Regulating the Poor and Hungry

The World Food Conference does not represent the world, nor is it fundamentally about food, and neither is it very much of a conference. The farmers aren't there, the poor aren't there, and neither are the 400 million unemployed or the hundreds of millions of malnourished and hungry. Instead the crisis-managers, and the well-fed and the technocrats are present. The Conference is not about food, because agenda items officially do not concern the inequities of consumption and distribution of resources by which to use food resources. It isn't even a conference in any real food sense, but something like a conspiracy of silence about the structure of poverty and dependence. The rich countries will impose a veto on any efforts to equalize the initiative in debates about outcomes. If 'they' don't like what we will give them, 'they' can go to hell.

In fact, the latter course is recommended by present day Malthusians and Eichmanns of food and population planning. It is quite clear to these new mandarins of life and death that some large populations have surpassed the carrying capacity of local resources, and should be allowed to fall back into a natural balance. Being the basket cases of development, they cannot contribute to Western resource needs, and only drain our scanty reserves of good-will. We would rather play on well-fertilized golf courses.

Others have been a little more optimistic, but not much more helpful. Secretary of State Kissinger's proposals exemplify the air of unreality breathed in such conferences of concerned crisis-managers. He wants to improve the structure of grain and capital lending flows that have in the past, and will increasingly in the future, mire the Third World in indebtedness to Western institutions and governments; to improve health conditions through more elite-organized research on the quality of food nutrition, when such research in the past has itself demonstrated that the benefits of food-supplement efforts are illusory, or at best peripheral to conditions of surrounding poverty and deprivation; and to improve food security by enlarging, rather than reducing, the system of control by the surplus nations in the agricultures of the deficit nations--for example, by provisions on cooperation to qualify for assistance. All this might seem necessary to well-intentioned Americans who view the food crisis as a result of some inherent incapacity of poor countries to provide for themselves. But credibility in the case of people like Dr. Kissinger has been stretched several times too far. Perhaps we should be inclined to suspect such spokesmen of charitableness, and to look a bit deeper.

It would seem that the Conference, instead of being an effort to rectify structures that prevent the poor from feeding themselves, is an attempt to preserve them. These current international and derivative internal economic orders jeopardize not only the lives of millions of people around the world, but more seriously for many involved, threaten to rip the veil away from the system of development which we, but mostly the poor, have paid to support. The very real shortages of food in the world are, conspicuously enough, brought on by an interaction of supply shortages in the rich countries, elite-dominated distribution of resources such as fertilizer and oil, changes in weather (the causes of which may not be entirely natural), and also by systems of production in the poor countries geared to the maintenance of power arrangements from which the peasant has little hope of benefiting.

Typical Conference solutions assume for instance, that the poor countries can only expect to become more dependent and indebted to the West, and not just for the oil and fertilizer supplies (the consequences of which have already been devastating). Even giving away food creates problems with production incentives and reduces attention paid to the production system. It doesn't solve the dependency question but only submerges it. At the current rate, food import requirements are estimated to rise to 85 million tons by the mid-'80s. That amounts to over $17 billion for the poor countries per year at current prices, despite the enormous proportions of exchange reserves already absorbed by past deptservicing requirements. We expect them to choose between food, fertilizer and repayment--when we hold the gun of credit worthiness, and the national elites respond to our carrots of cars, guns and planes.


Furthermore, the Conference has not been able to deal substantively with the structure of food production and use in the rich nations. The purchasing power of the rich has meant the import of protein and its conversion into meat at incredible and growing rates. The export of our consumer culture, the development of export-oriented cash-crops, and the side-effects of the Green revolution involve additional distortions central to issues in which the rich nations are involved. These factors collectively inhibit, rather than promote self-reliant food supply systems in the Third World.

The Conference will not review the appropriateness of Western-style agricultural innovations in the Third World. Consideration of the production problem is reduced to break-throughs possible with just one or more of certain inputs. These innovations are inherently capital-, energy-, and expert-intensive. They have to be so in order to meet the interests and to provide a basis for involving Western-style institutions--the private companies, the bureaucracies and the banking system.

The food crisis today is described by some futurologists in apocalyptic terms. Some kind of black death or brown is imminent. Famine, starvation, rebellion occur; the synthesis of progress based on energy, trade, and capital is broken by new (old) resource imperialisms, expropriations and capital shortages with rising costs of debt. We despair of the conditions for living.

Such imagery enhances the prerogative of the managerial elite to decide our course: we write blank-checks to the crisis-managers to keep such problems from our door. We don't discover, until too late, that the definitions of the crisis have been posed in terms of interest to the elite groups. The possibility exists further, that the developed world may simply decide to forget countries that cannot be helped, according to the new Social Darwinist criterion.

The Conference is a serious effort to keep the system going as it is; a United Nations hope that some kink of dialogue can occur between Western and non-Western elites. Its results can at best only stem tides of hunger, joblessness, malnutrition, and the institutional paralysis that are the fruits of development to this point for the poor. There is a difference that can be made however, and an alternative future that can be shared more equally with the Third World. Perhaps, if the Food Conference helps Americans to see this necessity, it will have proven useful at least to us.

Nicholas Herman works with the New World Coalition Peoples' Fund for Development. The Coalition draws together financial, educational and personal resources for Americans' involvement in the initiatives for self-reliance and self-determination here and overseas.