Bread and Circuses
Famines do not occur.
They are organised by the grain trade.
This is the edited text of a report given by Erna Bennett to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia in March 1997.
The UN World Food Summit in Rome in October 1996 ended with a round-the-clock session after a five day meeting which cost US$1.2 million plus an undisclosed sum of “voluntary contributions” from mainly private sector sponsors (mostly transnational corporations) estimated at more than US$7 million.
The meeting debated a pre-prepared draft document. The main task of discussion was to bracket and remove from the draft any parts that did not conform to a consensus view of the delegations present. The final statement did not include the views of participating NGOs.
A little over 9,800 delegates represented 186 countries and 1,200 NGOs. National delegations included 41 presidents, 15 vice-presidents and 41 prime ministers. The Pope also addressed the meeting. A formidable display of security forces, at an undisclosed cost, protected summit participants — but from what?
Each national delegation was given a seven minute time slot, NGOs four minutes. During the conference — if it can be called that, for free debate on the right to food and food security was clearly not on the agenda — discussion was limited to the text of the draft document.
Presentation of the joint NGO proposal was allocated a place so late on the agenda that the conference hall was empty but for an odd straggler. Only last-minute efforts at the highest level made it possible for the NGO statement to be heard at all.
A commitment to nothing
In spite of fine words about equality, popular participation, sustainable development, democratic government and equitable access to food and social services, block after block of text in the draft conference document ended up closed in brackets and weeded from the final declaration. The result, as one NGO representative put it, was the lowest common denominator of official international opinion.
The northern industrialised countries (i.e. the capitalist countries) opposed any hint of a suggestion that funds or new structures be made available. In the end the labours of this enormous mountain brought forth a mouse — a Plan of Action made up of Seven Commitments which commit member states to nothing, and which exclude any reference to the right to food.
For their part, NGOs submitted their own document, entitled Commitment Eight, calling for concerted action to establish a “Right to Food”, to be signed by delegates.
The Plan of Action
The Food Summit Plan of Action is to all intents and purposes a Plan of Inaction. Its seven commitments relate to problems in the following areas:
- A search for general conditions guaranteeing economic and social progress conducive to food security; the eradication of poverty and access to adequate food;
- how to attain sustainable increases in food production;
- the contribution of trade to food security;
- the prevention of, and response to food emergencies;
- how to attain optimal investment in available human resources, sustainable productive capacity, and rural development;
- co-operation in implementing and monitoring the Plan of Action.
To these essentially pious declarations Northern delegations, mostly from member states already contributing much less to UN development programs than agreed to at previous UN meetings, stressed repeatedly that they were not prepared to contribute further funds to new food security projects, nor would they approve formation of any new organisation or infrastructures.
The “Green Revolution”
For many years the UN and its agencies, but particularly the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), have organised short-term and long-term programs and projects in the under-developed countries aimed — it was and is claimed, and believed by many — at solving what was described as the “world food crisis”; in short, the problem of hunger.
All these programs have started from the assumption that hunger is caused by insufficient food supplies. It has also been assumed that hunger is the result of population pressure on dwindling global food resources. These arguments sounded so convincing that most believed them, and many still do.
Yet for as many years as this myth has persisted, it has been evident from FAO’s own world food production and population statistics to whomever cared to do the necessary but simple calculations, that — taking cereal crops alone into account and excluding all other food sources (legumes, vegetables, fruit, or fish and animal protein) — the earth has always yielded, and still yields, food sufficient for an adequate diet for all who live on it.
World cereal production is about 1,500 million tons, and world population about five billion. Evenly distributed, this is enough to supply between 2,500 and 3,000 calories per person per day. Clearly, therefore, under-production is not the cause of hunger, and we need to look for other causes.
For the first time, last year’s Food Summit has stated unequivocally that the cause of hunger is poverty. This is a giant step forward from the earlier arguments that under-production of food was the root cause of hunger, but it is still not the whole story.
Poverty condemns the poor to under-nourishment. As a recent example we may cite the situation in Russia in the wake of the overthrow of the Soviet system, where liberalisation of bread prices and the privatisation of grain distribution have so far increased the price of bread that the ACTUAL DEMAND for it has fallen to 570,000 tons against a predicted demand amounting to 1.1 million tons.
And when we look at Mexico, a major wheat producer, we find that more grain is consumed by the livestock industry than by the entire rural population.
It is evident that something more than poverty decides this, and we must conclude that the cause of such gross distortions of priorities is a system which, by its very nature, generates social inequality.
