October 23, 2017

An alternative world food policy

Development is the principal agent of hunger, argues Edward Goldsmith. He puts forward the case for a totally different kind of agricultural policy

From International Agricultural Development, May 1985


The basic thesis underlying world food policy is that hunger is the consequence of poverty. People starve because they are poor. Make them rich, via economic development, and they will eat.

This thesis is a convenient one. It interprets the problem of world hunger in a way that helps us to apply solutions that call for the maximum sale of hardware, and satisfy our short-term economic and political requirements. This thesis is consistent with modernism which sees the world as imperfect, natural man as poor, miserable and half-starved, but sees modern man with his infinite ingenuity, and his access to omnipotent science and technology, as being capable of creating a man-made paradise from which all his problems will have been eliminated—a process referred to as “development” or “progress”.

Though hardly even questioned today, this thesis is but an act of faith—wishful thinking on a truly heroic scale. Reality is very different.

To begin with, development requires foreign exchange which non-oil producing third World countries can only earn by resorting to expedients which, by their very nature, must necessarily lead to a reduction rather than to an increase in local food supplies.

The first such expedient is to cut down forests, so as to export the timber, and also to make way for ranches and plantations geared to the export trade.

As is well documented, deforestation in the tropics, where most Third World countries are situated, transforms rivers into torrents, dries up streams and springs, [and] increases run-off to rivers by anything upto twenty times during the rainy season, causing floods on the plains below. It also gives rise to erosion, indeed often veritable avalanches from denuded slopes, raising the beds of rivers, which further contributes to the flood problem. Soil is deprived of shelter from wind and rain, and further erosion and desertification results—and a corresponding reduction in food production.

The second expedient is to convert traditional subsistence agriculture to modern export-oriented agriculture. In [many] Third World countries, the bulk of [the] agricultural land is now used for producing crops for export, dramatically reducing the amount of food available to the local population. This also means that peasant farmers are forced on to the marginal land which is often unfit for cultivation and which is thereby also condemned to rapid erosion and desertification.

In addition, modern agriculture is extremely destructive environmentally. It involves creating vast stretches of monoculture in a landscape deprived of woods and hedgerows, abandoning traditional systems of rotation and growing instead the same crops year after year, and when possible, several times a year. All this can only lead to a reduction in the soil’s organic content and to its systematic demineralisation and erosion. This is particularly so in the tropics where the soil has a low organic content in the first place and where torrential rains are often concentrated in a very short period of the year.

This explains the present rapid degradation of the world’s agricultural land, much of which has now become semi-desertified; it is unquestionably this degradation that is one of the main causes of world hunger today.

Feeding the hungry

Development cannot provide a means of feeding the world’s hungry. How can it if the expedients which alone can earn the foreign exchange required to finance it, must inevitably deprive people of their forests, their land, their water and hence their food? Development must on the contrary be regarded today as the principal agent of world hunger.

At the Second International Conference on the Environmental Future, held in Reykavik in 1977, the one hundred and twenty participants who included scholars of considerable eminence in relevant fields of knowledge, declared that the death by starvation of one thousand million people could be the ultimate tragedy of our century. Today, in the light of the worsening food situation in Ethiopia, the Sudan, Mozambique, and other countries bordering the Sahara Desert, and with the growing realization that such conditions could well develop throughout South Asia as well, this statement does not appear unduly pessimistic.

What would thus seem urgently required is a totally new World Agricultural Policy, one designed to benefit the bulk of the world population, not just the politicians, the international agencies and the agrochemical industry. What should be the main feature of such a policy?

The first is that food must no longer be grown for export. It must be eaten locally. In other words, export-oriented agriculture must be systematically replaced, wherever it has been set up, by subsistence agriculture.

The second is that capital-intensive modern agriculture must be abandoned. Its destructive impact on the land is no longer tolerable—and it is of no use whatsoever to subsistence agriculturalists who cannot conceivably afford it.

What do we substitute for it? The answer can only be something approaching traditional agriculture which was developed over many centuries as the most perfect means, in specific social and environmental conditions, of feeding people, without degrading their environment.

The main problem is that the adoption of a World Food Policy designed to feed people rather than foster economic development (by methods that must: inevitably cause them to starve) is politically and economically unacceptable.

Does this mean that a billion people will have to be sacrificed on the alter of political and economic expediency? The answer is probably yes, unless, of course, the world politico-economic system breaks down in time—which it could well do.

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