The Mirror, Not Malthus: The Hunger Crisis and the Illusion of Scarcity

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Perhaps you saw the recent UNESCO report on the future of agriculture .  It calls for a major paradigm shift in agriculture, away from fossil fuels, towards organic agriculture and greater equity of distribution.  Wow, I wonder why I didn’t think of that ;-)? 

Seriously, this is the largest single report ever to tell us what we already knew - that ”the status quo is not an option.”  That is, we cannot go into the future as we are.  We all know this on some level. 

But until now, the larger narrative has been that we will rely on some magical technology - genetic engineering or a new green revolution - to create food in such abundance that we do not have constrain our appetites.  Although the UNESCO report dances around some of the central issues, it is also true that they admit that the solution is both simpler and more complicated - work on food justice.  Get the fossil fuels warming the world out of agriculture.  In the meantime, get the rich nations to pay for the food desperately needed in the poor world.

It seems so obvious - but the fact that a major institution like the IAASTD is actually calling for fewer fossil fuels and more equity represents the beginning of a sea change - and change that couldn’t possibly happen fast enough.

Even ignoring the fact that various institutions supported by UNESCO have helped create the mess we’re in, promoting fossil fueled agriculture and globalized markets, and ignoring the fact that despite widespread public perception the reality that organic agriculture can match yields has been widely known for some years, this is still a move forward.  But again, not fast enough.

Consider this report from a group of nurses just returned from a humanitarian mission in Haiti:

“The nurses saw firsthand desperate lives made worse by the world food crisis.

“It is incredibly astounding … having a family sit in front of you and have the mother offer you the baby in arms - and the baby is 8, 9 pounds - and be told that child is 2 ½ years old,” Tinker said.

“Everyone is malnourished.”

The food crisis only worsens the desperate circumstances of this poorest-of-the-poor nation.

Children with stick-like limbs arrive at the clinic listless and with distended stomachs. Common worms “take what little nutrients these starving people can give themselves,” Tinker said.”

I have a two and a half year old.  Asher weighs 27 lbs.  I don’t think there’s a better way of understanding the food crisis than to look at your own child, or your grandchild, a nephew or a niece or a neighbor’s child, and ask “how would I feel if this were my child?”  In fact, most of the world’s faiths would argue that their children *are* our children - that there can be no difference. 

I hope the answer to how you feel  is not just sad - I think this is an excellent reason to weep, but I don’t want anyone to stop with weeping - anger and outrage are the appropriate reactions, and we need more anger of the sort that moves us forward.  In fact, the poor are furious - riots are breaking out all over the world.  The victims of our affluence are not fools. They know they are being “massacred” as one UN report put it. 

And we should be equally angry - both because what can be done to poor Haitians can also be done to our “own” (I never have been clear on why American children are supposed to be mine, when the rest of the world’s aren’t, but we’ll use the conventions) children under the current system (they already are, as I reported this winter), and because THERE IS NO SHORTAGE!!!  It would be terrible if this were happening in times of absolute shortage, if there really wasn’t enough food to go around.  But that’s not true - there is plenty of food for the whole world- the world is overflowing in food.  The problem is entirely one of distribution, and of the indifference of the affluent. 

 The term “Malthusian” gets tossed around a lot lately - my doctoral dissertation was on population and literature, and part of it was specifically about Old Thomas Malthus and his idea.  So let me offer that point to say that “Malthusian” is precisely the wrong word to use here - Malthus was speaking of the problem of food supplies meeting rising population’s demand, but he was talking about absolute scarcity, something we are not experiencing.  The essay cited above uses it:

This Malthusian crunch has been building for a long time. We are adding 73m mouths a year. The global population will grow from 6.5bn to 9.5bn before peaking near mid-century.

Asia’s bourgeoisie is switching to an animal-based diet. If they follow the Japanese, protein-intake will rise by nine times. It takes 8.3 grams of corn feed to produce a 1g of beef, or 3.1g for pork.

China’s meat demand has risen to 50kg per capita from 20kg in 1980, but this has been gradual. The FAO insists that this dietary shift is “not the cause of the sudden food price spike that began in 2005″.

Hedge funds played their part in the violent rise in spot prices early this year. To that extent they can be held responsible for the death of African and Asian children. Tougher margin rules on the commodity exchanges might have stopped the racket. Capitalism must police itself, or be policed.

Even so, the funds closed their killer “long” trades in early March, causing a brief 20pc mini-crash in grains. The speculators are now neutral on the COMEX casino in New York.”

Hedge fund speculation and meat consumption were simply not what Malthus was worried about.  Malthus was aware of the problem of inequity, but he argued that it was dwarfed by the problem of population pressure - in this case, that’s the exact reverse of our present situation.  That is, population pressure is causing difficulties - but population growth rates are quite stable, and cannot account for the doubling of grain prices every 18 months. 

