Rocketing price rises are threatening to plunge tens of millions around the world into hunger and food insecurity.
The prices of maize, wheat, soya beans and rice – staple foods for the majority of the world’s population – have more than doubled in the past few years.
Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, warned earlier this month, “This is leading to a new face of hunger in the world, what we call the newly hungry. These are people who have money, but have been priced out of being able to buy food.”
Many explanations have been put forward for the crisis – population growth, changing consumption patterns and climate change are some of the most popular.
But in reality it is the domination of food production by global capitalism that has reshaped agriculture and food markets and led to the crisis.
Some right wing economists argue that the current crisis is an aberration that will be corrected through the market. But starvation and food crises are inbuilt into capitalism – a system that is based on profit not need.
While millions face hunger and poverty, a tiny minority are making big profits from spiralling food prices.
Agribusiness giant Cargill – the second biggest private company in the world and a major grain trader – earlier this month announced that its quarterly profits have surged up 86 percent.
Of course the “free market” has never been entirely free – it relies on government tariffs, subsidies and economic policies.
Many governments around the world, terrified at the prospect of civil unrest, have banned exports of staple foods or looked for other ways of protecting domestic supplies.
This may give them a temporary breathing space, but it also causes sudden shortages and panics in international markets that can further inflate prices.
There is growing resistance to soaring food prices – and world leaders are right to be afraid of it. Price hikes have provoked strikes, protests and riots over the past few months in countries including Bangladesh, Burkino Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Yemen, Indonesia, Morocco, Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea (Conakry).
Thousands of workers are taking up the fight for the right to food. In Egypt the issue of bread prices was at the heart of recent strikes that shook the government, while in Bangladesh garment workers struck last week over the price of rice.
Surely one of the greatest indictments of the system is that capitalism can produce more than enough food but it lets people starve. Socialist Worker exposes five of the most common myths that surround the food crisis.
1 There are too many people to feed
Many people argue that a growing global population explains the current food crisis.
This idea assumes that we have a limited pot of resources to go around. It doesn’t recognise that people have the capacity to transform production methods to increase output.
The argument harks back to Thomas Malthus, an 18th century economist who claimed that increased wealth would lead to an unsustainable growth in population that would outstrip the resources available.
In fact food production has grown faster than population – global agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite the population of the world increasing.
Enough wheat, rice and other grains are already produced to provide every person in the world with 3,500 calories a day – before foods such as meat, vegetables, nuts or beans are taken into account.
Britain’s department of health says that the average person needs about 2,500 calories a day to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
The reality is that food production is marked by overproduction, not underproduction. People starve not because there is a lack of food but because they cannot afford to buy it.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin called Malthus’s theory a “reactionary doctrine”. He was right.
2 Economic growth in China is to blame
A favourite theme in the mainstream media is that growing wealth in China is changing consumption patterns and pushing up prices.
But even with dramatic economic changes in China, the consumption per head of the Chinese population is still around three times less than that of the US and Britain.
And while it’s true that China’s meat and dairy consumption has increased, China is still a net exporter of many foods – including rice, wheat and corn.
China’s increasing imports of food have been pushed by multinationals across the world eager to open up new markets for their produce and grab more profits.
3 The market can solve the problem
The price of many foodstuffs is already determined through international markets. The economic crisis has inflated prices by pushing investors to put their money into food, which is seen as a “safe” alternative to other forms of financial speculation. Similarly, stockbrokers are now even placing bets on future water prices.
Speculation drives up food prices – and as prices rise, this in turn encourages more speculation. It also encourages stockpiling by food traders – who buy food purely to hold on to it and sell it at a higher price.
Several long-term trends have contributed to rising food prices. All of them result from the way that global capitalism impacts on the food industry.
Poorer countries have seen huge changes in land use over the past 30 years – resulting in less food being produced for domestic consumption.
Pressure from the US government and world bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank has been fundamental in reshaping the agriculture of poorer countries.
This pressure has been formalised through structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) – rebranded Poverty Reduction Strategies – agreements that poorer countries sign up to in order to receive aid or loans.
Key elements of the agreements include cutting public spending, increasing privatisation, and opening up the economy to global markets – with a devastating impact on agriculture.
In Senegal, for example, the government signed up to an SAP in 1986. Government programmes to support farmers were eliminated. Spending cuts and trade liberalisation meant that farmers could not compete with cheap food imports.
The effect was a decrease in the production of basic food crops for local consumption and a turn towards exports. By 1990 a third of the population was categorised as hungry – by 1992, that had risen to 40 percent.
Such policies reduce the ability of people in poorer countries to produce their own food and increase dependence on the global food industry. Over time this pushes up the average price of food.
Another factor pushing up prices is the rush to invest in biofuels – which divert food crops such as corn and wheat to be used for fuel. The US, the world’s largest corn exporter, is expected to use nearly a third of its entire crop next year for biofuels.
Governments have also allowed food stocks to fall to an all-time low. In poorer countries, the IMF has explicitly discouraged governments from building up food stocks, arguing that this interferes with the “free market”.
Some governments have been forced to sell their stocks in order to repay growing debts.
4 It is all the fault of climate change
Climate change is a serious problem that impacts on agriculture – particularly in the Global South.
Although climate change in some areas has brought chaotic weather that damaged food crops, climate change alone does not lead to poverty or hunger.
The problem lies in the way that climate change – and the resulting impact on food – is dealt with. Many poor countries do not have the infrastructure to deal with climate change.
It is estimated that Bangladesh, for example, would need to spend £2 billion to build embankments, cyclone shelters, roads and other infrastructure needed to deal with the effects of climate change.
Yet ten million poor people in Bangladesh face the devastation of flooding every year because the investment hasn’t been made.
Blaming climate change for the food crisis ignores the fact that we live in a world divided by class – rich people in countries that have seen crops destroyed by floods or droughts will still have plenty to eat.
It also lets governments off the hook. Climate change does not make hunger inevitable – but it is another urgent issue that world leaders are failing to deal with.
5 Genetically modified crops are the answer
Genetically modified (GM) crops are sometimes put forward as the solution to world hunger. GM crops are modified in ways that make them resistant to disease, changes in climate or insects and as a result can produce higher yields.
But the introduction of GM foods has not ended hunger – it has increased inequality.
It has allowed multinational biotechnology companies to increase their control over global food production and intensified the dependence of poor countries on richer ones.
New research by the University of Kansas has shown that genetic modification cuts the productivity of crops, undermining repeated claims that a switch to the controversial technology is needed to solve the growing world food crisis.
The study – carried out over the past three years in the US grain belt – has found that GM soya produces about 10 percent less food than its conventional equivalent, contradicting assertions by advocates of the technology that it increases yields.
There are also many serious question marks over the safety of GM foods.
The promotion of GM foods uses similar arguments to those used in the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Green Revolution developed varieties of seeds and crops that could produce higher yields. It was promoted in India as a way of staving off famine and dealing with hunger.
Yet today 233 million Indians are undernourished and malnutrition has increased throughout the 1990s.
Food production can grow at the same time as hunger – because hunger today is a result of how food production is organised, not the amount of food produced.