Environment, hunger and population
by Dr Hannah Middleton
Right now the earth is producing more than enough to feed every human being — both on a global scale and within the countries associated with starvation. However, the system of ownership and control in agricultural production and marketing prevents everyone being fed.
The capacity to produce food is immense yet a large proportion of the world’s population lives in conditions of abject poverty and deprivation: 700 million people go hungry throughout the world; 15 million die from starvation each year — one person every two seconds.
Enough grain is produced to provide everyone with ample protein and more than 3,000 calories a day. However, over one-third of this grain is fed to livestock.
In Mexico, where at least 80 per cent of the children in rural areas are undernourished, livestock — mostly for export to the USA — consume more basic grains than the country’s entire rural population.
Hunger, deprivation and environmental destruction are not limited to the under-developed world; a process of global impoverishment is underway, resulting in unemployment, homelessness and low wages in urban ghettos and shanty towns and the elimination of independent farmers in Australia, Europe and North America. Low levels of food consumption and malnutrition are increasingly hitting the urban poor in the rich countries.
In the United States, about 30 million people are classified as “hungry” but no one can argue that this is because not enough food is being produced. Hunger exists in the face of plenty.
People are not hungry because food is scarce or because there are too many people. Pressure on the environment does not come from demands to produce more food — there is already enough.
International Labor Organisation studies in the 1970s showed that in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, where the focus was on getting total food production increased and where food production per capita had in fact risen, the rural poor were absolutely worse off than before. The study concluded that “the increase in poverty has been associated not with a fall but with a rise in cereal production per head, the main component of the diet of the poor.”
It is revealing that the assertion that hunger is caused by “over-population” is so widespread. It says a lot about how ordinary people are regarded. People are pictured as an economic liability when, in reality, all wealth begins with people, with human labour.
The blame for growing poverty, hunger and environmental degradation should not be placed on the poor and hungry, the victims. It should be placed on the pursuit of profit and lack of planning by those who control agricultural production and distribution and also on the consequent overconsumption in the developed countries.
Capitalist economies are based on the exploitation of labour and nature. Land, natural resources and energy sources are exploited at one end of the production process and the waste-absorbing capacity of the environment at the other end. Transnational corporations do their utmost to avoid paying for the cost of maintaining the capability of nature to continue supplying the former and to continue absorbing the latter.
The average person in developed capitalist countries like Australia and the USA consumes about 50 times as much of the world’s energy and other resources and creates 50 times as much garbage and toxic waste as does a poor person in the South.
However, the primary cause of the spiralling human and environmental crises on our planet is not the growing world population but capitalism’s unfair global economic policies.
Mining, industrial plantations and forest exploitation also contribute significantly to environmental degradation. However, there is not space to look at these aspects in detail in this article.
Too many people
If “too many people” cause hunger, we would expect to find the most hunger in countries which have the most people for each area of land producing crops. But no such pattern exists.
China has only half the cultivated land per person that India has, yet China has succeeded in eliminating starvation while millions of Indians go hungry.
Mexico, where most of the rural population does not have enough to eat, has more cultivated land per person than Cuba where no one starves.
In most under-developed countries average grain yields are only one half what they are in industrialised countries. And much land, presently harvested only once a year, could provide two or even more harvests.
Such under-utilisation of food-producing resources characterises every society where the land, credit and marketing are controlled by a few and those who work the land do not have effective control over it.
Who is in control?
Big transnationals like Kraft, Nabisco and Cargill, in tandem with their governments, are taking control of food production in under-developed countries. The first step was taken in the 1980s when, under structural adjustment, the World Bank and the IMF induced under-developed countries to switch from food crops to cash crops to earn foreign exchange to repay their debts.
This led to a sharp fall in area under food production and forced several under-developed countries, particularly in Africa, to rely increasingly on Western imports of food grains. Thus a market was created to get rid of the grain mountains of Europe and America.
The efforts of capitalist corporations to gain direct control over the food production systems of under-developed countries are being promoted through two main routes.
First, foreign capital will freely flow into the agricultural sector of under-developed countries under the foreign investment rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which has punitive powers it can use against members who do not toe the line. A new landlordism replete with colonial overtones of exploitative production for the “home” market ignoring the needs of the “natives” will set in.
Second, by gaining proprietary rights over plant germplasm using the weapon of patents Western corporations will be able not only to dictate what is grown in under-developed countries but also earn huge profits in the process.
