By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
In an interview on Democracy Now!, Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, raises the question why, when the planet is producing more than enough food to feed everyone, millions still face chronic hunger and starvation. The answer he gives points to fundamental structural flaws in the global food system.
On December 10, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme, the world’s premier humanitarian organization combating global hunger and food insecurity. In his acceptance speech, David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, said that he saw the Nobel Committee’s decision to grant the prize to the WFP as entailing “a call to action”—action to ensure that hunger is finally vanquished from the face of the earth. However, he warned, we are currently heading in the wrong direction. A combination of factors—multiple wars, climate change, the use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and the coronavirus pandemic—is pushing 270 million people ever closer to starvation. Thirty million of these, he said, are completely dependent on the WFP for their food.
He pointed out that the present may be “the most ironic moment in modern history,” a time when we find a grim chasm between the potential promise of the world’s wealth and the appalling fate that weighs upon a sizable portion of humanity. The world economy today has a value of $400 trillion, yet 270 million people hover on the brink of starvation, facing horrific illness and death. It would take only $5 billion to save the 30 million lives that utterly depend on the WFP, yet the agency struggles just to raise even this much, a tiny fraction of the world’s military spending.
While Beasley applauds the work of the WFP in saving lives, he does not find his job an easy one. He says: “I don’t go to bed at night thinking about the children we saved; I go to bed weeping over the children we could not save. And when we don’t have enough money nor the access we need, we have to decide which children eat and which children do not eat, which children live, which children die.”
In its report on the granting of the Nobel Peace Prize, the progressive news program Democracy Now! featured an interview with Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Early in the interview, Salvador raises the question why it is, when the planet is producing more than enough food to feed everyone, so many millions face chronic hunger and starvation. The answer, he states, lies in the rules governing the global food system. The global food system, as presently configured, allows those in positions of power and privilege to make major decisions that deprive others, less powerful, of the resources they need to eat and thrive. Thus if hundreds of millions of people go hungry year after year, this is not because we are short on food; rather, it is because too many lack the means either to purchase food or grow their own food.
Salvador points out that the modern food system is designed as a business model. This model is not intended to guarantee that everyone gets to eat, but to ensure that those who invest in the system receive the financial returns they expect on their investments. It is not only wealthy investors who benefit from the system but even middle-class folk in economically affluent countries. In the U.S. and other developed countries, almost any middle-class family can obtain from the shelves of their local supermarket virtually any food item grown anywhere on the planet. But in other enclaves far from our sight, hundreds of millions suffer the consequences of the pleasures we take for granted. When we consume even simple everyday items like coffee, tea, and chocolate, we seldom realize that we enjoy these things through the labor of people who have been deprived of the basic resources critical to a satisfactory standard of living. Those out of sight may be out of mind—for us—but we should remember the billions of ordinary folk around the world (and even in the U.S.) who face a harsh reality each day, all year round.
One of the most abhorrent features of the global food system, mentioned by Salvador, is land grabs. In a traditional agrarian economy, farmers own small plots of land on which they grow crops for their own use and to sell at the local market. This allows them to subsist, not in luxury, but with a sufficient degree of stability to weather the storms of daily life. However, in countries in Africa and Asia, desperate poverty and official government policy often compel subsistence farmers to sell their small plots of land to state enterprises or large multinational corporations. These then consolidate the plots into large estates devoted to specialized cash crops for sale to the global North. As a result, local populations lack the land to grow the essential crops they need for direct consumption and to earn an income. Rendered landless and penniless, they have no alternative but to toil as wage laborers barely able to get by from one day to the next, usually under degrading conditions. And those who don’t get to work lose their line to food.
Salvador cites Africa as an example of sheer economic pillage conducted under the guise of legitimacy. Though often depicted as a global basket case, the continent, he says, produces more than enough food to feed its entire population. However, what is occurring in many African countries is that “governments are making land lease deals with foreign companies or other nations, namely China, so that the production of Africa is literally appropriated to meet the needs of other countries that have the capital to compete for that land and for the production of that land against the interests of native Africans.”
Another form of food deprivation mentioned in the interview is the deliberate withholding of food as a weapon of war, a weapon that can be as lethal as bombs and bullets. The prime example he cites is Yemen, where a civil war is being conducted as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The conflict in Yemen is widely considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, precisely because of its impact on the civilian population. To subdue their rivals into submission, both sides in the conflict have imposed food blockades that have pushed millions to the edge of starvation. At times, as many as 8.4 million people have been at risk of starvation, with acute malnutrition threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children under the age of five.
Salvador does not make specific suggestions about the kinds of policy shifts that are needed to tackle hunger on a global scale, but his remarks suggest that a far-reaching overhaul of the international food system is mandatory. Whatever official policy changes are implemented must be guided by a moral imperative. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 25, adopts this moral stance, asserting that food is a fundamental human right. What we must do now, on a global scale, is take up the task of feeding the entire world population as a shared moral challenge, a challenge that must be met if we are to truly measure up to our humanity. People must always take priority over profits.
We can’t complain that we lack the funding to meet this demand. If we had the moral will, funds would not be an obstacle. After all, nations around the world—especially the major powers—invest hundreds of billions in their military forces and weapons of war. The U.S. itself has a defense budget of almost a trillion dollars. It would take only a tiny fraction of this to guarantee that everyone eats, that no one starves, that no child has to be reduced to a heap of skin and bones.
However, acts of humanitarian aid are not enough to redeem our humanity. People should be able to obtain the food they need in a way that affirms their inherent dignity. This means that they obtain their food through their own resources, not through charity. They would either grow their own food on land that they themselves possess or earn enough to live on a nutritious diet. To achieve this goal, the current dominant model of industrial agriculture, often cruel and destructive and blindly driven by the profit motive, needs to be gradually replaced by an alternative model, the most promising being that of agroecology. This is a model that gives precedence to the needs of small-scale farmers. Its output is at least equal to that of industrial-scale farms, yet it preserves the natural environment, centers the diet around vegetables and fruits rather than meat, and reduces the enormous carbon footprint generated by industrial agriculture. Whether we make the changes needed will mean, for many millions, the difference between a death sentence and reprieve.