The Jacobin magazine writes that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global food production is more than adequate to feed the world. For instance, 2,577 million tons of cereal were forecasted to be produced in 2016, with 13 million tons leftover after demand is met.
Worldwide we already produce over two thousand kilocalories (kcal) per person on average, the minimum level of energy humans require according to USDA dietary guidelines. Still, with all this production, 780 million people are living with chronic hunger, many of them living in rural areas dependent upon agriculture for their livelihoods.
Estimates are that around one-third of food is lost or wasted, and food waste researchers consider this an underestimate of the problem. Hypothetically, if that waste were eliminated, that would add another eighty-five million tons of cereal. The FAO argues that “even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.”
Technology can resolve a lot of issues faced by agriculture, but it doesn’t address why producers would decide to leave food in the field rather than bring it to market, or why distributors would rather throw out food than delivering it to those in need. Both are absurd acts if your goal is to feed people. But that is not the goal of capitalist food production. Capitalist production is animated by an insatiable drive to profit and accumulate. Capitalist incentives lead to overproduction of food that is never delivered, and no one is under any obligation to utilize such a surplus and abundance for eradicating hunger. Once we understand this contradiction, we can see the capitalist food system as one of an absurd abundance. A commodity is produced for its exchange value — its price. A capitalist uses money to make a commodity to sell to get more money. From this simple chain, numerous economic reasons arise for farmers to not harvest everything grown.
Food that isn’t commodified has no value for a capitalist, despite its biological value to a hungry person. The specific use value of food for that person is of no consequence. The farmer who has no use for such food, of course, is not being malicious — just responding to competitive market pressures. As price fluctuates over the course of the growing season, farmers pick fewer crops. At the beginning of the season, the price for fruits and vegetables is higher than at the end. So as the season progresses, more and more produce is left in the field. Farmers recognize the effect of price — they are economic optimizers in a capitalist market. They leave more and more produce out of the supply chain in an effort to inflate the food’s price. Farmers are controlling supply to affect the price, regardless of the demand.
The principle cleavage is between a left-liberal faction that clings to the erroneous idea that this system can be reformed to serve human need and the radicals who insist that it can’t. The UN and the FAO have adopted strategies that completely ignore the reality of capitalist imperatives. They emphasize technology, markets, and policy as panaceas for reorienting the food system to be more just and ecologically sustainable. They propose that people support “local farmers or markets and sustainable food choices” along with “using your power as a consumer and voter” — all individualized actions amounting to the cliché “vote with your fork.”
Hunger is not an inevitability; it is a choice. We can choose to end it.