Social impact of the Green Revolution
Chronic malnutrition stunts both physical and mental growth and development. Malnourished children are much more prone to serious chronic illnesses. One and a half billion people on earth suffer permanent malnutrition. Three quarters of these are women and children. None will ever attain the mental and physical development promised by their genetic potential.
Nor is this merely a distant statistic from the devastated countries of the Third World, the under-developed ex-colonies of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It strikes Australia also.
In 40,000 Australian families both parents are unemployed. In the two years from 1990 to 1992 the number of such families with young children doubled. These children, like their Asian and African counterparts, are 25 per cent more vulnerable to serious chronic illness. They, too, will never attain the physical or mental levels they are genetically capable of. In Australia, as elsewhere, it is as clear as day that poverty is the cause of hunger, and that both hunger and poverty are the consequences of the existing social and economic system.
Nevertheless, the notion of a “technical fix” for the problem of hunger took root, and has dominated international policy-making since the end of World War II and the first stages in the development of a new, global, capitalist order.
In research institutes all over the world plant breeders have tried to make two ears of corn grow where one grew before, spurred on by the belief that they were working to end the scourge of hunger.
The so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s brought massive increases in cereal yields. It also ushered in the use of fertilisers and pesticides on an unprecedented scale, used in combination with new “miracle varieties” or “high-yielding varieties” of wheat and rice. In reality, these were merely high-response varieties (HRVs) which yielded well only in response to costly irrigation and chemical inputs.
The Green Revolution effected a major social transformation in all the countries in which the new HRVs were introduced, the under-developed countries for the most part, where it led to large, sometimes spectacular increases in cereal production. But it did so at enormous social cost, with powerful effects that were felt throughout rural and urban society.
It led, first, to a massive increase in landlessness. Inputs for the new agriculture — new seeds, irrigation, fertilisers, pesticides, and an increased use of machinery — were costly, and generally unavailable to the majority of small cultivators because, as subsistence farmers, they were generally ineligible for the agricultural credits that were readily available to large-scale, commercial farmers, or lacked capital for these inputs.
Within a short time, therefore, small farmers were forced to sell out to large landowners, who thus consolidated their land holdings. In Mexico, for example, the green revolution saw the average farm size increase from 200 ha. to 2,000 ha., while it left 75 per cent of agricultural labourers landless.
In India, the green revolution saw a doubling of landlessness in a single decade, and 50 per cent of the rice crop, which represents most of the increase in yield attributable to the green revolution, was exported.
It had to be exported, because India needed a much greater supply of foreign currency in order to buy the fertilisers and equipment now necessary for the high response varieties and the technology that went with them. Fully 25 per cent of India’s foreign exchange reserves went to such purchases.
Class changes in modernisation
And so we are witness to a transformation of the economies of under- developed countries that led, on the one hand, to ties with and absorption into the global economy dominated by the industrial and agri-chemical TNCs of the developed capitalist countries. At the same time, a very great part of the rural population was marginalised and impoverished.
We have seen a fundamental transformation from a largely subsistence, though sustainable agriculture based on pre-capitalist relationships, into a fully-fledged but subordinate component of a global, capitalist economy based on the “commodification” of agriculture and the export of cash crops. Replacing subsistence cropping, this undermined food security, and increased both the danger and the actual incidence of hunger and famines.
But it created enormous new markets in under-developed countries for manufactured goods from the industries of the northern, industrialised countries. The change has been described as “modernisation”.
One inevitable consequence of the installation in this way of agri-industry in a process of “modernisation”, has been the construction in under-developed countries of a number of subsidiary agro-chemical plants by the petrochemical corporations. One of these, at Bhopal, in India, was the cause of one of the worst industrial disasters of this century. Details of this are still only slowly coming to light, and only the scantiest compensation has ever been paid, where it has been paid at all.
The agricultural transition from a predominantly feudal state to one based on capitalist relationships has been as ruthless as the changes that swept peasant Europe for several centuries during the long dissolution of the feudal order there, but it has occurred in the course of a few decades.
The large landowners were not the only class to assume control of the land. This class, a surviving part of the old “feudal” order, responded to the changes imposed by “modernisation” in a number of ways, as did the landed aristocracy in Europe. In some cases it adapted to the changes, and became part of the new rural capitalist class, adopted capitalist relationships with the new landless proto-proletariat, and increased its political and economic power by extending its control of the land.
