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The Nation

The World Food Crisis

by
John Nichols

The only surprising thing about the global food crisis to Jim Goodman is the notion that anyone finds it surprising. "So," says the Wisconsin dairy farmer, "they finally figured out, after all these years of pushing globalization and genetically modified [GM] seeds, that instead of feeding the world we've created a food system that leaves more people hungry. If they'd listened to farmers instead of corporations, they would've known this was going to happen." Goodman has traveled the world to speak, organize and rally with groups such as La Via Campesina, the global movement of peasant and farm organizations that has been warning for years that "solutions" promoted by agribusiness conglomerates were designed to maximize corporate profits, not help farmers or feed people. The food shortages, suddenly front-page news, are not new. Hundreds of millions of people were starving and malnourished last year; the only change is that as the scope of the crisis has grown, it has become more difficult to "manage" the hunger that a failed food system accepts rather than feeds.

The current global food system, which was designed by US-based agribusiness conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto and ADM and forced into place by the US government and its allies at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, has planted the seeds of disaster by pressuring farmers here and abroad to produce cash crops for export and alternative fuels rather than grow healthy food for local consumption and regional stability. The only smart short-term response is to throw money at the problem. George W. Bush's release of $200 million in emergency aid to the UN's World Food Program was appropriate, but Washington must do more. Rising food prices may not be causing riots in the United States, but food banks here are struggling to meet demand as joblessness grows. Congress should answer Senator Sherrod Brown's call to allocate $100 million more to domestic food programs and make sure, as Representative Jim McGovern urges, that an overdue farm bill expands programs for getting fresh food from local farms to local consumers.

Beyond humanitarian responses, the cure for what ails the global food system -- and an unsteady US farm economy -- is not more of the same globalization and genetic gimmickry. That way has left thirty-seven nations with food crises while global grain giant Cargill harvests an 86 percent rise in profits and Monsanto reaps record sales from its herbicides and seeds. For years, corporations have promised farmers that problems would be solved by trade deals and technology -- especially GM seeds, which University of Kansas research now suggests reduce food production and the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development says won't end global hunger. The "market," at least as defined by agribusiness, isn't working. We "have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror," says Jean Ziegler, the UN's right-to-food advocate. But try telling that to the Bush Administration or to World Bank president (and former White House trade rep) Robert Zoellick, who's busy exploiting tragedy to promote trade liberalization. "If ever there is a time to cut distorting agricultural subsidies and open markets for food imports, it must be now," says Zoellick. "Wait a second," replies Dani Rodrik, a Harvard political economist who tracks trade policy. "Wouldn't the removal of these distorting policies raise world prices in agriculture even further?" Yes. World Bank studies confirm that wheat and rice prices will rise if Zoellick gets his way.

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Instead of listening to the White House or the World Bank, Congress should recognize -- as a handful of visionary members like Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur have -- that current trends confirm the wisdom of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's call for "an urgent rethink of the respective roles of markets and governments." That's far more useful than blaming Midwestern farmers for embracing inflated promises about the potential of ethanol -- although we should re-examine whether aggressive US support for biofuels is not only distorting corn prices but harming livestock and dairy producers who can barely afford feed and fertilizer. Instead of telling farmers they're wrong to seek the best prices for their crops, Congress should make sure that farmers can count on good prices for growing the food Americans need. It can do this by providing a strong safety net to survive weather and market disasters and a strategic grain reserve similar to the strategic petroleum reserve to guard against food-price inflation.

Congress should also embrace trade and development policies that help developing countries regulate markets with an eye to feeding the hungry rather than feeding corporate profits. This principle, known as "food sovereignty," sees struggling farmers and hungry people and says, as the Oakland Institute's Anuradha Mittal observes, that it is time to "stop worshiping the golden calf of the so-called free market and embrace, instead, the principle [that] every country and every people have a right to food that is affordable." As Mittal says, "When the market deprives them of this, it is the market that has to give."

John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.

© 2008 The Nation

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