THE POLITICS OF FOOD
While half a billion people live on the edge of starvation, Canadians munch 3,180 calories a day
I am walking along a street in Bucharest, feeling at ease, feeling well-fed. It’s a warm evening and the president of Romania has shaken my hand and the party faithful have loaded the board with as much food as we can eat, as much Balkan liquor as we can drink. I watch the slim waists and the sinuous sway of the Romanian women and I feel splendid. Nothing can disturb me: I even feel like saluting the police as they roar by, the dim lamplight glinting off the machine guns mounted on their jeep. And then, my steps slow. I remember another dinner guest joking as we slice off a hunk of spiced sausage that the rest of Romania is having a meat shortage to supply the groaning board tonight. I start to think about the events of the past 24 hours; inevitably I start to draw comparisons.
I remember René Dumont, chief agronomist to the government of France, rising in the conference hall a few hours ago, addressing delegates from more than 100 nations gathered to design a world plan of action to cope with the globe’s population crisis. “This conference will be historic,” Dumont began — and you could sense a momentary preening among the gathered experts. “It will be historic because it will be the last international gathering held before the Great Famine and because it did precisely nothing about it.”
Well, not nothing, Dumont, that’s unfair. Back in Canada last summer, even while you spoke, 28 million eggs were completing the rotting process, turning into a fetid, inedible mess. Those millions of eggs, that two-billion calorie blunder, are my nation’s most recent contribution to the notion that food is not for eating, food is for buying and selling. You can’t call that nothing.
Suddenly, I don’t feel so jaunty; suddenly my digesting dinner has become a lump of lead; I turn and head back to the hotel.
A couple of months later I am sitting at home, in front of the television set, where flickering images convey the fla-
"SOME COUNTRIES WOULD RATHER FEED THEIR GRAINS TO PIGS THAN TO PEOPLE."
UN FOOD ADVISER.
vor of the World Food Conference, attended by many of the same experts who did nothing at Bucharest. Now they are doing nothing at Rome; here the camera shows them trooping out to dinner; here a delegate, oozing unctuous gravity, explains that these things take time; here a commentator reminds us that the exercise must not be considered futile, not entirely futile, because after all, some mighty important resolutions have been debated. Again, I am bemused by a parallel; while these delegates talk about starvation, Quebec farmers are out cutting the throats of calves and dumping them into shallow trenches, to make a point about the low price of beef. I get up, walk across the room, switch off the set.
I wonder if we’ve gone crazy. What would an outsider think? What if a Mar-
David Humphreys is a free-lance writer and producer of radio documentaries.
tian were plumped down in the middle of these two vital conferences, after a quick look around the world? Could we explain what it’s all about? I picture myself grasping this Martian by whatever passes for lapels among Martians and saying, “Now, look, don’t be too hard on us. I admit that nearly half a billion people live on the edge of starvation; I know we have 200 million severely malnourished children, here and there, that many of them are born blind, because of malnutrition. I concede that 10 million people, most of them children, will probably die within the year because of starvation-related illnesses. And you’re right, while most of the world starves, Canadians are munching 3,180 calories a day each, and Americans 3,330 — more, much more than we need. But hell, nobody’s perfect. Here, have a Hershey bar.”
Too bitter? Perhaps. It’s hard to keep cool about food; hard to maintain that clinical objectivity when images keep flashing before your mind. Images of African kids, their bellies cruelly distended by gas or protein deficiency, give way to pictures of pudgy diners in a Montreal restaurant reaching for another roll. Images of Asian women, scarecrow thin, with the dullness of death in their eyes, holding out scrawny hands for half a bowl of thin-gruel slop, are replaced by pictures of commodity traders striding manfully up and down the cockpit of the Winnipeg Commodities Exchange, turning a handsome buck for somebody by driving food prices up. Images of cement mixers pouring out their loads along the Niagara peninsula, covering over some of the world’s finest growing land, are lost in visions of drought-stricken cattle, staggering across the barren flats of western Africa, where nothing will grow but despair.
Never mind, we must keep cool about these things; we must face them pragmatically, as North Americans, world citizens, worthy folk. Starvation has been the lot of much of mankind throughout history; all that is happening
WE CANNOT CONTINUE TO BEHAVE STUPIDLY
today is that there is more of it, and, thanks to modern communications, it is more visible. There have been cycles of drought, disease and starvation for masses of mankind for centuries, and attempts to mess with the process have not done much to help. Charity won’t change the weather; good wishes won’t stop people from having babies they don’t need and can’t feed. Thomas Malthus, that gloomy economist, predicted in 1798 that the world’s population would outstrip food supplies and we would end in starvation and brutality. He was wrong (so far); why should his pessimistic successors now be right?
I am more at ease with this argument than I am trying to deal with the incredible waste, squalor and callousness of world food politics, because it seems to me there are indeed ways to face the challenges we have met and mastered before in history; mankind is an ingenious animal, adaptive and intelligent. We are a long way from finished.