Other elements of this class, however, have responded either by resorting to renting land, permitting them economies of scale, on which they could employ their machinery with greater efficiency, or, by hiring out their machinery and trucks, they became, first, rural entrepreneurs and then, by enlargement, developed into large-scale machinery and transport operators.
But other classes were drawn to agri-industry. Modernisation attracted many from the class of wealthy urban professionals, such as retired government officials, army officers, lawyers and merchants, who established ownership and control of large expanses of land, bringing with them a close and influential association with politics and government. In this way, the new landowning class also became a potent and at times decisive lobby group.
We may see numerous parallels in many parts of Europe, one of the most recent examples being Ireland in the wake of the mid-19th Century famine — though we must not exclude the present agrarian struggles in Greece.
The famine that devastated Ireland in 1845-1849 cleared the land of more than two million small tenant farmers and permitted consolidation of the land in the hands of large landowners, drawn in large measure from wealthy urban strata. As Marx put it, the Irish peasant was replaced by sheep for the English woollen industry and oxen to feed England’s imperial armies.
Integration in the global economy
The objective of the changes we are describing, in spite of claims by UN and other agencies that they are concerned with establishing food sufficiency, is integration of subsistence sectors of economies into national economies by a process of commercialisation. These economic and social changes have unleashed on the peasantry and small farmers all the un-equalising forces of competitive capitalism, and aggravated and vastly accelerated the already rapid impoverishment and marginalisation of millions of small predominantly subsistence farmers. Many have failed to survive under the new conditions.
ILO studies, carried out after the first decade of the green revolution and published in 1976, showed that in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, and Malaysia poverty was on the increase, and this was directly proportional to the increase in the per capita crop production in those countries. Also, we may note that it was — and remains — the food producers who are the poorest and the most vulnerable to hunger and famine.
So while cereal production increased significantly, and land consolidation brought wealth and power to a new stratum of agricultural entrepreneurs, the part of rural society associated with a subsistence economy, and therefore not part of an increasingly commercial economy, was dispossessed, and constrained either to work as a landless, rural proletariat for the new landowning classes or to migrate to the cities, where it swelled the ranks of the vast reserve army of the unemployed and chronically under-employed, because capitalism had no place for them in the cities either.
All these developments, on a scale affecting many millions of people in under-developed countries, took place in a period of little more than a decade. In this way, capitalism penetrated the last frontiers of pre-capitalist society with devastating consequences.
It needs also to be said that while the yield increases made possible by the industrialisation of agriculture stimulated exports and the world grain trade, they led at the same time to what were described as “catastrophically” heavy harvests, some of the highest ever recorded. Grain surpluses accumulated and world grain prices fell. In some of the world’s major grain-producing countries, grain farmers were paid subsidies to take land out of cultivation.
Capitalism does not ever change for the better, and it has not changed in the more than a generation that separates us today from Kennedy’s January 1962 “Farm Message to Congress”. This was reported in the London Times, with the headline “The Insoluble Problem of Abundance”. The paper noted that this was Kennedy’s first major attempt to meet the apparently insoluble problem of abundance.
The President proposed that farmers be paid for land taken out of cultivation in order to reduce the grain surplus. This, while hundreds of millions were dying of famine far from America — and while 17 million Americans went to bed hungry every night.
While we might expect this from an American president, should we expect the same from a UN agency? Yet, only a few years later, in 1970, when widespread famine was already threatening large parts of Asia and Africa, the FAO Committee on Commodity Problems warned of a need “to make realistic estimates of the future growth of demand … if the emergence of unsaleable surpluses is to be avoided.” This at a time, too, when the UN and its agencies were still arguing that hunger was due to too many people chasing too little food, and that the solution to famines was less people and more food.
Only a small part of the world wheat surplus of the 1970s would have been sufficient to save lives that were succumbing to famine, but the surplus did not go to save lives. Instead, much of it was adulterated to avoid “illicit” sale or consumption, or was fed to livestock, or converted to alcohol. It was even proposed to the European Union (then the European Economic Community) that surplus wheat could be converted into plastics.
Why? We might reply, saying, “because that is the nature of capitalism. The millions who starve to death each year — or who survive year after year in a chronically malnourished state — are too poor to constitute an ‘effective demand’ on the market, and so they get nothing”.
What is news from the Rome Summit is that both the UN and FAO have at last admitted unequivocally that it is poverty, not population pressure and not shortfalls in food production, that is the cause of hunger and diminished food security. This is far from the officially accepted and universally propagated view of the past 50 years. It is a view that until recently was anathema in UN and World Bank circles.
But does this mean that the UN and its agencies have changed their spots? That they have adopted progressive policies? That we might at last expect, or hope, that they will act on behalf of the poor and dispossessed?
Not at all. It means that as long as it was necessary to boost food production (for the profit of transnational, corporate food producers) to integrate millions of food producers in the third world into a global economy serving the interests of northern petro-chemical, agri-chemical, industrial and finance corporations, it was necessary and acceptable policy to argue that hunger could be relieved by higher production.
Now, world capitalism’s task is to draw into its net the last remaining pawns in the capital accumulation game — the poor and the dispossessed. They will be drawn in, as previous enlistments have been drawn in, by persuasion, deception and coercion.
The summit Plan of Action
What has the Rome Food Summit left in the nature of concrete and useful decisions?
Well, it has forsaken, as we have seen, after many years and for reasons we have suggested, the popular UN and World Bank set piece of Malthusian doctrine, and admitted that hunger and famines are the children of poverty.
This does not mean that either the UN or its agencies, or the World Bank, have adopted a revolutionary stance. It means only that the former Malthusian line of argument has attained its purpose — the consolidation of capitalism’s grip on global food production.
Nor does the Summit tell us what the causes of poverty are. In fact, we have every indication that it has no intention of doing so.
Throughout the Summit’s final document, it is evident that trade liberalisation is assumed to be the key to world food security. As one NGO observer commented, trade liberalisation runs through the whole text like a red thread. But many of the world’s very poor countries are food importers, injured rather than assisted by liberalisation of trade, and the Summit makes no pledge of any sort to assist them if and when necessary.
While there is a great deal of talk of a need for sustainable agriculture, liberalised trade runs counter to such policy.
There was no mention — except from Fidel Castro and the leaders of some under-developed countries — of the effect on under-developed economies (or any agricultural economy, for that matter) of the tendency for agricultural prices to fall, while prices of manufactured goods tend to rise. Such being the case, even maintaining imports at a constant level costs more and more in terms of agricultural products.
The Summit’s final document makes no reference to the role of TNCs in the global food system. It totally ignores the fact that 81 per cent of the world’s US$29 billion agri-chemical market is controlled by ten corporations, or that ten corporations (some of them dominating the agri-chemicals field also) control more than a third of the world’s seed market.
Closely linked with food production are other industries that, together with food production, relate to every aspect of human life and health, such as pharmaceuticals, veterinary medicines and, last but not least, biotechnology. Globally, these are now controlled by a mere handful of TNCs which lay claim to so-called Intellectual Property Rights and patents on every sort of living organism including human tissues. This process is assisted by various UN agencies, including the new World Trade Organisation.
Here, and not in the techniques of biotechnology or genetic manipulation themselves, is a real cause for serious concern. But this is not mentioned in the Summit report or Plan of Action.
Nor does the Summit do more than call for a reduction in the number of hungry and malnourished people by half by the year 2015. In 2010 a “mid-term review” will examine whether that target can be achieved in time. As for the other 450 million people who are not included in that target, inadequate and miserable as it is, there is no mention.
Fidel Castro, in his four-minute speech to a crowded assembly, described such a goal as shameful. Twenty-four people died of hunger for each minute that he spoke. No further comment is needed, except to listen again to his words:
The bells that are tolling now for those who are starving to death every day will tomorrow be tolling for all mankind if it does not want, or does not know, or is not sufficiently wise, to save itself.
Questions and answers on the report
Q. I understand that Green Revolution crops produced higher yields but poorer nutritional quality. Is this correct and was it discussed at the World Food Summit?
A. It is true that the so-called Green Revolution varieties gave enormous increases in yields. It is also important to note, as the comrade has pointed out, that the nutritional quality of the crops that resulted was frequently inferior to that of the varieties that existed before.
Not only that, they were genetically uniform. We have discussed this already so I won’t go into detail, except to remind us all of it.
They were genetically uniform, which meant that over very large areas diseases needed only to establish an early bridgehead in a crop in order to almost guarantee the spread of disease as an epidemic, rapidly, within a single season.
When I was in Iran collecting some of the native varieties of wheat there, we came across vast areas totally and utterly destroyed by rust. Only the stalks were standing.
We took photographs of these back to FAO in Rome where they were impounded and we were not allowed to use them because they showed Green Revolution varieties succumbing genetically to epidemics. This was at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, even at that early stage of the Green Revolution.
And no, none of this was mentioned at the World Food Summit.
Q. Was there a lot of discussion of the Green Revolution itself at the World Food Summit?
A. Almost none. There was a fair amount of discussion on increases in crop production. There is a generally held assumption that this was the great achievement of the Green Revolution, which of course it was, and is taken for granted now.
But the Green Revolution is not a “nice” subject for discussion in “nice” circles such as the United Nations any longer because such a large amount of evidence has accumulated about its negative impact.
Q. There is a view that overpopulation is the cause of poverty, malnutrition and starvation. Was any attention paid to the idea that in some cases under-population might in fact be a contributor to malnutrition? I believe that some of the research coming out of Africa is showing this to be the case, for example following wars when there’s no one left to tend the fields and look after the forests.
A. Yes, there was a great deal of discussion about the effect of conflicts, especially in Africa, on food security. But I suspect that the kind of discussion we would have on this kind of problem would be considerably different than the kind of discussion that was pursued at the World Food Summit.
The Food Summit clearly was interested in discussing the impact of conflicts on food security. One suspects and I don’t think one needs to be conspiratorially minded to suspect, that one of reasons was that member nations are laying a basis for future justifications for interventions in those countries for “humanitarian” reasons. I think that their motives are quite questionable.
Q. What part has China in this grand capitalist design that you spoke about?
A. First of all, thank you for the question, but I apologise that I’m not fully qualified to answer.
In general terms the Chinese situation is this: China is seen to be developing very rapidly, more rapidly than most other countries in the world, and also as a possible major consumer on the world grains market.
Much of the documentation presented in the Food Summit discussions, or presented in published form, bases a great part of its conclusions on the expected future demands that China will make for world grains.
On conclusions drawn from this argument Australia, for example, expects to increase grain production in the next 20 years. The Australian report suggests that it will be very profitable to export grains.
In fact, it is expected that grain prices will rise because of rising demand that will come principally from China as a major consumer.
That basically is where the discussion on China rested in the official Summit, that is, in its role vis-a-vis future world grains trading and in the context of the liberalisation of trade.
Q. What’s happening within China in agriculture? What sort of methods are they using?
A. Frankly, I’m not very qualified to comment. I am depending on Summit documents for information, but the position in general to a great extent is this:
Chinese agricultural production is rising rapidly. In fact, the Chinese is one of the economies showing the most favourable trends at the present time.
But the Chinese population is very large and most people at the Summit seem to believe that it will not be possible for Chinese agriculture to keep pace with Chinese population growth or rising Chinese demand.
In terms of agricultural techniques in China, what could have been said a decade or so ago can be said now with considerably greater force — that Chinese agriculture is highly productive, it is based much more on small units of sustainable agriculture than in most of the rest of the world. The assumption is that it will remain so.
China’s grain production at 386 kilos per capita per annum is the highest in the world and this from relatively small holdings. Its per capita production of vegetables of 198 kilos is also the highest in the world. Meat production is 41 kilos, eggs 14 and fruit 35 kilos per capita.
Some discussion at the Food Summit centred around the question of to what extent the agricultural land consolidation that has taken place in other countries will take place in China, and in what way and under what type of political leadership.
My own reading is that it will continue under the present leadership in the same direction. It will not go in for the high-yielding varieties to the extent that other countries have done, partly because — while it is a target by the international capitalist economy for incorporation into the global economy — resistance to that from the Chinese side is so great that we can virtually rule it out, certainly in the foreseeable future.
Q. Was there discussion about alternative means of food production, for instance those which don’t depend on pesticides and so forth?
A. It depends what you mean by discussion. There was a great deal of lip service paid to sustainable agriculture and to subsistence agriculture. There was a certain amount of lip service also paid to environmental problems. But there was no major contribution that I have seen that deals specifically with an attempt to redirect agriculture to what would be considered a lower level of production, of a substantially sustainable character.
Q. My question is about NGO participation because at a lot of these kinds of conferences the NGOs lobby official government and UN representatives. How would you characterise the political position taken by the NGOs? Is there is a dominant one, as compared to the analysis that you gave of the problem of food and hunger?
A. The analysis I have presented — that is, the gradual but steady and deliberate incorporation of the Third World in the global economy — is a view shared by a significant part of the world’s agricultural and development NGOs. Perhaps a large minority, perhaps a small majority.
But let’s face it, NGOs are an extremely heterogeneous group. It was extremely difficult to mobilise them during the Summit to prepare their Commitment 8 document and there was a great deal of all-night debate with more conservative elements among the NGOs.