The earnings of farmers in rich and poor countries alike are squeezed by a handful of global agro-industrial enterprises which simultaneously control the markets for grain, farm inputs, seeds and processed foods.
One giant firm, Cargill, with more than 140 affiliates and subsidiaries around the world, controls a large share of the international trade in grain. Since the 1950s Cargill has become the main contractor of US “food aid”.
Fast foods and meat
A sinister part of the strategy to take control of production in under-developed countries is the promotion of Western-style fast foods.
At the World Food Summit in Rome, capitalist countries strongly opposed efforts to include “cultural” acceptability of food as being integral to food security. From a business point of view having a mass market for a few foodstuffs makes more business sense than a small market for many.
The president of food giant Nabisco once defined the goal of economic globalisation as a “world of homogeneous consumption” where people everywhere eat the same food, wear the same clothes and live in houses built from the same materials.
The most negative aspect of the promotion of Western foods is meat consumption which is rising sharply in under-developed countries.
In India, the broiler industry has grown from 30 million birds in 1980 to 300 million in 1995, with output doubling every five years. With American fast food chains such as McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut entering the country, the demand for meat will grow even faster.
A broiler chicken needs 2.2 kilograms of feed grain per kilo of live weight gain. For pork it is four kilos and for beef seven kilos. This means that animals have become major competitors with humans for grains, leading to higher grain prices and denying the hungry access to cheap food.
Globally nearly 40 per cent of all grains produced goes to feed livestock. Rising meat consumption is exerting tremendous pressure on scarce land and water and is contributing to environmental degradation and the destruction of livelihoods. The broiler industry, for instance, has driven thousands of small chicken farmers out of business.
Big is not efficient
Monopoly control over resources is claimed to be more productive, more efficient. Large agricultural entrepreneurs are presented as having all the know-how and to have proven their worth by the simple fact of getting so big.
In reality, a food system where a few are in control inevitably under-uses and misuses food-producing resources. Throughout the world, larger land- holders consistently produce less per hectare than the small producers.
Production for profit
The environment is not being destroyed because people are trying to produce more food to feed growing populations. It is being destroyed because production is directed into the most profitable areas, regardless of the impact on humans or the environment, by predatory corporations which have concentrated control over food-producing resources in their hands. This is as true in Australia as it is in Bangladesh, Mexico or the USA.
Monopolisation of resources leads to their inefficient use. One way this is demonstrated is through the choice of what is grown. The few who control the majority of farm land will grow whatever brings the highest return on the highest paying market.
In the under-developed world, most local people are too poor to be in the market. So, in Central American and Caribbean countries, while as many as 80 per cent of the children are undernourished, almost half the cultivated land, invariably the best, is used to grow just five of the commodities primarily produced for export: coffee, bananas, cocoa, sugar and beef.
Where productive assets are controlled by a few, cash cropping or export agriculture makes the deteriorating position of farmers even worse.
Export agriculture makes it possible for the local economic elite to be unconcerned about the poverty at home that greatly limits the buying power of most of the local people. Through producing for export the elite can profit anyway by finding buyers in high paying overseas markets.
Export agriculture provides the incentive to local and foreign elites to tighten their control over productive resources from which export profits are made and to resist firmly any attempts at redistribution of control over productive assets.
Under-developed countries can compete in export markets only by exploiting labour, especially women and children, leading to miserable wages and working conditions. Owners and export-oriented governments will stop at nothing to crush workers’ efforts to organise themselves.
Export agriculture also throws the local population into competition with foreign consumers for the products of their own land, raising local prices and reducing the real income of the majority.
However, export agriculture itself is not the enemy. In both Cuba and the Dominican Republic, for example, a large portion of agricultural land produces sugar and other exports. Both countries rely on agricultural exports for foreign exchange and both import significant amounts of grain. Yet today in the Dominican Republic, at least 75 per cent of the people are undernourished, while in Cuba there is virtually no malnutrition.
Food exports from Australia
In Australia too, agribusinesses are exploiting the land ruthlessly, and degrading the environment in the process, in order to make the maximum profits — not to feed a growing Australian population.
In a speech to a Medical Association for the Prevention of War conference in April this year, Jeff Atkinson, National Policy Co-ordinator for Community Aid Abroad, stated:
Australia is putting major efforts into increasing its agricultural and food exports to Asia and other parts of the developing world, with consequences for food security and rural development in those regions.
