The global food system feeds gluttonous corporations first
Philadelphia Enquirer, 27 April 2007
The only surprising thing about the global food crisis to Jim Goodman
is the notion that anyone finds it surprising.
"So," says the Wisconsin dairy farmer, "they finally figured out,
after all these years of pushing globalization and genetically
modified seeds, that instead of feeding the world we've created a food
system that leaves more people hungry. If they'd listened to farmers
instead of corporations, they would've known this was going to
The food shortages, suddenly front-page news, are not new. Hundreds of
millions were starving and malnourished last year; the only change is
that as the crisis has grown, it has become more difficult to "manage"
the hunger that a failed food system accepts rather than feeds.
The current global food system, designed by U.S.-based agribusiness
conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto and ADM and forced into place by
the U.S. government and its allies at the World Bank, the
International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, has
planted the seeds of disaster by pressuring farmers here and abroad to
produce cash crops for export and alternative fuels rather than grow
healthy food for local consumption and regional stability.
The only smart short-term response is to throw money at the problem.
George W. Bush's release of $200 million in emergency aid to the
United Nation's World Food Program last week was appropriate, but
Washington must do more. Rising food prices may not be causing riots
in the United States, but food banks here are struggling to meet
demand as joblessness grows. Congress should answer the call of Sen.
Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) to allocate $100 million more to domestic
food programs and make sure, as Rep. Jim McGovern (D.Mass.) urges,
that an overdue farm bill expands programs for getting fresh food from
local farms to local consumers.
Beyond humanitarian responses, the cure for the global food system -
and an unsteady U.S. farm economy - is not more of the same
globalization and genetic gimmickry. That way has left 37 nations with
food crises while global grain giant Cargill harvests an 86 percent
rise in profits and Monsanto reaps record sales from its herbicides
and seeds. For years, corporations have promised that problems would
be solved by trade deals and technology - especially genetically
modified seeds, which University of Kansas research suggests reduce
food production and the International Assessment of Agricultural
Science and Technology for Development says won't end global hunger.
The "market," at least as defined by agribusiness, isn't working.
We "have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits
who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and
horror," says Jean Ziegler, the U.N. right-to-food advocate. But try
telling that to the Bush Administration or to World Bank president
(and former White House trade rep) Robert Zoellick, who's busy
exploiting tragedy to promote trade liberalization.
"If ever there is a time to cut distorting agricultural subsidies and
open markets for food imports, it must be now," says Zoellick.
"Wait a second," replies Dani Rodrik, a Harvard political economist
who tracks trade policy. "Wouldn't the removal of these distorting
policies raise world prices in agriculture even further?" Yes. World
Bank studies confirm that wheat and rice prices will rise if Zoellick
gets his way.
Instead of listening to the White House or the World Bank, Congress
should recognize - as a handful of visionary members like Rep. Marcy
Kaptur (D., Ohio) have - that current trends confirm the wisdom of the
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's call for "an urgent
rethink of the respective roles of markets and governments." That's
far more useful than blaming Midwestern farmers for embracing inflated
promises about the potential of ethanol.
We should, however, re-examine whether aggressive U.S. support for
biofuels is not only distorting corn prices but also harming livestock
and dairy producers who can barely afford feed and fertilizer. Instead
of telling farmers they're wrong to seek the best prices for their
crops, Congress should make sure farmers can count on good prices for
growing the food Americans need. It can do this by providing a strong
safety net to survive weather and market disasters and a strategic
grain reserve similar to the strategic petroleum reserve to guard
against food-price inflation.
Congress should also embrace trade and development policies that help
developing countries regulate markets with an eye to feeding the
hungry rather than feeding corporate profits. This principle, known as
"food sovereignty," sees struggling farmers and hungry people and
says, as the Oakland Institute's Anuradha Mittal observes, that it is
time to "stop worshiping the golden calf of the so-called free market
and embrace, instead, the principle [that] every country and every
people have a right to food that is affordable." As Mittal says, "When
the market deprives them of this, it is the market that has to give."
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