We must assume from our own experience in our own country and through our own contacts that NGOs can be nice or nasty, NGOs can represent one part of public opinion or another part of public opinion.
Some NGO lobby groups fairly strongly supported the Summit’s general approach but for various reasons — pressure from other NGOs, fear of pressure from their own constituencies — finally ended up supporting the NGO document.
One really can’t speak of NGOs as if they are a consistently uniform group.
Q. How would you define the longer term objectives of the policies which are being implemented in this area?
A. I feel that we are looking at the final stages of a globalisation process. We’re looking at a stage of globalisation in the food production sector that, having swept into its net the larger economic units in the underdeveloped countries, is now trying to draw into the system the last remaining stragglers, who are in fact the poor.
The poor, who have no effective demand but can be drawn into this system by the implementation of national policies based on self-help and what will be called sustainable systems, which will be described differently from country to country, in such a way as to render even these small units effective production units within the global economy.
How? One way will certainly be to encourage small farmers to go into cash crop production so forecasts of development over the next 20 years predict an increased food import bill on the budgets of many countries which now don’t have to import food.
In other words, food-exporting or food-sufficient countries will become food-importing countries. The cost of this, of course, will be borne by the public. The benefits will go to the corporations because there will be an increased trade in cash crops.
The overall tendency is to concentrate food production, cereal production in particular, into fewer and fewer hands. The consolidation we have seen in the pharmaceutical and the seed industries will be repeated in other sectors as well.
The extent to which consolidation has already taken place is frightening, when one considers that at this moment more than three-quarters of the agri-chemicals in the world come from ten corporations and more than one-third, nearly half, of the seed in the world comes from ten corporations, many of those ten being the same ten that supply the agri-chemicals.
What we are looking at is a consistent, sustained and extremely powerful effort to draw all human beings, even down to the poorest levels, into a global economy dominated totally by an extremely small number of corporations.
The policy behind this is a last scraping of the barrel, as it were, of possible component parts for future globalisation.
Q. What about the position we have here in Australia since colonisation with so many sheep and cattle destroying the environment? What can we replace at lot of this land use with? Can it be cereal and other food production in place of it?
A. Well, this takes us back to the discussion we had before. Its a discussion which seems to me crucial for the Australian economy. Let’s look at the two alternatives: what we would propose and what the present government is proposing.
The present government, and in fact all the governments in Australia so far, have based their economy on cereals, and cattle and sheep raising, an agricultural system imported from Europe, and so poorly adapted to Australian conditions that the carrying capacity of Australian land in terms of numbers of livestock is low and the damaging effect of such economies on the land itself is very great.
Yet in the Australian document for the World Food Summit, there is constant reference to increased cereal production and to the fact that Australia will continue to contribute cereals to the world market, and that world grain prices will rise and that Australia will therefore benefit.
This may very well be so for the big, industrial-scale agri-capitalists that in reality constitute the greater part of Australian agriculture but it will not be so for the Australian environment. I doubt if it will be so for other Australians except that small group of economically interested organisations, corporations, who own the land and control the commerce.
What would we do? I can’t say exactly at this stage, but certainly we would attempt to grow a very large part of not just drought-resistant crops but land reconstituting crops for, first, livestock because the livestock is there.
There would need to be a gradual reduction of livestock and the implementation of an agriculture based probably far more on pulses perhaps, or on native Australian species of various sorts, and for water control.
Having established a degree of water control — which we have lost already to a great degree — we could start to redevelop water demanding agriculture on a sounder basis. But we’re thinking in terms of a 20, 30 or 40 year period.
It has often been said that there are very few native Australian species which are suitable for agriculture, but this is not so. There are a number of Australian species but there are also other species of root crops, leaf crops, vegetables and fruits that can in fact be grown in Australia, particularly if we improve our control of ground water.
That may not be a very satisfactory answer at this point but I’m not really an expert on Australian agricultural conditions.
Q. Has any policy been developed by the EEC to deal with their huge surpluses?
A. The EEC at this moment is attempting to bring about — by policy measures, by pricing measures, and various legislative measures — a consolidation of land holdings by eliminating small farmers and assisting the passage of much of Europe’s agricultural land into the hands of companies and corporations.
For example, in the EEC last year, the farming population dropped at the rate of one farmer per minute, all of these small farmers. Since we started talking, something like 90 farmers have ceased to be farmers, all of them small farmers.
