The Famine Myth

The Famine Myth
Dr. Leslie Jermyn © 2002

If I stopped you on the street and told you that the spectre of famine was once again stalking the African continent, that millions were at risk of starving to death, what would be your reaction? If you’re the average North American or European, you would probably shake your head sadly and wonder when these people were going to get it together in terms of limiting population growth and producing enough food to feed themselves. More charitably, you might blame the weather and continued drought in some regions. These are the three famine myths – not enough food, too many people, bad weather – that permit famine to strike again and again in the developing world with not so much as a peep of outrage from us, the increasingly obese developed world.

Famine is a situation of chronic lack of food leading to eventual starvation and death for thousands or millions depending on the scale. It is not the result of singular causes like low rainfall or too many mouths to feed but results from a long series of social, political and economic processes and policies. Famines can be and are predicted with alarming accuracy because they take months and years to grow from food shortages to full-blown food emergencies. They continue to plague us despite the fact that we do in fact produce enough food for every man, woman and child on the planet. Why?

1. Land Use: Key to unravelling the mystery of food shortage is understanding how food is produced in the first place. Since European and North American colonial and imperial expansion throughout the southern hemisphere in this century, southern peoples and lands have become our main suppliers of raw materials and plantation foodstuffs. This has forced countless small producers off their land to make way for large-scale agribusiness or mining interests and has removed millions of hectares of arable land from food production for local consumption. The concentration of land ownership continued with Green Revolution technologies which required farmers to purchase expensive seeds, fertilizers and pesticides in order to enjoy the benefits of increased yields. Only the well off farmers could afford to partake and eventually they were able to buy out their poorer neighbours. Today, the pundits are still advising eradicating family farming for agribusiness, but not to increase food production, but rather to increase exports and debt repayment. To boot, the finished product of a Green Revolution or agribusiness farm is far more expensive to buy on local markets and is thus effectively unavailable to local consumers.

We now have ½ the arable land per person that we had 40 years ago. This results from desertification and soil erosion where inappropriate technologies have destroyed land or landless peasants have moved into fragile zones, but mostly results from putting arable land to other uses such as urban expansion. We don’t think twice about another housing development or sprawl mall on former cropland because in the north, we import most of our food anyway and so don’t see the point in conserving farmland. Of course, our food is grown somewhere and wherever it grows, it’s not supplying local needs.

In general, then, for the last 100 years, we have supported a shift from small family farms to large agribusiness and from our own self-sufficiency in food to relying on southern countries to produce for us. All of these policies have resulted in greater vulnerability for developing nations in terms of producing enough food to feed themselves.

FACT: Ethiopia exported green beans to Great Britain throughout the 1984-85 famine…

2. Social Structure: Throughout the southern hemisphere, there has been a net flow of people off the land to the cities. Despite opening of borders and free trade production zones, industrial employment has not kept pace with the numbers of people forced off the land looking for work. They swell the ranks of the urban poor who no longer have access to food through agriculture and who don’t earn enough to eat well or frequently. As well, imported food takes over from locally grown as per the recommendations of the IMF and World Bank, and this food costs more thus creating ever larger numbers of people who are inadequately fed.

FACT: The rich never starve in a famine…

3. Development Policies: For half a century now, we, in the north, have been ‘committed to the development of the south.’ In all honesty, they’d be better off without our concern and charity. At the level of global institutions like the World Bank, development policies have followed the same unswerving path: big projects that produce surplus for the north and debt for the south. Since we began to donate and loan money to the developing world, there has been a net flow of value (money and goods) to the north – much of the money came our way in arms sales to support Cold War hostilities on southern soil and to keep pro-Western or pro-Soviet strongmen in power. Currently, the pundits are advocating open markets, production of export commodities and reduced food independence – pretty much the same story as before but without the pretty disguise of ‘community’ or ‘sustainable’ development to hide the ugly truth. At the very same time, northern tariffs keep southern products out or make them less competitive while the sale of northern surplus grains aids an already overbloated industry that only survives with enormous government subsidies. Our justification is that they have to pay off their debt to us, debt incurred to enrich us in the first place. So, we push even more farmers off their land and invite more agribusiness in to produce flowers or cotton or bananas for us and then wonder when those same farmers have the affront to starve to death on television.

FACT: Sudan had silos of presold wheat that it could not distribute to starving people during the famine. It had sold the wheat, stockpiled for food relief, on the advice of the World Bank…

4. Global Inequality: Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact that our overuse of world resources is connected to other people’s lack of access and food is no different. We overeat and eat foods that use up more land space than the foods most southerners traditionally eat. As humans we are omnivorous meaning that we can process both plant and animal foods. But when we eat animal protein, we are in effect eating more grain that if we were to eat the grain directly:
It takes 2.5kilos of grain to produce 1k of poultry
It takes 4kilos of grain to produce 1k of pork
It takes 7kilos of grain to produce 1k of beef
That means that if there are indeed 3,600 grain calories per person produced in the world, we’re eating more than our share by consuming large quantities of meat. North Americans eat approximately 115 kilos of meat per person per year. If we want to ensure everyone has a fair share, we are going to have to change our eating habits so as to reduce the pressure on grain supplies and arable land both at home and abroad. Unfortunately, all we’re doing at the moment is exporting our ‘way of life’ to the elites in the south in order to sell more of our goods and services. We will reach the carrying capacity of the planet if we believe the way forward is a McDonalds at every crossroads. Our diet is unsustainable ecologically and morally.

FACT: If everyone on the planet ate like us, we would need 3 extra planets to produce the grain to feed to the animals.

Famine is a complex problem with complex solutions but it is not inevitable and blaming the victims will not bring us closer to solution.

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