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Interview with Anuradha Mittal: Human Need vs. Corporate Greed

Anuradha Mittal is the co-director of Food First, also known as the Institute for Food and Development Policy. She launched “The Time has Come!”, a national campaign to challenge increasing poverty, hunger and economic insecurity in the U.S. Anuradha is the co-editor of America Needs Human Rights (Food First, 1999), and her articles have appeared in newspapers across the country. She spoke to Angela Starks about the myths and the facts surrounding hunger’s causes and cures.

What would you say is the most important political food issue?

At Food First, we are especially concerned about the myths around the whole issue of hunger and how these myths prevent us from ending it. We do not have a clear reason presented to us by the policy makers and the media as to what causes hunger. The usual reason given is that there is not enough food to go around. But look at a country like the U.S., which is the largest surplus producer. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 36 million Americans do not have enough food, or they do not have adequate food security. Then there’s India which has a serious hunger problem, even though it is one of the largest exporters of food. Another myth is the ‘over population’ excuse. The fact is, for every overpopulated country like Bangladesh, which has hunger, you have countries like Brazil or Nigeria, which are not densely populated and yet they have hunger.

One of the main causes of increasing hunger and poverty is not the shortage of food production but the shortage of purchasing power. It’s the absence of living wage jobs, the absence of genuine land reform (people do not have control over resources, including land, to be able to grow their own food) and the increasing concentration of corporate power over our food system which are responsible.

Are there important differences between the causes of hunger in so-called developing countries and the U.S.?
In this age of economic globalization, universal factors are responsible. In the U.S., for example, not everyone receives a living wage. Also the system does not support the small family farmers. Family farmers are no longer counted as a profession; they have virtually disappeared, and yet agribusinesses are getting stronger and stronger. The need for the redistribution of resources applies globally.

Food First talks about food as a human right. Why is it necessary to campaign for the right to food as a human right when it should be a given?

That is a very important question. Food as a human right should be a given, but the reality is that even in a country like the U.S., while we are so gung-ho about trade agreements and the like, we have not ratified the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which would guarantee the right to food. In 1996 at the World Food Summit in Rome, the head of the U.S. delegation basically explained that we cannot support the right to food—just as the U.S. government does not support the right to housing—because it would mean that welfare reform is in violation of international laws. Because the ICESCR is a treaty, it would become law if ratified, which means it would be a government’s job to respect, protect, facilitate and fulfill economic rights. So when we find that the governments are not fulfilling obligations, that they represent large corporations instead of their own people, we need to have campaigns that talk about food and housing as rights. Just as the torture of one family or individual is unacceptable, the hunger of one family or individual in this modern day and age, when we have enough food around the world, should not be tolerated. It would be a crime against humanity.

In what other ways do economics factor into the hunger issue?

Governments need to have appropriate policies for land reform and living wages and to ensure that trade agreements will not work against working families but in favor of them. With any social economic policy that a government embarks on it can ask itself, “is it going to honor and facilitate people to feed themselves?” That should be its litmus test. It does not mean setting up groups of people who just knock on people’s doors with free meals—that should only be a last resort. Donations are not the solution; challenging the political structures—that’s what we have to do.

It actually makes better economic sense to have policies that protect the right to food, because when you have people who are starving they are not able to perform adequately, including children who are not paying attention in schools. Living wages are very feasible; they are not just an inspiration to strive towards but a reality that we can make happen. Unfortunately, the U.S. has repeatedly seen the end to hunger as a ‘goal’ which is very different from viewing food as a human right.

So rather than throwing money at the problem, we need to change the infrastructure?

Yes. Right now, for every dollar spent on food, only 15 cents goes to the farmer. The rest goes to corporations like Cargill that control not just the food production, they are also the buyers, packers and shippers. So we create a situation that puts our farmers out of business.