At this moment in Greece, agricultural workers, the entire agrarian sector, is in ferment because of the imposition of EU measures on Greek agricultural structures such that the income of many small farmers will fall by between 20 and 40 per cent following new minimum price guarantees and new limits to production for many of the crops which they produced very well, such as olives, grapes, wine, milk.
The battles in Greece over these very issues are a response to administrative and legislative attempts from the European parliament to create conditions disfavouring small farmers and favouring large farmers — ostensibly in a search for “efficiency”, but in reality to assist land consolidation, and consolidation of food production in small numbers of hands. It’s as simple as that, class war.
Q. Was there any criticism by NGOs at the Food Summit of consumerism and the rape of world’s resources for ever more consumer commodities?
A. Well, as I said, there’s a lot of lip service paid to the environment, to sustainable development, even to matters like exploitation of labour in many of the speeches that were made.
But when we boil down the Summit to its realities, the Plan of Action and the Seven Commitments are what emerged from the egg when it hatched. No amount of fermentation inside the egg before it opened altered the fact that from the final hatching has come a series of statements from which virtually nothing of any importance or progressive significance has emerged.
In other words, these diplomats, these delegations in their various discussions have said all sorts of nice things just as they said them in the early days of the Green Revolution. This is all part of the usual deception procedure.
One example of this: The World Bank based a very great part of its policies up till the early or mid 1970s on encouraging the “efficient” sectors in agriculture, in other words, the big farmers.
(Incidentally the big farmers are not as efficient as the small farmers. There are many studies which show that the small farmer is infinitely more efficient in production than the big farmer. However, that’s not the point here.)
To the World Bank, the big producers were the backbone of the economy of each of these countries and therefore were the chosen sector for World Bank investment policies.
Then in the early 70s, things began to change and, with that change, it became fashionable to talk about the small farmer, the poor farmer, the subsistence farmer as the backbone of the country.
Why? Because the World Bank had suddenly become friendly to the poor? No. Because directing policies, diverting policies in the direction of the poor became, as it were, the official approach.
Why? Because, as we’ve said, the poor are still the majority in these countries. By working on them by deception, by coercion, by persuasion, by this kind of propaganda or by that, by promises and by legislation, by carrots and by sticks, the World Bank is drawing into the world global economy a very large part of the world’s small fish that escaped earlier nets that drew in the larger farmers in the third world.
Now all of this is accompanied by talk, a lot of talk, about directing policies to the small farmer. It doesn’t mean that anybody cares a damn about the small farmer. It simply means that the policy now is to draw the last remaining human beings who are not yet part of the global economy into its meshes.
Erna Bennett then made some closing comments.
There seems to be a certain amount of doubt and there may be a little bit of confusion about how these small farmers — evicted, marginalised from the system — can be drawn into the system again. Is this what the World Bank and the corporations want? The answer is yes.
There are a number of ways that this is done. For example, in South Asia — India, Pakistan, Malaysia — farmers who have been thrown out of the system face few alternatives, few options. Either they work as landless labourers, or they migrate to the towns.
Just in the last few years, governments have adopted a new policy. This is settlements. Evicted farmers who have lost their land to large farms are sent to government settlements where, under the supervision of government and World Bank experts, they cultivate small plots.
On these small plots they grow cash crops under contract. In official theory, this then means they will get an income with which to buy food, and so attain food security. This is the theory.
But we know, too, that in these countries there are many people who can work but don’t have a place to work. There are small producers, too, who produce, but don’t have a market for their produce. The theory about income, and income leading to food security, is extremely fallible.
But almost simultaneously with this development in these countries, the World Bank itself has begun to promote a policy encouraging large landowners not to expand their land by purchase, but to hire under contract the small holdings of those small farmers who have not yet been evicted, to do the same thing, that is to grow cash crops.
Now it is interesting that these governments promote this policy almost at the same time as the World Bank promotes another running perfectly parallel with it. So the small farmer, whether he likes it or not, is either thrown into the city — where he joins the unemployed or the battle for employment, often in countries where unemployment is 30, 40 or even more than 50 per cent, or he is forced to join the cash-crop producing bandwagon as a very minor player, producing cash crops for export under contract to large landowners or agri-corporations.
Let us look at the overall economic relationships with the under-developed countries. Third World debt in 1994 totalled just under US$2 trillion. Debt servicing costs were US$199 billion per annum.
Between 1990 and 1994, one-fifth of the world’s poorest countries — in other words, the 32 lowest income countries — saw their debt to the rich countries doubled.
