Starvation’s Just a By-Product of Capitalism

by Tony Chavira

Why We’re Gonna Run Out of Food in 40 Years

Consider the meal you ate yesterday and all of the political interplay it took to get it on your plate. Consider, even, why you ate that stuff instead of something else. It’s widely known among historians that the first pilgrims had deer at the first Thanksgiving dinner, but no one can prove they were eating turkey.

At some point, some foods were determined to be “traditional” while others weren’t. Stuffing and cranberry sauce won out over carne asada and sushi, and it wasn’t unintentional. After all, food (like many other things) is a global commodity traded on the international market. Wealthy and powerful investment forces treat that food, the same food you ate and may be eating now, like the financial asset it is. If the price goes up, they sell. If the price drops, they buy. The game is clearly rigged in favor of companies that have been able to receive subsidies, and you probably can already guess what foods those are in America without Googling them (corn, beef, pork, turkey, etc.). These foods do not play by the free market game. And because we pay for them in taxes and at the supermarket their prices are artificially inflated. They are then traded for more money than they’re worth on the international market and create a false base cost in poorer or rural areas. Worse, we have to find new and creative ways to utilize large stocks of them. Just consider, was there ever really a need for corn syrup when we had cane sugar? How much more often is steak marketed to you versus any vegetable?

It’s no surprise that developing countries have paid the biggest economic, political and environmental price for this imbalance. The agriculture industry makes up 70% of some nations’ GDPs in Africa and accounts for up to 75% of overall employment on the continent. And yet, 34% of the African population is severely malnourished. That’s an overlap of 9% (at least) who work on farms and still can’t feed their families. What’s worse, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has determined that much of Africa’s previously cultivated soil has degraded, and that sub-Saharan Africa’s per capita food production has decreased since the 1970s. How, then, do these impoverish people accommodate for a high demand for work locally and higher demand for food from the West? Easy: they slash and burn their natural forests to create new farm land. And it happens in South America as well.

rice farming in Sierra Leone
rice farming in Sierra Leone

Consider that, like any other commodity-based industries, there are really only a handful of players in the food industry, and they only play by one rule: make a profit. They own most of the land, control most of the distribution, hire most of the workers and set most of the prices. They lobby multiple governments, set international trade deals and organize legal affairs for whole countries to control the price at several steps of the value chain, and once the system has been set up it can be easily reinforced through dramatic legal action they know they can afford (while most people with complaints cannot). And these companies gloss over the injustices they’ve created by aggressively marketing to a primordial aspect of our identities: that we need to eat, and that we enjoy eating high-sodium, high-sugar foods. Nestle International has sweets. Tyson Foods and JBS have meats. Dupont and Monsanto, literally, have everything else. And they’re all sold for cheap at your local Wal-Mart.

But the current system will too soon become inefficient. In fact, a climate summit in Mexico last year determined that if we did not act soon, the world would face a catastrophic food shortage by 2050. And that includes all forms of food. Extreme temperatures, barren soil, drought and flooding will kill food produced on land, rising temperature levels and acidity will kill food from the sea. And we’ll have three billion more people to feed. Under the current system of food development, distribution and sales, they will simply starve.

And yet too many answers to this problem focus on finding ways to make the current system more efficient, rather than overhauling the system to benefit everyone. Some may argue that an increase in international trade can deflate and make better available the price of certain foods (which we already know is incorrect). Others may argue that increasing the amount of international trade will make the food market more competitive, regardless of how food is produced (so slash and burn everything if you have to). Some argue that commercializing agriculture and better factory farming can increase food output, and that old fashioned, inefficient peasant farming is what’s slowing down production. Some think that better science can increase output, and that we should look to bio and nanotechnology for the answers. Some even blame the world population growth itself for why we’re running out of food.

But exactly none of these reasons address the underlying problem: that the few control the food eaten by the many. They set the prices and if you can’t pay them, then you don’t eat. As three billion more people are born, so will three billion people be forced to fight for their God-given right to eat the food they grow. All of the above answers blame these people for being born, blame them for not producing enough, blame them for not being able to afford food and blame them for not looking toward expensive technologies to address their starvation. All of these answers blame them, and will ultimately punish them, for not playing by the rules of a rigged system. If you don’t play by the rules this system created, you will not eat. And you will die.

And though the system will have lost a hard worker, it will be comfortable having one less mouth to feed.

Professor Julian Cribb, a science writer in Australia, does not accept this as the answer, and his book, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, set up an outline for how to fight this emergency situation. It’s straightforward and the answers are clear:

And we can start by eating less meat, since food that goes toward fattening up animals could (instead) go to feeding us.

But eat less meat? Use less water, fertilizer and chemicals? Cut out fossil fuels entirely? All that change to the system is expensive, and I’m sure you already see the backlash the food industry will have against every one of these steps. I’m also sure you can already visualize the public relations campaign they are constructing to keep everything status quo.

But Oxfam has, recently, shifted much of its research to exposing the construction and inequality in this system, and released a study titled Growing a Better Future, in which they outline the injustice of this system in no uncertain terms. Their key finding: that power, above all other things, determines who gets to eat and who does not. Not what you can afford. Not what’s able to be grown. Not environmental laws, national laws, or international laws. Not even the limits of the environment (yet). Only crushing, unadulterated power.

Think back to everything you ate last night and wonder where it was grown, how it was made, who profited from it and what they do with those profits. You cannot let yourself be a victim of a system looking to exploit you, and not-caring today will lead to starvation tomorrow. Such is the fate of those who will not scream truth to power.

And remember, Democrats and Republicans are both right: you vote for change at the ballot on elections and for change every day with your dollar. Find out where your food comes from and try to only eat what you know was made sustainably. You’ll appreciate the sustainable choice when you’re having a nice, big Thanksgiving dinner in 2050.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


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