Friday, November 05, 2004

12 myths about hunger

This is from foodfirst.org, a global anti-poverty and anti-unchecked
globalization organization.

Myth 1
Not Enough Food to Go Around

Reality: Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world's food
supply. Enough wheat, rice and other grains are produced to provide
every human being with 3,500 calories a day. That doesn't even count
many other commonly eaten foods-vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops,
fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. Enough food is available to provide
at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide: two and half
pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and
vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs-enough to
make most people fat! The problem is that many people are too poor to
buy readily available food. Even most "hungry countries" have enough
food for all their people right now. Many are net exporters of food
and other agricultural products.

Myth 2
Nature's to Blame for Famine

Reality: It's too easy to blame nature. Human-made forces are making
people increasingly vulnerable to nature's vagaries. Food is always
available for those who can afford it - starvation during hard times
hits only the poorest. Millions live on the brink of disaster in south
Asia, Africa and elsewhere, because they are deprived of land by a
powerful few, trapped in the unremitting grip of debt, or miserably
paid. Natural events rarely explain deaths; they are simply the final
push over the brink. Human institutions and policies determine who
eats and who starves during hard times. Likewise, in America many
homeless die from the cold every winter, yet ultimate responsibility
doesn't lie with the weather. The real culprits are an economy that
fails to offer everyone opportunities, and a society that places
economic efficiency over compassion.

Myth 3
Too Many People

Reality: Birth rates are falling rapidly worldwide as remaining
regions of the Third World begin the demographic transition - when birth
rates drop in response to an earlier decline in death rates. Although
rapid population growth remains a serious concern in many countries,
nowhere does population density explain hunger. For every Bangladesh,
a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil or
Bolivia, where abundant food resources coexist with hunger. Costa
Rica, with only half of Honduras' cropped acres per person, boasts a
life expectancy - one indicator of nutrition - 11 years longer than that
of Honduras and close to that of developed countries. Rapid population
growth is not the root cause of hunger. Like hunger itself, it results
from underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women,
of economic opportunity and security. Rapid population growth and
hunger are endemic to societies where land ownership, jobs, education,
health care, and old age security are beyond the reach of most people.
Those Third World societies with dramatically successful early and
rapid reductions of population growth rates-China, Sri Lanka,
Colombia, Cuba and the Indian state of Kerala-prove that the lives of
the poor, especially poor women, must improve before they can choose
to have fewer children.

Myth 4
The Environment vs. More Food?

Reality: We should be alarmed that an environmental crisis is
undercutting our food-production resources, but a tradeoff between our
environment and the world's need for food is not inevitable. Efforts
to feed the hungry are not causing the environmental crisis. Large
corporations are mainly responsible for deforestation-creating and
profiting from developed-country consumer demand for tropical
hardwoods and exotic or out-of-season food items. Most pesticides used
in the Third World are applied to export crops, playing little role in
feeding the hungry, while in the U.S. they are used to give a
blemish-free cosmetic appearance to produce, with no improvement in
nutritional value.

Alternatives exist now and many more are possible. The success of
organic farmers in the U.S. gives a glimpse of the possibilities.
Cuba's recent success in overcoming a food crisis through
self-reliance and sustainable, virtually pesticide-free agriculture is
another good example. Indeed, environmentally sound agricultural
alternatives can be more productive than environmentally destructive
ones.

Myth 5
The Green Revolution is the Answer

Reality: The production advances of the Green Revolution are no myth.
Thanks to the new seeds, million of tons more grain a year are being
harvested. But focusing narrowly on increasing production cannot
alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated
distribution of economic power that determines who can buy the
additional food. That's why in several of the biggest Green Revolution
successes - India, Mexico, and the Philippines - grain production and in
some cases, exports, have climbed, while hunger has persisted and the
long-term productive capacity of the soil is degraded. Now we must
fight the prospect of a 'New Green Revolution' based on biotechnology,
which threatens to further accentuate inequality.

Myth 6
We Need Large Farms

Reality: Large landowners who control most of the best land often
leave much of it idle. Unjust farming systems leave farmland in the
hands of the most inefficient producers. By contrast, small farmers
typically achieve at least four to five times greater output per acre,
in part because they work their land more intensively and use
integrated, and often more sustainable, production systems. Without
secure tenure, the many millions of tenant farmers in the Third World
have little incentive to invest in land improvements, to rotate crops,
or to leave land fallow for the sake of long-term soil fertility.
Future food production is undermined. On the other hand,
redistribution of land can favor production. Comprehensive land reform
has markedly increased production in countries as diverse as Japan,
Zimbabwe, and Taiwan. A World Bank study of northeast Brazil estimates
that redistributing farmland into smaller holdings would raise output
an astonishing 80 percent.