Australian wheat, beef, dairy products, fruit, seafoods, etc, have been vigorously promoted in Asia and elsewhere for many years. We already supply about a quarter of Southeast Asia’s wheat imports and would supply more if it was not being undercut by subsidised US wheat. We are a major supplier of beef (mainly to Japan and the US) and it is expected that beef sales to Southeast Asia will increase dramatically over the next few years.
Dairy products are another major export. Southeast Asia’s dependence on imports for these is very high and growing and as a result Australia was able to double its sales of dairy products to that region in the 1980s and now has a 30 per cent share of the market. Dairy products are now Australia’s leading export to the Philippines.
Other Australian products likely to be seen in increased quantity in the region include temperate fruits, vegetables and seafood such as lobsters and tuna. In 1994, fruit and vegetables were our third largest export to India, worth some A$47 million. Exports of apples to the Philippines, for example, doubled in the two years from 1991 to 1993 from US$4.2 million worth to US$8.2 million … .
Food already constitutes five to ten per cent of most Southeast Asian countries’ imports, costing the region some US$19,000 million in foreign exchange in 1992.
Australia is thus a major contributor to Asia’s growing food dependence, and to a situation in which increasing amounts of foreign exchange are being used to purchase food that only the affluent can afford to buy.
It may also be contributing to the undermining of local producers who, if it were not for the imports, could be producing more of the fruit, beef, dairy products and seafood themselves with consequent benefits for rural development and the country’s balance of payments.
In the Andes Mountains, farmers sow 15 to 20 different crops on a small plot, including about ten varieties of potatoes, to ensure that their families are sure to eat, irrespective of the climatic conditions in any given year.
There are more than 80,000 edible plants in the tropics. Thousands have been used throughout history, but no more than 150 are still cultivated and of these just 12 provide about 75 per cent of the food consumed in the world. Of the 12, three — maize, rice and wheat — supply more than half of the world’s food.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, much of the “genetic erosion” has stemmed from the World Bank driven “green revolution”.
In the 1960s, World Bank loans financed subsidies for chemical fertilisers and pesticides, for rapid exploitation of ground water, and for large dams spread the non-sustainable agricultural model of the Green Revolution. This introduced monocultures and destroyed biodiversity, exhausted ground water reserves, created water-logged and saline deserts and destroyed peasant livelihoods.
In the 1990s, the destruction of biodiversity and livelihood continue as the World Bank promotes aquaculture, the so-called Blue Revolution. All the mistakes of the Green Revolution are being repeated in the Blue Revolution with the introduction of large-scale monocultures of a single species, especially shrimp.
While the main cause of salination is irrigation, shrimp farms are also destroying ground water through salination; they are destroying marine fisheries and the fishing communities who depend on the sea; and they are destroying agricultural lands and the livelihoods of peasant families.
Intensive shrimp farming puts the luxury consumption of shrimp by rich Northern consumers and the profits of corporations above the need for drinking water, food, and livelihoods of local fishing and farming communities.
World Bank publications argue for privatisation on the grounds that communally owned resources tend to degrade and “privatisation is a frequent policy prescription for solving the problems caused by overusing resources under open access and common property”.
It is claimed that “in the absence of rights to sell or transfer land, the land ‘owner’ may be unable to realise the value of any improvements and thus has little incentive to invest in long-term measures such as soil conservation".
However, some of the best examples of soil conservation — the hill terraces of the Himalayas — are realised precisely for the opposite reasons. Communities not threatened by alienation of resources and their benefits have the long-term possibility and interest to conserve resources.
World Bank projects and policy advice have often altered power relations between diverse communities, generating civil and ethnic strife. World Bank and IMF “modernisation” of agriculture has led to the dispossession of the peasantry, increased landlessness and environmental degradation.
The shrimp farming encouraged by the World Bank has led to protests by local communities, and incidents of shooting and arrests of protesters. The farms are now often run under the protection of armed guards. World Bank livestock projects in Rwanda changed the rights and privileges of the different ethnic groups, contributing to the genocide in that country.
Is the need for food for a growing population the real pressure forcing people to farm marginal lands that are easily destroyed?
In Colombia large numbers of farm families try to eke out a living on too little land, often in marginal areas. As a result they exploit the land severely, adding to erosion and other problems. Even so, they are not able to make a decent living.
However, much of Colombia’s good land is in the hands of absentee landlords who keep it idle or use it to graze cattle, raise animal feed or even flowers for export to the United States.
