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By the pond

Asia and the politics of food


America’s next major civil feast is Thanksgiving. It focuses on food.

Most Americans either never knew or don’t remember that in the 1970s the United States let some Asian nations run short of protein and allowed 400,000 Bangladeshis to die of starvation rather than risk “importing” inflation to the United States.

Asians remember. And as dependent as they are on food imports, the Asian-Pacific nations look with alarm as U.S. agriculture increasingly consolidates and integrates -- with fewer and fewer corporations owning everything from seed patents, to growing fields, to grain, to processing plants, to transportation, to export mechanisms, to retail outlets. Asians also know America can play politics with food.

“I doubt that the world trusts an American assurance on equal access to its food supplies,” Shigeru Endo told the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council earlier this year. NCR asked Worldwatch Institute chairman Lester Brown to comment on whether Endo and other Asians are correct to be concerned. Brown placed the issue in today’s context.

The tragedy of three decades ago began with anchovies -- the tiny, bony, salted fish kids don’t like on pizza. The fishing world was harvesting 12 million tons of them annually, transforming them into livestock feed.

In the early 1970s, the fisheries collapsed from 12 million tons to 2 million. Importing nations switched to soybeans to feed their animals and people. From 1972-74, grain prices doubled and tripled. (Endo, at that time a soybean trader, is now counselor to Mitsui & Co., the giant Japanese trading firm.)

The United States grows half the world’s soybeans and is the principle source of exports. In 1973, Washington simply embargoed soybean exports.

“That disrupted nations economically and scared them politically,” said Brown, because national governments have to be able to feed their people. Brown said at the time he addressed a conference of U.S. flour millers and bakers who were calling for a U.S. wheat embargo, too. “Domestic wheat prices were going so high they were fearful Americans would stop eating bread.” There was no wheat embargo.

Were these events to occur today, said Brown, “One could easily imagine a Pat Buchanan, a real ‘America First’ type, saying in a political campaign, ‘Our obligation is to feed American people first, and we’re not going to do anything that’ll drive up food prices for working Americans.’ You can imagine the rhetoric.”

So can the Asians.

In 1974 with the grain crisis still roaring, Bangladesh requested U.S. wheat to avert a famine. Brown was at the Rome Food Congress with a high-powered U.S. Congressional delegation (such high-profile senators as Hubert H. Humphrey, George McGovern and Robert Dole) “where it was fully expected the U.S. would announce it would supply the wheat.”

“We did not,” said Brown, “and the reason we did not was because the Treasury secretary, the late William Simon, said this is going to be too inflationary, too risky for the United States. And 400,000 Bangladeshis starved to death.”

Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger’s staff put together a blacklist of those countries that asked the United States for food aid that did not support the United States in the United Nations.

Endo’s 21st-century starting point criticizes the way in which nations like the United States, which call for open markets in other countries, retain trade barriers and give domestic subsidies to products -- textiles and clothing particularly -- that Third World nations need to sell to pay for their food imports.

“Asia is densely populated, and arable land is limited,” said Endo. “Equal treatment for domestic and international customers must be a fundamental principle of world trade -- and exporting countries must provide importing countries with assured access to supplies.” And markets for their products.

“If we do have to depend on a system of market-based profitability,” he said, “Southern Hemisphere countries should be encouraged to become more important suppliers.”

But this, says Brown, runs counter to what the mega-corporate agribusinesses want. They believe “the world food economy should be integrated into a single economy with no barriers. Then the most efficient producers would dominate the food economy.” That’s the law of economic comparative advantage.

Brown said his advice to the Japanese is to maintain their self-sufficiency in rice.

“Free trade and the law of competitive advantage has a certain rationale,” said Brown. “On the other hand, if you have to choose between the benefits of comparative advantage and those of national food security, that, it seems to me, is not a difficult choice.”

Endo said, “There is grave concern about the world’s ability to supply enough food at a stable price.”

Americans meanwhile, continue to enjoy the lowest overall food prices in the world. Aren’t we lucky.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000