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The Sky Is Not Falling

Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins Houghton Mifflin; 412 pages; $10.95


HUNGER, most Americans seem to believe, is one of those insoluble problems, a result of rapid population growth in a world with limited resources. Newspapers have stopped running those heart-wrenching pictures of malnourished babies in the Third World; we seem to have reached a tacit agreement that if the Green Revolution could not feed the world, nothing can. People will go on starving--in Bangladesh, in the Sahel, on the outskirts of every large Third World city--and the best we can hope to do is buy time until things get really serious, and save ourselves when they do.

The authors of Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity take a more optimistic view of the problems of world hunger. In her bestselling Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe took the position that Americans must learn to sacrifice as individuals, to reduce their consumption levels in an effort to spread thin resources around. In Food First, however, she and her co-author Joseph Collins examine the root causes of world hunger. Their conclusions are both startling and persuasive.

Lappe and Collins start by observing that the world can already produce enough food to keep everyone from starving. Even during the "food crisis" of the '70s, they point out, more than two pounds of grain are grown daily for every person on earth, and two pounds contain more food energy than the 3000 calories per person that most Americans consume now. This estimate does not include the simultaneous production of other staples--beans, cassava, potatoes, range-fed meat, fruits and vegetables. "Thus," they write, "on a global scale the idea that there is not enough food to go around just does not hold up."

Once you accept this fact, and the fact that much of the globe's arable land is underutilized, the problem of hunger takes on new dimensions. If Mali produced enough peanuts to export them during the 1974 drought in the Sahel, why were peasants there starving? If it is possible to increase productivity on Bangladesh acreage by a factor of 15, why is the country so often described as a basket case whose people are doomed?

Lappe and Collins use these questions as the basis of further exploration. Using a question-and-answer format that is generally successful, they argue that the real source of world hunger is the social framework in which it occurs. "Once the livelihood of millions of self-provisioning farmers," they write, "agriculture is becoming the profit base of influential commercial entrepeneurs--traditional landed elites, city-based agricultural speculators, and foreign corporations." Studies show that large landholders who use traditional labor-intensive techniques tend to be much less efficient than their smaller counterparts, who draw as much as possible out of the soil. Large landowners who mechanize their holdings force peasants off the land, creating a new army of unemployed on the edges of cities. Agricultural speculators buy up the land of small farmers to plant crops they think will receive high prices the next season; when there is a glut, they stop planting. Only changes in the land tenure system, the authors argue, will feed the hungry.

But Lappe and Collins reserve most of their venom for foreign corporations who own land in the Third World, and gear their production to high-income consumers overseas. These corporations, a spreading phenomenon, concentrate on growing luxury foodstuffs for the consumers of the western world rather than on feeding the poor peasants who live next to the plantations. Examples of the effects of such profit-maximizing morality abound, and Lappe and Collins use them unsparingly in their effort to persuade their readers. In Mexico, land that once grew corn for peasants' diets is now used for strawberries and flowers for the U.S. while the people there starve. In Senegal, California-based Bud Antle grows vegetables for the European market; in 1974, when there was a glut in Europe, the company destroyed an entire crop of green beans, because the Senegalese peasants are not familiar with the vegetable and don't eat it--and because they could not afford Bud Antle's prices. Despite huge increases in the per capita production of beef in Central America in recent years, per capita consumption of meat has declined as more and more resources are drawn into production for export.

THE GOVERNMENTS of the Third World often cooperate whole-heartedly with multinational corporations' efforts to transform their countries' agricultural production: a booming export trade, even if it forces peasants off land that has fed them for centuries, means more well-paid jobs for the educated elite, and increased foreign exchange with which to import luxury goods. Senegal provided all the initial capital for Bud Antle's operation there, and removed villagers from land the company wanted for its plantations. The Brazilian government is clearing the Amazon rain forest to make way for American-owned companies who hope to grow beef, a luxury among foods, when it could give the land to the Brazilian landless as farms. The Shah of Iran spent millions of dollars on irrigation projects in the late '60s--systems that water the farms of multinationals, not Iranians. In case after case, the elites of the Third World enthusiastically open their doors to foreign investment, ignoring the effects on their countries' poor in their desire to increase the availability of foreign-made televisions, which only the members of the elite can afford.

This policy of inviting multinationals to invest is precisely the one advocated by western experts at the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the western-controlled International Monetary Fund. Aid to underdeveloped countries is often tied to policy recommendations, so that if Third World governments want to borrow capital for development, they must give multinational corporations free rein.

Even sadder, perhaps, than the behavior of Third World elites is the extent to which multinational corporations use advertising to change the consumption habits of the Third World's poor. All over the world, people spend hard-earned money on non-nutritious imported foods, substituting them for traditional foodstuffs. Nestle's persuades people to buy its milk instead of relying on mothers' milk. Ritz sells crackers, not bread. Imported goods become status symbols and diets change, rarely for the better. In Zambia, Lappe and Collins report, doctors frequently write "Coca-Cola baby" on the progress reports of infants hospitalized for malnutrition; Zambian mothers, assuming Coke must be good for children because it is so expensive, feed it to their babies instead of milk. The picture the authors paint of the human toll of profit-maximizing techniques is not a pretty one.

ONCE THE PROBLEM OF HUNGER is presented as the result of social structure rather than of simple resource shortages, it becomes possible to find solutions. Social structures, unlike land areas, are man-made and malleable. Lappe and Collins recommend that Third World countries adopt a "food first" policy, that the people of the Third World concentrate on producing food for the hungry within their borders rather than on exporting luxuries to western markets. Such a policy might not supply televisions and Paris-designed clothes to the wealthy, but it would feed people whose children now suffer permanent brain damage through early malnutrition.

Such a policy, however, is going to confront a number of obstacles. The multinationals are not likely to give up their profits without a fight, and the tiny elites who benefit from the export trade will not readily relinquish their positions. Lappe and Collins do not discuss in detail the problems faced by a country trying to make radical changes in its social structure, but they probably don't need to. The examples of countries like Chile, where efforts to institute socialism were brutally destroyed, make the forces arrayed against social change painfully evident.

But there are examples of Third World countries that have succeeded in feeding their people. Lappe and Collins point to China, a country where once famines were frequent. Now a more equitable social structure in the countryside has allowed peasants to increase productivity several times over. Better education for peasants has improved agricultural techniques; cooperative ventures have multiplied the number of irrigation networks; the elimination of large farms with owners who let their fields lie fallow to produce artificial shortages, has meant that natural disasters no longer mean starvation for millions. Now, the country feeds everyone who lives--which cannot be said of any Third World country trying to develop on a capitalist model.

All change cannot come from the Third World, however. At the end of Food First. Lappe and Collins list a series of steps Americans can take to affect the global situation: reordering aid programs to promote the redistribution of land, ending federal subsidies to farmers who don't plant, and so on. But they make it clear that real hope will only come when the entire structure of world agriculture changes, so that farmers work to increase food, not profits. In the end, the authors suggest, it is not justice that we must fight for, but life itself.

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