The World Food Crisis: What’s behind it and what we can do about it

Eric Holt-Giménez | 10.01.2008

October 2008, Policy Brief No. 16

“A Silent Tsunami”

The World Food Program’s description of the global food crisis raises the specter of a natural disaster surging over an unaware populace that is helpless in the face of massive destruction. With billions of people at risk of hunger, the current food crisis is certainly massive and destructive. But the reasons so many people have limited access to food are anything but “natural.” On the contrary, decades of skewed agricultural policies, inequitable trade, and unsustainable development have thrown the world’s food systems into a volatile, boom and bust cycle and widened the gap between affluence and poverty. Though hunger is coming in waves, not everyone will “drown” in famine. In fact, the world’s recurrent food crises are making a handful of investors and multinational corporations very rich—even as they devastate the poor and put the rest of the planet at severe environmental and economic risk. The surge of so-called food “riots” not only in poor countries like Haiti, but in resource-rich countries like Brazil—and even in the industrialized nations of Europe and the United States—reflects the fact that people are not just hungry, they are rebelling against a dangerous and unjust global food system. The food crisis is anything but silent, and—as long as we are aware of its true causes—we are not helpless.

The food crisis is anything but silent, and—as long as we are aware of its true causes—we are not helpless.

The World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Food Program, the Millennium Challenge, The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and industrial giants like Yara Fertilizer, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Syngenta, DuPont and Monsanto, carefully avoid addressing the root causes of the food crisis. The “solutions” they prescribe are rooted in the same policies and technologies that created the problem in the first place: increased food aid, de-regulated global trade in agricultural commodities, and more technological and genetic fixes. These measures only strengthen the corporate status quo controlling the world’s food. For this reason, thus far, there has been little official leadership in the face of the crisis. Nor has there been any informed public debate about the real reasons the numbers of hungry people are growing, or what we can do about it. The future of our food—and fuel—systems are being decided de facto by unregulated global markets, financial speculators, and global monopolies. For decades, family farmers and communities around the world have resisted the destruction of their native seeds. They have worked hard to diversify their crops, protect their soil, conserve their water and forests, and establish local gardens, markets, businesses and community-based food systems. There are tens of thousands of highly-productive, equitable and sustainable alternatives to the present industrial practices and corporate monopolies holding the world’s food hostage, and literally millions of people working to advance these alternatives in this time of need. What is missing is the political will on the part of government, industry and finance to support these alternatives.