The Paradox of Hunger

After the emergency meeting held last Monday at FAO headquarters in Rome to discuss the devastating famine in the Horn of Africa, the UN asked donor countries for €1.1 billion. The French Agriculture Minister, Bruno Le Maire, announced that France will contribute €100 million to help the Horn of Africa and will invest particularly “in national agriculture,” because it believes it necessary “to help countries to develop their agriculture so that they can ensure their own food.”

Paradoxically, however, according to the publication The Impact of Europe’s Policies and Practices on African Agriculture and Food Security, France is among the six leading European countries in terms of foreign investments in the agricultural sector, including land grabbing. Over 30 million hectares of African land is in foreign hands, and in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, over 48 percent of agricultural land is held by foreign investors, most of whom are dedicated to producing food for export to Europe, biofuels or simply to food speculation.

In the meantime, African farmers’ organizations are shouting out against this new commodification of foodstuffs and above all against the power of the multinationals.

The food crisis in Africa and in particular the famine in Somalia are the result of a globalization at the service of private interests. The food is there, meaning the problem is not production but access to food.

The food emergency that is affecting over 10 million people in the Horn of Africa is a catastrophe that has little to do with nature. Drought, flooding, wars… they aggravate an extremely vulnerable food situation, but they are not the only factors that explain it. Famine in this area is nothing new. Somalia has been experiencing food insecurity for 20 years. In 1984 almost a million people died in Ethiopia; in 1992 300,000 Somalis died of starvation; in 2005 almost five million people were on the brink of death in Malawi, to give just a few examples.

Hunger is not an inevitable destiny that strikes certain countries. The drought, with the consequent lost of harvests and livestock, is named as one of the principal factors triggering the famine. But it is not the only cause. In many countries in the Horn of Africa, access to land is a scarce luxury. The cumulative acquisition of fertile land by foreign investors (agroindustrial businesses, governments, speculative funds, etc.) has led to the expulsion of thousands of farmers from their land, reducing the ability of these countries to supply themselves with food. So while the World Food Programme is trying to get food aid to millions of refugees in Sudan, the governments of countries like Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea are buying land to produce and export food for their own populations.

Additionally, it is worth remembering that Somalia, despite recurrent droughts, was a self-sufficient food-producing country until the end of the 1970s. Its food security has been decimated in successive decades. Since the 1980s, the policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank so that Somalia could pay its debt to the Paris Club forced the implementation of a series of adjustment measures. In terms of agriculture, these measures entailed a policy of commercial liberalization and the opening of its markets, allowing a massive influx of subsidized products, like rice and wheat, from European and North American food multinationals, who began to sell their products below cost price, creating unfair competition with local producers. The periodic devaluations of Somali currency also generated price increases for technical equipment and the support of a policy of monocultures for export gradually led to the abandonment of the countryside. Similar stories can be seen not only in Africa, but also in Latin America and Asia.

The increase in the price of staple grains is another of the factors identified as having triggered famines in the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, the prices of maize and red sorghum have increased by 106 percent and 180 percent respectively in just one year. In Ethiopia, the cost of wheat has risen by 85 percent. In Kenya, maize now costs 55 percent more than in 2010. These rising costs have transformed staples into inaccessible goods. What are the reasons for the price increases? Different signs indicate that financial speculation on foodstuffs is one of the main causes.

The cost of foodstuffs is determined by commodity exchanges. The most important in the world is in Chicago, while in Europe food is sold on the futures market in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Today the majority of food buying and selling does not correspond to actual commercial flows. Mike Masters, of the Masters Capital Management speculative fund, has said that 75 percent of investments in the agricultural sector are speculative. Foodstuffs are bought and sold as business transactions, with the effect of increasing the cost of food for the consumer. The same banks, high-risk funds and insurance companies that caused the subprime mortgage crisis are the same ones “playing” with food, profiting from the extremely deregulated and highly profitable global markets.

The food production, distribution and consumption chain is in the hands of a few multinationals. With the support of international financial institutions, in past decades they have eroded the ability of countries in the global south to determine their own agricultural and food policies.

So why is there hunger in a world of abundance? Food production has tripled since the 1960s, while the world population has only doubled. We are not facing a food production problem, but a food access problem. As emphasized by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, in an interview with El Pais: “Hunger is a political problem. It is a matter of social justice and redistribution policies.”

Source: El Pais
Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

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