I’ve just been watching a program with a bunch of talking heads discussing the topic of hunger very seriously and self-importantly. There was a talking head from Monsanto earnestly and quasi-hysterically insisting that Monsanto needs to be able to carpet the globe with their high-yield, patented, pesticide-and-fertilizer-intensive monoculture crops, “so we can feed the world”.
Monsanto wants to feed the world, really? I’m pretty sure Monsanto is a global mega-corporation that by legal definition only cares about providing the highest possible dividends to its shareholders.
Even if one takes at face value Monsanto’s assumption that their crops always produce higher yields than would otherwise be possible, underneath this lies an even more dubious assumption: that increasing the total amount of food produced would solve world hunger. As if Mr. Monsanto were standing on his field, chewing on a long piece of straw while watching the grain blow in the wind, saying: “Goddammit, if only we could increase the yields of this Roundup-ReadyTM wheat by another 17%, we’d have enough to feed the hungry refugees in Somalia!” No. There is already more than enough food in the world. We have trucks, container ships, and airplanes whizzing past each-other carrying every kind of produce imaginable. And the places with the most hungry people are often the places that produce the most food.
The very poor don’t have access to food for the same reasons that they don’t have access to new shoes, or cars, or iPods: they can’t afford it. Staple foods like wheat, rice and maize are commodities, and they are bought and sold, hedged and speculated on, like any other commodity.
I watched this program with these talking heads discussing hunger very seriously and earnestly, and it seemed like they were bending over backwards and tying themselves in knots to avoid talking about poverty and inequality. They talked about poor harvest, about stock market speculation, and about the need for modernization and development. They talked about the obscene amounts of food that are routinely thrown out in the wealthy nations. An expert talking head was brought in who said that the only solution was much tighter government regulation of the supermarkets. It was strongly implied (though never stated, probably because when you say something out loud you notice how silly it is) that if there was less food waste in the West, more food would be available to those who needed it most. As if Sainsbury’s was going to FedEx their skips full of extra packets of Soreen malt loaf and tubs of yogurt one day past the sell-by date to the farmers of Bangladesh who’d seen their farmlands eaten away by rising sea levels, or to the slums of Nairobi.
It isn’t possible to address hunger without addressing the global wealth divide. As long as a worker in London earns more in a week than a similar worker in Nairobi earns in a year, a packet of food will be worth more as waste at the bottom of a Sainsbury’s skip than on a poor family’s dinner table, and a farmer’s field will be more profitably used to grow grain for cows to produce beef for the West, than to produce sustenance crops for poor local people.
Einstein once said (I think it was Einstein, not sure, but anyway) that if you make one false assumption, you can prove anything, no matter how absurd. The wealth divide is the one false assumption from which endless absurdities spring; so the poorest and most hard-working people in the world cannot afford meat, but in the West people feed meat to their pets. Corn is more profitable when used to make high-fructose syrop for packaged food in the West, or fuel for cars, than when sold as a staple food. Another example of absurdity: recently there was a change in EU regulations such that waste from the slaughterhouse floor can no longer be mixed in to chicken feed. As a result the waste was instead sold cheaply in developing countries, undercutting local farmers and devastating the local economy.
The Earth is nearly maxed out in terms of agricultural productivity. Most of the decent land for farming is already being farmed, except the bits that have cities on them. Maybe with better technology and more efficient farming methods we could produce more food, but not all that much more. If you were a wide-eyed optimist, you might hope to see a factor-of-two increase over the next century. We can’t solve the ongoing hunger crisis by growing more food. However when you start looking it as a problem of rampant wealth inequality. suddenly there is room for order-of-magnitude improvements to be made.