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Food Crisis? What Food Crisis?

I promised to write more on what Gustavo Esteva spoke about at the Solstice event last Friday so here I go.  I’m still working through the impact of what he said, and no doubt will have a lot more to say down the road.  But the following will hopefully provide a good starting point for discussion.

Esteva started his talk by pointing out that in the 1970s, there was a very similar food crisis.  I have actually noted this as I read through literature from that era.  I have been studying food and farming issues for a while now and have observed that much of the rhetoric and discourse around both have been on-going for decades.  While I only just became aware in the last few years, many have been arguing what I write about in this blog since before I was born.  

Esteva commented that during that 70s food crisis, many of the same arguments were made that are being made today: “We’re running out of food!  People in (enter random developing country name here) will starve!  There’s unrest in the third world!” I remember the famine in Ethiopia in 1980s, with Band Aid coming to the rescue to raise money to save those poor children.  I hated watching those film clips on TV and would always quickly change the channel.  Sadly, these same images are showing up again today.  

Shockingly, as Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen carefully documented, famines are not the effect of nature.  They are political events, politically created (for more on this, read Sen’s work, and also Alex de Waal’s book Famine Crimes).  Indeed, as the world donated to Band Aid to send money to those poor starving children in the 1980s, Ethiopia was actually EXPORTING food.  Ethiopia, after all, was the breadbasket of Africa.  There was no shortage of food, there was a shortage of access to food.  And the famine became so profitable from all the Aid received (which was given directly to the government responsible for creating the famine in the first place) that they kept it going for as long a possible!

This is just one example of how food is used as a tool of political manipulation.  And while that famine was a horrific event, it is but a minor example of the outcome of the food crisis of the 1970s.  As Esteva made clear, the panic created around that food crisis was just what the Reagan-Thatcher era political powers needed to push through their policies of economic reconstruction – typically referred to today as Neoliberalism, the current hegemonic economic philosophy that argues “every human being is an entrepreneur managing their own life, and should act as such.”  The adoption by the West of this philosophy has changed our world in ways we could have never predicted, not the least of which has been the dramatic shift in power from state to corporation, and the extreme industrialization of the food system we currently rely upon to survive.

In short, Esteva argues that the food crisis of the 1970s was actually not a crisis at all but a political tool used to push through the neoliberal reconstruction of the global economy.  

So if that’s what the previous crisis was about, what’s going on now?  Do we really have a food crisis today?  Why did it come about so suddenly?  A year ago food was barely on the radar, now it’s all anyone talks about.  That suits me fine, as this is my research and I need funding, but what is really going on?

According to the FAO, “the world can produce enough food to provide every person with more than 2700 Calories per day.” Ok, so there’s actually plenty of food. Then what’s the panic, and why?

As I listened to Esteva, I struggled to make sense of what is going on.  And then it hit me.  Two days before, I read an article in which the UK Minster of Environment announced that, in light of the global food crisis and food shortages, the UK needed to consider adopting GMO crops.  Wow.  So that is what’s going on.  This so-called food crisis is being orchestrated to expand the production of genetically modified food.  This is almost as frightening as the melting of the polar ice caps.

Since waking up to this realization, I have been doing some research.  While once upon a time companies made money by owning factories (i.e. the means of production), they now make it by owning ideas.  Knowledge.  Intellectual property.  Indeed, most big corporations now contract out production, holding on to property rights as their new cash cows.  That’s where the money is, and that’s where the power is.  And since they can’t patent plants and animals that are already in existence (although some have tried), they are making genetic modifications and patenting the results instead.  In other words, corporations need GMOs to stay economically viable.  GMOs are the way of the economic future, the new playing field upon which the economy can continue it’s never-ending growth.  

When too much resistance developed to the use and distribution of GMOs, the powers that be needed to find a way to convince populations to allow them.  Since the food crisis worked in the 1970s, why not have another one now?  I hate to admit it, but until last Friday, they had me fooled (not that I was going to support GMOs!). Even though I knew about the 2700 calorie per day per person statistic.  Shame on me.  

Shame on all of us if we let this happen.


4 Responses

  1. Very interesting (but horrifying) concepts Helene. I suppose the Nike model of production necessitates an ownership, or at least a centralization, of knowledge, to maintain power. Would it then be safe to argue that any alternative methods of food production, particularly those that are difficult to control, would be rejected by the corporate agriculture industrial complex?

    Also, do you think the democratization of knowledge might be more efficient in terms of sustainability, distribution and overall production?

    I like your thoughts,

  2. Hi Dave – I would say you are bang on with your analysis. I’d even take it one step further and say not only would alternative knowledge systems be rejected, but they would be demonized and otherwise undermined (“you can’t produce enough food that way”; “it’s too labour intensive”; “ideal but not realistic” etc.), and also targeted for ‘colonization.’ By that I mean, attempts will be made to bring alternative knowledges into the fold. For example, Big Organic – all the organic stuff you find in grocery stores – is organic principles turned industrial and then branded.

    As for democratization of knowledge, I like the sounds of that! Can you explain how you see this working? I’ve read a little on ‘Food Democracy’ which I believe would fit this idea. I’ll have to read up! Cheers,

  3. Well, by democratization of knowledge, I was referring to a system that is more responsive to the evolving food needs of specific communities around the world. That is, one in which each given community decides what their needs are, and uses the knowledge available to them to choose a system or mechanism by which to meet those needs?

    Like the Mennonites?

  4. Yesterday I ironically received notice that the book “Earth Democracy” by Vandana Shiva was overdue, which got me to pull it off my shelf and take another look at it. This concept of democratization of knowledge is very much what she is arguing for in general, and I think specifically in this book (I’m finally going to read it now!).

    Would you say that the internet offers a means of facilitating the democratization of knowledge? I agree that every community should be able to determine what they need, but how to get this information? So much of what we once knew has been lost. We call this era the ‘information age’ yet we have probably lost more knowledge than we have gained of late by holding one form of knowledge – that which supports modern capitalism – as being most valuable, and discarding or devaluing other knowledge systems. As global capitalism falters (as it is doing right now) we are left scrambling for alternatives.

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