Myth 7
The Free Market Can End Hunger

Reality: Unfortunately, such a "market-is-good, government-is-bad"
formula can never help address the causes of hunger. Such a dogmatic
stance misleads us that a society can opt for one or the other, when
in fact every economy on earth combines the market and government in
allocating resources and distributing goods. The market's marvelous
efficiencies can only work to eliminate hunger, however, when
purchasing power is widely dispersed.
So all those who believe in the usefulness of the market and the
necessity of ending hunger must concentrate on promoting not the
market, but the consumers! In this task, government has a vital role
to play in countering the tendency toward economic concentration,
through genuine tax, credit, and land reforms to disperse buying power
toward the poor. Recent trends toward privatization and de-regulation
are most definitely not the answer.

Myth 8
Free Trade is the Answer

Reality: The trade promotion formula has proven an abject failure at
alleviating hunger. In most Third World countries exports have boomed
while hunger has continued unabated or actually worsened. While
soybean exports boomed in Brazil-to feed Japanese and European
livestock-hunger spread from one-third to two-thirds of the
population. Where the majority of people have been made too poor to
buy the food grown on their own country's soil, those who control
productive resources will, not surprisingly, orient their production
to more lucrative markets abroad. Export crop production squeezes out
basic food production. Pro-trade policies like NAFTA and GATT pit
working people in different countries against each other in a 'race to
the bottom,' where the basis of competition is who will work for less,
without adequate health coverage or minimum environmental standards.
Mexico and the U.S. are a case in point: since NAFTA we have had a net
loss of 250,000 jobs here, while Mexico has lost 2 million, and hunger
is on the rise in both countries.

Myth 9
Too Hungry to Fight for Their Rights

Reality: Bombarded with images of poor people as weak and hungry, we
lose sight of the obvious: for those with few resources, mere survival
requires tremendous effort. If the poor were truly passive, few of
them could even survive. Around the world, from the Zapatistas in
Chiapas, Mexico, to the farmers' movement in India, wherever people
are suffering needlessly, movements for change are underway. People
will feed themselves, if allowed to do so. It's not our job to 'set
things right' for others. Our responsibility is to remove the
obstacles in their paths, obstacles often created by large
corporations and U.S. government, World Bank and IMF policies.

Myth 10
More U.S. Aid Will Help the Hungry

Reality: Most U.S. aid works directly against the hungry. Foreign aid
can only reinforce, not change, the status quo. Where governments
answer only to elites, our aid not only fails to reach hungry people,
it shores up the very forces working against them. Our aid is used to
impose free trade and free market policies, to promote exports at the
expense of food production, and to provide the armaments that
repressive governments use to stay in power. Even emergency, or
humanitarian aid, which makes up only five percent of the total, often
ends up enriching American grain companies while failing to reach the
hungry, and it can dangerously undercut local food production in the
recipient country. It would be better to use our foreign aid budget
for unconditional debt relief, as it is the foreign debt burden that
forces most Third World countries to cut back on basic health,
education and anti-poverty programs.

Myth 11
We Benefit From Their Poverty

Reality: The biggest threat to the well-being of the vast majority of
Americans is not the advancement but the continued deprivation of the
hungry. Low wages-both abroad and in inner cities at home-may mean
cheaper bananas, shirts, computers and fast food for most Americans,
but in other ways we pay heavily for hunger and poverty. Enforced
poverty in the Third World jeopardizes U.S. jobs, wages and working
conditions as corporations seek cheaper labor abroad. In a global
economy, what American workers have achieved in employment, wage
levels, and working conditions can be protected only when working
people in every country are freed from economic desperation.

Here at home, policies like welfare reform throw more people into the
job market than can be absorbed-at below minimum wage levels in the
case of 'workfare'-which puts downward pressure on the wages of those
on higher rungs of the employment ladder. The growing numbers of
'working poor' are those who have part- or full-time low wage jobs yet
cannot afford adequate nutrition or housing for their families.
Educating ourselves about the common interests most Americans share
with the poor in the Third World and at home allows us to be
compassionate without sliding into pity. In working to clear the way
for the poor to free themselves from economic oppression, we free
ourselves as well.

Myth 12
Curtail Freedom to End Hunger?

Reality: There is no theoretical or practical reason why freedom,
taken to mean civil liberties, should be incompatible with ending
hunger. Surveying the globe, we see no correlation between hunger and
civil liberties. However, one narrow definition of freedom-the right
to unlimited accumulation of wealth-producing property and the right
to use that property however one sees fit-is in fundamental conflict
with ending hunger. By contrast, a definition of freedom more
consistent with our nation's dominant founding vision holds that
economic security for all is the guarantor of our liberty. Such an
understanding of freedom is essential to ending hunger.


12 Myths About Hunger based on World Hunger: 12 Myths, 2nd Edition, by
Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis
Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First
Books, Oct. 1998)

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