The Response to Food Shortages Around the World

A Letter from John Ollerenshaw (Nov. 18, 2008)

[This is a letter from John Ollerenshaw commenting on the CNN article which I forwarded to him and others, “As children starve, world struggles for solution”, by John Blake, 11/17/08. This article is posted, along with my brief introductory commentary, at: . One of the people quoted in the article is Patricia Wolff, the executive director of Meds & Food for Kids, and who John mentions in his letter. I think John’s commentary raises some very important criticisms of the way the world hunger issue is currently being addressed in general, and of the widespread attitudes in rich countries toward what is called the “Third World”. —Scott H.]

Hi Scott,

The matter of our response to food shortages around the world has bothered me for some time. Wolff’s suggestion that “more groups teach local farmers in poor places how to produce their own crops,” is naïve, misguided, and condescending. People in the third world know perfectly well how to grow crops and sustain agriculture; they are far better adapted to the land and seasons, through hundreds of years of practice, than any Western expert can ever hope to be. Her suggestion demonstrates the same pompous neo-colonial attitude as the old saying: “When you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day, but when you teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.” People living near the water know how to fish; when we “teach someone to fish,” we teach them to fish commercially. Where once a local fishery sustained an entire community with hooks and lines, a commercial fishery will make a few people very rich and leave nothing for the rest, until it finally collapses under pressure from the “shareholders.” In our misguided attempts at help, we proselytize for the new Capitalist religion.

Third-world farmers don’t grow enough food because they can’t compete with the treasuries of the United States and the European Union. American taxpayers will give their rural neighbours $307 billion over the next five years, European Union farmers will get €55 billion a year.

In the United States and Europe it’s bad enough: average taxpayers are subsidizing some of the richest corporations and individuals on earth; agricultural subsidies are quickly capitalized into land prices, which raises barriers to entry and causes further consolidation; and subsidies create huge surpluses. But it’s in the third world that the real negative effects are felt. The United Kingdom, of all places, is the world’s largest exporter of sugar, for example, the United States is a leading exporter of rice. To get rid of the huge surpluses, these countries either give them away in the guise of international aid or use export subsidies to dump them on third-world countries at below production cost. They not only get the farm vote, fulfil their foreign aid obligations, and stimulate their economies, they get to feel good about it.

If recipient governments try to tax imports to protect their farmers, trade retaliation is immediate and brutal. Third-world farmers can’t compete when free food is dumped on their markets, or when the world price for their commodities is kept artificially low by EU and US export subsidies and “gifts.” Subsistence farmers can’t sell wheat when some aid agency is tossing bags of it off the back of a truck next door. But when the gifts run out, there is no local agricultural infrastructure left to feed the people, and they simply starve. Agricultural subsidies in the United States and the European Union, directly and indirectly, cause by far more human suffering and conflict than any other single cause. It is the greatest crime of our generation.

The Guardian “EU farm subsidies uncovered”

The Economist “The Farm Bill: A harvest of disgrace”

John Ollerenshaw

MASSLINE.ORG Politics Page