Facing the food crisis: what alternatives?

25 September 2008 by Esther Vivas

The food crisis has left thousands of people worldwide without food. With statistics showing 850 million hungry, the World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 189 members in 2017), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.

estimates that the current crisis increases that number by a hundred more. This ’tsunami’ of hunger is no natural process, but stems from the neoliberal policies of international institutions, imposed over decades.

As we face this situation, what alternatives are being proposed? Is it possible to adopt different models of food production, distribution and consumption? Before covering these questions, let’s address some of the principal structural problems which have generated the situation.

In the first place, hunger can be traced to the pillage of community’s natural resources. Earth, water, seeds – all have been privatized, no longer public goods. Food production has been displaced from family farming to agricultural industry, and has been transformed into a means of capital enrichment. The fundamental value of food, to nourish us, has been diminished to its market value. For this reason, although there is presently more food than ever before, people are denied access to the abundance, unable to pay ever-increasing prices.

If farmers have no lands with which to feed themselves, nor excess crops to sell, then in whose hands is the world’s food? It lies in the power of agricultural multinationals, who control all the links of the commercialized chain. Of course, this is not simply a problem of natural resources, but of production models. At present, agriculture can be described as intensive, as ’drug’ or ’oil’ -dependent, kilometric, de-localized, industrial – in short, the antithesis of an agriculture that respects environment and people.

Secondly, in addition to usurped resources, we face neoliberal policies, applied over decades to favor greater commercial liberalization, the privatization of public services, monetary transfer from South to North (with external debts incurred), etc. The World Trade Organization (WTO WTO
World Trade Organisation
The WTO, founded on 1st January 1995, replaced the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). The main innovation is that the WTO enjoys the status of an international organization. Its role is to ensure that no member States adopt any kind of protectionism whatsoever, in order to accelerate the liberalization global trading and to facilitate the strategies of the multinationals. It has an international court (the Dispute Settlement Body) which judges any alleged violations of its founding text drawn up in Marrakesh.

), World Bank (WB), International Monetary Found (IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.

), among others, have been some of the principal architects of the policies.

These policies have allowed Southern markets to open up by favoring subsidized products, which are sold at prices lower than their costs, and further, by permitting prices even lower than those of the autoctonous products, local farming has been effectively finished off. These policies have reduced diversified growing to a small-scale industry beside that of mono-cultivation aimed at exportation.

In third place, we should note the monopoly of food distribution chains. Megasupermarkets like Wal-Mart, Tesco or Carrefour dictate the prices of food products, both what is paid to the farmers, and what is paid by the consumers. In Spain, for example, the average disparity between original and purchase price is 400%, with distributors reaping the greatest benefit. On the other hand, the farmer is receiving less and less pay for his goods, and the consumer is paying more and more for his purchases.

However, there are alternatives. As natural resources are reappropriated, agricultural sovereignty must be reclaimed – farming communities must regain control of their agricultural policies. Earth, seeds, water – all must be returned to the hands of the farmers, that they might feed themselves and sell their products to their local communities. This requires an integral agrarian reform of both property and production, and the nationalization of natural resources.

Governments must support small-scale production, thereby allowing soils to naturally enrich and renew; saving non-renewable resources; reducing global warming; and allowing independence with respect to human nourishment. At present, we all remain dependent on an international market and on the interests of the agricultural industry.

Returning agriculture into the hands of the family farm is the only route to guaranteeing universal access to foodstuffs. Public policies must promote agriculture that is autoctonous, sustainable, organic, and free of genetically modified organisms Genetically Modified Organisms
Living organisms (plant or animal) which have undergone genetic manipulation in order to modify their characteristics, usually to make them resistant to a herbicide or pesticide. In 2000, GMOs were planted over more than 40 million hectares, three quarters of that being soybeans and maize. The main countries involved in this production are the USA, Argentina and Canada. Genetically modified plants are usually produced intensively for cattle fodder for the rich countries. Their existence raises three problems.

- The health problem. Apart from the presence of new genes whose effects are not always known, resistance to a herbicide implies that the producer will be increasing use of the herbicide. GMO products (especially American soybeans) end up gorged with herbicide whose effects on human health are unknown. Furthermore, to incorporate a new gene, it is associated with an antibiotic-resistant gene. Healthy cells are heavily exposed to the herbicide and the whole is cultivated in a solution with this antibiotic so that only the modified cells are conserved.

- The legal problem. GMOs are only being developed on the initiative of big agro-business transnationals like Monsanto, who are after the royalties on related patents. They thrust aggressively forward, forcing their way through legislation that is inadequate to deal with these new issues. Farmers then become dependent on these firms. States protect themselves as best they can, but often go along with the firms, and are completely at a loss when seed thought not to have been tampered with is found to contain GMOs. Thus, genetically modified rape seed was destroyed in the north of France in May 2000 (Advanta Seeds). Genetically modified maize on 2600 ha in the southern French department of Lot et Garonne was not destroyed in June 2000 (Golden Harvest). Taco Bell corn biscuits were withdrawn from distribution in the USA in October 2000 (Aventis). Furthermore, when the European Parliament voted on the recommendation of 12/4/2000, an amendment outlining the producers’ responsibilities was rejected.

