Food shortages: Economic crisis means starvation for millions

Printer-friendly version
16 October was World Food Day. It was marked by a fresh supply of statistics and analyses on the cause of food price rises, the state of food stocks and the impact on those in the most vulnerable situations. World food stocks haven't been at such a low level since the 1970s. They've halved since 2002. Recent assessments suggest there's about two months in reserve, the minimum amount recommended by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation. The World Bank estimates that 119 million additional people have been thrown into famine conditions this year because of food price rises. That makes an ‘official' total of 967 million people, nearly a sixth of the world's population.

Among the factors identified as being behind the food crisis[1] are: poor harvests attributed to climate change, high energy and other production costs, lack of investment in agriculture, the subsidies put into bio-fuels, speculation, ‘unfair' trade, changes in diet, and the disruption caused by wars and ‘natural disasters'. Some of these elements have indeed contributed to current circumstances. But understanding that the food crisis is serious, and seeing some of the things behind it, doesn't mean that any of capitalism's ‘experts' can come up with a solution.

After all, there have, during the last 30 years, been Food Summits, Millennium Goals and UN initiatives designed to cut or even eradicate serious hunger and malnutrition. In reality, the FAO's High-Level Conference on World Food Security this year had to admit that, instead of reaching the target of 400 million people, hunger has been increasing. The World Bank's projection for those living in extreme poverty has been revised upward to 1.4 billion. At present it calculates that there are over three billion people living on less than $2 a day.

The World Bank is among the institutions that have been criticised in the past for putting pressure on the poorest countries to dismantle various systems of state support for agriculture and local food production. Now, with the clamour over unregulated markets and financial speculation, with massive state intervention in the face of the financial crisis, calls are being made for help for the hungry, as there was help for banks, money markets and currencies. "Bailout the needy, not the greedy" is the cry of Socialist Worker sellers.

Ingeborg Schäuble, the President of Welthungerhilfe (14/10/8) said: "Almost a billion starving people is a scandal for the world. In contrast to the banks, they themselves are not guilty for their plight. The general rethinking about the role of the state and the international community, brought about by the financial crisis, must be extended to also cover the hunger crisis. The world needs a rescue package to combat global hunger, and we therefore demand that funding for the development of agriculture in developing countries be increased by at least ten billion euros every year and that fairer trading conditions should be created."

From Oxfam (16/10/8) we hear similar demands "Developing country governments must invest more in supporting agriculture, focused on small farmers and women. They should have social protection policies, such as minimum income guarantees, and support for schooling and health. Developed country governments and other donors like the IMF, World Bank and other multilateral agencies and NGOs, should support developing countries to implement these policies and not pressure them to open up their markets too quickly."

Past experience indicates that there are not going to be any rescue packages or fundamental changes in governments' priorities.

The history of failed hunger initiatives over the decades is something that Oxfam is well aware of. It recently said "The international community's response to the crisis has been inadequate, both in terms of the amount of aid promised and its coordination. At an emergency meeting in Rome earlier this year, $12.3bn was pledged for the food crisis, but little more than $1bn has so far seen the light of day."

Experience shows that the ‘international community' is capable of promising the earth, but each individual capitalist state will only act in what it deems to be its own interests. This can be a straightforward defence of immediate economic self-interest, or something that fits in with an overall imperialist strategy. A deepening financial crisis in the ‘developed' countries means that aid will be one of the first items to be either cut or eliminated. As for the ‘developing' countries, they are often tied up in imperialist conflicts, or reliant on the sale of raw materials that are subject to wide price fluctuations. Their precarious situation determines their priorities, and the military option usually comes first. The example of Zimbabwe, from where, at great expense, despite a worsening economic situation, from 1998-2002, troops were sent to fight in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is typical.

As for the myth of ‘fair trade', the reality of competition in capitalism means that the weaker economies lose out to the stronger. The most powerful national capitals have enough of their own problems at present and are hardly likely to favour less advantageous trading conditions. Competition isn't supposed to be ‘fair.' Someone has to lose.

The fundamental material reality is that the ruling classes of every capitalist state will only defend their own interests, against all rivals and regardless of people starving. The deaths of millions do not figure in the profit and loss accounting of the bourgeoisie.

A global crisis hitting every country

The worldwide nature of the food crisis also demonstrates that, while national specificities can be significant, the reality of a global crisis is the dominant factor, alongside the fact that all present day nations are divided into classes.

In India, for example, despite self-sufficiency in food grains, substantial economic growth rates in recent years, and rising industrial output, there are more than 200 million people going to bed hungry every night. In Madhya Pradesh food shortages are so severe they have brought comparisons to conditions in Chad and Ethiopia. Despite its much-acclaimed economic progress, more than three quarters of the Indian population live on only 30 pence a day. Commentators suggest that corruption and bureaucracy in distribution, as well as discrimination against the lower castes and ethnic minorities, have contributed to the situation. They certainly have; but, in a class divided society, those who are already poor, marginalised or exploited will always suffer first the crushing impact of a global crisis.

Or take the example of Venezuela, to a certain extent cushioned from events by the extent of its oil supplies. Corruption, 30% inflation, and the imposition of price controls have all exacerbated existing food shortages and led to food hoarding - these are specific to Venezuela, as is Chávez's ‘socialist' rhetoric. But Venezuela is in no way immune from the effects of the world economic crisis, and it's the poorest that will be affected, not Señor Chávez.

The food crisis has also hit the Middle East and North Africa, an area rich in valuable raw materials, but also the region of the world that most depends on imports for food staples. Food riots, strikes and other protests have hit Egypt, the UAE, Yemen and Lebanon this year. The region is the scene of a number of conflicts, but when prices jump or food becomes scarce those who are most affected have shown they will not accept it passively.

The crisis of world capitalism hits every country. The trouble with the food crisis is that it is literally a matter of life and death in the weakest economies. "At a time when the productive capacities of the planet would make it possible to feed 12 billion human beings, millions and millions are dying of hunger because of the laws of capitalism ... a system of production aimed not at satisfying human need but at generating profit; a system totally incapable of responding to the needs of humanity" (IR 134).    

Car 29/10/8

[1]. Previous ICC articles on this question include ‘Capitalism can't feed the world' (WR 314), ‘What lies behind rise in global food prices?' (WR 316) and ‘Only the proletarian class struggle can put an end to famine' (International Review 134).

Recent and ongoing: