Every day, millions of people wake up knowing they won’t have enough to eat that day. Hunger is one of the most basic – and telling – signs of poverty. That it should exist when the Earth produces enough food to feed everyone is unconscionable.
For now I ask no more than the justice of eating.
Pablo Neruda, The Great Tablecloth
There are many reasons why this anomaly exists, and they’re complex: destruction of the environment, commercial exhaustion of fisheries, and a global trading system that favours producing food for export, rather than encouraging local self-sufficiency.
Small and communal landholders were pushed off their lands during the Green Revolution of the 1970s and ’80s. That’s when governments and rural elites consolidated landholdings to facilitate large-scale, high-tech agriculture.
Local crop varieties capable of withstanding pests and drought are being replaced by less resistant, non-reproducing, privately-patented hybrids. The hybrids give much higher yields, but require large amounts of commercial fertilizer, often imported, and energy. So, traditional farming and fishing livelihoods that once supported communities have now been replaced by low-wage jobs and unemployment.
Even people living in countries with adequate supplies of food go hungry. In fact, we need look no farther than our own backyards. A 1997 survey by the Canadian Association of Food Banks found that 2.5 per cent of Canada’s population was having trouble meeting its food needs, a figure that has doubled since 1989. Since major welfare cuts in 1995, the numbers of people using emergency food programs in Ontario have been consistently 30% higher than before the cuts.
In March 1997, 450 food banks fed almost 700,000 Canadians. That people are hungry in a country as rich as Canada points to failed public policy – from our inability to provide enough jobs, to government cuts, to essential social services.
What food security we do have is built upon a system of monoculture and cash cropping – both here, and in the South. Many Canadian farmers and fishers can no longer earn a living supplying our food. Farmers need more and more land to survive. Transnational corporations, aided by freer trade in agricultural products, can bring food to the table more cheaply – often by contracting small landowners and exploiting rural labour in Southern countries.
The problem is compounded in many developing countries, where national food production can’t meet people’s caloric and nutritional needs, and the country can’t earn enough to make up that food “deficit” by buying imported food.
North and South, the people most affected are the poor – small landowners, the landless, people who fish for a living, refugees, indigenous peoples, and recent migrants from impoverished countrysides.
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. *World Food Summit, 1996
Women fare worst of all, even though they produce well over half the food in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And their ability to produce is hampered in rural areas by land ownership laws, custom, and agricultural development schemes that impede their access to land, credit, and technology.
In cities, limited job opportunities compared to men make it harder for women to buy food. In both rural and urban areas, the lack of health and social services places more responsibility on women’s shoulders, leaving them less time and energy for paid work or food production.
The low status of females in many countries means that men and the boys are fed first – often leaving little for women and girls.
In 1996, representatives from more than 100 governments met in Rome at the World Food Summit. There they agreed that everyone has a right to adequate food that is both safe and nutritious.
The 1996 Rome Food Summit Commitments to guide national action:
- Recognize and promote the right to food;
- Develop strategies to reduce the number of hungry people in the world by half by 2015;
- Undertake hunger mapping to identify the most vulnerable and those at risk by geography, gender etc.
- Prioritize national food security policies;
- Promote the Food for All Campaign.
Then, they set themselves a target – to reduce the number of under-nourished people in the world (800 million) by half by the year 2015.
This goal is realistic. But to achieve food security, governments need to develop national policies. Such policies would support regional systems of food production and distribution. They would also promote sustainable methods of agricultural production.
If the world’s major food producing countries in the North made a commitment to refrain from exporting their food at below-market prices and thereby protect domestic food producers in developing countries, then we’d have the makings of a secure global food system.
World-wide, people are working hard to make food security a reality. In Brazil, for example, a nation-wide citizen’s action campaign was launched in 1993 by neighbourhood associations, churches, companies, trade unions and schools. Today, 3,000 independent committees are working to relieve the hunger of 32 million people.
This campaign has given life to a new brand of grassroots politics and new, decentralized forms of organization. Individual initiative, generosity and the compelling reality of hunger have come together in a powerful movement for social change. It has even forced the Brazilian government to pay attention.
In 1993, it established a National Council for Food Security. This citizens’ council was an essential tool in forcing the state to organize a massive distribution of food to two million drought-stricken families in the country’s northeast.
By 1997, a growing interest in the plight of the poor had created an atmosphere of public support and sympathy for the more radical actions of rural people’s organizations. These include the call for agrarian reform and occupying unused land.
In Ethiopia, India and Kenya, NGOs are collecting, preserving and using native seeds in an attempt to return genetic diversity to local food crops. They want to re-introduce plant species capable of resisting new pests and diseases and able to thrive without irrigation or chemicals.
Internationally, farmers’ rights groups have banded together to fight private monopoly control of crop seeds.
Canadians are also seizing the initiative. In Saskatchewan, for example, farmers are exploring new systems of land tenure based on collective interests. They want to achieve sustainable agriculture, and to become more self-sufficient in providing safe and nutritious food.
In Toronto, a municipally-funded Food-To-Table program brings fresh produce from local farmers to low-income neighbourhoods. This direct distribution network contributes to the local food economy by cutting the cost of produce to consumers. It also guarantees the livelihoods of local producers.
And in Atlantic Canada, independent fishers are banding together in an effort to create broad-based organizations that can manage coastal fisheries in the interests of coastal communities.
These initiatives – many of them launched by the poor for the poor – show what can be accomplished with little technology and minimal government support. By matching human ingenuity with a commitment by national governments and the international community to end poverty, the simple “justice of eating” could be transformed into a reality.