Headlines in recent weeks are ablaze with reports of food riots. Seemingly overnight, the world went from cheap food and generous surpluses to food prices spiking 80 per cent and countries banning exports of food in an attempt to stave off shortages. Without massive, immediate injections of food aid, 100 million more people in the Global South are poised to join the swelling ranks of the world’s hungry. This is a very curious prospect for a food system that just registered its largest grain harvest ever.
The protests are not simply crazed “riots” of depraved masses. They are angry demonstrations over exorbitant food prices in countries that formerly had food surpluses, and where governments and industry are unresponsive. They reflect demands for food sovereignty: people’s political and economic right to determine the course of their own food systems.
Welcome to the new world food crisis. Except that it has been brewing for decades.
The immediate reasons for runaway food prices are well known. They include droughts in major wheat-producing countries including Australia, high oil prices, low grain reserves (now down to 54 days worth, globally), a doubling of per-capita meat consumption in some rapidly developing countries, and the diversion of 5 per cent of the world’s cereals to agrofuels.
These proximate causes explain how food supplies are being crunched at a time of swelling demand, thereby pushing prices upwards. But these factors do not really explain how, in an increasingly affluent and productive food system, next year up to one billion people will likely go hungry.
To solve the problem of hunger, we need to address the root cause of the food crisis - the corporate monopolisation of the world’s food system.
The underlying causes of the food crisis becomes more apparent when the problem is placed in historical context. Although a complete narrative would go back to colonisation, much of the vulnerability of the food systems in the Global South has arisen in just the past few decades.
Starting in the 1960s, the Green Revolution marketed “technological packages” of hybrid seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides to developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. While yields increased, hunger was not successfully alleviated. This is in part because Green Revolution technologies were more easily adopted by large farmers who took over rich bottomlands, displacing the peasantry.
Many smallholders left agriculture and migrated to the cities, forming the “misery belts” now common throughout the Global South. Others, encouraged by government “land reforms” cleared new agricultural land in tropical forests and fragile hillsides.
Development projects soon followed, offering cheap credit so that smallholders could buy the Green Revolution technological packages. Under the fragile forest and hillside conditions, Green Revolution packages degraded soils rapidly, requiring greater and greater fertiliser applications as yields eventually declined. The Green Revolution, ostensibly a project to save the world from hunger, undermined the ability of the poor to feed themselves by displacing them from their land and degraded the agroecosystems they depended on to produce food.
The second major development in the rise of the “industrial agri-foods complex” was the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that began in the 1980s. The SAPs were conditional loan programs enforced in tandem by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) so that countries of the Global South, debt-ridden after 20 years of development, would pay back their loans to northern banks.
To receive loans from the World Bank, these countries had to sign an agreement with the IMF agreeing to remove their tariff barriers to foreign imports, privatise state companies and services, and dismantle their marketing boards. This opened the door to widespread “dumping” of highly subsidised grain surpluses from the US and Europe.
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