Global Policy Forum

Hunger in a World of Plenty

Socialist Worker
October 10, 2003

One out of every eight people around the world doesn't get enough to eat. That's some 840 million people whose daily diets don't meet the minimum nutritional standards of the United Nations' (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Many more don't get as much as they would want to eat--or don't eat the right kind of food. For example, an estimated 2 billion people worldwide--just about one in every three people--are anemic, mainly due to iron deficiency in their diet.

How could this be? In a world that has sent people into outer space and conquered all manner of disease, why do so many people suffer and die from one of the oldest causes in human history--not enough food? ALAN MAASS explains why the capitalist system produces hunger in a world of plenty.

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The great myth is that malnutrition and famine are inevitable--because the planet can't produce enough to feed everyone. But it can--and does.

Even conservative estimates calculate that enough food is produced around the globe for every person in the world to get 2,800 calories a day, about 20 percent above the standard set by the FAO. And this is food that is already being produced.

According to one study, if the useable land of the world were cultivated effectively, the earth could feed more than 40 billion people--six times more than the current world population, and far more than are ever likely to inhabit the planet, according to scientific estimates.

So the food exists to feed everyone. "People are not hungry these days," the Financial Times newspaper admitted, "because food supplies are not available; they are hungry because they are poor."

This is the sick reality around the world--in the most advanced countries, in developing ones, even in many of the countries stricken by famine. A study several years ago by the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 78 percent of all malnourished children under five lived in countries that had enough food to feed their whole populations.

Thus, in Bangladesh--a country synonymous with hunger since a food crisis in the early 1970s--official statistics for the yearly output of rice show that enough is produced to provide every person nearly one pound each day, or about 2,000 calories from rice alone. Yet the poorest third of people in Bangladesh eat 1,500 calories or less from all foods each day. The hungry go without food for the simple reason that they are too poor to afford it.

The truth is that the system of capitalism is organized around not feeding everyone. It works out better for the owners and executives who control food production if there isn't enough to go around--so that people will have to pay higher prices for food.

The food bosses have conspired with governments around the advanced world to rig the system to work this way. Thus, in 2003, the U.S. government will spend nearly $20 billion on agricultural subsidies--essentially, either paying food producers not to produce food, or buying up "surplus" food in order to prevent prices from falling.

The politicians claim that these subsidies support "family farms." That's another myth. According to the Environmental Working Group, 71 percent of agriculture subsidies since 1995 have gone to the top 10 percent of U.S. producers--the biggest operations, backed, if not owned outright, by multinational corporations.

Much of the food that the U.S. government buys is distributed around the world--in the form of food aid. But the food aid system is organized not around stopping hunger and poverty, but around pumping up the profits of U.S. corporations.

How? U.S. laws require that food aid be distributed in the form of American-grown products--even when those same products exist in abundance in the country that they are being sent to. Thus, over the last several years, the U.S. has sent more than 1 million metric tons of grain to the famine-plagued country of Ethiopia--even though Ethiopian farmers estimate that they now have at least 100,000 metric tons of locally grown corn, wheat, sorghum and beans rotting in warehouses.

Neither the Ethiopian government, nor Ethiopians themselves, can afford to buy the locally grown food, and the U.S. government is forbidden by law from spending food aid money on anything but crops grown in the U.S.

Food aid is used quite cynically as a weapon to help U.S. food producers, rather than feed the hungry. Thus, in 1999, when grain prices fell to a two-decade low, the Clinton administration tripled the amount of wheat bought for food aid--and shipped a record $250 million in wheat to Russia, with the open intention of undermining grain sales of European countries.

The real effect of the U.S. food aid program is to keep food prices high at home and undercut international competitors, especially in developing countries--while the world's poor continue to go hungry. The German poet Bertolt Brecht might have had this sick system in mind when he wrote: "Famines do not simply occur--they are organized by the grain trade."

The Alternative to a Sick System

POVERTY AND inequality aren't an accident under capitalism. The system is structured to produce them.

In theory, the capitalist free market is supposed to work according to the law of supply and demand. The idea is that capitalists control what gets produced and how, but they make their decisions according to what people buy--so consumers can use their dollars as a sort of "vote," and capitalists are supposed to compete with each other to provide the products that consumers "vote" for.

But there's a problem at the heart of this theory: What if you don't have any money? Then you don't get a vote--and capitalists won't produce what you want. Such a system is bound to put a priority on making products to meet the needs of the rich--who have far more "votes" than anyone else--rather than the meet needs of the whole society.

This year, the U.S. government will spend $400 billion on the means to wage war, five times more than the $80 billion a year necessary to provide the most basic needs that go unmet around the world--for food, shelter, clean water, primary education, basic medical care--according to the UN Development Program.

This is the madness of the free market--a system organized around protecting and increasing the wealth of the people at the top of society. Capitalism needs to be replaced--by a socialist society dedicated to meeting the needs of every single person in it.

Hungry in the USA

People associate malnutrition with countries like Ethiopia or Bangladesh--the flash points of famine where news footage shows children literally starving to death. But hunger exists worldwide--even in the U.S., the richest country in the world.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one in 10 U.S. households--with some 33 million people--are "food insecure," meaning that they lack access to enough food to fully meet basic nutritional needs at all times. And the problem is growing worse.

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, between November 2000 and November 2001, requests for emergency assistance increased by an average of 23 percent. Only one-third of the cities surveyed said that they had enough resources to meet these emergency requests.

No one can claim that the U.S. doesn't produce enough food to feed every single American. But millions of people in this country go without--for the simple reason that they are poor.

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