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by Bruno Odent

What Hunger Feeds On

Translated Thursday 5 June 2008, by Isabelle Métral

The food crisis: the real causes of today’s soaring prices are to be sought in the FMI’s plans and the financial inflation brought about by the crash we have seen over the last few months.

About fifty heads of state gathered before cameras from all over the world: the reason why the summit of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation that opened in Rome yesterday is arousing so much interest is that it comes at a time when mankind is confronted with a tragic situation. The staggering hike in food prices fuels fears that famine might spread even further. The number of human beings that go hungry had already reached unbearable levels (the official estimate being some 854 million); it is now set to follow an ascendant curve similar to that of the prices of wheat, rice or soya, which tomorrow’s traders on the floor of stock markets across the world are watching keenly.

Hunger riots multiply from Egypt to Haiti through Indonesia; and the FAO has listed 28 countries as being more severely hit, over two thirds of them in Africa: FAO experts worry that the food crisis in these countries could spark violence and get completely out of hand. FAO’s head Jacques Diouf himself broke the UN rule of discretion and confessed to being dismayed and helpless; he recently said that in the present circumstances the objectives set by the UN at the turn of 2000 for the millennium (concerning the fight against poverty and malnutrition) would not be met in 2015 as planned, “but in a hundred and fifty years.”

Where does the responsibility really lie? No one can be satisfied with the reasons commonly offered that the disruption of the climate has started spreading drought, or that the shortages are to be put down to the Chinese’ and Indians’ growing taste for and imitation of our food consumption models. As to the Malthusian theories that some are trying to bring back into fashion on the plea that the planet cannot feed nine billion human beings in the near future, they just do not stand close examination: the most reliable experts on farming are all agreed that half the arable surface of the globe is unfarmed and that more food could be grown than were necessary to feed a planet far more peopled than it is right now.

These sham theories fail to deliver the reasons for the glaringly obvious tension between today’s demand and the inadequate supply. Indeed they serve as smokescreens to try and mask the essential causes of the current food crisis, the key to which is to be sought in the global capitalist system.

The responsibility of financial institutions

The price hikes resulting from the inadequate supply of basic foods can be traced down to the global restructuring of agriculture promoted over the last twenty years by international financial institutions. In 1999 the UN Human Rights Commission’s reporter observed - following an investigation by the commission into the consequences of the structural adjustment plans undertaken at the instigation of the IMF and World Bank – that these plans were “the means by which a political project, a deliberate strategy aimed at effecting radical, worldwide social change were implemented, the main objective of which was to open up the whole planet to the undisputed activity of transnational companies.”

It was precisely this fast-track restructuring that led Southern nations to “specialize” in large-scale, export-orientated investment crops and dealt a fatal blow to subsistence farming and the nations’ hopes of ever achieving food self-sufficiency.

The international financial institutions, just like the WTO and its drive in favour of general, unrestricted privatization, which is still common currency in Rome today, are therefore largely to blame for the resulting current emergence of structural dysfunctional problems. Still, the price hikes would never have reached the last few weeks’ unrecorded heights had they not been boosted by financial speculation. The operators that were most closely involved in the notorious subprime crisis have indeed used the billions of liquidities (cheap loans) put at their disposal by the great central banks to try and build up assets again by gambling - as would common casino addicts -on cereals and other basic food commodities.

The situation is so serious that emergency humanitarian aid is a must; but it would be largely inadequate, and inoperative, if strong alternative farming policies were not simultaneously devised and implemented everywhere on the planet, which would also benefit from a shock therapy directed at the financial cancer that is eating away at it.

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