Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book Review: Food Rebellions!

The basis for this book was one of the most amazing speeches I've ever heard. You know the type I mean - presentations like Al Gore's powerpoint on global warming that became An Inconvenient Truth. The speaker may have nothing more than a microphone and perhaps a Powerpoint, but the audience is transformed. Suddenly, an idea that the audience did not understand (and perhaps did not even know they were interested in) becomes so clear that everyone in the room feels like they can see it, hear it, and touch it. In this case, that speech was given by Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First in October 2008 and it was about the global food crisis. I guess I was not the only person who was so deeply touched because Holt-Gimenez went on to turn the speech into an entire book with co-author Raj Patel and help from Annie Shattuck. The full title is Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice.

That said, the book is quite academic, and reading it does not compare to the transformative experience of hearing the authors speak. (Patel and Holt-Gimenez can go head to head in a public speaking contest any day and I really don't know who would win. Both are amazing.) But the book does provide all of the facts underlying the amazing speech in a logical and readable format.

The beginning of the speech that turned into the book got my attention for two reasons. First of all, Holt-Gimenez promised to first discuss the proximate causes of world hunger and then discuss the root causes of world hunger. He identified the proximate causes as the ones we hear about in the media, and said that the root causes are not discussed in the media - and yet we can't solve the problem without addressing them. As I listened, I thought I had a pretty good idea why the world had a problem with hunger. But the problems that I would have called "root causes" all made Holt-Gimenez's list of proximate causes. THAT got my attention. I was dying to know what the real root causes could be, if every single one I would have named was not on the list?

The second thing that got my attention was a specific slide showing that per capita food production and hunger both increased at the same time in the past several decades. How could that be? Hunger, said Holt-Gimenez, does not come from scarcity. It comes from overproduction.

In 2008, we had record corn production. We also had record profits for Monsanto, Cargill, and ADM. And we had record hunger. The proximate causes include poor weather, high oil prices, low grain reserves, agrofuels, rising meat consumption, speculation, and depreciation of the U.S. dollar.

So what are the root causes? One is the global food system in which most cropland is devoted to just a few crops (and just a few varieties of those crops). That makes it easy for very few companies to exert a LOT of control on the entire food system worldwide. It also makes our food system vulnerable to economic and environmental shock.

The Green Revolution put the control of seeds and farmers' inputs into the hands of developed world companies. This transformed the production system of the Global South and it favored the larger farmers who could afford the inputs and who had the land and the irrigation to make the seeds work. Other impacts include loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, and salinization, and with those effects, yields began to go down.

Initially, the Green Revolution resulted in a decrease in hunger on average, but in a very unequal way around the world. Ultimately, resources were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and farmers were pushed off the land and they went hungry. In some cases, as soil was depleted, farmers cut down rainforests to use the fertility of the forest. On paper, yields went up - but not because of the Green Revolution.

Next, Holt-Gimenez began to describe the Structural Adjustment Policies of the World Bank. In some cases, the SAP rules were written into treaties. All of this deregulated the Global South in favor of Northern exports. Yet in the U.S. and the E.U., farmers still receive subsidies. Here in the U.S. politicians talk about the safety net for our farmers, but farmers in the Global South do not have that safety net because treaties forbid it.

Another root cause given by Holt-Gimenez is food aid. He called this "a tough one to swallow" because we want to help people. He noted that it's now (as of 2008) at its lowest level since 1961. That's because it's based on the price of grain. When the price of grain is high, we don't want to give it away. We want to sell it. When the price of grain is low, you can't sell the grain so you give it away. And we don't just give it away, we put conditions on it (like you have to accept GMOs). This free food gets dumped on local markets, where farmers cannot compete against free food, so it undermines those farmers. Also, food aid is a business for companies that transport the grain. That requires purchasing food grown here to send it overseas. Politicians who suggest sending money for countries to buy food locally get opposition from the companies that make money on food aid.

What all of this has done is made the South dependent for food on the North. It's also pushed farmers off the land in other countries. And it moves us towards monopolies in each agricultural industry. And, in the face of this most recent spike in world hunger, those companies are making record profits - not helping ensure that all people have access to food. This is not just in other countries but here too, where we've had record highs of people using food stamps. Food banks report less food available, more expensive food, and longer lines waiting to get food.

Next, Holt-Gimenez brought up what happened back in the early 1970's, when we dismantled the farm bill policies that managed supply and instead told farmers to grow as much as possible. U.S. farmers were told that they would feed the world (as they are still told today). But the problem was never that the world needed food. The poor people of the world needed money. Once we grew more food, they still didn't have money and they couldn't buy it. So we had a bust, resulting in many U.S. farmers losing their farms and more consolidation among U.S. farmers. And that, says Holt-Gimenez, is when farmers get feedlots. Because they've got all of this corn sitting around and somebody's got to eat it.

Our next genius move was entering the WTO. The WTO says we can't have subsidies, so we got rid of our subsidies to be WTO compliant. We also removed our price floors and abandoned our grain reserves. Then when we had a crash in the late 1990's (following the Asian financial crisis), we gave our farmers "emergency payments" (since we can't call them subsidies). That was WTO compliant.

So that brings us up to 2008 and the 2008 farm bill. We had some victories but the basic structure of the farm bill remained unchanged... plus a few million in new money for agrofuels. Holt-Gimenez makes a brilliant point about the stupidity of agrofuels, that the idea of solving global warming and peak oil with agrofuels tells people that we can consume our way out of overconsumption. At some point, he says, we're just going to have to consume less fuel.

Then he told a sad but illustrative story about his godson, who is Mexican. His godson's father worked on an organic farm that was beautiful and productive, but the price of food was so low that his son (Holt-Gimenez's godson) had to come to the U.S. to work as a farmworker. He was poisoned by pesticides and he could not afford the same healthy food his family grew on the farm in Mexico. Instead he went to Wal-Mart and bought processed food. He saved every penny he could and sent it back to Mexico, where his family could also only afford to shop at Wal-Mart. And in this way, Holt-Gimenez says, our global food system has not only changed the way we produce our food but also our diets.

Holt-Gimenez says the solution is to reduce vulnerability to economic volatility. We do this by taking back the food system in our own communities. We also need to do this in big ways, by re-establishing our grain reserves, taking agriculture out of the WTO, renegotiating trade agreements to make them more fair. We need to halt agrofuel expansion, re-regulate the financial sector, supporting smallholder farmers, and agroecological farming.

This summary of Holt-Gimenez's speech is also a rough outline of the book. If you want all of the details behind what he said, check out the book. However, be warned that the speech was a rousing call to action and the book is an academic text. But as you read through the dizzying amount of facts thrown at you in the book, you'll get very angry at the state of the global food system and very motivated to change it.

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