It is not that population is not a growing issue - at some point in the future we will almost certainly encounter this question of absolute limits - but this is not the root cause of our present disaster, and every time we pretend that the issue is primarily population (which is growing most among the poor),  we are lying to ourselves - moreover we are telling ourselves that the problem is someone else’s fault.  We’re going to have to ask ourselves harder questions - do I want that burger enough to justify a 9lb 2 1/2 year old? Do I really need to go to soccer practice that badly?

Look at the names on the table.  Niger.  Liberia.  Eritrea.  Botswana. Haiti. Bangladesh - they are small nations that rely on imports to feed themselves.  100 million people are quickly sliding towards death in those nations - and they will, rightly, decline to slide quietly. They sound like far away places.  They have always had their troubles - and yet millions of people who survived global warming, war, poverty are now meeting the one thing they cannot survive - our appetites.

 Waiting in the wings, with its poor on the fast track to starvation are more nations - India, the Phillippines, North Korea, Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan.  Note how many of those nations have strategic importance for us or hold nuclear weapons.  It is a fantasy to believe that we can allow this to happen and not pay a price.

And if this were a Malthusian world of real scarcity, we might be able to say that we cannot do anything about this.  But as Greenpa points out, that’s errant nonsense.  We could very easily prevent this tragedy.  There is plenty of wealth in the rich world to feed the hungry. We could stop hedge fund speculation about food.  We could stop eating so much meat.  We could stop making biofuels.  We could stop.

But that would require that we care in a deep way - not in the way we’ve become accustomed to, of thinking “Oh, how terrible” and then “oh, someone should do something about that.”  It is time for all of us to let our moral rubber hit the road, and recognize that more is being asked of us than simply to think something is very sad.  This is a crime of our creating - and we have the power to stop it.

 How?  As Greenpa suggests, call your representatives and talk to them about biofuels and food speculators.  Cut the meat back in your diet, and focus on meat that is raised without the use of human food - that is fed on grass.  The rest of the time, go vegetarian.  And most of all, get to work raising awareness in your community, raising funds for hunger relief, and making it clear to people that this isn’t happening because of something we cannot control, the spectre of Malthus rising - that’s a longer term problem, and one we have to deal with.  But this crisis is one Malthus never foresaw, and the root causes look back from the mirror.

11 Responses to “The Mirror, Not Malthus: The Hunger Crisis and the Illusion of Scarcity”

  1. Robyn M.on 17 Apr 2008 at 10:45 am

    Wow, having just spent several hours in talks and in a car with Frances Moore Lappe, this topic has been on my mind a lot. Her point, which hit me like a hammer when I first encountered it in “Hope’s Edge”–that we’ve got plenty of food to feed everyone, but instead we’re feeding it to our animals (and now, cars)–was central to her talks here. Moreover, this should have been common knowledge *at least* since her book “Diet for a Small Planet” came out in 1973 (and really, it’s inexcusable that this information is hidden at all). That we are still struggling to understand the myth of scarcity is truly alarming.

  2. Anonon 17 Apr 2008 at 2:00 pm

    “Hope’s Edge” is a great book.

    According to George Monbiot’s article “The Pleasures of the Flesh” (April 15, 2008):

    http://www.monbiot.com/

    Excerpts -

    “There’s plenty of food. It is just not reaching human stomachs. Of the 2.13 billion tonnes likely to be consumed this year, only 1.01 billion, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will feed people (4).”

    “While 100 million tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760 million tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals (9). This could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.”

    A plant-based diet is the healthiest diet for humans according to T. Colin Campbell’s well documented book “The China Study.”

    The New York Times says about the book: “… findings from the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease are challenging much of American dietary dogma.”

    ~Vegan

  3. The Purloined Letteron 17 Apr 2008 at 2:21 pm

    What a powerful post. I’ve been incredibly anxious for the last few weeks about these issues and finally posted about them today (and since I hit the publish button, I’ve gotten a lot of hits from the IMF and the State Department….) But I ended with my hands up in the air. You gave me what I needed: direction and action.

    Went to hear Lester Brown last night here. Interesting to here his take on things, too.

  4. Rosaon 17 Apr 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Sharon, when we were in Arizona I saw some WWI food administration posters in a museum and wanted to send you images of them, but couldn’t find them.

    The one I really wanted to share isn’t here, but the U of CO has an archive of war posters and I found several that tie into the direct link between overconsumption in the US and hunger elsewhere - I didn’t realize until I started looking into this that we shipped direct food aid to Europe during and after WWI.

