Tuesday, October 04, 2016

A non-tech approach to fighting world hunger

The intention to ‘fight world hunger’ by beefing up our ‘biotech, genetic, and chemical approaches’ to increasing crop yield sounds well-meaning; even noble: Close to one billion people (1) around the world suffer from this life-sapping, life-threatening predicament, and the situation is unlikely to improve; what with population growth, the rapid depletion of resources, global warming and a host of other Armageddon-beckoning factors. Hence, the urge to uncover a technological fix is completely understandable.

Understandable, but completely misguided.  Not only is such an approach unlikely to resolve the issue; it may even make matters worse. This may seem an unbefitting assertion to make in the context of this ‘crop yield idea jam’, and more than likely rules me out as a recipient of the prize money! But that really is neither here nor there. The issues are far more important than filthy lucre. Although ‘filthy lucre’, ironically enough, is really at the heart of the problem, as I shall explain in due course.

What I wish to propose therefore is not just ‘outside the box’ but also a considerable distance from the box. Nevertheless, I would ask your indulgence because I believe that what I’m about to suggest addresses the problem of world hunger in the only realistic way available to humankind. I would also ask you to suspend judgment in regard to some of the terms I may employ as the meaning I have in mind for them may possibly differ radically from the meaning you attach to them; terms like ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’.

I should like to submit for your consideration the following propositions:

1.  World hunger is entirely attributable to the socioeconomic arrangements that obtain in every part of the world today

2.  We already possess the potential to feed every man, woman and child in the world today.

3.   Focussing exclusively on technological solutions to the problem of world hunger at best is likely to have very limited impact; at worst may obfuscate the issue and set in train a number of counterproductive trends.

4.  The solution to the problem of world hunger (and indeed a host of other interlinking problems) is the creation of a worldwide system in which the means of production are commonly owned and all goods and services are freely available. This is the solution that I should like to draw the attention of everyone participating in this ‘jam’.


Proposition [1] is simple sounding but distils a vast number of observations about the sort of world we inhabit. In this world, most of what we need or want can only be had at a price: we have to hand over money in order to obtain the things we need or want. In other words, goods and services are, generally speaking, commodities; a commodity being that which is only produced in order that a profit can be realised by selling it at more than it costs to produce the product. The process of production, of course, entails many costs, amongst which features labour power (2); the capacity of workers to work. However, whilst employed workers are generally the ones who actually produce the goods and services, they in the main have no stake in the operation in the sense that they don’t derive profit from the operation because they do not own the factory, office, mine, farm etc, wherein the said goods and services are produced, or the equipment involved. It is those who do own the concern – whether they are individual capitalists or merely shareholders – who derive profits from the operations. From their perspective, it makes sense to maximise the price of the goods or services they purvey, whilst keeping to a minimum the costs entailed in the productive process. Hence, there will always be an inherent conflict of interests between the workers - those obliged to sell their labour power in order to make ends meet - and the owners of capital. Most of the time, a sort of uneasy truce characterises relations between these two classes. But there will inevitably occur occasions in which the conflict will become more overt, often brought to a head by wider events.

Obviously, in the real world, things are a little more complicated than this tidy ‘ideal-type’ description implies. For example, in some companies, you’ll get profit sharing for employees or even outright ‘worker ownership’. Governmental subsidies or state ownership are similarly phenomena that blur the picture. Nevertheless, if one looks beyond the surface, beyond the particular permutations found in reality, it soon becomes apparent that certain ‘iron laws’ – such as production being contingent upon the likelihood of profit being realised and driven by the necessity to maximise profit by pricing the goods or services sold as high as possible whilst keeping costs to a minimum -  operate in any situation where you have goods and services being produced as commodities; that is to say, under capitalistic socioeconomic arrangements. This applies as much to countries cynically styling themselves as ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ (Cuba, China, North Korea, etc). In fact, what they operate simply amounts to state capitalism.

What has all this to do with world hunger, you may ask. In a word: everything. Food is just like any other commodity insofar as it too is subject to the same anarchic vagaries of capitalism:

Food will not be produced if there is insufficient demand for it; that is to say, need or want backed by the wherewithal to pay for the food. Let us not confuse real need with the dismal economic notion of ‘demand’. Thus, at the height of the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, Ethiopia was exporting green beans to Europe because that’s where the demand was; no matter that Ethiopians were starving to death, or that air freighting such produce in itself was environmentally destructive, as we now know all too well.

