Inflation increasingly puts basic necessities out of reach of the world's poor. Used on the front page of World Revolution 314, May 2008. UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon has said that “the dramatic escalation in food prices worldwide has evolved into an unprecedented challenge of global proportions”. While the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that globally average food prices have risen 57% over the last year, this average is exceeded by certain staples. With rice up 74% over a year (217% over the last two years), wheat up 130% (136%), corn 31% (125%) and soybeans 87% ( 107%) we’re looking at absolute essentials for the majority of the world’s population. As we pointed out in WR 311 (‘Inflation meets recession’) in the 82 poorest countries, where 60 to 90% of the family budget is spent on food, anticipated rises in food prices mean that much of the population will suffer famine, and ultimately death. Already throughout the world 100,000 people every day die from starvation.
As the statistics accumulate, so does the other evidence of the growing hunger across the world. To take the examples that have been most publicised in the European media: the food riots, demonstrations and strikes that have occurred in Africa (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritania, Morocco and Senegal), Asia (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yemen) and the Americas (Bolivia, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and Peru.)
In WR 313 (‘It’s a crisis of the whole system’) we referred to the record 28 million in the US who were anticipated to be claiming food stamps by November. This figure has had to be revised as the total had already reached 27.7m in January, and remember that only about 65% of those eligible make a claim. It’s true that the situation in the US is not the same as in the most devastated countries, but, if you bear in mind that, beyond the food stamps, there is a network of 200 regional food banks to about 30,000 churches and soup kitchens across the country, you can what the real extent of American ‘prosperity’ is.
Many explanations, but no capitalist solutions
The head of the UN’s World Food Programme, describing the crisis as a “silent tsunami” that threatened to plunge more than 100 million people into hunger, said “This is the new face of hunger -- the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are.”
Alongside the admission of a crisis the bourgeoisie does have explanations, and even attempts at amelioration. The FAO points to low levels of world stocks following below-average harvests; crop failures; growing demand for subsidised grain-based biofuels; lower production levels in OECD countries; increased demand from countries like China and India; and climate change.
37 countries are listed by the FAO as being “in crisis requiring external assistance”. It distinguishes between three categories:
“Countries facing an exceptional shortfall in aggregate food production/supplies as a result of crop failure, natural disasters, interruption of imports, disruption of distribution, excessive post-harvest losses, or other supply bottlenecks.
Countries with widespread lack of access, where a majority of the population is considered to be unable to procure food from local markets, due to very low incomes, exceptionally high food prices, or the inability to circulate within the country.
Countries with severe localized food insecurity due to the influx of refugees, a concentration of internally displaced persons, or areas with combinations of crop failure and deep poverty.”
If you look through the factors that undermine the possibility of viable agriculture, it’s clear that war lies behind a number of them. The disruption of imports, distribution and circulation within a country, movements of refugees and internally displaced people can most often be put down to past or current conflicts. This is a circular question. When the head of the IMF warned of mass starvation and other terrible consequences if food prices carried on going up so quickly he said “As we know, learning from the past, those kinds of questions sometimes end in war.” In the short term capitalism can only briefly stop wars; in the long term it makes them more likely.
Of the other factors (crop failures, post-harvest losses, deep poverty etc), some can be put down to ‘natural’ disasters like drought and flood, which, whether attributed to climate change or not, capitalism has shown no sign of wanting or being able to deal with, or to social situations which are worsening with the deepening of the economic crisis across the globe, an inevitable result of capitalist production for profit.
It is no surprise that the FAO talks of ‘crisis’ and ‘external assistance’. It can only think it terms of responses to emergencies, short term action for something that has no long term solution within capitalism. It can only conceive of ‘external’ help, because, in the anarchy of capitalist production, the poorest countries stand no chance of getting out of their current position, relying on aid from the richest countries to ‘survive’.
When organisations like the FAO, IMF, World Bank, the WTO and all the rest meet together for crisis talks, they can only propose various forms of aid, subsidies and loans. There are sometimes campaigns for changes in production patterns, but they can only have the most minimal effect on the overall situation. 2008, for example, is the International Year of the Potato. The FAO enthuses over the nutritional qualities of the potato and how it has been neglected as a potential source of income. But no amount of diversification can solve the basic problem, any more than so-called ‘fair trade’ schemes, that still, after all, leave exploitation in place.
The fundamental reality with the rise in food prices, like the rise in fuel prices, is that they are a direct product of the economic crisis. It is not within capitalism’s powers to deal with the factors that cause the food crisis, as it is capitalism itself that generates all the problems. Don’t believe any ‘solution’ that leaves capitalist rule untouched. It has to be dismantled worldwide, and replaced by a different system of production where food and all life’s other necessities are produced and distributed on the basis of need, not sale and profit.
At the latest food summit in Berne, Ban Ki-moon warned of the “spectre of widespread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale.” It is the spectre of increasing working class struggle that most disturbs the ruling class. Car 29/4/8