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Insurrection Of The Famished – Causes And Possible Remedies Of
The World Hunger Crisis

By Siv O'Neall

06 May, 2008
Axis Of Logic

In a broadcast interview with Daniel Mermet on French radio*, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, stated that the current world food crisis is not due to nature, but to man.

Introduction to the interview from the web site of 'Là-bas si j'y suis'*:

"A return with Jean Ziegler to the causes for food riots that are appearing all over the world. Far from being a scourge like a drought or an invasion of locusts, there are people who are responsible for the famines that have struck thousands of men, women and children – the speculators and their logic of maximizing profit."

The rest of this article on the issue of world hunger is largely based, in terms of facts and numbers, on the interview with Jean Ziegler – "La faim du monde".

World Hunger

Over the past few months in multiple places in the world we have been seeing riots caused by food shortages – the revolt of the famished. There recently have been hunger-related riots in Egypt, Haiti, Morocco, Mauritania, Madagascar, Thailand and other poor countries. This is a long-time issue that has cruelly affected the world for several decades. Every day 100,000 people die from silent hunger, until very recently seen as a normal phenomenon by the people in the North. What is taking place today is the insurrection of the famished.

The explosion of food prices and riots by the starving people have occurred not only in the developing world but also in the rich countries. According to Jean Ziegler there are today 854 million permanently undernourished people in the world. The price of rice has risen by 53 %, wheat by 47 %, for instance. The rise of oil has obviously contributed to the rise in the prices of commodities but there are also other factors involved.

There are in the world today 2.2 billion people who barely earn a living wage, who every day experience the fear of not having enough food for tomorrow. While people in the rich countries spend on an average 10 – 15 % of their incomes on food, people in the poor countries spend 80 – 90 %. This sudden explosion of food prices is having a disastrous effect on the lives of poor people all over the world. The price of rice has doubled, wheat is up by 30 %, corn by more than 74 %.

Protests, even riots are going to intensify. People will be forced to migrate because of lack of food – but where are they going to go?

We are seeing the specter of August 1792 when the famished people of Paris stormed and ransacked the Tuileries Palace, an event that was going to change the world.

The reaction in the West comes from fear of destabilization – of the market and of people's behavior. Cases of malnutrition are not limited to poor countries; even in the United States there are severe cases of lack of nourishment.

We haven't seen the end of the riots. This is just the beginning.

International financial institutions rule over the developing countries

What is the cause for this sudden explosion? The causes are not natural calamities. The causes are political. Countries that were formerly self-supporting have become dependent on import of food products, because of the demands of the international institutions – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization – to change their cultures from what is needed for their daily food to export cultures, such as coffee, sugar cane, cotton, peanuts, etc., leaving out family farming. This neocolonial meddling in the internal affairs of third-world countries has led to a situation where these countries are no more self-sufficient, but almost totally dependent on import for their daily nourishment.

Wherever the IMF imposes a plan for 'structural adjustment', famine increases. The people are now forced to depend on imported food and other commodities. There is privatization of veterinary services and of transportation. There are no roads and the trucks arrive late or can't make it to the region in need of transportation. So what happens? The farmers can't afford the price of vaccination or vermifuge and their animals get sick and die. The harvest rots or the new seeds don't arrive. Famine follows.

What forces countries to agree to these dictates? They are all prisoners of enormous debts to the banks in the North and in order to have those loans refinanced they need to export what those financial masters demand. In order just to pay the interest on those loans, they are rendered powerless vis-à-vis the financial behemoths in the North. The external debt, the murderous consequence of decades of dependence on the rich countries, renders impossible the freeing of these countries to enable the people to become self-sufficient without interference from the international financial institutions. They were in need of help, they got disaster.

Farmers in those countries can not support their families, the costs of fertilizers and herbicides are rising, they cannot afford to buy food and they have to leave their farms and move to the shantytowns of the big cities. The needs of the native people for a decent livelihood are of no importance. Instead they are being robbed. This decline in the lives of the indigenous people has been going on since the first colonial era.

