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Food: Lack of access, not supply, keeping 1 in 7 people hungry

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization World Food Summit opens in November in Rome. "What are the food and hunger issues as the world's nations gather?" NCR's Nicholas Kenney asked Martin McLaughlin, Center of Concern food expert, and Jesuit Fr. James E. Hug, executive director of the center just back from a pre-summit meeting in Rome. Their answers are excerpted below.

NCR: What are three essential reasons that half a billion starving people do not have access to food?

Martin McLaughlin: The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says that one seventh of the human race does not have access to a diet adequate to sustain a regular human existence. That's close to 800 to 900 million. That figure will remain at 800 million in the year 2005. This, when the world produces every year enough food to feed everybody. It is not a supply question. It is an access question. The food is available. They do not have income to buy seeds or fertilizer or irrigation water to produce enough food. Or enough money from employment to buy the food that is produced.

Second, about 10 corporations dominate the world food trade. Their purpose is not food security for all, it is profit for the shareholders and for the company.

Third, supply and demand structure problems reinforce the lack of access. Land is limited. Water is being depleted faster than it's being replaced. Energy is expensive. It comes in a variety of ways -- fertilizer drying, diesel fuel and so on. Research is geared toward temperate zone agriculture -- that's ours -- and not tropical zone agriculture, which is where all the hungry people are. [High] technology is ... inappropriate for small plot agriculture in the hurting countries.

On the demand side, you have population growth. We are adding one Mexico per year, one China per decade, give or take. Less land because the cities expand onto farmland. Population growth is caused by the same thing that causes hunger -- namely poverty. We [the industrialized North] out eat hungry people about four-to-one in basic grain through bioconvertors like pigs and chickens and cows and sheep.

This four-to-one ratio. When you say "we," who do you mean?

Well, the industrialized North, which also includes New Zealand and Australia. The wealth is being taken from the poorer countries, which are demonstrably getting poorer and therefore more hungry. Safety nets are being cut. In countries all over the world, governments are under pressure to reduce their role in the economy.

The World Trade Organization agreement has a clause in it that says in the short-term the poorest nations will be adversely affected and we need to do something to compensate for that. Any reference to that clause in the World Food Summit document for this November is not being agreed to by the wealthy nations. They are pushing a free trade ideology that in the end will cause more starvation.

How do you reconcile the U.S. recognition of the universal right of every human being to a healthy diet with market competition where farmers and merchants sell to those who can pay?

Trading companies are not going to want to do anything that decreases profit. If some people get hurt, they hope to find a safety net. Farmers are something else. The farmer gets about 3 cents on the dollar for each loaf of bread. The rest goes to marketing, elevator time, transportation. That is what Cargill or Archer-Daniels-Midland or ConAgra or Tyson's Chicken or General Mills will do. That is their business. Agriculture is about 20 percent of the U.S. economy, about $60 billion in export earnings this year. Half the grain that is traded internationally comes from the U.S. The government is not going to step in and inhibit that trade.

We are the elephant in the canoe. The United States, at the moment, says nothing in its position paper for the FAO summit about this power. There is no acknowledgment; nor [is there acknowledgment] of the role of the transnational trading companies. We are protecting U.S. corporate interests.

You said that corporate agriculture is not a sustainable system.

The small, diversified farms have to come back. Due to corporate agriculture, we have lost an enormous amount of topsoil in the U.S. just because of the way it is conducted. The plows. Heavy doses of fertilizers and pesticides are leaching the soil of its nutrients, polluting the water.

You touched on monopolies. One author, Dan Morgan, wrote about one instance when Continental, a grain exporting and processing firm, exercised influence over Zaire's President Mobutu. When he didn't follow Continental trade advice, the company shut down its plants in Zaire and the people started to become hungry. Do these transnational companies exercise too much influence over developing countries?

They exercise influence over the whole system, not just the developing countries. The five companies who dominate the grain trade are Cargill [Minnesota-based], Bunge [Argentina- based], Continental [New York-based], Louis-Dreyfus [France-based], and Andres [based in Switzerland]. Cargill not only dominates trade, it dominates farming. It owns farms that it leases out to the farmer and tells him what to grow and how much fertilizer, and so on. Cargill has hopper cars to transport the commodity by railroad. They have barges. They have grain elevators. They have their own finance company. They have their own ocean freighters to take the grain. Then they have subsidiaries in other countries.

They have a great deal of power in setting up the trade rules. The chief negotiator for the U.S. at the meeting to set up the World Trade Organization was a former Cargill official.

You said the United States is the "elephant in the canoe". What about the other major grain exporters at the FAO summit, Australia, Argentina, Canada? Are they protecting the corporate structure as much as the U.S.?

All of them are hanging together. The exceptions are probably Japan and South Korea. They want to protect their domestic rice producers.

In the early 1970's, Russia committed what has since been dubbed "the great grain robbery." It suddenly imported millions of tons of grain from Canada and the U.S. after ignoring the Western merchants for decades. Will China become the next great grain robber?

Fr. James Hug: The FAO puts out every two months a report on global supply and demand. And they say that China has shifted from being a net exporter to net importer. The Chinese population continues to grow and their incomes are rising. This means urban growth will continue to take away farming areas. Now if you read Lester Brown's Who Will Feed China?, it is a bit alarmist, but he extrapolates these trends and concludes that if the trends continue China will absorb the entire grain export.

How do you get a handle on all this? Well, in the Habitat II meeting in Istanbul last June, we were able to get our first real breakthrough. We convinced the U.S. delegation to agree to a clause that is modeled on the Community Reinvestment Act here in the U.S. This requires banks that draw money from a local neighborhood to reinvest in that neighborhood. So it is a way of getting corporations on the global level to put some profits back into the communities. But we still have to find ways to institutionalize it in law and implement it. There is a lot of work to be done.

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996