:
“The plea of ‘over-population,’ of the ‘pressure of rising population on natural resources’… has demonstrably no basis in world facts, that is, in the physical and technical facts of world resources and world production. The alleged ‘over-population’ of particular countries is in the first place relative to the social relations within those countries, and is finally…relative to the existing system of division of the unity of world economy. On a world scale the advance of productive forces and even of actual production far outstrips the advance of population.
“The expansion of world production…including foodstuffs, has far exceed the growth of world population.
“Potentially, then, we have all the conditions present for world abundance and for immeasurable advance for every inhabitant of the globe. For the actual expansion of production bears no relation to the potential expansion which could be achieved, if the existing fetters” (i.e, capitalism) “were removed.” (5)
The solution for hunger is not, as Blum advises, “petitioning American leaders to become decent human beings” and radically curbing birth rates. (6) The moral decadence of American leaders and the size of the world’s population are not the problem. The problem is the organizing principle of the capitalist system. Food isn’t grown to feed people; it’s grown to feed bottom lines. Prices are set to make a profit. If the prices are out of reach of half of humanity, from the point of view of the system, that’s regrettable, but unavoidable. Profit is the system’s alpha and omega; people are simply the means of getting there.
Blum, whether he intends to or not, is a system-conserver, acting to deflect attention away from the system itself, to red herrings, like American leaders needing sensitivity training and women needing to be outfitted with the Malthusian belts imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World to keep the world population in check. If you’re bamboozled into believing the cause of world hunger lies in George Bush needing moral remediation and people being too philoprogenitive, the system carries on, and is never challenged and changed. When future crises arise, and want worsens in the face of “all the conditions (being) present for world abundance and for immeasurable advance for every inhabitant of the globe,” another Blum will step forward, as Blum’s have before, to blame capitalism’s failure on an unsustainable population count.
1. Fred Magdoff, “The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions,” Monthly Review, May 2008.
2. William Blum, “Anti-Empire Report,” May 1, 2008. Blum argues in the same issue that Colombia’s rebel guerrilla army, the FARC, long ago ceased to be Marxist and has become the Colombian equivalent of the Mafia, engaged in kidnappings for ransom, protection rackets and drug trafficking. Blum seems to regard the words “Marxist” and “criminal” as mutually exclusive. Being outside the state, the FARC is hardly in a position to tax the residents of Colombia to raise money in “legal” ways as Colombia’s regular army does. Blum’s disqualification of the FARC as being Marxist because it engages in criminal activities brings to mind Brecht’s question: What is the crime of robbing a bank against the crime of founding one? It’s unclear how Blum expects the FARC to furnish itself with the means to operate – apply for a Ford Foundation grant?
3. New York Times, December 2, 2002.
4. Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2004.
5. R. Palme Dutt, World Politics, 1918-1936, Random House, New York, 1936, pp. 27-28.
6. Anti-Empire Report.