    There is absolutely no reason that we could not, right now, without any political changes, do the same thing for Haiti. Check out the wording on these:

    http://www.coloradocollege.edu/library/specialcollections/historicalcollections/wwi/FA029.html

    Buy it with thought
    Cook it with care
    Use less wheat & meat
    Buy local foods
    Serve just enough
    Use what is left

    http://www.coloradocollege.edu/library/specialcollections/historicalcollections/wwi/FA034.html

    Denying ourselves only a little means life to them

    When the Mississippi flooded eastern Iowa in 1993, Bangladesh sent us aid. I’ve contacted our senators and representatives about biofuels and that is not going to fly at *all* around here…but speculation laws may. I’ll try again.

  5. Idaho Locavoreon 17 Apr 2008 at 5:27 pm

    “While 100 million tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760 million tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals (9). This could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.”

    Well, we are doing just that here. We’re probably eating at least 50% less meat this year than last year and will probably lower that amount even more over the next few months. I have a feeling, however, that the only real effect this will have is to salve our consciences, because the whole global economic system is now geared towards food as a financial instrument, food as a basis for fuel and food as feed to be turned into meat. What little slack we will be able to make in the system will just be eaten up by these three astronomically large special interests as fast as it can be created, I’m afraid - unless literally millions of families decide to do the same and I just don’t see that happening.

    At this point, probably the only practical way to actually get more food into starving people’s mouths in a reasonable timeframe is for each family who is willing, to take direct action - for instance, to take the money we would have used to buy more meat or gasoline, find a reputable global food charity that doesn’t skim 80% or more off the top for their “administrative costs” and as long as we can, send that money to them regularly. While we’re at it, it might be a good idea to check our retirement accounts (for those lucky enough to have them) and any other investments that we ourselves do not personally manage, and as soon as possible try to do what we can to ensure that any food/commodity based investments are replaced with something that is not as likely to just further drive up prices. And working to waste less at home wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

    Any more ideas?

  6. Idaho Locavoreon 17 Apr 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Well, I went looking for information on Haiti’s food situation, and found this horrifying article, dated March 6 of this year.

    “CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti (AP) - While millions of Haitians go hungry, containers full of food are stacking up in the nation’s ports because of government red tape - leaving tons of beans, rice and other staples to rot under a sweltering sun or be devoured by vermin.

    A government attempt to clean up a corrupt port system that has helped make Haiti a major conduit for Colombian cocaine has added new layers of bureaucracy - and led to backlogs so severe they are being felt 600 miles away in Miami, where cargo shipments to Haiti have ground almost to a standstill.

    The problems are depriving desperate people of donated food. Some are so poor they are forced to eat cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable oil to satisfy their hunger.

    An Associated Press investigation found the situation is most severe in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city. One recent afternoon, garbage men shoveled a pile of rotting pinto beans that had turned gray and crumbled to dust as cockroaches and beetles scurried about.

    The men had found the putrid cargo by following a stench through stacked shipping containers to one holding 40,000 pounds of beans. It had been in port since November.”

    Since NOVEMBER???? No wonder the people have been rioting in the streets! This is not an unusual situation from what I’ve been reading - it is quite common for corrupt governments to hold up or hijack food aid and for it to never get to the people whose lives it is meant to save. Does anyone have any idea what can be done about this part of the problem?

  7. […] causes of world hunger and poverty.* * *Richmond Bread Riot, 1860s* * *UPDATE: Also check out this insightful post […]

  8. Rosaon 17 Apr 2008 at 9:58 pm

    Idaho Locavore, that’s what we’re doing - I cut our food budget and we’re sending half the difference to our local food shelf and half to Starthrower Foundation. It’s one of those two-birds-with-one-stone changes - I had decided to cut our meat consumption, and we have never met our charitable giving goal (we still don’t, it’s a budget area my partner and I disagree on).

    Sharon, I have a post stuck in moderation because it has a lot of links in it, if you get time to look at it.

  9. hamon 22 Apr 2008 at 3:45 pm

    hi sharon ,

    your views on a post oil world are to be commended. living the rural life is great.

    however , have you ever given thought to how you will pay the bills and the taxes when no one will be able to drive to your farm to purchase your products ?

    it works both ways.

  10. Sharonon 22 Apr 2008 at 4:18 pm

    I’ve got bikes and bike trailers, and Albany and Schenectady aren’t that far away. The good thing is that I don’t have that many bills - and I’ll have fewer then.

    Yes, I’ve given it thought - and I think it is a non-issue - perhaps not for those who truly live at the very edge of civilization, but not for me.

    Sharon

  11. Pangolinon 24 Apr 2008 at 2:34 am

    Those people are going to starve. You’re proposal just asks for an adjustment in the date of that starvation. Putting the crisis off without adjusting the population growth doesn’t fix anything.

    They believed the cargo cult noise that the West was feeding them and we were full of it. Malthus didn’t own the math he just spoke up about it. Endless population growth isn’t possible and those that have just will not give up for the have-nots.

    I could send my entire income to Haiti and it wouldn’t change a thing because enough people wouldn’t join me. We just aren’t that good at solving problems.

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