World Food Crisis:

Political maneuvers keep food from starving millions

The Harvard-Radcliffe Hunger Action Project is a group of students, faculty and community people working to clarify the complex issues that surround the food crisis. Together with college and community groups from around the Northeast, we have formed the Northeast Hunger Action Alliance.

Despite our different personal perspectives, we all agree that the food crisis can be truly understood only within the context of the political and economic power structures that presently exist. All agree that present immediate action to feed the hungry must lead soon to profound social change, or unprecedented world-wide famine will come to pass.

At the conclusion of the World Food Conference held last November in Rome, Senator Hubert Humphrey wrote:

The great central problem of our time is hunger.

Our grain reserves are almost gone.

Rates of population have begun to pull ahead of agricultural production in many countries.

Drought already has brought starvation to many people.

We are, in Secretary-General Waldheim's words, "face to face with a global emergency."

Others agree that the magnitude of the danger of famine is without parallel. The Second Report to the Club of Rome, Mankind at the Turning Point, declares that the starvation of millions if not billions is inevitable, and that we shall see social chaos on a global scale within the century.

Senator Mark Hatfield speaks of hunger as "the greatest threat to this nation and to the stability of the entire world," judging that "hunger and famine will do more to destabilize this world...than all the atomic weaponry possessed by the big powers," affirming the absolute centrality of the elimination of famine, not only for the preservation of stability, but for the survival of the human race itself.

As fears mount and the desperation of world leaders grows, Professor Roger Revelle calculates that the world can produce enough food for 38 to 48 billion people; and the London Economist points out that "if the arable land of our planet were cultivated as efficiently as farms in Holland, the planet could feed 67 billion people." Clearly, in the words of Edgar Owens, of the Agency for International Development, "the world is not yet confronted with the Malthusian apocalypse."

In his article, The Great World Crisis, Geoffrey Barraclough wrote similarly of the food situation: "The first necessity, in discussing the food question, is to get rid of the misconceptions in which it is currently bogged down. Two myths, in particular, have befogged the whole issue. The first is the persistent legend that food shortages are the consequence of inexorable population pressures. The second is that there is an over-all shortage of food stuffs. Neither will bear serious scrutiny..."

The thrust of Barraclough's argument, and the thrust of the arguments made by a growing number of other historians, politicians, economists, and demographers, is that we have the capacity to deal with the problem of food if we will face it squarely. What we may lack is the political will to act.

The immediate history of the present crisis is one of lost opportunities. The production of basic food grains--corn, wheat, rice, barley, and oats--totalled one billion metric tons in 1973, enough to adequately feed four billion people if distributed equally, and the March 15, 1974 report to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, shows that there was a world-wide surplus of grains as recently as 1972. It shows grain production recovering in the years between 1968 and 1971, making up a cumulative deficit of over 100 million metric tons, which had resulted from disastrous harvests in 1961, 1963, and 1965, 1971 produced a world record crop, with a world-wide surplus of 29 million metric tons over projected harvests.

In 1972, the steady gains of the previous four years reversed. A shortfall of 15 million tons in Russia, nine million tons in India, and five million tons in Australia, was enough to pinch supplies around the globe. Food production adequate for all, a possibility seemingly within our grasp in 1971 was suddenly beyond our reach.

Three major developments ate into the food surplus between 1970 and 1972: a loss of momentum in the Green Revolution, which leveled off food grain production in Asia; an increasing demand from Europe and Japan for food grains and protein meals to produce the greater quantities of animal products demanded by the consumers in those countries; and program cutbacks in grain production in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The impact of the world shortage on the United, States was accentuated by several other developments. The 1972 fish catch off the Peruvian coast was a failure, reducing the supply of protein meal available to European markets and in turn increasing the export demand for soybean and soybean meal in the United States. The failure of the peanut crop in South Asia and parts of Africa further contributed to the shortage of protein meals. The major devaluation of the dollar made the United States a particularly cheap place to acquire needed proteins and hence acted to increase the demand for an export of feed grains and soybean meal in 1972 and 1973. The extraordinary upward movement of grain prices and, subsequently livestock prices, in America in the summer of 1973, can be explained by these world developments. This increase in prices placed enormous stresses on the economies of the poor nations of the world.

