In 1974, the first World Food
Conference declared "the inalienable right to be free
from hunger." Meeting at the just-concluded World Food
Summit in Rome 22 years later, governments, international
institutions, non-governmental organizations, and food
producers themselves could hardly avoid the obvious. The
number of hungry hasn’t declined significantly. Today 809
million people go hungry today, including 200 million
children under 5. In 1974, the estimate was 840 million.
Of course, there are more
people now. The population of the world is growing. But in
contrast to 1974, the Rome conference didn’t propose
eliminating hunger in the foreseeable future, only cutting
the number by half in the next 20 years. Few believe it can
meet that goal.
An indignant Fidel Castro
asked delegates: "What kind of cosmetic solutions are we
going to provide that in 20 years from now there would be 400
million instead of 800 million starving people? The very
modesty of these goals is shameful."
The basic problem is that
international conferences on hunger don’t set the rules for
global food production and distribution. The real power lies
The world’s basic decisions
about food production are increasingly made by transnational
corporations and banks, and the governments which protect
them, under the free-trade rules of the General Agreement on
Trade and Tariffs, the World Trade Organization, and trading
blocks like NAFTA and the European Community. While some of
the countries which suffer under those rules criticized them
in Rome, they don’t have the power to change them. Those
countries that have that power have no intention of doing so.
The last 22 years have seen
the growth of free trade, of structural adjustment programs
to open up the economies of poor countries, and the
increasing domination of agriculture worldwide by
food-producing corporations. More food is produced than ever
before, but as a profit-making commodity, not for the sake of
feeding the hungry.
At the World Food Summit, the
governments of the south–the poor and developing
countries–attacked the unequal distribution of the world’s
wealth, funneled from the poor to the rich. The
increasingly-conservative governments of
industrially-developed countries, led by the United States,
called for ending the old systems for distributing aid to
poor countries. Instead, they touted the free operation of
market forces, claiming that open economies, free trade, and
austerity programs will lead to greater production.
In a related controversy, some
environmental organizations, led by Lester Brown of the World
Watch Institute, warned that the world’s productive capacity
is limited. The population is growing in developing
countries, particularly China, he asserted. Plus, people are
eating more meat as their income rises, which requires an
increasing consumption of grain. He predicted an unbearable
strain on food resources as a consequence. Brown’s opposition
in Rome came from an unusual alliance of the Vatican and
underdeveloped countries, who said the problem isn’t how many
people live in the world, but the fact that some have the
money to buy food while others don’t.
Finally, the non-governmental
organizations, with much closer links to rural communities
and food producers, criticized the whole proceeding. The
globalization of food production, both in terms of trade and
the "green revolution" in production, has increased
hunger and poverty, they say, instead of alleviating it.
One of the most eloquent
denunciations of the world economic order came from Prime
Minister Cheddi Jagan of Guyana. Jagan, a left-wing
socialist, was the target of successful CIA destabiliations
efforts in the 1960s, when he tried to implement wide-ranging
land reform and nationalization of foreign enterprises. After
years out of power, he was reelected in the early 1990s, and
found the string of debt on Guyana wound so tightly that he
couldn’t reintroduce the kinds of reforms he had initiated
years before, without devastating reprisals from the world
"A stop must be put to an
unjust global economic order," Jagan said, "which
robs the south of about $500 billion annually in unjust,
non-equivalent trade; an order where the south finances the
rich north with south-to-north capital outflow of $418
billion in the 1982-90 period as debt payments–a sum equal
to six Marshall Plans…[which] did not even include outflows
from royalties, dividends, repatriated profits and underpaid
Guyana paid $308 million in
debt service from 1992-95. Those funds would otherwise have
gone to poverty relief, rural development, agriculture,
health and education, all of which would have reduced hunger
and helped Guyanans eat more adequately. Jagan called the
idea that privatization, free markets, and foreign investment
would lead to development "a myth."