Food surpluses will often be destroyed rather than given away. Sometimes this is simply the outcome of bumper harvests; in which case, producers may wish to prevent a fall in the price or may lack the capacity to process the additional produce. Hence, for example, the spectacle of numerous tons of ‘surplus’ tomatoes being dumped on farmland in the Canary Islands (3). Sometimes the destruction of surpluses owes more to structural developments within a particular industry. The encroachment of big multinational corporations on the dairy industry in California, for example, has created  so much uncertainty that farmers; lacking the capacity to process their milk, have sometimes had to dump what couldn’t be processed. Frank Endres, a board member of the National Farmers Organization, witnessed ‘’128 loads of milk dumped at a time, loads from large 7,000 gallon tank trucks’’ (4). Food destruction can also arise paradoxically from ill-conceived national or international attempts to control the wanton greed or blinkered approach to food production under capitalism; the recent scandal about the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy leading to a discard rate of up to 70% being a case in point. When 7.3 million tonnes of the world’s catch is discarded, something is seriously wrong with the way we conduct our economic affairs (5).

Apart from the destruction of so-called surpluses, one has also to bear in mind the deleterious effects that may arise from the dumping of surplus produce on poorer countries and regions. A position paper entitled ‘’Preventing dumping of surplus meat-parts on vulnerable developing country markets’’ authored by a number of NGO groups in May 2008 noted: ‘’Agricultural producers in West and Central Africa have suffered serious damage from the influx of large quantities of frozen chicken parts from the EU (and to a lesser extent from Brazil and the USA). Because of cheap imports, African poultry farming, once a success story of poverty reduction and rural development, is now teetering on the brink of destruction. The sector is facing one of the most severe economic crises in its history’’ (6). The case is succinctly stated by Anup Shah : ‘’Dumping undercuts local farmers, who cannot compete and are driven out of jobs and into poverty, further slanting the market share of the larger producers such as those from the US and Europe’’ (7).

Then there is also the destruction of food that occurs during the very process of production itself. Tristram Stuart, in his recent book, ‘Waste, uncovering The Global Food Waste Scandal’, claims, for example, that 25% of the fruit and vegetables produced in the UK is wasted in the process of production simply because these don’t look the right shape, colour or size. The taste and nutritional value are beside the point. The saleability is the whole point, but one that would obviously merit any attention at all in a rational world where goods and services where freely accessible, and money did not exist.

It should not be forgotten either that as consumers we in the West are terribly profligate in the way we waste food. It has been estimated that what the US alone wastes each year is twice as much as that required to ‘adequately feed the 923 million malnourished people in the world today’ (The Independent, 9th July 2009, p9). And within the European Union, 90 million tons of food are thrown away each year, 3 million tons of which constitute bread (8). What this surely demonstrates is that there is an enormous amount of ‘slack’ in the system, and that any meaningful discussion of the world hunger issue needs to take this into account.  It should also be noted the large retailers are often complicit in this consumer behaviour themselves, by, for example, enticing customers with ‘two for the price of one’ offers, which encourages them to buy more than they need. Supermarkets too are extremely wasteful: Susie Mesure, in an article in The Independent (10 February 2008), noted that UK supermarkets were sending 1.6 million tonnes of food to landfill sites each year (where, of course, it decomposes into methane and thus exacerbates  global warming)

All of the above points in one way or another demonstrate that when food production is contingent upon the drive for profits, then the supply will be tailored to ‘demand’, but not to need. Certainly, natural calamities like drought or devastating fires can affect supply too. But then it is also true to say that capitalism with its short–term, profit-driven outlook will often instigate natural calamities (consider the Aral Sea, for example - a prime example of ill-informed state capitalist meddling with nature), or fail to set up preventative measures (Global warming is a problem that has capitalism’s greedy fingers all over it: The destruction of vast tracts of virgin rainforest is driven by the unfettered profit-mongering of lumber companies. The failure or paltry attempts to significantly cut carbon emissions has everything to do with the imperative to slash costs to the bone. And so on.). Proposition [2] thus in a sense flips the assertion that an inadequate food supply is entirely attributable to the universal socioeconomic conditions that currently obtain on its head: It asserts that were it not for these socioeconomic conditions then everyone’s nutritional needs could be met. The facts I’ve presented, particularly those pertaining to waste, clearly demonstrate this to be the case. However, proposition [2] goes well beyond this: It also asserts that even with our current technology we could more than meet the nutritional needs of humanity. However, our current technology is far from being universally applied.  In this regard, it may be instructive to consider an interesting article by Charlotte de Fraiture, which looks at potential food supply and demand (9). In this article, she considers food production in Sub-Saharan Africa, making reference to a framework developed by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001 which distinguishes between 5 types of potential: physical, technological, socio-economic, economic and market; these being listed more or less in their order of magnitude. The last of these amounts to what is actually being achieved, whereas the physical potential amounts to a theoretical upper limit that may itself be upwardly revised with technological changes. Technological potential may be realised by fully and universally applying the most advanced technology available. However, such a goal may be thwarted by both socioeconomic and economic barriers. In regard to Sub-Saharan Africa, de Fraiture notes that of it’s ‘’potential irrigation area of 36 million hectares – as estimated by FAO – only 6 million hectares are currently developed, leaving ample scope for expansion. Yet it seems unlikely that irrigation will play a major role in food production in the coming decades, mainly because of the high costs involved.’’ Such an impediment would not of course have a bearing in a world ordered along very different socioeconomic lines; namely, one in which production would be undertaken solely for use and not for profit. The author also considers other factors resulting in the significant gap between the market and technological potentials; for example, a poor infrastructure of roads, inadequate educational provision, and so on. Again, these would be rationally addressed in a society wherein the means of production were held in common, and production was geared solely to meeting real needs.

