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Global hunger a 'crisis in democracy'
February 01, 2009
So here's the question: With the world producing ever increasing quantities of food, why does the number of people going hungry just keep rising?

Frances Moore Lappe gave the world a wake-up call on that very question 40 years ago when she wrote her seminal book, Diet for a Small Planet.

Lappe dared to dispute the prevailing wisdom of the 1970s "green revolution" -- that producing more food, with pesticides, fertilizer and large-scale, corporate farming -- would solve the world's hunger problems. And so far, it hasn't.

Food scarcity is not the problem, never has been. Food production has generally gone up faster than population growth, so there's enough food to go around, says Lappe. (In 2008, for instance, world grain production went up five per cent while population growth was up 1.2 per cent.)

The problem is how the world uses food, who controls the supply and the growing concentration of corporate power in global agribusiness, she argues.

"Things have gotten both worse and better since the 1970s," says Lappe in an interview from the Small Planet Institute, an independent think-tank on democracy and food issues she runs in Cambridge, Mass.

"We're still making hunger out of plenty," says Lappe, who will speak Monday in Edmonton at International Week at the University of Alberta, says.

The number of hungry rose again last year. In December, the UN reported 963 million undernourished people, about 40 million more than in 2007. That's a huge jump, due mostly to rising food prices in the last two years and partly to food crops like corn diverted to ethanol production.

In 1971, Lappe pointed out that the world's grain crop, rather than feeding people, was increasingly being fed to cattle for meat for richer countries. Since then the trend to feed protein to animals has become much worse. In addition to a third of the world's grain, most soya meal goes to cattle; one-third of the ocean's fish stock is now animal feed; and a quarter of U.S. corn goes into feed for automobiles.

And there's even more corporate concentration.

"When I started out, there were hundreds of seed companies," says Lappe. "Now five or six control half the world market, and in GM (genetically modified) crops, there's only one, Monsanto."

Recently, she noted, another worrisome trend has emerged -- multinational corporations buying up large swaths of land in poorer countries in order to control crop production.

"We are moving (in poor countries and in the U.S) to more colonial landholding patterns characterized by a few land holders and many powerless workers," she says.

"These large holdings could in fact grow a lot of food but if those doing the work have no power, they will not benefit, no matter how much is grown."

Therein lies the rub. The food crisis is really a crisis of democracy, says Lappe. As the gap between rich and poor grows with industrial farming, so do the "disparities in decision-making power that are at the root of hunger," she says.

Even in democratic societies like the U.S., people lack the power to influence food policies that are mostly designed to serve big corporations and agribusiness, not the food consumer.

On a global scale, many people and countries are too poor to influence the market. They don't have the cash to send the market a signal about what they need to buy, she says.

Lappe, however, is encouraged by the growing response from consumers and farmers in the quest for healthy food -- the 100-mile-diet movement based on buying local food, the growth of organic food and support for local farmers markets.

The rise of the global citizenship movement is helping to mobilize people in poor countries where some farmers are rejecting the dependence of corporations and returning to traditional sustainable agriculture. In India, for instance, in the state of Andhar Pradesh, 2,000 villages returned to chemical-free, sustainable agriculture with crop rotation and biological solutions to pests, rather than expensive pesticides. That's after a rash of farmer suicides began in the 1990s. In 2007, India reported 16,600 farmer suicides for a total of 1.8 million since 1997.

Lappe also disputes the contention that without industrial, chemically intensive agriculture, the supply of food would shrink and we'd all starve.

A 2007 study from the University of Michigan found that moving globally to sustainable, organic faming methods could increase food supply by 57 per cent, she notes in a recent blog.

To get common sense back into food policy, people need to get re-engaged with government and exercise their democratic rights, she says.

It's easy to feel disengaged and powerless in a modern society that views "democracy as simply voting and shopping."

"So we have to shift our lens to talk about political power," says Lappe.

Corporations have grown so powerful that "what we have is essentially 'privately held govern- ments,' " says Lappe.

Consider that there are two lobbyists for every elected representative in Washington, she notes. The millions in corporate campaign donations have a big impact on who gets to run for office.

The free market is a wonderful thing, she says, but it is dysfunctional when it comes to food production, partly because it is dominated by fewer and fewer big players and provides little access to new or smaller players. "It's not really a free market."

It also follows just one rule: It must produce the highest return to the investor. That also has to change.

Under that rule, it makes sense to turn food-producing land into fields for raw products for automobile fuel and other goods demanded by rich nations. Poor people and poor nations can't spend enough on food to influence the market to grow for them.

The U.S. has to give up the belief that government is the problem. Government has a legitimate role to set rules for the market that benefit society.

Food companies now spend as much on advertising as car companies do and all the "price cues" sent by the market are for cheap, high-fat, fast foods.

"The choice we don't have is healthy, convenient food at reasonable prices," she says.

Consumers can fight back with "power shopping," reading labels and making choices.

"You take power into your own hands by using your shopping list," says Lappe, who buys all her vegetables at a farm that survives in a suburb of Boston.

But in the end, citizens need to get together and demand more of government.

"Only a government accountable to its citizens can keep the market competitive and open so all citizens can access it," she says.

She remains an optimist: "We did not evolve to be couch potatoes and whiners, we evolved to be problem solvers."


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