“One third of all deaths of children under 5 in developing countries linked to undernutrition” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME
“842 million people do not eat enough to be healthy” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME
“One in every 8 people goes to bed hungry each night” – WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME
A lot of people are going hungry right now - and it’s not just developing lands which are suffering. As well as parts of Africa and Asia where droughts, famines, despots and wars have always caused problems, food shortages now seem to be spreading to the West and once thriving economies such as Japan.
Recently, a British couple committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with unemployment and the lack of money. To supplement their meagre income, they’d been walking for 42 miles a day to collect rations from a charity centre and, whether from shame or sheer despair, reached the point when they simply gave up - just two more victims from an increasingly desperate generation. Greece, Italy, even America, all are having to cope with a sluggish economy, joblessness and rising food prices.
In the UK, food inflation is currently outpacing the average wage increase, spiking last year to a 5% increase in what was once perceived to be, if not recession-proof, then certainly a recession-resistant industry. Delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference a couple of years ago were asked to consider just who has power over food prices. According to the experts, it’s certainly not consumers. Nor is it farmers, who are currently being squeezed by dwindling suppliers on the one hand and the decrease in retail customers on the other.
But how much power do governments wield? On the surface, very little, they would argue, citing two reasons: For one thing, agriculture now operates in a global context, and secondly (at least as far as the United Kingdom is concerned), the government is keen to reduce farm subsidies in the belief that increasing world demand along with higher prices will compensate growers for these lost revenues. The demand will always be there, of course. But where is the supply? And how can people on low incomes afford it?
As well as the unwarranted increase in costs, another worrying factor is coming into play – the monopoly of food by huge transnational (TNCs) who are investing billions in agriculture and supplies.
Has anyone noticed the speed with which small farms and food outlets are going out of business? How global conglomerates are buying up land for intensive farming and how supermarket chains are getting bigger and more powerful?
Speaking to the OFC, Dr Alan Renwick – SAC Head of the Land Economy & Environmental Research Group, identified a few of these TNCs with genuine clout. Cargill, Syngenta, Monsanto, Wal-Mart and, to a certain extent, Tesco, are far more influential than the state whose intervention in agriculture and trade has been diminishing. To date, three TNCs control almost 50% of the proprietary seed market.
Personally, I wouldn’t discount the role which governments are playing - or are likely to play in the future. No doubt it suits them to maintain a helpless and therefore blameless profile in the face of rising food scarcity. However, they must surely appreciate the power such a monopoly can wield. Control the world’s food supplies and you control the world.
We can also count on genetic engineering to create further demand, thanks to the proliferation of GM cereals. At one time, farmers could depend on nature to provide genrously – with one seed purchase providing healthy crops for several years. Yet there is nothing natural about some seeds produced by scientists in labs. They may be resistant to certain pests or climates, but many GM seeds are not self-propagating. Instead of having plenty of fertile new seed for the following crop, the farmer is forced to buy fresh seed from the supplier every time.
Sadly, starvation and malnutrition are nothing new. Back in the 1980s, an article in The Boston Globe stated: “A world with nearly a billion persons living close to starvation has to find ways to help the poorest nations to enjoy something approaching the bounty reaped by the richest nations, “The most disheartening aspect of undernourishment . . . is that the world has a clear-cut capacity to feed everyone.”
Surely it’s time that capacity was realised.