Is there a human right to food? Asking the question reveals the misperceptions we have about the issue. Hunger is so basic, so biological. It seems simple to solve—feed the hungry—yet separated from ideology by its biological imperative. But the issues are internecine and intensely ideological.
We perceive that people are hungry because there is not enough food. But the reality is people are starving—over a billion people are hungry in the world—not because there is not enough food, but because they are poor and disempowered. We have plenty of food: one and a half times enough to feed everyone on the planet. Producing, and even distributing, more food will not solve the global food crisis. Indeed, doing so may exacerbate the problem. The cure for world hunger is much more ideologically intricate, logistically complicated, and rights-based. The cure lies in addressing the causes: the poverty, discrimination, and disempowerment at the root of hunger.
So the question is not whether there is a human right to be provided with food, but whether there is a right to be free from hunger through empowered access to the means to feed oneself. It is as much a question of human dignity, individual liberty, and social justice as of health and nutrition.
The challenge of answering that question with more than merely a “yes”—with, instead, a solution—raises the further question of how, in this age and world of plenty, a global food crisis even exists. That there is horrifying hunger worldwide is undeniable. Almost 50 million Americans could not get enough to eat last year; the rest of the world is far worse off. More than 25,000 people a day die from hunger, malnutrition, and related disease. The levels of malnutrition are staggering. The worst hit: women and children. And only thirty-six countries—almost all in Africa and Asia—account for 90 percent of the world’s malnourished children.
What happened to the progress of the last fifty years? The “Green Revolution” promised and delivered scientific breakthroughs to conquer famine in the developing world and saved a billion people from hunger. But it turned out the “revolution” had, in current lingua franca, “blowback.” Many millions are hungry today partly because of it. Arguably, the Green Revolution exported the industrial model of food production from the Global North to the Global South. Along with the short-term hunger-cure came huge long-term benefits to private enterprise, which favored large agriculture on rich land pushing small peasant farmers onto fragile forest-perimeter lands, the nutrients of which were quickly depleted. Many of those farmers fled to the cities, where they are now on the streets, hungry and looking for work. (The majority of the world’s billion hungry are farmers and their families.)
Traditional systems of food aid can actually further the spiral. When we give food to developing-country governments or international organizations, they may sell it at prices below the cost of production, undercutting local farmers and costing the countries their agricultural base. The process opens these markets to corporate products from developed countries and can make these Global South countries
dependent on that foreign food.
The result can break down small, local, indigenous food farming and enrich large, limited, corporate industrial production. Investment in rural infrastructure has been all too rare. Instead, corporations gained access to extraordinary indigenous agricultural biodiversity, and used it to produce just a few products, which they sold back to farmers. If the farmers wanted credit, they had to sell that product—that particular seed. Many peasant farmers were marginalized and impoverished. Local, organic, diverse agriculture was lost. In the Philippines, for example, there were 1,700 varieties of rice. Now there are four. The same pattern is in danger of being repeated with a new version of the Green Revolution. The first revolution was partly funded by big petroleum and became dependent on petroleum products. Today’s “revolution” is funded largely by information technology money and may make farmers dependant on genetically engineered food.
The United States significantly overproduces grains, so grain companies can buy cheap at subsidized prices that do not recognize true production costs. To make overproduction work financially, grain must be sold in massive quantities, which requires a market. That market can and has been found in the Global South, which has become dependent on our grain. Those countries used to produce a billion dollars of surplus every year. Now, they have to import $11 billion a year in food.
The paradigm only works when there is enough overproduction and prices are low or trending downward (as they were for the last thirty years). When prices go up, the result can be a food crisis like that of 2008. The short-term causes of the price increase were fuel shortages and drought. Volatile oil prices led to alternative sources of fuel made from food. In the United States, ethanol-fuel makers took 30 percent of the nation’s corn crop by 2009. Many farmers reduced their plantings of other crops, such as soybeans, wheat, and peas to grow more corn for cars. But the more fundamental causes were structural—a global food system highly subject to economic shock because, when prices edge up, speculators jump on the commodities and send prices skyward. This phenomenon occurs because virtual monopolies control the buying and selling of food in a largely unregulated financial structure. In this system, there is a lot of profit to be made from the volatility of the market if you control both buying and selling, and buy cheap and sell high. This kind of speculation-effect happened with the recent tortilla crisis in Mexico. As the price of corn rose because of demand for grain-based ethanol fuel, transnational corporate producers hoarded corn and withheld it from the market—which drove prices of the national staple up dramatically—and then finally released it for sale at much higher prices.
Through this labyrinthine global food ecosystem runs a central thread that brings us back to the introductory theme: The global food crisis is a question of social justice, and the answer lies in a human right to have empowered access to the means to feed oneself. People are hungry because they are poor. People are poor because they are disempowered in the global marketplace, deprived of the resources to live—such as access, land, water, credit, time, and a fair price for their own products and labor. Africa is a prime example. We think of it as a poor, starving continent. In fact it is an extraordinarily fertile land, which is being (once again) colonized by countries from around the world to grow food for export. We, as a world, need to help empower Africans to feed themselves—not persuade them that they need products we will sell. The crisis in Haiti focuses us on another example: a country historically disempowered by global policitcs and enterprise—to the point of extreme fragility, where already half its food was imported before the quake, consequently thrown into crisis and chaos when the quake hit, and now more dependent on imported food than ever.
The articles in this issue of Human Rights explore vital facets of the crisis and its possible solutions. As Thurow and Killman write in their piece, “[S]o much of the chronic, everyday hunger in the world is now a man-made catastrophe, caused…by people, institutions, and governments doing what they thought was best for themselves or sometimes even what they thought at the time was best” for the hungry.
Thirty years ago, Norman Borlaug, the putative father of the Green Revolution, said we would be guilty of “criminal negligence” if we allowed hunger to persist. Although, ironically, some of his work may have inadvertently abetted the offense he decried, we have gained from it not only the billion saved, but the experience of what went wrong.
It is our obligation to learn from those mistakes. The first step is understanding them, then disseminating and applying that knowledge. We hope this issue of Human Rights —not normally a conduit of public health dialogue—underscores that hunger is actually an issue of social justice and human rights, and so broadens the conversation. Our authors bring to the discussion profound experience and special insight, and bring to light valuable analyses of some of the challenges and trenchant strategies for solutions.
With the light of this learning, we can grow our resurgent resolve to feed the hungry into effective empowerment of the planet’s poor to feed themselves.