During this season of goodwill, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or FAO, reminds us that not everyone will be eating well over the holidays. Its report on world hunger provides some dyspeptic reading.
More than 840 million people worldwide will be going hungry this holiday season, and the report notes that "bluntly stated, the problem is not so much a lack of food as a lack of political will." "Political will" is a fairly murky term, though.
There is no shortage of political will when it comes to agriculture, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere. Large agricultural corporations have been buying political will in Washington for decades. The majority of the 2002 farm bill's $180-billion appropriation is earmarked for corporations and wealthy landowners, in defiance of economic or good sense.
As a direct result, family farms have gone bankrupt, farming communities have been devastated and poverty is eviscerating rural America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in November that 34.9 million citizens were hungry in 2002, 1.3 million more than the previous year. The rate of rural poverty is about one-third higher than urban poverty and since 2001 has been climbing. This at a time of an abundance of food and sufficient subsidies to bankroll agricultural corporations into the next decade.
When the FAO talks of political will, it refers directly to a social commitment to ensure that the poorest people in society are able to eat. But it is a commitment that has eroded. This hurts rural communities most, not just in this nation but worldwide. In every country, the poorest people are those who live and work in agricultural communities. Policy that affects farming is necessarily policy that affects poverty.
So what sort of policy have we chosen? The world has been dragged toward an export model of agriculture — an industrial system in which crops are grown with machines and chemicals, without regard to the health of the soil, the farmers who grow it or the rural communities that support them. And, because U.S. industrial farm policy has been imposed in the developing world through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, rural America's malaise has spread worldwide.
Countries that have seen the most serious increases in hunger, such as India and those in Central America and the Near East, are those places that have shifted most rigorously to export agriculture.
Export agricultural corporations have offered a solution to this increased hunger: genetically modified crops. Worldwide, but particularly in Europe, this has been the subject of intensely acrimonious debate. Lord May, president of the Royal Society, which is the British academy of sciences, recently got right to the heart of the controversy: "The most pressing question arising from [genetically modified crop trials] is not whether GM plants are better or worse for the environment than conventional crops, but instead what type of modern agriculture we want."
This question applies equally to the push toward industrialized agriculture in all its forms, aided by global trade treaties and abetted by massive agriculture subsidies from the richest nations.
Farm policy is food policy is poverty policy. At the moment, these decisions are being made by governments in our name, but rarely in our best interests. If we are to take the problem of world hunger and poverty seriously, then we need to take our farm and rural policy seriously.
Just as the evidence points to a failure of the agricultural export model, it points to alternative models that feed the hungry. All we need is the political will to implement them.
Raj Patel is a policy analyst at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, based in Oakland.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times