The business pages of the Star Tribune often highlight the well meaning efforts of employees of Cargill and General Mills in their charity projects for Africa, as noted in “Partners work to bolster African food chain” (Star Tribune, 3/5/12). No doubt a number of the on-site projects which involve working with local communities in Africa are important and beneficial in the short term. But an emphasis on the corporate food giants benevolence masks the root causes of the worlds food crisis and the role that unregulated global markets, financial speculators, and global monopolies have on it. Decades of flawed agricultural policies, inequitable trade, and unsustainable development have thrown the world’s food systems into a volatile boom and bust cycle and widened the gap between affluence and poverty.
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The food crisis actually reflects a food system in crisis. So called “free” market reforms worldwide, promoted by the United States, eroded support for local agriculture and led to massive consolidation in the agriculture industry. Bad weather, high oil prices, agrofuels, and speculation are just a few of the causes. The root cause is a global food system that is extremely vulnerable to economic and environmental shock. This stems from the risks, inequities, and externalities ingrained in food systems that are dominated by a global industrial agri-foods complex. Built over the past half-century, primarily with public funds for grain subsidies, foreign aid, and international agricultural development, the industrial agri-foods complex is made up of multinational grain traders, giant seed, chemical, and fertilizer corporations, processors, and global supermarket chains.
The Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the 1980s-90s imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund dismantled marketing boards, eliminated price guarantees, closed entire research and extension systems, broke down tariffs, and deregulated agricultural markets. Southern countries were flooded with subsidized grain from the U.S. and Europe that was sold at prices far under the costs of production. This destroyed national agricultural markets and tied southern food security to global markets dominated by rich northern countries and companies.
The World Bank and the IMF pressured African countries to abandon local, sustainable, small farm agriculture, which was seen as unproductive. Development policies pushed people to urban areas where they were to provide labor to industry. The theory: African industrial agriculture would produce export crops (coffee, cacao, cotton) to pay off their foreign debt, and Africans would use revenues from industry to import their food. The bank told Africans that this development strategy would result in increased family incomes and economic security, leading to lower population growth rates. The strategy failed, horribly.
There is no shortage of proven, equitable, and sustainable alternatives to the current industrial practices and corporate monopolies holding the world’s food hostage, and there are millions of people in the food justice movement working to advance these alternatives. The need is to democratize our food system in order to ensure equity and sustainability. This will require a social change in the way we manage food. We must reduce the political influence of the industrial agri-foods complex and reject official prescriptions for solving the world food crisis which call for more of the same policies that caused the crisis in the first place: e.g., more subsidies, greater reliance on food aid, more “free” trade, more fertilizers/additives/chemicals, and more Green Revolutions aka “gene revolutions.”
Expecting the institutions that built the current food system to solve the food crisis is ludicrous. So at the very least they should donate some of their time and expansive profits to charity. More corporate welfare and more technological gimmicks are happy meal news for an industrial foods complex seeking to ensure windfall profits and further consolidate monopoly power, but it will do nothing to end hunger in Africa or in our own country, as these food giants are not capable of re-structuring our inequitable global food system.