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Avoidable Hunger

More than biofuels or population growth it is rich countries' agricultural subsidies that are causing food shortages in the developing world

Conor Foley

OK, I want to talk about Ireland Specifically I want to talk about the "famine" About the fact that there never really was one There was no "famine" See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes All of the other food Meat, fish, vegetables Were shipped out of the country under armed guard To England while the Irish people starved

Sinead O'Connor, "Famine", from the Universal Mother album.

Since the publication of Susan George's book How the Other Half Dies and Amartya Sen's Poverty and Famines it has been widely accepted that hunger is caused not by an absolute lack of food, but the inequities of its distribution. Sen's widely quoted claim that famines don't occur in democracies was based on his own experiences of the Bengal famine of 1943 in British ruled-India. It could also have applied to my own family's stories from Ireland almost a century earlier.

Around 2.5 million people died or emigrated during the Great Hunger while food in abundance continued to be exported from Ireland. The famine entered folk memory as symbolising the cruelty and ineptness of English rule. It became a rallying point for future generations of physical force separatists and created a diaspora, particularly in America, who were prepared to support them, with money and guns.

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar at the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) regional headquarters in Bangkok. A number of heads of mission from the Asian regional programmes were there and all had similar stories to tell about the devastating effects that the current worldwide rise in food prices is causing.

WFP in Afghanistan has already started an emergency distribution programme for 2.5 million people. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 300 million people are at risk in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Everyone that I spoke to said it was the worst crisis that any of them have ever seen. Food riots have already forced the resignation of Haiti's prime minister and led to severe clashes in Bangladesh and Egypt. An Afghan friend told me that the price hike has effectively wiped out the entire value of the western aid that the country has received over the last few years.

The most immediate cause of the price rise has been the sudden decision by many farmers to switch production to growing cereals which can be converted to biofuels, prompted by new western laws and subsidies. As the World Bank points out, the grain required to fill the tank of a sports utility vehicle with ethanol could feed one person in a poor country for a year. It is not hard to imagine how that is going to be perceived by much of the world's population; just amend the words to Sinead O'Connor's song.

George Bush has defended his policy of biofuel subsidies as being necessary to safeguard future US energy supplies and this policy could turn out to be even more damaging to his global standing than the invasion of Iraq.


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But, as George Monbiot points out, biofuels are only part of the picture. Last year there was a record grain harvest of over 2bn tonnes. The production of biofuels consumed 100m tonnes of this, while almost 800m went to feed livestock for meat production. Monbiot links this to rising population numbers and goes on to suggest that we should all become vegan, or at least dramatically cut down on eating meat to "sustainable levels" that our planet can support.

However, this rather misses the point of the current debate. As Monbiot himself notes, levels of meat consumption have barely changed in Britain over the last few decades but they are booming in Asia and Latin America. This is not primarily because of rising population levels, but because of income growth. More people are eating meat because they can afford it - and because it tastes nicer. A recent survey showed that 23 million people had joined the ranks of the Brazilian middle class in the last two years alone, and a similar story can be told about India and China. Increases in income levels do lead to increased consumption, but they also tend to lead to lower birth rates, over time, and so the embourgeoisement of part of the planet contains some self-stabilising mechanisms.

The current food price hike also reverses a 30-year trend of falling prices, which has had a devastating impact on the lives of small farmers. Most of the world's poor live in rural areas and so a gradual increase in prices is actually good news for them. In the longer term it could make it economic to bring more land under cultivation and provide a boost in exports for some poor countries. Africa currently has less commercial agriculture than it did 50 years ago and, as everyone who has ever visited the continent knows, there is a huge amount of fertile land that is currently lying fallow.

Agriculture is one of the few economic sectors where developing countries could compete with the rich world on equal terms, but tariffs and subsidy regimes have blocked their exports. Rich countries currently spend about 10 times more subsidising their own farmers than they give to the poorest countries in aid, and the average EU cow receives more financial support than half the world's population has to live on. Some of this aid actually consists of food surpluses that are shipped across the world at great expense and then dumped on poor countries, where they price local farmers out of the market. The root cause of the current instability of the world's food markets is directly related to the long-term distorting effect these subsidies have created.

This is not to deny that the rise in the world's population has serious long-term consequences, but addressing the problem in the short and medium term will require different measures. Oxfam's Barbara Stocking has already called for urgent help both to tide over those most badly affected by the price hikes and to boost investment in small-scale agriculture and infrastructure improvements in poor countries. The Economist agrees and points out that helping small-scale farmers to increase production would be more economically efficient, due to the law of diminishing returns, as well as socially just and environmentally-friendly. It is rare for there to be such a consensus on what needs to be done.

Tackling the vested interests of agribusiness, interests that have created the rich world's crazy system of subsidies and tariffs, will, however, be a huge task and is sometimes compared to the 19th century movement to repeal the Corn Laws.

It was the devastating fallout from the Irish famine that finally convinced the British government of the necessity of this measure. Perhaps the current food crisis will have a similar impact. Finally, the Bush administration might also like to consider the cost-benefit ratio of its biofuels programme a little more carefully and reflect on the role of the Irish and Indian famines on the ultimate downfall of the British empire.

Conor Foley is a humanitarian aid worker. He has worked for a variety of human rights and humanitarian aid organizations, including Liberty, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He currently lives and works in Brazil, and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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