The Causes Of Global Hunger

By Michel Chossudovsky | 1996-05-01 12:00:00

When food surpluses occur in rich countries, the food is "dumped" in poor countries as aid, disrupting the market for local producers and perpetuating hunger.

For the first time in history, agriculture could feed the entire planet, yet the global market keeps this from occurring. The capacity to produce food is immense, yet much of the world's population lives in poverty. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, by imposing economic reforms on developing countries, actually have destroyed local food self-sufficiency.

In the late twentieth century, famine is not a consequence of food shortage. On the contrary, hunger results from a global oversupply of grain staples. The economic crisis is conducive to global impoverishment - unemployment, homelessness, and low wages in the urban slums, destruction of independent farmers in Europe and North America. The urban poor in rich countries are increasingly malnourished.

The causes? The mass media ascribe famine in Somalia or Mozambique to political and climatic factors, disclosing only the surface of reality. Somalia was self-sufficient in food until the 1970s. Why were food agriculture and nomadic pastoralism destroyed there?

The global economy has changed since the early 1980s. The family farm is driven into bankruptcy, with producers losing control over the land they farm. In developing countries, the peasants are becoming landless seasonal workers.


The earnings of farmers in rich and poor countries alike are squeezed by a few global agro-industrial enterprises that control the markets for grain, seeds, and processed foods. One giant firm, Cargill, with more than 140 affiliates, controls a large share of the international trade in grain. Since the 1950s, Cargill became the main contractor of U.S. "food aid" funded under Public Law 480. The articles of agreement of the new World Trade Organization will give unrestricted freedom to the food giants to enter the seed markets of developing countries and establish "plant breeders' rights" to the detriment of millions of small farmers. The acquisition of exclusive "intellectual property rights" over plant varieties by international agro-industrial interests also jeopardizes bio-diversity.

Moreover, the "modernization" of agriculture (including the Green Revolution) has led to the dispossession of the peasantry, increased landlessness, and environmental degradation. Paradoxically, the forces that encourage global food production to expand also lead to declining standards of living.

The economic policies of the G-7 governments and the international financial institutions tend to support this restructuring of agriculture. Demand and supply relations are reshaped. Basic food staples have not kept pace with the expansion of non-staple, processed foods.

Throughout the developing world, food security is destroyed. National grain markets are affected as grain prices are realigned with those of the world market and the peasantry is subordinated to the requirements of the global food monopolies. In turn, local-level merchants and money-lenders, as well as bureaucrats, become increasingly tied into the interests of the food transnational corporations.

Not only are the giant food companies the main beneficiaries of U.S. food aid, they also have become development brokers in a wide range of agro-industrial projects funded under PL 480. With direct access to the World Bank, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and national governments, they exercise far too dominant a role in shaping the agricultural policy of indebted countries.

Global Surpluses Create Hunger

Since the early 1980s, grain markets have been deregulated. U.S. grain surpluses, created by government subsidies, have undercut peasant producers abroad and de-stabilized nations' food agriculture. Similarly, subsidized beef and dairy products imported duty free from the European Union have ruined Africa's nomadic pastoral economy. European beef imports to West Africa increased seven-fold since 1984, displacing local livestock producers. In the Sahel, the deregulation of the grain market under the influence of the World Bank began during the 1983-84 drought, with devastating social consequences.

The decline of food agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, however, predates IMF-imposed shock therapy. It was largely a legacy of the colonial era. In the Sahel, export crops occupied the best land. Agricultural infrastructure, irrigation, extension services, and credit were channeled in support of exports, while traditional food crops (millet and sorghum) were steadily pushed into marginal lands, the so-called "gray area" of the arid Sahelian belt.

The debt crisis of the early 1980s marked a turning point. The colonial-style cash crop economy was thrown into depression. The peasant's meager cash income from export crops (e.g., coffee or cocoa) was reduced by the collapse of commodity prices, but there was nothing to fall back on because traditional subsistence farming had been dismantled. Moreover, the cash crop economy, combined with the commercial plunder of forest reserves, had caused environmental damage and soil degradation. Revenues from export crops were insufficient to buy enough food. The famines of the 1980s and 1990s were therefore more severe than those of the seventies.

From the early 1980s, the agricultural sector of developing countries was revamped. While experiences differ widely from one region of the world to another, the same economic reform package (under the guidance of the Bretton Woods institutions) was simultaneously imposed on a large number of indebted countries. Trade barriers to grain, dairy products, and meat from the rich countries were removed.

While new "alternative" export crops were promoted, the reforms kept the Third World farmer from switching back into food production for household consumption or for domestic sales. The commercialization of food production and the taking over of the peasant economy by urban-based agro-business was also encouraged.

Developing countries were advised by the World Bank to develop new specialized export areas. In Senegal and Mali, for instance, a profitable fruit and vegetable business for export was developed in private plantations to the detriment of the peasant economy. In Bangladesh, village-based shrimp farming supported by the World Bank encroached on paddy production, with detrimental environmental implications. This boom in non-traditional exports did not last, however, because the same "high value-added" exports were developed simultaneously (under World Bank guidance) in a number of countries, leading to a collapse in prices.

Throughout the developing world, such changes in agriculture under the custody of the Bretton Woods institutions destroyed food security. Dependency on the world market was reinforced, providing market outlets for U.S. and European agricultural surpluses. "Food aid" to sub-Saharan Africa increased by more than seven times since 1974. Commercial grain imports doubled. Food aid was no longer earmarked for the drought-stricken countries of the Sahel; it was also channeled into countries which until recently were more or less self-sufficient in food. Food aid is rarely donated; it is usually sold by governments on local markets, below the domestic market price.

Severe austerity measures were imposed on African governments. Expenditures on rural development were cut, leading to the collapse of agricultural infrastructure.Under the World Bank program, water was to become a commodity to be sold on a cost-recovery basis to impoverished farmers. For lack of funds, states had to quit managing and conserving water resources. Water points and boreholes dried up due to lack of maintenance or were privatized by local merchants and rich farmers. In semi-arid regions, this commercialization of water and irrigation led to the collapse of food security.

Agricultural Investment Drops

Since the debt crisis, the international financial institutions have provided money to help countries adjust. World Bank loan agreements included tight conditions. Money was granted only if the government complied with the structural adjustment reforms and implemented them promptly. Loan disbursements could be interrupted if a government did not conform.

Adjustment loans diverted resources away from the domestic economy and encouraged countries to import consumer goods, including food staples, from rich countries. The result was stagnation of the domestic economy, enlargement of the balance of payments crisis, and growth of the debt burden.

While the climate plays a role in triggering droughts and famine, hunger in the age of globalization is man-made. It is not the consequence of a scarcity of food but of a global food supply that undermines domestic food security and destroys national agriculture. Tightly regulated by international agro- business, this cheap foreign supply undercuts local markets, impedes the production and consumption of essential food staples, and impoverishes farmers. And in the era of globalization, the IMF-World Bank structural adjustment program creates hunger. It undermines all categories of economic activity, whether urban or rural, that do not directly serve the interests of the global market system. Tariff barriers are lifted, small artisans are impoverished, and food farming is undermined in favor of export crops. Civil society collapses and the nation state becomes politically fragmented.

Peace Magazine May-June 1996

Peace Magazine May-June 1996, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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