Ethical approach needed to eradicate chronic hunger

People are going hungry under a “global food system that is dominated by a handful of large corporations, banks and individuals whose intent is to maximize profit and minimize accountability.” The political will to bring about food security by correcting the iniquities of this system and the corporate-driven global economy that underpins it should be informed by ethical and religious principles, argues a new book.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: There is no human need more basic than food, but with the global food system, including the world trade in food, strongly resembling a cartel with no countervailing force to corporate power, ethical and religious considerations have to be brought to bear to eradicate chronic hunger and provide food security to the people.

This is in essence the basic message of a new book, World Food Security: A Catholic View of Food Policy in the New Millennium, authored by Martin M. McLaughlin and published by the Washington DC-based Center of Concern, a public interest advocacy NGO. The centre describes itself on its website as “rooted in Judeo-Christian values and Catholic social teaching,” committed to creating a world where all economic structures, systems and policies guarantee the dignity and basic rights of every member of the human family, and has a project “Agribusiness Accountability Initiative.”

McLaughlin is a former US federal official in international affairs, and later vice-president of the Overseas Development Council. He has also been a consultant on food and development policy to the US Catholic Conference. The book brings together a secular analysis of the various components of the global food system - supply, demand and the role of the transnational corporations (TNCs) in the system - and solutions for food security, particularly in the developing countries. As a participant in two of the FAO-initiated UN World Summits on Hunger, and drawing on the Catholic social thought of modern popes who have been speaking out on agriculture and hunger (from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical to Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council), McLaughlin has pointed to the “weakened” public concerns about food security after 11 September and lack of political will to correct the dysfunctional system.

There is a need to counter the dominant power and influence of banks and corporations in the global economy, he says, by bringing to bear the ethical approach - the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights - and the religious approach in Pope John’s Pacem in Terra: “Every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are necessary for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services.”

Chronic hunger

The global food system, McLaughlin says, strongly resembles a cartel whose members share power, purpose and philosophy and need “no collusive conspiracy.” Neither national governments, labour unions, cooperatives and other producer groups, nor consumer organizations, individually or collectively, appear yet to constitute an effective countervailing power to this combination of corporate agribusiness, rich individuals, large landowners in both industrialized and developing countries, and the financial institutions that guide and support them.

World hunger or, in current vocabulary, world food security has been the subject of major UN conferences twice over the past quarter-century; and at each of such meets participants have been reminded that chronic hunger is a “systemic outcome of the operations of the global economy”, and in particular of the increasing gap between wealth and poverty resulting from its operations. “Yet, the world is no nearer eradicating chronic hunger and providing food security.”

There is no ethical justification for compensating a chief executive of a TNC at 485 times the average wage of his workers (it was 80 times 10 years ago) while the poor go hungry.

“People are hungry because they are poor, and they are poor because they don’t have the power to choose otherwise - lacking the political and economic power that vests in and is exercised by the wealthy, the TNCs and banks accountable to no one but their shareholders.”

Very little systemic research so far has been done specifically to describe and reflect the role of TNCs in the global food system or the global economy as a whole, he notes.

Outlining in some detail the various components of the global agriculture and food system as they have evolved - supply, demand and the TNCs and the global food system including the complex corporate reality and the dynamics of agribusiness - McLaughlin brings out how, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cold war and “no credible enemy nation opposed to capitalism as a system,” the internal contradictions of the capitalist world have become far more visible and the economic policies less coherent.

“Development programmes have become footnotes to intensified trade competition; currency speculation seduces the volatile markets; the environment is sacrificed to insatiable profit-seeking; and poor people, who are neither big producers nor big consumers, are further marginalized. Unless there is real change in the global economic system, the choice for them may be between marginalization or exploitation - or both.”

