The business of world hunger (15/12/2003)

The business of world hunger
by Bronwyn Chester
McGill Reporter (McGill University)
December 11, 2003 - Volume 36 Number 07

When the World Trade Organization (WTO) came into being in 1995, The Indian Express, one of India's big English language dailies, ran an editorial cartoon depicting two Indian farmers walking down a street in front of large advertisements for Pepsi, Coke and the agrochemical giant Monsanto. One farmer says to the other, "Hmm, WTO? What does that stand for?"

The other replies, "We take over."

This was an anecdote recounted in a lecture given in late November at the Macdonald Campus by Devinder Sharma, one-time agricultural scientist, then development editor at The Indian Express and now food and trade policy analyst whose most recent book is 'In the Famine Trap'.

Speaking on the subjects of "trade, biotechnology and hunger," Sharma painted a bleak picture of the fate of the world's 800 million hungry, 24,000 of whom die daily. Using examples largely from his native India, home to 320 million malnourished people, Sharma pointed the finger at unfair trade practices enforced by the developed countries through the WTO that require developing countries to drop all subsidies, while they maintain their own subsidies with impunity.

The result is such phenomena as tons of so-called surplus grains in developing countries, awaiting foreign markets, while locals go hungry.

"I come from a country that has the dubious distinction of producing a surplus of 65 million tons of food, yet has the largest population of malnourished in the world," he said, adding that the "surplus" rice and wheat is in fact exported to developed countries, largely for animal feed, so that India may earn hard currency.

People go hungry, he continued, not because there isn't enough to eat, but because they can't afford to buy the food that is available. Yet the solutions proposed by such bodies as the World Food Summit, in 1996, or the AgBioWorld Foundation, a U.S.-based foundation dedicated to finding biotechnological solutions to world hunger, don't take the effects of the free trade paradigm into consideration, he said.

"If Orwell were writing today, he would say, 'All animals are equal but some are even more equal than human beings,'" mused Devinder, referring to the situation where cows in developed countries receive more in subsidies than what many farmers in developing nations earn daily.

"In Europe a cow receives three dollars (U.S.) per day in subsidy; in Japan, it's eight, whereas half of the world's farmers live on less than two dollars per day," he said, adding that in the U.S., on average, a cow requries 25 acres worth of feed, whereas the average land-holding of farmers in developing countres is four acres.

"The cow is the most food-secure animal in the world," he said.

Sharma condemned the double standard regarding agricultural subsidies. In the U.S., for instance, under the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, the country's 900,000 farmers will receive $180 billion dollars in aid, over 10 years. Even though India faced drought conditions similar to those in the U.S., he continued, it could not offer its farmers aid since that would be considered "trade distorting."

What the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) doesn't seem to consider, said Sharma, is that once a developing country starts to import food, it is also importing unemployment and promoting the exodus of rural people into the cities. If farmers and their families, which number 600 million people in India, can't sell their grains due to unfair competition, they have no choice but to seek other employment. The problem is, said Sharma, "that in developing countries, most jobs come from agriculture."

Rather than talking about "food security," says Sharma, the WTO should put the emphasis on food sovereignty. "Every country should have the ability to produce food for itself."

He fears, however, that the move to have the food staples produced by the supposedly more efficient agricultural methods of developed countries (while developing countries concentrate on cash crops, such as fruit and coffee) will pave the way for genetically modified staples to be tested in developing countries.

Displacing small farmers is "part of a bigger package; biotech is the other part of the equation," said Sharma, describing the current testing in India of a bioengineered rice bran product developed by the American companies RiceX and Monsanto.

"How ironic, that food normally reserved for animals is now being fed to humans, while in India 'surplus' rice and wheat will be exported for cattle consumption," said Sharma.

If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, Sharma believes it is in the capacity of the farmers of developing countries to be more productive on their small plots of land. As well, the rising ire of such giant agricultural nations as China, Brazil and India spurs them to mobilize an ever-growing opposition to the domination of world agricultural trade practices by the northern half of the planet.

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