India was made especially vulnerable. When oil price tripled, it was more profitable for oil companies to convert their product into gasoline for American cars than to convert it into fertilizer for India. Fertilizer capacity in that country was cut back by 40 per cent overnight. This, with an unexpected drought, and the increase of grain prices in the West, caused massive starvation. "Meanwhile," observes Senator Hatfield, "various oil producing nations are flaring 4.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas each year, ten times more than the U.S. uses annually for fertilizer production, and enough to double current world fertilizer production."

The essential facts of the hunger crisis are, then, these: that in a world of definite resources population cannot be increased indefinitely, yet we have the capacity to feed adequately ten to 16 times the present population of the globe that the ability of the more developed nations to produce and store food efficiently depends on their access to energy and fertilizer, but that this energy and fertilizer is in increasingly short supply as demand increases and non-renewable supplies dwindle; that within and among nations food is inequitably distributed, heightening enormously the stresses placed on the poor nations and on the poor within nations; and finally, that the failure of either short-term or long-term solutions will spell disaster either now or in the decades to come.

Prophecying doom without redemption, or destruction without renewal, is a demonic, not a prophetic, function. Yet there are some who propose policies that would save us from the crisis we face, not by redeeming or renewing the earth, but by cutting ourselves off from those who are hungry, by abrogating every traditionally binding ethical principle.

One such group argues that the people now starving have bred like rabbits and that they, regrettably, must suffer for their lack of foresight and self-discipline. The sight of the over-burdened earth moves these "crisis environmentalists" to advocate tough policies: positive and negative monetary incentives, rationing of children, sterilizing materials in the water supplies and compulsory abortion. Acknowledging that coercion diminishes freedom and is especially hard on the poor, these crisis environmentalists admit that the metaphor of an overcrowded lifeboat is a harsh one, requiring harsh ethics, but that it is "the basic metaphor within which we must work out our solutions," in the words of Mr. Garrett Hardin, author of "Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor." Mr. Hardin's argument is that humanity may be likened to a cancer, spreading over the body of the earth and that "as the fast-reproducing poor outnumber the slow-reproducing rich," they will come to depend more and more on foreign aid and the charity of the wealthy, eventually overtaxing and destroying the environment.

This approach to the crisis is a false one because it is both morally wrong and practically ineffective. It neglects the fact that even in America, where food is plentiful, many go without: the fact that the burden of one American on the environment is eight times greater than that of his Third World counterpart; and the fact that our present wealth derives in large part from the unusual abundance of the American land, and has no relation to our merit as people.

Others argue for a policy called "triage." Deciding with the help of statistics and other scientific tools which nations are most like to survive, which are most likely to starve and disappear, and which are on the borderline, we can then direct our efforts with precision, leaving those most able to help themselves to struggle unaided, helping those on the borderline with massive assistance, and leaving those nations that are presently most destitute to their fate: massive starvation.

Still others urge a policy of mutual aid, observing that it is in the self-interest of the wealthy nations as well as in the interest of those nations that are stricken with famine. Led by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, developmentalists argue that the entrance of the Third World into the twentieth century can profit America's balance of payments. These men advocate the exportation of Western agricultural methods to the Third World. For these men, the markets of the Third World are as vital to the West as is food aid to the poor nations.

The food crisis is immense, yet a real solution can not resort to coercion and callousness. Man need not be seen as a cancerous evil. Indeed, as Blake wrote, "Where nature is and man is not, nature is barren." A true solution must affirm the worth and goodness of man, while recognizing the evil he has done. A true solution must be one that speaks for those who are voiceless.

The inadequacy of solutions most commonly presented is so glaring that I am driven to make an extreme statement: There are no solutions to the problems of the world's poor people within the context of their present relationship to the West.

Let me clarify. (I rely heavily in my following remarks on an excellent article: How We Cause World Hunger, by William Moyer and Pamela Haines in Win, Jan, 30, 1975.) Development will not work in the Third World, which may be better termed the "never-to-be-developed" than the underdeveloped world. It will not work because there is no longer the room to expand, the abundance of natural resources, and the labor of support development that the West had a century ago. As with rich and poor within nations, the gap is widening between rich and poor nations. Even the development that does take place benefits tiny portions of poor nations: in Brazil, for instance, between 1968 and 1972, while 5 per cent of the population grew more wealthy, 50 per cent stayed the same, and 45 per cent grew poorer. If development did occur along western lines, the world would soon exhaust almost all non-renewable resources, and the ecological destruction we have seen in America would spread world-wide.

Bettering the terms of trade will not solve the problems of the poor. Though terms of trade have been worsening for the Third World (six years ago an American jeep cost 14 bags of coffee in South America, today 39), an improvement would serve primarily to fill the coffers of government treasuries and the bank accounts of the domestic exploiters of the poor.