The plans for 'structural adjustments' are ratified by our ministers of finance, by our governments, under constant pressure from the big international corporations who are making enormous profits. In order to rid the world of these crimes to humanity, we need to mobilize public opinion. In a country as profoundly democratic as France or the U.S. it should be possible for the government to raise the relatively small amount of money it would take to render these countries self-sufficient, to be able to afford pesticides, fertilizers, transportation for a subsistence agriculture.

Certainly there are also natural causes. Six years of severe drought in Australia, probably linked to global warming, have taken a severe toll on Australian agriculture. There are also natural reasons such as the growing middle classes in India and China being able to afford to eat better and especially to eat more meat. Increased demand, increased prices.

However, there are two major criminals that have not been given sufficient attention and which must be dealt with.

Speculation in commodities – the first culprit

The immediate cause for the rise in food prices is the speculation in commodities mainly at the Chicago stock exchange. According to Jean Ziegler, one thousand billion dollars of the world money supply have been lost between October and January through market speculation on the world's stock exchanges. The big speculators, the hedge funds – that's not the Red Cross, says Jean Ziegler – now speculate in soya, rice, millet, wheat and corn. They are looking for maximum profit in agricultural raw materials and are thus pushing the prices up to an explosive level. They can buy up Brazil's entire soya harvest with only 5 % of real capital. This way they risk very little if the harvest turns out to be less than expected but they stand a good chance of making astronomical profits.

The cause is the speculation in commodities, the hedge funds that create money with money. It doesn't make money from production, from an industry, from creating something of value. It is a way of making gold with air ("Ils font de l'or avec du vent"). The speculators are not bothered with food security in the world; they go where they have to go to make maximum profits.

One thousand billion dollars of inherited property have been lost since October in the world's money markets which are no more profitable. The financial markets have collapsed. The margin of profit is negative. So where do they go? They go where the speculation is worthwhile and that is in agricultural raw materials.

Those speculators are criminals because we are dealing with crimes against humanity.

Since the bi-polar world system that existed before 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union, there have been no obstacles to the savage capitalism that has now conquered the world.

UNCTAD – United Nations Conference on Trade and Development – is trying to rein in the WTO, which is the neoliberal institution that above all supports deregulation and privatization. UNCTAD is making efforts to exert a stabilizing influence on speculation in the commodities markets. However, capitalist market forces are too strong to be subdued by the well-intentioned efforts of a UN organization.

The World Food Program is in danger

The world’s largest humanitarian organization, the World Food Program (WFP), attempts to aid the people of the most afflicted countries. The survival of over 75 million people depends entirely on trucks that bring them food. People in Darfur for instance receive bags of powdered milk, bags of rice, water, just to cover the most basic needs of the refugees. They are on the edge of starvation and without food and water an emaciated person can only live for three days. After three days, he dies.

In Bangladesh, in Madhya Pradesh (India), in Da Kao (Vietnam), very often the only meal the children get is the biscuit with added vitamins, the glass of milk from the food program that is now running the risk of coming to an end. The WFP has lost 40 % of its funds. Today they need $500 million just to be able to continue their program of supplying food to starving children. In a few days they will have to stop supplying school lunches, which 3.2 million children profit from. They are lacking, among other things, money to buy gasoline for their delivery trucks, but generally they need today – not tomorrow – millions of dollars for the continuation of their programs. The executive director of WFP said on April 17 in an email to Jean Ziegler: "In a few days, at the very latest next week, we are going to stop school lunches."