What de Fraiture’s article indicates that there is a socioeconomic context within which technology is applied to food production, and that this needs to be borne in mind. Hence we arrive at proposition [3], namely that focussing exclusively on technological solutions to the problem of world hunger at best is likely to have very limited impact, but at worst may obfuscate the issue and set in train a number of counterproductive trends. If propositions [1] and [2] are accepted, then clearly, tinkering with the technology is not going to make much of a difference if food production is mediated via a system that fails to adequately feed one billion people. Hence, to press for technological improvements in food production without acknowledging the need for systemic changes is essentially delusional. You could even arrive at a theoretical situation where yields were significantly improved but demand, not need, remained static. What you might then see is the generation of even larger surpluses (given that agribusinesses, like all businesses, are compelled to maximise output in order to outdo competitors, without regard to the bigger picture). However, with demand unchanged, what could happen then is that the even larger amounts of produce would end up being unsold, and needing to be dumped or junked. I have already referred to the deleterious effects of dumping on the economies of poor recipient countries. Junking too has severe negative consequences: landfilling, as I’ve said, can result in methane production, and, in any case, energy and other resources are required to process waste. In this messy melee, it is likely that monopolistic tendencies will tend to take hold, as weaker businesses go the wall; which in itself may have negative implications for consumers.

There are other ways too in which technological innovation in the field of food production can have a negative impact. Thomas Peterson and Bryony Bonning at Iowa State University discussed one such innovation in ISU’s Bioethics Journal (10). They looked at the so-called ‘trait protection system’ (covered by US patent no: 5723, 765) which ensures the non-viability, or sterility, of the offspring seed of plants grown from parent seed which has been genetically engineered specifically to produce this outcome. Farmers purchasing the parent seed from agribusiness companies - primarily because it has also been genetically engineered to produce a much higher yield – are thus prevented from harvesting the offspring seed for growing the next crop, and are obliged to purchase more parent seed for this purpose. Alarmingly, the process of ensuring non-viability also entails chemically treating the parent seed. The implications of this technology are multifarious and often undesirable, notwithstanding the fact that it is likely to result in significantly higher yields: For one thing, a loss of biodiversity is likely to ensue, both on account of native seed being replaced by genetically modified seed, and the fact that not many varieties of any crop are suitable for genetic engineering. It also has to be said that this new technology poses the risk of killer genes being transmitted to related species of plants in the locality via pollen, and potentially wiping them out. This new technology may also do away with the role farmers have traditionally fulfilled of breeding plants suited to the local environment. The cost of genetically engineered seed being higher; many third world farmers will not be in a position to purchase it. Those who do, on the other hand, will be dependent on the big agribusiness companies for their seed supply, but could face ruin were this supply to be disrupted in any way. The upshot, in other words, could be that control of world food production would largely fall into the hands of these companies; small in number though they may be. Does such a development have any advantages for humanity as a whole? Well, it handsomely rewards the shareholders of the aforesaid companies. But it hardly benefits farmers in general to any significant; or indeed consumers, who will inevitably have to pay more for the product. What is particularly galling about it too is that not only is the process of engineering killer genes wholly irrelevant to the quality or yield of the product, it also carries so many potentially serious risks and undesirable consequences. The whole business begs the question: why could geneticists have not engineered the genes simply to produce a higher yield (although such an innovation is not without controversy), and left it at that? The answer has to do with capitalism’s blinkered and avaricious nature, in which the wider and generally subtle complications of any commercial operation do not figure in the balance sheets, and are effectively disowned by the perpetrators.