In Africa, large tracts of land perfectly suitable for permanent crops such as grazing grasses and fruit or nut trees have been torn up to make way for cotton and peanuts for export.
The intense pressure to increase US production for export to earn foreign exchange has brought more erosion-prone soils into production and has decreased or eliminated fallow periods that regenerate the soil. It has also led to the continuous planting of corn or other row crops that expose the soil to erosion, as opposed to crops such as hay that make the soil more erosion resistant.
A 1976 study concluded that soil loss due to erosion in western Iowa was up 22 per cent because of US farm policy to increase agricultural production for export. Farmers were losing an average of ten tons of topsoil per acre each year or two bushels of topsoil for every bushel of corn produced.
In Australia, the intensive production of beef, wheat and cotton, mainly by agribusiness conglomerates, has led to salination, widespread erosion, outbreaks of blue-green algae and other environmental disasters.
The profligate ways of the rich nations are also responsible for global environmental degradation and these ways must be curbed if the planet’s ecology is to be protected.
The poor in under-developed countries use a bucket of water for a bath, but a Westerner uses up to 50 litres of water in a shower and twice as much in a bath.
Evelyne Hong, from the Third World Network, in a speech to the Women’s Caucus of the NGO Forum at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in September 1994, said:
Some 25 per cent of the world’s population consumes 75 per cent of the world’s resources, most of which are located in the South. Whereas a Swiss consumes 40 times more than one Somalian of the world’s resources and each Bangladeshi consumes energy equivalent to only three barrels of oil a year, an average American uses 55 barrels …
While the impoverishment and immiseration of the Third World goes on, the over-population hysteria is constantly whipped up, putting the blame and burden of the crisis on the Third World, especially Third World women.
Now the problem of over-consumption, which is already out of hand in the West, is being exported to under-developed countries.
The best approach to combat poverty, world hunger and ecological degradation is not through population control but through more equitable socio-economic policies and fairer distribution of wealth and resources.
High birth rates are a defensive reaction for families, both rural and urban, who live marginally by day to day subsistence. Children from an early age contribute to family income; they provide a source of support and care in times of parental unemployment, sickness and old age; many children compensate for the high infant death rate, the result of inadequate nutrition and health care. High birth rates can also reflect the social powerlessness of women, which is increased by poverty.
For a family that is desperately poor, to have many children is an economic necessity. The worse the family’s socio-economic situation, the more children are needed.
The only way to bring about substantial and sustainable reductions in fertility rates is through far-reaching social change. Such change entails more equitable systems which guarantee that the basic needs of all persons are met.
Several years ago the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored a study called “Good Health at Low Cost”. It documented that the Indian state of Kerala, despite low per capita income, had achieved child survival and life expectancy statistics close to those of much richer developed countries.
The reason, the study found, was that Kerala had followed a path of development based on equity, including basic health services for all, including rural areas, universal primary education, and assurance that all people would have enough to eat. Kerala had lower fertility rates than neighbouring states, despite less aggressive “family planning” campaigns.
In Cuba during the Batista dictatorship, where the gap between rich and poor was enormous and people had few social guarantees, Cuba had one of the highest fertility rates in Latin America.
After the revolution, the government introduced universal high quality health care and education, universal employment opportunities, adequate housing and sanitation for all, full care for the elderly, equal rights and opportunities or women.
Although Cuba made a variety of contraceptive methods available, for many years it had no policy of promoting “family planning”. Yet during the first decade of the revolution, the birth rate fell significantly — far more than in Latin American countries with strong “family planning” campaigns but few social guarantees for their impoverished citizens.
It is not growing populations that threaten to destroy the environment, but other forces: land monopolisers who export non food and luxury crops, forcing the rural majority to abuse marginal lands; colonial patterns of cash cropping that are reinforced by national elites (emerging bourgeoisie, large peasants, military, etc) today; and a system that promotes utilisation of food-producing resources according to profit-seeking criteria.
Blaming immigration for environmental degradation in Australia is avoiding the issues and their real remedies which demand control over the transnationals, distributive justice and an attack on the consumerist lifestyle.
The root cause of today’s global crises is the globalisation of the market economy — with its massive debt burden, impoverishing structural adjustment policies, increasing net flow of wealth from poor persons and countries to rich, and authoritarian puppet governments armed by the global capitalist powers to keep such inequities in place. Capitalism makes every effort to conceal this.