On the link between chronic hunger and population growth, the author says: “Unchecked population growth could have serious consequences for development, but that does not lead logically to the conclusion that population growth causes hunger. The fact is that both hunger and excessive population growth are the results of poverty and powerlessness, especially of women, that keep people poor and hungry. Hunger rarely results from shortfalls in production, but almost always from failures in distribution - the result of faulty human decision-making.”

Is the ultimate goal of the discussions on food and population “to control population growth or is it to achieve social justice, equality for women and a decent human life for every person born into the world?”

Corporate concentration in food trade

The facts of the food system are worth noting. Just under 10% of the total global trade is accounted for by agriculture, and about three-fifths of this is food. Cereal grain, the basic staple food on which human and animal life depends directly or indirectly (eaten directly or fed to animals, which then produce and often become food), accounts for 85% of worldwide human food consumption. Cereals constitute the central element of the food trade. Cereal production, for the past two decades, has been about two billion metric tons a year, and about one-tenth of this has entered international trade. Wheat and rice (mainly consumed by humans) account for slightly less than 30% apiece, while coarse grains (mainly fed to animals) for more than 40%. About 90% of cereals are grown in the country where it is consumed and thus do not enter the international trade.

Of the 2-billion-ton production, the industrial world produces 800 million, and more than half of this is rice, grown almost everywhere but consumed mainly in developing countries. The industrialized countries account for nine-tenths of total food exports, exchanging among themselves about a third of their production. Half of the exports originate in North America, and a major part goes to Africa, Asia and Latin America. And while about a third of all grain produced is fed to animals, the animal food products are mostly consumed by the prosperous people, while the poor get less food and the food they get is also less nutritious.

The developing countries account for a little more than 10% of exports - much of it beverages and low-priced primary commodities. While many of them are encouraged to export more to earn foreign exchange to service their debts, the food they import is expensive processed foods, for which they pay more and increase their debt.

Over the years there has been a fragile balance, with under-production in some years and over-production in others. As the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in documents for the World Food Summits, has brought out, while food trade increases food security in the sense of enabling countries to consume more food than they produce and/or cushion swings in prices or supplies, “any liberalization of trade, as a result of the Uruguay Round or WTO activities, is unlikely to have much effect on the global availability of food in the aggregate,” McLaughlin comments.

As for the trade itself, after the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), civil society activists who had expended decades of energy trying to open up the World Bank and the IMF found themselves at the Seattle WTO meeting facing a new multilateral organization “that seemed at least as elitist, opaque, secretive and arrogant as the other two.”

And other forces moving forward with UN specialized agencies found their progress jeopardized by a new agency “dominated by unaccountable, privileged, private-money interests” that could nullify a country’s environmental regulations and ignore its labour laws if they were judged to be interfering with the WTO’s definition of free trade.

The WTO’s Seattle meeting has “deepened awareness of the extent and direction of the corporate, industrial and financial concentration in agriculture.” While the Marrakesh Final Act establishing the WTO spent considerable time and language to the concerns of the food-importing countries, it “did not deal with the organization of the food system as a whole, insisting only on delaying full compliance with the Agreement by the developing countries; nor did it deal with the impact of liberalized capital flows that tend to accompany expanded trade.”

The WTO and its dispute settlement system, narrowly construing disputes in trade terms, has underscored “the unlikelihood that a global trade regime as envisioned by supporters of the WTO would improve the food security of one-seventh of the human race not enjoying such security now.”

Some 27 case studies undertaken by a Swedish NGO in 1999 suggest that the impact of trade liberalization on food security has on the whole been negative.

And at a Quebec meeting in April 2001 of Western Hemisphere heads of state to discuss US-led efforts to form the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), though the private sector groups had discussed the draft at their preliminary session in Buenos Aires, not even parliaments could get copies of the negotiating text until just a few days before the summit. It was clear that the TNC sponsors did not want decision-makers to have advance notice of the details of the proposed agreement.