But — and it is a large but — the two themes cannot be separated; this time, we cannot continue to behave stupidly and survive; this time, there is no room to manoeuvre; this time bull-roar and Band-Aids will not bind up the world’s wounds. We may act or we may perish; we may not, as in the past, do nothing and muddle through.
Consider. One of the reasons an emergency conference was called in Rome was because of a grain shortage we helped to induce ourselves. During the late 1960s and early Seventies, when wheat was glutting the export markets, prices fell drastically (of course, there was never a glut of food — people still starved — only of markets capable of paying our price). Canada and the U.S., who control most of the long-term export market, took drastic steps to cut production. In this nation alone, we took more than four million acres of land out of wheat; we paid farmers $40 million to switch to forage. Disastrous weather, poor crops, bum forecasting all combined to eat up the oversupply and the world’s standby grain stocks plummeted until, just before the Rome conference, there were less than 26 days in emergency rations on hand. One more bad crop and starvation will be general; two bad years and we may begin to feel the pinch ourselves. We are already paying unprecedented prices for grains and everything, including meat, derived from grains, but what will happen if they can’t be bought at any price?
Consider. We have always assumed that we could think ourselves out of
trouble. Agronomists, botanists and technologists had given North America an overladen table; all that was necessary was to apply the same expertise to the underdeveloped countries. It didn’t work that way. The Green Revolution, so proudly hailed in the 1960s, turned out to be a flop. It did, indeed, take two giant strides; we developed a wheat that could withstand the blistering sun of Africa and Asia; we developed a rice that would yield two or three crops a year. But the new wheat demanded more wa-
"MY PEOPLE ARE STARVING WHILE YOU TALK."
BANGLADESH DELEGATE TO THE WOBLD POPULATION CONFERENCE.
ter and more fertilizer; it cost more to grow and the poor, who couldn’t afford it even at the old price, went on starving. Nor could they grow it themselves; they lacked the capital for irrigation schemes and fertilizer stocks. The wheat was a success; the people for whom it was intended got little benefit.
Similarly, a new “miracle” rice appeared, and it was bountiful. For the first time, briefly, the Philippines became a net exporter of rice. However, the new crop grew so quickly that the first planting matured in the middle of the rainy season, so it had to be dried before it could be marketed. The small farmers couldn’t afford the drying equipment; they went back to the old rice. Then came 1972, the drought and crop disaster; they were worse off than before.
The Third World has lost its faith in technological salvation. Jimoh OmoFadakah, a member of the African En-
vironmental Study Group, told me in Bucharest, “Leave us alone. We have enough land in Africa to let us return to an agrarian standard of living, a traditional African way of life, decentralized, self-reliant and responsive to ‘he African environment.”
Our way, the technological way, has been to bend the environment to our needs; if that doesn’t work — and there are more and more signs that it doesn’t — then technology will not be the solution to our dilemma.
Consider. In Canada, we have enjoyed the blessings of cheap and plentiful food and we have served, in the cliché of our geography texts, as the “breadbasket of the world.” However, we are destroying our farmland and driving off our farmers at an alarming clip. We are losing farmers at the rate of nearly 13,000 a year; every 41 minutes a Canadian farmer dies and is not replaced, or says to hell with it, and gives up. We are losing farmland at the rate of nearly 220,000 acres a year; it is buried under concrete, drowned under dams, sacrificed to hydro towers, pipelines or parking lots. We are producing, to take the starkest example, two billion pounds of milk less this year than we did four years ago.
In agriculture, our margin of affluence is getting thin; only about 8% of our vast land mass is in occupied farmland, and declining; only about 6% of our people are in agriculture, and declining. According to the best estimates I have been able to gather, by 1984 we shall have moved from being one of the world’s great granaries to a position of net food shortage; by 2 000, unless we change our ways, we face an annual shortage of 40% of our eating requirements.
How did we get into this mess? Well, as I learned at Bucharest and we all saw at Rome, there were the classic reasons, beginning with a population explosion that started after World War II and is still expanding. That built in the structural, long-term problem. Then there was the disastrous crop year of 1972. We. had inched ahead of the long-term problem briefly, but 1972 wiped out that margin; that year, world cereal production of food fell by 33 million tons, while world demand kept rising.
On top of these classic causes, these gifts of the gods, there are other factors growing out of human greed and human stupidity. We are losing our farmers because we cheated and underpaid them for decades; we are losing our farmland because a million little decisions to
AND SURVIVE; WE MUST ACT OR PERISH
make a buck in land speculation have accumulated in one giant decision to trade bread and milk for concrete.