Increasing U.S. Government aid will not solve the critical problems of the starving (though emergency assistance for famine relief is a sine qua non, an absolute essential). Our aid is presently both meager and determined in many ways by political considerations, indicating our real lack of commitment to see human needs met. The Food for Peace Program under PL 480 exported 9 millions tons in 1972, 7.3 in 1973, 3.1 in 1974, and about the same this year, despite growing need. Also, all U.S. aid goes to or through the affluent minority governments of the poorer nations. Even aid as aid has adverse effects, enabling governments in the Third World to put off hard decisions on how to feed their own populations, and depressing local markets, forcing local farmers to switch to cash crops.

The Green Revolution can never solve agricultural problems which are basically social. As long as high profits come from coffee, sugar, tea and peanuts, nations where land is owned by a few super-rich people will not produce grains for local consumption. Even the miracle seeds themselves are a mixed blessing, being less resistant to disease and drought, and forcing poor nations to become dependent on oil, machinery and American seeds.

Population control will not work because population is a social problem and will not be solved until the society has changed. High birth rates, as we have seen in the West, can be lowered only when basic physical needs are met and people have hope for their future.

Even humanitarian aid, unconnected with gross political manuevering, is ultimately a false answer. Though some good is done, some lives saved and changed for the better, humanitarian aid has powerful negative effects. Essentially, it places the burden of change on the individual, neglecting the social roots of his condition. The paternalism inherent in aid ("these poor folks are inept and need help") is another negative factor.

To feed people, to bring forth justice to the nations, to raise the oppressed, requires political change above all. This is the metanoia that must be undergone. The social and political structures that enslave and starve people must be repudiated. I believe this repudiation must be non-violent; but America's inaction, her greed and unwillingness to do justice to the starving will, I fear, made violent and world-wide revolution inevitable. Whether the world that results will be inhabitable, or whether the systems that will be created will be just and free ones, I do not know.

First, we must end all military and economic aid to military dictatorships. Will it never begin to shock us that government "of the people, for the people, by the people" is so seldom supported in our foreign policy, that our foreign aid is based on the principle "with interest from all, with charity to none"? The aid we now send simply pushes the day when people will be fed further into the future.

Secondly, the United States must undergo massive de-development. We must consume less, pollute less, produce less of certain luxury goods, discover how to recycle what resources we have presently in use. In short, we must voluntarily relinquish the "privilege" we have had to over-consume and to strip our environment.

Third, we meet end the domination that our multi-national corporations now hold over the economics of the poorer nations. At the least, countries could grow grain, not cocoa, coffee, and bananas. Also, we can recognize that the industrial-agricultural practices of the West will, in the long run, inhibit the effective production of food. Not through energy-wasteful technology, not by making the Third World over in our own image, but by the redistribution of land and the intensive, organic cultivation of small farms will the problem of starvation be solved.

Fourth, the United States must reexamine the re-organize its economic system, producing on the same model that will be effective in the Third World. We must turn to minimum production, consumption, and waste, with an emphasis on simplicity and human development rather than material goods. Using technology rather than abusing it, consuming what we need, we can move towards a world with enough for all. In a nation that inundates each citizen with an average of 500 commercial messages a day, the "happiness is having" syndrome will be hard to eradicate, but it must be done.

Each one of us can work to see these four broad goals become realities. We can educate ourselves on what's been going on, particularly on the issue of hunger, where myths have been so pervasive, so widely accepted, and so misleading. We can change our own life styles, simplifying where we can, consuming less, using things longer, eating less meat. And where we see the possibility for work, for action, we can work, we can act.

Harvard can take the lead in beginning to make the changes that are necessary. Its economists can publicly make it their goal to formulate plans for changing our system to one that will better meet the crises we face. Its political scientists can press for action in Congress. Its scientists can do the basic research on more efficient ways of producing and storing food. Its writers can use their gift to give voices to those who have no voices. As an institution, Harvard can make it an official policy to cut down its consumption of food, especially meat, and to consume less in other ways that it sees fit.

As citizens of the richest and most powerful country on the face of the earth, we have a special obligation. Not only must we act to help those in need, but also we must act to ensure that the nation we are citizens of does not continue to use its power, in our name, for oppression and exploitation. Concern is worthless if it does not issue in action. Concern is another name for indifference when one does not do what he can