Agriculture used to be about small family farms, when a community knew where their food came from, when children grew up singing “old MacDonald had a farm.” That whole situation has changed, to “old MacDonald has a factory.” How many children know that tomatoes don’t grow in a can that you buy at a supermarket? Look at the distance that food travels today, whether it’s blemish-free grapes from Chile, or beans from Ethiopia. Industrial agriculture has managed to effect, in a very detached and impersonal way, how we connect to our food. The cash economy and exports have become the new form of agriculture, instead of a local effort around which communities, religions and festivities are based. It is this commodification of agriculture that has resulted in the devastation of the environment, ecology and social and economic life.

What role do multinational corp-orations play in hunger?

The world’s food and grain supply system as well as the seeds are now controlled by a handful of corporations—it is dependent on their whims and fancies. The agricultural clauses of the World Trade Organization are drafted by the Vice President of Cargill, which in itself presents a very threatening situation. To have something like food—that is so integral to political and economic sovereignty—being taken over by agribusinesses is very scary. A lot of people might think that with the end of the Cold War, we do not have to worry about embargoes and the rest because we are one big happy family. I would like to remind readers of cases like Cuba, which illustrate the importance that every country be food self-sufficient. Cuba could have been starved with the collapse of the socialist block and the trade embargo, but it has managed to feed its own people by practicing sustainable ecological agriculture.

Are countries exporting a lot of what they grow on their prime land?

About 78 percent of countries with child malnourishment are food exporting countries. When you look at the famine of Ethiopia in the ‘80’s, even at that time—when food aid was being sent—Ethiopia was exporting beans to Europe.

So food aid is not the answer?

At Food First we believe that yes, food aid might sometimes be important, when it has to be done urgently and can be provided without political conditions. However, instead of sending food aid from Canada or the U.S., we should try to buy it from the local resources. In the case of Ethiopia, all this food aid came from the U.S. and other countries, finding new markets for Western corporations, even though the local farmers had crops in their fields.

Most of the time when we think of food aid, we presume it is free but a lot of it is sold at a low interest rate, so in the name of food aid we actually find new markets for U.S. corporations. For example, even though Indonesia received the gold medal for food self-sufficiency from the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1984, this country became the largest recipient of food aid in the world in 1998. The problem was not a shortage of food production; the reason was that people were too poor after the Asian financial crisis. 15,000 people were being laid off per day in Jakarta alone. I met numerous farmers with crops in their fields, but for the first time ever, the U.S. had found a market in Indonesia for wheat. Indonesians don’t eat wheat!

What role does debt play in hunger?

One of the biggest things that we talk about is annulment of debt. These are from loans that were given for bad projects in which local communities had no say. Let’s look at examples of World Bank loans, for projects like a nuclear reactor in an area prone to seismic activity in the Philippines—a bad idea; or the building of large dams that have displaced hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. If you look at when these loans are given and who gets the contract—say to build a large dam—very often it is European or American companies. You give it with one hand and you take it away with the other.

The debts need to be annulled right away, because these countries have paid far more than they actually took loans for. The loans are resulting in programs that violate governments’ obligations to its people; so, to make up for the debt, you find money going away from social safety nets, you find countries being forced to engage in export agriculture—growing coffee or tulips or whatever—instead of feeding their own people.

Do you have a policy at Food First where you say “this is what we really need to do to end hunger”?

We advocate the right to food as a human right. It’s an approach we need to take to be able to reshape the terms of the debate. However, we do not just focus on one solution, we talk about all kinds of different alternatives. On one hand, we challenge the whole global food system, whether it is through the world’s agricultural trade policies, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, or whether it is looking at existing alternatives such as the sustainable farming in Cuba. Our research also shows that small farms actually produce much more than the large corporate farms, so Food First advocates these alternatives.

To accept alternatives, people need to understand what causes hunger: it is not some supernatural force that causes it, or something beyond our control, it is something called human decisions. Since human decisions are responsible, we feel empowered because those decisions can be changed.


For more about Food First and the Institute for Food and Development Policy visit http://www.foodfirst.org/ or call 510-654-4400.