Then, as soon as food supplies began to grow short, speculators jumped in to gamble on rising prices, and soon commodity indexes took off as if they had skyrockets tied to their tails. Thai rice, a major food source in Asia, quadrupled in price between 1971 and 1974; the price of export wheat tripled during the same period (we have grown accustomed to insulting the Arabs, who used a cartel to drive up oil prices; Canada and the U.S. have a stronger grip on the grain markets than the Arabs on oil, and we have used our leverage vigorously). We had already cut down production, and couldn’t get the land back into use fast enough to take advantage of the upsurge, so North America sold off its grain reserves to Japan, Western Europe and Russia for top dollars.
Then came the (man-made) fuel crisis of 1973; our farmers saw costs rocket, but got some of it back in higher prices; the farmers of Asia and Africa were not so lucky. They saw their families starve because there was no fuel to run irrigation pumps, and because the price of fertilizers soared (and it soared not only for petrochemical based fertilizers, but for all of them). India alone lost an estimated one million tons of wheat because of a shortage of fertilizer.
By the time of the Rome conference, people scattered throughout the world were expiring at an estimated rate of 20,000 a day from starvation and related illness. But this ghastly toll will not solve our dilemma by attrition; babies are still being born at the rate of 210,000 a day. We have not balanced the books, we have simply created a world in which life, for most of mankind, will be nasty, hungry and short.
There is no way North America can escape the consequences of this dilemma, and we know it. That is why so much turned on the two conferences, that in Bucharest, on population, that in Rome, on food. And what did they accomplish? At Bucharest, a delegate from Bangladesh shouted, “My people are starving while you talk!”; but no agreement came out of that conference, only bickering. At Rome there was, at least, some movement; the meeting proposed a World Food Council for the short run, and began work on setting up an agricultural development fund for the long run. Canada, for its part, made an immediate donation of food.
Our gift was not generous; we promised one million tons of wheat at once.
and another million tons every year for three years. A gesture; not much more. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that all the Western world’s aid programs amount to one third of 1% of the West’s Gross National Product, and nearly all of this has strings attached — we receive in return either lucrative trade deals or debt notes which may or may not ever be collected. Africa, for instance, owes the World Bank — and through it various private banks and creditor nations — about $80 billion
"THE GUT ISSUE IS CANADA'S CONCERN TOR THE HUNGRY AND POOR IN OTHER NATIONS. HOW MUCH ARE WE WILLING TO SACRIFICE IN ORDER TO HELP OUR LESS FORTUNATE RR0THERS?"
MINISTER OF AGRICULTURE.
for “donations” over the past decade.
The population problem can be solved, but only if it is tied to solution of the food crisis. Economic historians have noted with wonderment that, as a people become more affluent, the birthrate drops; in the U.S., the world’s wealthiest nation, the birth rate has now dropped below the replacement level. A more equal sharing of the world’s resources will do more to dismantle the population bomb than all the condoms in creation.
And yes, the food problems can be met, too. In the short run, over the next two or three years, there is a need for six to eight billion dollars in strings-free aid, to feed the starving and to build up world food stockpiles for the next crisis. Stockpiling programs are never popular, because they undermine the bargaining power of the grain-exporting countries, who gain when prices soar, but without an adequate cushion we face a repeti-
tion, multiplied a hundredfold, of last year’s famine.
Once these stopgap measures are in place, we must begin to overhaul longterm agricultural policies. There is enough arable land to feed the world; about 3.5 billion acres are currently in production, and another 6.6 billion could be brought into use with proper irrigation and land development. With sound management, we could feed more than double our present population, and we will have to, soon.
I can’t presume to speak to the Third World, whose experts believe they can meet their long-term demands only by adapting to a limited environment, through new population and agrarian programs. I can presume to suggest to Canadians that we are going to have to reorder our priorities and put less emphasis on luxury, more on survival.
For example, it takes eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef; that is an inefficient and expensive way to eat. While North Americans consume about a ton of grain per capita each year — most of it converted into meat — underdeveloped nations get by on 400 pounds per capita. We’re going to have to meet somewhere in between. If North Americans were merely to switch to grass-fed cattle, or to eat animals raised on artificially derived protein substitutes, that single gesture would free 385 million tons of grain each year, enough to feed two billion Asians.
So, too, must the artificial manipulation of commodity markets (Robespierre, the French revolutionary, had the commodity gamblers dead to rights; he said, “They have given great weight to the profits of merchants and owners, and almost none to the life of mankind”), along with the zany government policies that pay farmers not to grow food, the land-use programs that put concrete ahead of crops, the pricing systems that force farmers out of business, because their return is so low, while holding food out of the reach of many people, because the end cost is so high.
All of these things can be done; the task is tough, but not insurmountable. It demands more international cooperation, more political skill, more individual sacrifice than we have been willing to provide to date. Flowever, the challenge is more stirring and more deadly than any we have met to date. No nation can resign from the planet, none can avoid the disaster that faces us all unless we act together, and act soon. If we cannot break the pattern established at Bucharest and Rome, God help us.