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Who decided what you ate today? Most adults in the United States would say that they themselves had decided. After all, our twenty-first-century consumer economy presents us with an ever-increasing number of enticing choices, and we often use our diets to make statements about our identities and lifestyles.

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Not everyone has that luxury of choice, real or imagined. The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that 13 percent of the world’s population, nearly 800 million people, do not get enough to eat. In many poor countries, governments therefore subsidize consumption of a limited number of foods that are imported or distributed by the state, such as sugar, oil and bread. Under normal circumstances, these millions can get by on this monotonous diet. But when the global prices of these staples become volatile, the ensuing shortages can pose significant social and political problems. High prices resulting in part from commodities speculation in 2008 sparked protest movements around the world. This was part of what lead to the 2011 “Arab Spring.”

This potential for political instability has made ensuring the world’s food supply an increasingly important subject of security studies. But this goal is subject to complex and often contradictory factors. Foremost among them is the contradiction between the need to feed the hungry and the profit principle of big agriculture. These business interests are strongest in the wealthiest nations, and they lobby for subsidies and import tariffs—in spite of free trade policies those nations have pushed. This has made farming weak in less-powerful nations for decades and made their populations dependent on food imports. (President Trump recently discovered how fragile this balance can be when China threatened new tariffs on U.S. food exports after he proposed protectionist import tariffs on industrial goods.)

Different analyses of world hunger—and policy solutions—thus depend on the perspective and training of the analysts. Making “logical” conclusions often means authors exclude from consideration factors that are either practically untidy or ideologically opposed to their views. Many authors advocating for food security have a lot of ideas about improving management, scientific agriculture, distribution, and climate sustainability, but differ widely on addressing the underlying political causes of the agrarian and basic economic inequalities that keep nearly one billion people on the edge of starvation.

Depoliticizing Hunger through Technocracy

Humanity has faced famines following crop failures since the beginning of agriculture. Prior to the industrial revolution, this remained a localized phenomenon, as staple crops were too heavy to transport more than a short distance from where they were grown. The invention of the railway and steamship in the mid-ninteenth century caused massive upheaval, as cheap grain from the Americas flooded Europe and Asia. In good times, this provided sustenance for the growing population of urban industrial workers. But it also destroyed the livelihood of farmers that depended on high, stable grain prices.

Moreover, when crop failure occurred in the regions that dominated the production of staples, exports fell sharply to the poorest countries. They no longer had sufficient local food production to satisfy demand, leading to famines in India, China, and Brazil that historian Mike Davis has described as “late Victorian holocausts.”

The Allied states used careful rationing of fertilizer and management of grain reserves to reduce famine during World War II. This experience encouraged the newly-founded United Nations to promote technocratic solutions to the shortcomings of globalized agriculture. In order to do this, the UN created the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Geography scholar Lucy Jarosz argues that from the start, the FAO struggled to reconcile its contradictory aims of promoting “capital accumulation” in the agriculture business and the “human right” to food.

In the 1950s, the FAO promoted national self-sufficiency with investments in agricultural “modernization” and the use of artificial fertilizers. This led to the “Green Revolution” that raised crop yields in the Global South during the 1960s. In that same era, however, the United States also aggressively marketed and even donated its surplus grain under policies like Public Law 480. Two seasons of crop failure in Asia and North America in the early 1970s, followed by the oil embargo of 1973, highlighted the weakness of this strategy. The resulting higher cost of petroleum-based fertilizers wiped out the Green Revolution productivity gains just when global food supplies fell short, leading to the doubling of food prices for the mid-1970s.

Farming and Inequality in the Neoliberal Era

The concept of “food security” as we know it today developed in the aftermath of the 1970s food crisis. But rather than acknowledging how the global food market had undercut attempts at local self-sufficiency, leaders blamed high birth rates and poor technology. Following the 70s-era trend of seeking free-market solutions, the FAO and other organizations recommended abandoning self-sufficiency as a goal. They instead began to encourage farmers in poor countries to seek their “competitive advantage,” and focused aid money at developing the export of cash crops, fruit, and cut flowers.

Political science scholar Timothy Mitchell studied the distorting effect that agricultural development aid from USAID had on farming in Egypt in the following two decades. Rather than using American grain aid and USAID technological grants to develop either sustainable food crops or an export-oriented farming sectors, both Egyptian and American official policies allowed a huge shift towards the domestic production of dairy and meat. In effect, the wealthiest Egyptian farmers received subsidies and mechanized equipment to produce the most profitable agricultural products for the consumption of the urban middle and upper classes. Meanwhile, the poorer majority of farmers continued to produce grain crops that the state acquired at artificially low prices for domestic bread in the name of national “food security.”

The reporting that now dominates policy circles continues to apply technocratic language and to ignore the political circumstances that reproduce poverty and dependence. As an example, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’s report “When Hunger Strikes” echoes “neo-Malthusian” language on overpopulation, blaming shortages on growing demand that local farm productivity can’t satisfy. It claims “growing (farmers’) incomes and yields is twice as effective at reducing poverty in other sectors,” but does not mention the structural inequality farmers in poor countries face. It cites the problem of urban migration increasing food demand. But it leaves out the fact that cheap food from wealthy countries in good economic times pushes farm workers off the land to seek alternate employment opportunities. The report’s policy recommendations are restricted either to financial and fiscal manipulation of existing free-trade policies, or last-minute reactions to shortages once a crisis has already begun. It does not make a holistic assessment of global agriculture.

Can Law and Ecology Revive Local, Sustainable Agriculture?

The problem of world hunger is not due to the world’s inability to produce enough food. The problem arises because of the economic inequality that distorts food distribution.

Scientists and politicians alike are becoming aware of another factor that could seriously threaten this tenuous balance—climate change. Law professor Carmen G. Gonzales advocates for considering drought, extreme weather, and diseases not as external factors that cause crop failure, but rather as an intrinsic effect of industrialized agriculture. Farming produces as much as one third of human-made greenhouse gases, from fertilizer, livestock, and forest clearing. Moreover, the corporate agriculture has led to the decline of genetic biodiversity, the loss of topsoil, and the pollution of waterways with excess fertilizer and pesticides.

As a legal scholar, Gonzales sees this situation as the result of fragmentation between international human rights law, international environmental law, and international trade law. Even eliminating the unfair subsidies wealthy countries give their farmers won’t prevent the negative ecological effects and inequality reinforced by corporate agriculture. Rather, she calls for the coordination of environmental and trade law to permit developing countries to impose tariffs and invest in sustainable and profitable agriculture for their domestic markets. Such a recovery would also require strong anti-trust legislation and enforcement to prevent the economic power of agribusiness from crushing these nascent farms.

Her proposed reforms involve fighting for “food sovereignty” for smaller states, rather than “food security.” Coordinating a massive shift in economic interests to protect weaker farmers seems a difficult political project. But shifting the language used in this debate could be an important start.


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Review (Fernand Braudel Center), Vol. 32, No. 1, POLITICAL ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES ON THE WORLD FOOD CRISIS (2009), pp. 37-60
Research Foundation of State University of New York for and on behalf of the Fernand Braudel Center
When Hunger Strikes: How Food Security Abroad Matters for National Security at Home
Chicago Council on Global Affairs (2016)
Middle East Report, No. 169, Crossing the Line (Mar. - Apr., 1991), pp. 18-34+36
Middle East Research and Information Project
Natural Resources & Environment, Vol. 26, No. 3, COMPLEX SYSTEMS (Winter 2012), pp. 7-12
American Bar Association