But that was the position
taken by the United States in the negotiations around the
Rome Declaration which preceded the conference. The
declaration, in fact, was already agreed before the World
Food Summit opened. As a result of U.S. insistence, point
four of the declaration’s plan of action is dedicated to the
pursuit of "a fair and market-oriented world trade
system." Market-orientation is the key. It leads to
support for GATT and free trade, which caused riots among
European farmers and even, in the declaration’s own words,
may cause "short term negative effects" on the
world’s poorest countries.
continuing the process of dropping trade barriers, which in
poor countries protect farmers from floods of cheap grain or
other foodstuffs, marketed by some of the world’s largest
corporations, like the Cargill and Continental grain
companies. Eliminating the barrier against corn imports into
Mexico, following the implementation of NAFTA, led to the
Zapatista rising of small indigenous corn farmers in Chiapas.
The U.S. essentially sees food
production as a business, while most other countries,
especially the poor ones, see farming as the means of
subsistence for a large percentage of their population. In
Rome, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman boasted to the
assembled nations that the U.S. "is the leading supplier
of food to the world," whose farmers "plant for
world demand instead of for government programs." For
the U.S., "the private sector is the great untapped
frontier in the world war on hunger."
Under President Clinton, the
Agriculture Department has been turned into a shill for U.S.
exports, giving it such close ties to that private sector
that they cost Glickman’s predecessor his job. Ex-Secretary
Mike Espy was linked to the huge chicken producer, Tyson
Foods, almost as soon as the administration took office in
1992, and his brother was named as a recipient of bribes paid
by California’s huge Sun-Diamond growers marketing
The U.S. believes that
developed countries have no obligations to developing
countries, based on the historic flow of wealth from south to
north. Sounding as though he was plugging the
recently-enacted welfare reform bill and talking about
welfare moms, Glickman called on the leaders of poor
countries to "enact the reforms necessary to pull their
countries out of poverty and dependence."
Just to drive the point home,
on the last day of the summit, the U.S. filed a clarification
of its position on the final declaration. "The United
States believes," it said, "that the attainment of
any ‘right to adequate food’ or ‘fundamental right to be free
from hunger’ is a goal or aspiration to be realized
progressively that does not give rise to any international
obligations nor diminish the responsibilities of national
governments toward their citizens."
The U.S. approach was backed
up by the World Bank, and the world’s chief banker, James
Wolfensohn, was a big figure in Rome. Much of the debt
already saddling developing countries was arranged by the
bank, which cooperates with the International Monetary Fund
in designing the austerity programs it requires in order to
qualify for, and repay, the loans. Another big chunk of third
world loans have gone to import food itself. But despite the
debt burden, the lack of any other financing led many
countries to criticize the bank for reducing the money lent
for agricultural projects. Wolfenson agreed to boost the
amount in coming years.
He also said he was open to
proposals for debt forgiveness, but not without conditions.
"We’ll look at how the country is run," he said,
"and if after three years it seems OK, we’ll look at
forgiving some debt."
Wolfenson was asked to explain
the bank’s support for austerity programs, in light of the
recent estimate by the International Labour Organization that
the number of children working in the world has increased
from 80 to 250 million. This estimate indicates a big
increase in hunger and rural poverty, since most of those
children live in the countryside, and are forced to work
because their families can’t eat without their labor.
Although the increase parallels the same period which has
seen the flowering of free trade and structural adjustment,
Wolfenson denied any connection. Criticizing Malthus,
Wolfenson called the World Bank "a cautious
optimist" that food production would be able to meet the
needs of a growing population.
The pope was even stronger.
While saying that demographic growth could not be limitless,
he asserted during his address on the conference’s opening
day that there was no reason to think that the stabilization
of population growth, or even its reduction, would eliminate
hunger. Instead, he called hunger a consequence of economic
inequality between rich and poor, of refugees fleeing their
homelands, and the "sometimes insupportable burden of
the foreign debt."
The pope also listed economic
embargoes as a cause of hunger, and during the summit he met
with leaders of two states, Cuba and Iraq, which are subject
to them. Over U.S. objections, a section of the Rome
declaration declares that food must not be used as an
instrument of economic or political pressure.
Missing from the formal debate
of summit delegations were the voices of those people who
produce the food–the world’s rural populations. "We are
the point of view closest to production," challenged
Isabel Cruz, coordinator of Via Campesina, "and although
our point of view isn’t the only one, it is the missing
element here. Communities of farmers and small producers see
the globalization of food production from below. And from our
point of view, this globalization of production is also
producing a globalization of hunger."
