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Hunger's big question – properly asked

Can We Feed The World Without Destroying It?
Forfatter: Eric Holt-Giménez
Forlag: (Global Futures) Polity Press (USA/Storbritannia)
In a small, concise book, Eric Holt-Giménez shows that hunger problems are different than we usually think.


Polity Press series Global Futures offers illustrations of world problems related to the future of the globe, based on questions that are simple but profound, as naive-sounding as they are inevitable: Can we put an end to all war? Can we solve the refugee crisis? Can the welfare state survive? Should rich nations help poor nations? The two-part question in this new title is brilliant: Can we feed the world without destroying it? We are not only faced with a conflict between human survival and ecological considerations, but also between short-term solutions and long-term perspectives.

The one who is called in to address this huge issue is Eric Holt-Giménez, the head of the Food First institute. As an agroecologist, he has the right background to show how ecology and agriculture are intertwined, and the combination of academic thinking, activism and blogging has given him the ability to present the theme through hard-hitting, almost motto-like formulations. By turning the problem, he effectively draws the reader to a viewpoint where the world situation looks different from the way it is usually presented.

Failed overproduction

From the first page of this short book we are drawn into a twist of the problem. The first twist the author makes should be uncontroversial, though striking: There is no food shortage in the world. Those who are starving generally have access to food, they just can't afford to buy it. The second twist is perhaps more surprising: The problem is not that we do not produce enough food in the world, the problem is overproduction. If we put the two together, we will soon also understand why many of those starving themselves are farmers: They are exposed to competition in a global market, led by ever larger corporations whose names for a minority of socially critical resistance people have begun to sound like gloomy kingdoms from a saga where the battle is between good and evil: Dow, Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer-Monsanto. And in the real world, these corporate empires, regardless of intentions, are in fact caught up in a game of world domination, which means that as much food as possible has to be produced as cheaply as possible. The competition creates an agricultural oligarchy, a global capitalist food system that has emerged in the wake of the so-called green revolution – based on specially-grown monocultures, pesticides and intensive use of fertilizers.

Capitalist interests that stand in the way of change produce the poor populations
like the problem. Actually, they are the solution.

Where the biggest become systematic winners, a crowd of small farmers, many of them women, systematic losers: They can no longer sell their goods at competitive prices and simply go bankrupt. The next step is not necessarily hunger death, but constant hunger – and then malnutrition – and illness. The second loser is the environment, which is depleted in an almost endless number of ways by an agriculture that has been based on maximum productivity since the beginning of the "green revolution".

Consideration for the regeneration of nature, of the earth and ecosystems has come in fourth place, if at all, it is included. Some parts of the natural systems are fertilized, others are directly poisoned. Some species are neglected and counteracted in ways that most people have in mind as a troubled clue. This notion becomes horrifying when it is concretized in terms such as mass extinction and ecological collapse. What ideas, what arguments serve as the superstructure for such obviously clandestine matters? How do agricultural empires legitimize their global expansion?

From high-tech to wide-tech

The legitimacy of this system lies in the superstructure, Marxistly understood, especially in the legal systems that establish the free market: They guarantee ownership of seed, land, the nature of which we live. Holt-Giménez is not afraid to call these ideas of legitimate ownership "myths", though embodied in concrete practices, from joints and contracts to patents. On a more subtle level, the superstructure helps shape myths about the problem itself – and what is the solution.

The mantra that we must "double food production in the world to meet the needs of 10 million people by 2050" refers to a closer look at the idea that sales of food must be doubled. Othe sentence must be doubled. The real problem is not population growth, but the overriding concern for economic growth, built into the capitalist food system. In fact, most of the food is produced by self-sufficient small farmers who run reasonably organic, farmers whose interests are overshadowed by the West's giant corporations.

The mantra that we must "double food production in the world" refers, on closer inspection, to an idea that food sales must be doubled.

Are there alternatives? According to Holt-Giménez, the solution lies in the agro-ecological movement, which emerged as an alternative to industrial agriculture from the 1980s onwards, with Vandana Shiva as one of the most important front figures. The alliance between traditional agricultural practices and ecological science has developed a wealth of knowledge that increases productivity in smallholder farming – through crop rotation and strategic interaction with local ecosystems. Where these practices are allowed to unfold, biodiversity increases, small farmers earn more, eat better and gain greater control over access to food. "This sounds good, but if this solution is so great, why not use it everywhere?" Giménez asks rhetorically on behalf of the reader. Not surprisingly, the answer is: because of the capitalist food system.

Smart pesticides

Monopolies must be dissolved and financial speculation in basic natural resources must be countered by antitrust legislation. We must counteract false aid measures that further strengthen the major players and create dependence on the small ones: genetically engineered seeds, smarter pesticides followed by new tricks such as high-tech surveillance systems. We need to understand technology in a much wider sense and move from technocratic high-tech to a kind of "wide-tech" based on decentralized knowledge and innovation, data and resources that are freely shared and without ownership. A network of knowledgeable, self-help small users is already being built, which must also be brought into the market.

To the extent that these trends are helped through changes in legislation and trade agreements, rather than counteracted, there is hope in sight. Holt-Giménez points out that capitalist interests that stand in the way of such changes are still presenting the poor population as the problem. Actually, they are the solution.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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