The world grain trade, which the WTO is trying to organize, gives an example of the leading role played in it by powerful corporations, mainly TNCs. “While repeating the well-known mantra of free market, both corporate agriculture and the governments of exporting countries vociferously promote trading rules that will confirm and extend their dominance. For that reason, they have created the ‘rules-based’ WTO in the hope it will become a more effective organizer of trade in their interest.

“The developing countries have gained almost nothing during the WTO’s first seven years. The political power of commodity organizations and corporate agriculture, especially in industrialized countries, has enabled governments, acting unilaterally or through trade agreements, to protect and subsidize domestic products and agricultural exporters. The effective use of this kind of power torpedoed the ITO [International Trade Organization] after the Bretton Woods Conference half a century ago, delayed GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] ratification for three years, and brought into the GATT contract the agricultural exceptions that still prevailed 50 years later when the WTO final act was considered.

“These considerations, with the food safety and intellectual property rights now added, are still the major sticking points in the effort to have agriculture treated fairly for trade purposes.”

The globalizing economy as a whole is oriented not towards the logical purpose of a food system which would ensure that people are fed, but towards its more pragmatic and immediate economic purpose of maximizing profit. “Those who cite Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and David Ricardo in support of this process ignore the effects of a global economy on the validity of their centuries-old theses about competing national economies.”

Referring to the several cases of corporate abuses (price-fixing and other such activities), the author says that what is surprising, almost incomprehensible, is that in the public policy debate about food security there is a reluctance by both analysts and critics to deal substantively with the role of international agribusiness and banking in the swiftly globalizing international market.

Corporate power is felt in each of the five segments of the food and agriculture system: supplies and inputs, production, processing and marketing, trade and commercial consumption (restaurants and fast-food outlets). In some cases the oligopolistic thrust crosses internal boundaries.

The unrestrained profit motive speeding the global economy’s growth is diametrically opposed to the social justice motive recognized to underlie development assistance. In agriculture, as elsewhere, genuine development will not take place without public, i.e. mandatory and not voluntary, regulation of international business and banking. If such regulation can happen, then profit motive and social justice may not have to be locked into what looks very much like a zero-sum game.

Food security outlook

On the future prospects for food security, McLaughlin says that every human being is entitled to a portion of the earth’s food and other resources sufficient to sustain human life. Political will is often invoked as a kind of ritual incantation. But the only real doubt about whether food security can be achieved is whether the world really wants to achieve it.

To assure food security, more resources need to be spent to increase food production on small farms in developing countries, emphasizing food staples rather than luxury food items. Such an outcome in the US and industrialized countries would also add to the quality of life.

The elements of a world food security system would have to be a mixed system in the North, reversing the steadily decreasing family-operated diversified small to moderate-sized farms, and encouraging increased production in the South through investment and assistance to compensate  for the reduction in the  food  available  in  the North for trade.

Is this unrealistic? The author says: “Nothing is so unrealistic as to refuse to deal with the readily recognizable reality of a global food system that is dominated by a handful of large corporations, banks and individuals whose intent is to maximize profit and minimize accountability - a power structure that does not share the aspirations of those who are manipulated, marginalized and impoverished by the system that these persons and institutions control.”

Have the 11 September events dramatically changed the public debate in the US on our common future? No, says McLaughlin, who points to the fact that the public behaviour of corporations such as Enron was not significantly altered by 11 September. “The ‘patriotic’ corporate contribution to the response to terrorism has included efforts to get 15 years of back taxes refunded, bail out the airline industry, limit insurance payments to the victims of the attacks and satisfy the wishes of corporate contributors to US political campaigns.”

As a result of 11 September, public concerns about food security, never very strong, may have been weakened. And finding the political will to correct this dysfunctional system requires an ethical, indeed religious, approach.

The ethical basis is the right to food in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the religious view has perhaps been best expressed by Pope John XXIII in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terra in 1963. “Every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are necessary for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services.” (SUNS5160)                                        

From Third World Economics No. 284 (1-15 July 2002)