From Junk Food to Famine, Part 1: A system that poisons and starves

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The media are full of unbearable images of children and whole families dying of starvation in a world where vast amounts of food are being thrown away. The violence of this absurd poverty seems to have no limits. 10,000 people die of hunger every day. A child under 10 dies of starvation every 5 seconds. 842 million people are suffering from severe undernourishment. And this misery is spreading throughout the world, reaching part of the population of the ‘rich’ world, where food banks are becoming increasingly common. And if we are not immediately faced with hunger, we are being made to feel culpable for the horrors stalking the ‘third world’.

The false explanations of the bourgeoisie

The ‘experts’ give us the most unbelievable explanations for all this. There are too many people. Our food regime is not adapted to the resources of the planet. We don’t have enough respect for these resources. In short, everything is geared to making us feel as guilty as possible, while those who are really responsible for this are never denounced. Is it their fault that modest families in the ‘Northern’ countries have to buy food at the lowest prices at the supermarkets? Shouldn’t we blame the ‘consumers’ for buying products made in the most dubious conditions? There are those who repeat this endlessly, and many of them tell us if we ‘consume in a different way’, everyone will be better off, including those in the poor countries.  Our problem is that we are not being responsible. We eat too much and we eat badly, so it’s all our fault if others are going hungry.

There’s not much doubt that we eat badly, given all the colourings, sugars, and pesticides in our food. We will come back to that later on. But for now the question is this: how can we really understand this situation? Our planet is a very fertile place, blessed with an extremely rich and diverse ecosystem which contains vast potential. With more than 10Gha (10,000,000,000 hectares) of potentially cultivable land, it seems inconceivable that with the current technology so many people should be facing starvation. And yet they are. If we compare the resources available on the planet with the actual use being made of them today, we can see immense contradictions, contradictions which are threatening the very survival of our species.

Let’s look a bit more closely at these contradictions. As we said, the planet disposes of 10Gha of potentially cultivable land. According to a report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in Britain[1], the total amount of land actually being cultivated today represents 4.9Gha, i.e. around half of what is available for the production of food. This same report indicates that the average capacity of a one hectare field to produce grain or maize would make it possible, given current means, to feed between 19 and 22 people for a year, whereas the exploitation of a hectare destined for producing beef or lamb for human consumption makes it possible to feed around 1.5 people a year.

The existing productivity in the agro-food sector thus makes it possible to feed the whole world population. If millions of human beings are dying of hunger every day, the cause is this ignoble system which does not produce to satisfy the needs of humanity but to sell and make a profit. Here is the big difference with the famines of the Middle Ages: these were a result of the limited development of tools, of techniques, of the organisation of land and labour. Human beings continued to exploit every inch of land in order to make up for this lack of productivity. Today, under capitalism, humanity possesses extraordinary capacities which it is not using. Worse than that: the race for profit leads to immense waste:

“In South-East Asian countries for example, losses of rice can range from 37% to 80% of total production depending on development stage, which amounts to total wastage in the region of about 180 million tonnes annually...The potential to provide 60–100% more food by simply eliminating losses, while simultaneously freeing up land, energy and water resources for other uses, is an opportunity that should not be ignored.” [2]

In Europe, 50% of food products end up in the bin – 240,000 tons every day.

In response to famines, putting a stop to such waste, to the destruction of unsold food, would appear to be the immediate measures that need to be taken, even if they are largely insufficient. But even these basic measures can’t be taken by capitalism because in this society human welfare and the satisfaction of needs, even the most basic ones, is not at all the goal of production. Factories, machinery, capital only exist to make a profit and the workers are only fed so that they can produce surplus value, the source of profit. Measures that might seem simple and obvious can only be adopted by the proletariat in a revolutionary situation.

This said, in the long term, a society free from social classes and capital will have to take much more radical measures than this. The capitalist mode of production ravages nature, exhausts the soil, poisons the air. The majority of animal species are threatened with extinction if the destructive madness of this system isn’t halted.

Those who are conscious of this situation can only react with indignation. But many claim that the way forward is to reduce consumption, and to practice negative growth. But the solution is neither ‘productivist’ (producing more and more without concern for the aim of production), or negative growth (producing less so that each human being lives just above the poverty line, which is impossible under capitalism with its inevitable class inequalities). It has to be much more radical and profound than that. If production is no longer spurred on by the hunt for profit but by the satisfaction of human need, then the conditions of production will have to change completely. In the realm of food production, all research, the whole organisation of labour and the soil, the process of distribution...will be guided by the respect for humanity and nature. But this implies the overthrow of capitalism.

From scarcity to overproduction

From what we know today, agriculture first made its appearance around 10,000 years ago, somewhere around the south east of what is today Turkey. Since then, techniques have continued to develop, sometimes resulting in major leaps in output. The use of animals to pull the swing plough became general in antiquity, while the development of the wheeled plough and of three crop rotation around the 10th century AD led to definite improvements in production. However, it is important to remember that despite the advances that marked this long period[3], the technical knowledge of the time did not make it possible to generate stable harvests from one year to the next. There were many examples of great famines that decimated the population: in 1315 for example, as a result of a particularly cold and rainy year, harvests in France were 50% below that of previous years, resulting in the deaths of between 5 and 10% of the population. To a lesser extent the same phenomenon could be seen in 1348, this time followed by the Black Death which struck an already weakened population. To simplify, during the 14th and 15th centuries when the climate was less favourable than in the previous period, there was a terrible famine every 20 or 30 years. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that agricultural production ceased to suffer so severely from blows delivered by the climate. The progress in machinery and the use of fossil fuels (coal and oil), the advances in inorganic chemistry and the introduction of mineral fertilisers led to a considerable increase in output. With the development of capitalism, agriculture became an industry, in the image of the textile industry, or transport. Tasks were rigorously planned and the concept of the manufacturing process, with the scientific organisation of labour, permitted an unprecedented increase in productivity. All this led people to believe that periods of crisis and famine would give way to centuries of abundance. Most of the scientists of the day swore by the progress of science and thought that the development of capitalist society would be the remedy for all ills. Most, but not all. In 1845 for example, when capitalism was in full expansion, a terrible famine struck Ireland. Mildew and humid weather led to a fall in the potato crop of nearly 40%. The consequences for the population were dramatic – it is estimated that there were a million deaths between 1846 and 1851. But even if the techniques of the day were still fairly rudimentary, it would be a mistake to see the potato blight as the sole cause of the catastrophe. In contrast to what happened in 1780, Ireland’s ports remained open due to the pressure of Protestant negotiators and Ireland carried on exporting food. While whole families on the island were dying of hunger, convoys of food belonging to the landlords, escorted by the army, set off for England. This is how England’s capitalist development took place. The boundless cruelty of the capitalist system led Engels to write in 1882:

In the advanced industrial countries, we have subdued the forces of nature and harnessed them to the service of man; we have thus infinitely multiplied production to the point where a child today can produce what once took 100 adults. And what are the consequences? Growing over-work and mounting poverty for the masses, and every ten years, a huge debacle” (Dialectics of Nature).   

In the next article we will examine this subject in the context of the decadence of capitalism.

Enkidu 20/10/13

[1]. ‘Global food, waste not, want not’


[2]. Global Food


[3]. We can also refer to the work of Oliviér Serres (1539-1619) on the structure of agricultural practice