- The food problem. GMOs are not needed in the North where there is already a problem of over-production and where a more wholesome, environmentally friendly agriculture needs to be promoted. They are also useless to the South, which cannot afford such expensive seed and the pesticides that go with it, and where it could completely disrupt traditional production. It is clear, as is borne out by the FAO, that hunger in the world is not due to insufficient production.

For more information see Grain’s website : https://www.grain.org/.
(GMOs). For products which are not cultivated locally, the instruments of fair trade must be implemented at an international level. We must protect agro-ecosystems and biodiversity, seriously threatened by the present agricultural model.

In response to neo-liberal policies, we must generate mechanisms and regulations of intervention, which stabilize market prices, control imports, stabilize quotas, prohibit dumping, and in moments of over-production, create specialized reserves for food shortages. At the national level, countries must be independent in deciding how self-sufficient their production will be, and must prioritize the food production for domestic use.

Along the same lines, we must reject those policies imposed by WB, IMF and WTO, the treaties of free bilateral and regional trade, as well as prohibiting financial speculation, the trading Market activities
Buying and selling of financial instruments such as shares, futures, derivatives, options, and warrants conducted in the hope of making a short-term profit.
of food futures Futures A futures contract is a standardized advance commitment, negotiated on an organized futures market, to deliver a specified quantity of a precisely defined underlying asset at a specified time – the ‘delivery date’ – and place. Futures contracts are the most widely traded financial instruments in the world. , and the large-scale production of agrofuels. It’s necessary to end with the North-South domination mechanisms such as the external debt and to fight agro-corporate power.

In front of large-scale distribution monopolies, we must demand regulation and transparency throughout the chain of production and commercialization. Large-scale distribution has highly negative effects on farmers, suppliers, and workers, on environment, and on consumption. For this reason, we must seek alternatives at the stage of purchase: going to local markets, forming part of organic agricultural cooperatives, supporting short-circuit commercialization – with a positive effect on the land and a direct relationship with those who work it.

We are obliged to make advances, too, toward responsible consumption. For example, were the whole world to consume as does a United States citizen, we would require five land-locked planets just to satisfy the needs of our world population. And yet, personal change is not sufficient if it goes unaccompanied by collective political action grounded in a solidarity between country and city. If lands are left without resources or populations, eventually there will be no one remaining to work them, and no one to feed us all. The building of a flourishing rural world directly concerns the city-dweller.

And finally, we must establish alliances between the various sectors affected by capitalist globalization, and we must take action politically. Healthy food will not be possible without legislation to prohibit transgenics, or indiscriminate logging practices. Neither will stop if those multinationals who exploit the environment are not stopped – and for all of this to happen, we need legislation which addresses and prioritizes the needs of people and of ecosystems, instead of economic incentive.

A paradigm shift in food production, distribution and consumption will only be possible with broader political, economic and social transformation. We must create alliances among the world’s oppressed: farmers, workers, women, immigrants, and youths – if we are to achieve the “other possible world” to which all social movements aspire.

*Esther Vivas is author of the book in Spanish “Stand Up against external debt” and co-coordinator of the books also in Spanish “Supermarkets, No Thanks” and “Where is Fair Trade headed?”. She is a member of the editorial board of Viento Sur (www.vientosur.info).

**Article published at América Latina en Movimiento (ALAI), nº433. Translated into English by Danielle Hill.

Esther Vivas

est née en 1975 à Sabadell (Etat espagnol). Elle est auteure de plusieurs livres et de publications sur les mouvements sociaux, la consommation responsable et le développement durable. Elle a publié en français En campagne contre la dette (Syllepse, 2008) et est coauteure des livres en espagnol Planeta indignado. Ocupando el futuro (2012), Resistencias globales. De Seattle a la crisis de Wall Street (2009) est coordinatrice des livres Supermarchés, non merci et Où va le commerce équitable ?, entre autres.
Elle a activement participé au mouvement anti-globalisation et anti-guerre à Barcelone, de même qu’elle a contribué à plusieurs éditions du Forum Social Mondial, du Forum Social Européen et du Forum Social Catalan. Elle travaille actuellement sur des questions comme la souveraineté alimentaire et le commerce équitable.
Elle est membre de la rédaction de la revue Viento Sur et elle collabore fréquemment avec des médias conventionnels tels que Público et avec des médias alternatifs comme El Viejo Topo, The Ecologist, Ecología Política, Diagonal, La Directa, entre autres.
Elle est également membre du Centre d’Études sur les Mouvements Sociaux (CEMS) à l’Université Pompeu Fabra.
@esthervivas | facebook.com/esthervivas | www.esthervivas.com

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