"Finish your supper, Francie, children are dying in China," I heard growing up. It didn't make sense to me then, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's retake this week makes even less.
He's now scolding Brits for not eating every last pea on their plates: Britons all need to be "doing more to cut our food waste," in order to "get food prices down," said Brown, as the G8 meets in Japan.
True, food waste is enormous and egregious. Nearly half of food grown in the U.S. is wasted. But wagging a finger at better-off individual eaters in a world economy constructed to make both waste and hunger inevitable is totally off the mark. Brown reinforces the dangerous myth that a shortage of food is the reason food prices have jumped, resulting in 50 million more people hungry last year.
The Prime Minister should know better.
The official "price index" for foods that poor people eat the most -- grains and oils -- has climbed more than threefold so far this decade. This is a catastrophe, but there's no way that changes in eating habits of northerners could be the cause or cure of this radical jump. A recent leaked World Bank report says agrofuel production alone has caused food prices to rise 75 percent between 2002 and February of this year. I like the term "agrofuel," because it reminds us that we're talking about using agricultural resources, instead of "biofuel" that could be made from non-food materials. (It should be noted that The Wall Street Journal has posted a new piece in which Donald Mitchell, author of the draft of the "leaked report," says it was a work in progress and "doesn't reflect the official position of the World Bank.")
Today's hunger crisis results from anti-democratic power that chose to put agribusiness interests in agrofuel production ahead of citizens' interest in eating. It takes no PhD in economics to predict a big price impact from significant farmland diversion from food to fuel. The doubling of the real price of oil in two years, also driven by an industry unaccountable to democratic interests, plays a huge role as well.
More broadly, the world's avoidable, deepening power inequalities end up generating so many people too poor to exert market demand for basic foods that it then makes "economic sense" to turn land into producing raw materials for the better-off: Over a third of the world's grain and most soy meal goes to livestock and now a quarter to a third of U.S. corn goes to feed automobiles.
Brown suggests that households wasting less can mitigate the price crisis. But what if a shortage of food isn't the cause of this crisis?
Since the '60s and '70s when the War on Hunger was declared, right up to now: there's always been more than enough food to go around. Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that, compared to the prior year, preliminary 2007/2008 world grain production data show an increase of more than 5 percent; whereas the world's population is growing at about 1.2 percent a year.
Brown is blaming citizens' eating choices when citizens' primary responsibility for this crisis is that we have not yet stood up and made this madness stop. As I write in Diet for a Small Planet, eating a sane diet -- plant-centered, non-chemical, locally produced and in healthy quantity -- can be a fantastic step to send longer-term market signals to shift the economy to health. Not to mention a way to thrill our bodies by giving them what makes them thrive!
But let's not kid ourselves.
The reminder we citizens most need isn't Mr. Brown's admonishment; it is that we can reclaim our governments so they serve our interests. Think about it: No assemblage of regular citizens would have chosen to shift good land to feed cars when 18,000 children die of hunger every day, or allowed unchecked, unaccountable speculation to push the run up of prices.
Only as we create democracies beholden to citizens, instead of narrow but powerful special interests, can we put policies in place that will transform the world of hunger tearing at our hearts into the world of plenty that it actually is.
[Post-script to Prime Minister Brown: Eighteen courses?]