We are now witnessing a process of a sustained series of investments in the Third World, and in particular in food production, by the corporations of the north which leads to the repatriation of vast sums of money. And let’s be clear — these sums of money are only debt repayments on loans. They don’t include things like royalties, exported interest on investments and a number of other items which could possibly double those figures.
The Australian document, a study of mathematical models of how things might be over the next 20 years, a calculated risk document, stresses, and some other northern countries have stressed, the following point:
- All the northern countries regard meat consumption as an indicator of economic development — a country where meat consumption is high is a rich country. Therefore as countries become better off they will eat more meat. Therefore they will need more wheat. Therefore the world grains market looks an extremely favourable area for investment.
- The Australian document stresses that a key driver of the world grains market is the demand for feed grains by the livestock sector. Meat is a key component of people’s diets in developed economies, it says.
- We should note that they foresee an increase in meat consumption sufficient to justify a doubling of grain production in the next 20 years.
- Meat consumption as a sign of development is of course contrary to modern medical views, but meat production is a big business and meat producers can mobilise a powerful lobby and so must be placated.
- The beef transnationals — and we ought to remember that they are transnationals — frequently supply the luxury city markets of the north by destroying forests in the south. They don’t give a damn about that and they’re not going to give a damn about that.
And this is where some of our earlier arguments about the Greens and ecologists must be stressed once again — it’s not enough to believe certain things, it’s not enough to convince certain people that certain things are true. The people who are responsible for this type of economy and this type of resource mismanagement are criminals and are not going to yield without pressure and force.
What counts for them is only the bottom line, whatever the human or social cost, and we will have to fight against that.
Now to turn another question. A very good point has been made on the question of agricultural efficiency measured in terms of sustainability or not. Sustainability is the crucial point about efficiency.
There is an enormous grey area here that requires discussion. In fact, discussions such as ours, here, can be very fertile.
I think there is room here for study, and for publications in The Guardian and the Australian Marxist Review, but there is also an area here for political mobilisation.
It has been asked: where is our audience in Australia, in rural Australia? Small Australian farmers are being pushed off their land as fast here as anybody anywhere, in exactly the same kind of process as we have seen worldwide.
We’ve got to find them, speak to them, we’ve got to convince them with arguments and facts. Our job, I think, is to gather those facts and present them coherently and convincingly.
One question is that of pastoral leases. Here we have a problem affecting environment, sustainability, water conservation, resource management, including human resources, which affects how we must approach the whole question of pastoral leases in Australia.
Forests and trees are another subject we can talk about. Ireland used to be covered with trees. It was once said that you could walk from the south of Ireland to the north by walking on the tops of the trees. Up until the time of a certain English king called Henry VIII, who was very busy building a navy.
Henry VIII has been called the father of the British navy. Nobody has ever asked who the mother of the British navy was. It was the Irish forests and he raped Ireland to get them. So the famous British navy must count among its most famous contributions the forests of Ireland.
Now Ireland is not an arid country as Australia is, as we know, but transplanting trees even in Ireland is just as difficult (or so far has been as impossible) as in an arid country such as Australia because of frequently salt winds in the west. Any trees that are grown have to be grown behind shelter.
The logging industry in Australia rapes the country’s forest cover, and does nothing or little to replace it. Growing trees is a costly business that private investors are not interested in. So who does it? The public exchequer. Taxes pay for it. The government does it. But the government doesn’t do it to conserve the land, it does it to produce more timber to cut down and sell, so in fact repeating the whole process again.
The message on hunger and the environment is this. Talk is not enough. Talk, discussion and even agreement must be translated into action. It is evident to all with eyes to see that hunger and the world environmental disaster are both the consequences of the same overwhelming profit drive that covered Europe with the dark, satanic mills of the 19th Century — this time on a global scale. Talking alone, convincing alone will not be enough.
Global capitalism’s New World Order directed and policed by US imperialism will not yield to intellectual or moral persuasion but will protect its wealth and power by force. Only a united, determined anti-imperialist, anti-TNC movement can dislodge it and the Communist Party is the only party so far to recognise this or to say so.
It is not only our role but our bounden duty to convince those who share our hostility to the destructive force of capitalist world development that together, and only together, we can take the steps necessary towards a final, decisive victory that can defeat poverty, wretchedness and hunger and win back the earth from the disaster that threatens it, and civilisation with it. One part of this duty is to build the Communist Party, so that it can truly become the effective instrument for social change and political progress that historical materialism and Marxism can make it.