The World Bank launched an appeal to the rich countries of the North, relayed by the Secretary General of the U.N., Ban Ki Moon, saying that we have to give those $500 million. But in spite of the modest budget of WFP, donor countries have not provided sufficient support and the CERF’s (the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund) response to hunger emergencies will be limited and delayed without substantially increased funding. (Are We Approaching a Global Food Crisis - Between Soaring Food Prices and Food Aid Shortage - by Katarina Wahlberg)

Biofuels (Syngenta, Monsanto, Cargill, etc.) – the other major culprit

President Bush is now concluding that it is necessary to replace fossil fuel by biofuel which is derived from raw vegetable materials (biomass). The U.S. launched, at the cost of $6 billion to the producers, production of ethanol for this purpose. Last year the U.S burned 138 million tons of corn and hundreds of tons of grain for these very purposes. In Brazil the culture of cane sugar has expanded immensely at the detriment of the culture of food products, in spite of the fact that there are already enormous numbers of undernourished people in the country. This is also the case for the United States by the way. In the EU a decree has recently been passed that says that by 2020, in 12 years, 10 % of fuels in the 27 countries of the European Union have to come from food. There will be scientific progress in this domain though, since it will be possible in a future to produce ethanol from agricultural waste, the ears and stems of corn will be burned instead of the food part in order to produce ethanol. The only problem is that the cost of this process is much higher than the burning of the entire plant.

The heads of the three international financial organizations, Robert Zoellick of the World Bank, Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the IMF and Pascal Lamy of the WTO, are certainly well aware of the catastrophe that is underway, says Jean Ziegler. All three are convinced that subsistence agriculture must now receive an absolute priority, convinced of the urgency to radically change their policies, abandon the programs of structural adjustment and restrain forced privatization – the neoliberal policies in the world which amount to a unilateral disarming of the developing countries for the profit of the multinational corporations and of the rich countries in the North.

Jean Ziegler seems to believe in the good intentions of the three men who head the transnational institutions.[1] He says, however, that there is not much they can accomplish against the enormous power of the multinational private companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill, Bung, etc.) who, the same as the commodity speculators, have one principal goal – that is maximum profit, which is what the shareholders are demanding. There is a balance of power between these institutions, and behind the IMF there are the private transcontinental companies, the huge banks and financial groups.

Without a total awareness in our respective countries of the looming catastrophe, this huge problem of world hunger will not find a solution. We must realize that this daily massacre of hunger is a crime that we can not tolerate.

The rich people in the world have to be made aware of this daily massacre that is taking place right under our eyes, in the third-world countries and even in the United States. It is strictly criminal. It is a question of crimes against humanity. The awareness of having the means to act against these crimes must make us impose radical change on our governments against the interests of the transnational institutions. Without these radical changes even the multinational institutions, says Jean Ziegler, can do nothing. It's up to us, the people, to rebel and by means of reasoned and democratic political acts practice international solidarity.

Addendum on Ethanol:

Ethanol And Biodiesel From Crops Not Worth The Energy

ScienceDaily (Jul. 6, 2005) – ITHACA, N.Y. – Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study. "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

* corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
* switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
* wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

* soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
* sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

* 'Là-bas si j'y suis' , Daniel Mermet's brainchild, is a progressive ("altermondialiste") radio program – its title could be translated as meaning 'Over there if I am there' – the implication clearly being that we must pay attention to what is happening in the world. In 2006 this "island of freedom" was threatened by government-subsidized France Inter with being taken off the air. Within twenty days, 200,000 people had signed a petition to “Save Là-bas”. The protests succeeded, even though the time slot for the airing was changed to 3 o'clock on Friday afternoons, not a prime-time slot, by any means. Fortunately, the program's web site archives all the broadcasts, so anyone with a web browser can listen to them.

On April 18, 2008 Daniel Mermet interviewed Jean Ziegler, a French-Swiss national who until March this year had been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. He is a senior professor of sociology at the University of Geneva and at the Sorbonne, Paris. He is also the author of 'L'Empire de la honte' (Empire of Shame - A Conversation with Jean Ziegler)


[1] Olivier de Schutter, Professor of Human Rights at the University of Louvain, Belgium, does not agree with Jean Ziegler on that account. To the question: "Are the international financial institutions responsible [for the increasingly serious problems of world hunger]?" – he answers a resounding "Yes. For twenty years, they have seriously underestimated the necessity to invest in agriculture – the World Bank recognized this at the end of 2007." Schutter was appointed on March 26 to be the successor of Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food by the Counsel for Human Rights, based in Geneva.


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