Via Campesina is a coalition
of farmers organizations and unions of rural workers from 60
countries, and helped coordinate the non-governmental
organization conference which paralleled the summit. The
NGO’s criticized the summit process for giving them only four
minutes in a five-day agenda.
Cruz directs the Mexican
Association of Social Sector Credit Unions, and organizes
credit unions for Mexican campesinos. IMF-mandated austerity
policies, adopted by the Mexican government, have cut rural
credit and restructured the country’s economy to produce a
more favorable climate for foreign investment and to pay its
foreign debt. As a result, Mexican rural communities are
shrinking as people find it more and more difficult to make a
living on the land, and head for the cities looking for work,
or leave for the U.S.
The lack of rural credit is
one cause of this population shift. An even larger one is the
instability of prices for agricultural products, as price
controls and subsidies have been eliminated by NAFTA and
economic reforms. "No one knows now when the season
starts what the price will be for the products they’re
growing when they’re harvested," Cruz explains. Further,
it now competes against corn imported from the United States.
"Small Mexican farmers
have low crop yields and high costs, compared to the
high-tech farms run by huge agro-industrial companies. They
can’t compete," Cruz says, "and they’re being
driven off the land as a result. That’s why one of the basic
demands of Via Campesina is the right to produce. It makes no
sense to talk about feeding the world through highly
mechanized production, if its effect is to displace millions
of rural families."
Via Campesina also proposes
guaranteeing the right of access to land, as well as greater
control over the marketing of food. It calls for the
preservation of a diversified agriculture, in which rural
communities grow a variety of crops, as opposed to dependence
on a few crops grown by large producers for the world market.
"While we criticize
neoliberal economic policies, it’s much harder to propose
alternatives," Cruz says. "In theory, for instance,
we have very little disagreement with the general goals
supported by the official Mexican government delegation, of
ending hunger and preserving rural communities. The problem
is the basic contradiction between having those goals on one
level, and pursuing overall economic policies on another
which makes it impossible to achieve them."
But while NGOs like Via
Campesina condemned the growth of large-scale, export
agriculture, neither they nor the official summit delegations
had much to say about an even more voiceless group, the huge
number of rural wage workers. Nevertheless, a few
representatives of rural unions did show up at the summit,
from one of the first agro-industries to transform rural life
in Central and South America–bananas.
Gilberto Bermudez, who
represented Costa Rica’s Sitrap, the Union of Farm and
Plantation Laborers, came "to let the world know our
position, the banana workers position, about food security.
We don’t have any representation in these discussions,
although we’re certainly affected by the policies of
globalization. When they discuss the problems of production
and producers here, they’re often talking about people who
farm the land themselves, not workers. And when they talk
about large-scale food production, they do it from the point
of view of the companies who employ us, not from the point of
view of people who work in the industry."
The first banana unions were
organized in the violent strikes and labor upsurge of the
1930s. But five years ago, Costa Rica’s largest producers,
including Dole, Chiquita (United Fruit) and Del Monte, all
refused to negotiate new contracts. The union became
effectively illegal when the companies began firing
activists, evicting them from company towns like those in
U.S. coal fields decades ago, where they run the stores, own
the houses, and supply the basic necessities of electricity
and water to the workers. To replace the union, they brought
in the "solidarista movement," which teaches
workers to identify the company’s welfare with their own. In
addition, undocumented workers from Nicaragua, driven off the
land, have gone to work in the Costa Rican plantations, where
employers use their migrant status to threaten them.
Bermudez remembers "when
we used to be a country which not only grew enough rice and
beans to feed ourselves, but exported them. Now we import
them. The land which used to be used for our food now grows
bananas and coffee for export. Not only hasn’t this improved
the situation of people in the countryside, it’s actually
made our situation worse. Our standard of living has gone
Making common cause between
peasants and wage laborers, Isabel Cruz condemned this kind
of production for "transforming rural communities into
sources of cheap labor, in which rural people are unorganized
and poorly-equipped to fight for their rights as
The World Food Summit did help
to underscore one of those rights, despite U.S.
reservations–the right to food. But it also made clear the
political problem, for which it had no answer.
Where will the power come from
to reshape the world’s economic system, which is responsible
for keeping that a right just on paper, a right unfulfilled
in real life for almost a billion people?