So finally we arrive proposition [4], which is that the problem of world hunger will only be solved by the creation of a worldwide system in which the means of production are commonly owned and all goods and services are freely available. This is what I understand by the word ‘communism’. In a nutshell, an advanced communist society would operate on a world-wide basis in accordance with that old Marxist dictum, ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’. As such, it would bear no resemblance to extant and extinct ‘state capitalist’ states, ludicrously and cynically claiming to be ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’. It would be a democracy in the truest sense of the word, and would be established on the basis of a majority choosing to have it - most certainly not imposed by revolutionary vanguards. States and the geographical limits of their administrative operations – national borders - would no longer exist. Freedom of expression would be completely unfettered, and the only socially sanctioned limitations on behaviour being those intended to deter actions demonstrably causing harm to others. No longer straitjacketed by the need to make a profit, production would be undertaken on the basis of need and in a wholly rational manner: Manufacturing processes that might have deleterious environmental effects or pose unacceptable risks, for example, would not be considered, and every effort would be made to ensure that safe alternatives were used instead. People would contribute to the production of goods and services as and how they wished. That is to say, work would be both voluntary and co-operative - there would no longer exist competition between workers, companies and countries. And people would have free access to the fruits of human labour. In other words, neither money nor barter would play a role: If people needed something, they would simply go along to their local distribution facility and take it without having to hand over something in exchange. Sophisticated stock control measures would ensure that needs were anticipated as far as possible by flagging up potential shortfalls. The production of the items in question would then be undertaken in a wholly rational and planned way. Where an actual shortfall did exist then rational strategies such as considering alternatives, rationing, reserving, utilizing different manufacturing processes, importing from further afield, or simply making do without would be deployed. There is no need to suppose that people would in some way abuse the system: Why should they when goods and services were freely available? In any case, it is reasonable to suppose that a wholly different mindset would prevail in this new society; one that would be altogether more socially responsive, humane, tolerant and far less sullied by egotism and greed. Property being held in common, there would no longer exist the immense armies of personnel and the bloated resource-depleting structures dedicated to upholding property rights or access to resources inside and outside each state as obtains at present: I am talking here of the police and the military, the entire justice system, the prisons, the arms industry, the myriad agencies involved in administering property rights and claims, etcetera. Correspondingly, untold millions around the world would no longer be drawn to a life of crime or end up incarcerated because of this career move. The raison d’être for crime, war, terrorism, industrial strife, and internecine conflict, amongst other hideous stressors characteristic of the modern world would simply not exist. People would be able to travel and settle where they wished, but, as the current economic and political conditions driving people to uproot and seek refuge in other parts of the world would no longer obtain, mass migration (Not to mention the attendant angst and resentment in host populations) is unlikely to occur – except in the event of some catastrophic natural disaster. Education would be radically different from what it is today: Being both free and non-compulsory, it is to be expected that those seeking to further their education would do so joyously. The grim discipline-orientated schools of today, which seek to mould kids into industry and business fodder, would become a thing of the past. For once, art would genuinely be for art’s sake, not cynically foisted on a passive populace as a means of turning a quick buck. Quality, in other words, would be the watchword in all creative activity, from architecture and landscaping to music, theatre, film, and writing. Technological innovation, no longer fettered by patents or invested interests, would accelerate, albeit in a controlled, socially responsible way, and many of the more onerous tasks that need undertaking could be systematically automated. Medical research in particular (especially in areas that are currently under-researched – for example, tropical medicine – because there is less of a financial incentive to do so) would be prioritized in order to rid humanity of the misery of disease  and illness as far as possible. Moreover, it would be conducted in an open, coordinated manner, not in the fragmented fashion that it is today, with numerous research groups jealously guarding their discoveries for ‘commercial reasons’.  In this respect, and so many others, the establishment of world communism – or socialism – would utterly transform the way we live. Life would simply be incomparably more relaxed, enjoyable, fulfilling, and happy. Practically all of the so-called today’s ‘evils’ – if one might revert to pulpit language for an instance – would just disappear: war, ethnic cleansing, vandalism, robbery, prostitution, pornography, drug pushing, protection rackets, nepotism, corruption, repression, the cynical manipulation of minds for financial gain, people trafficking, slavery, mass hunger, poverty, unemployment, environmental destruction, the wastage of resources, the deliberate creation of soulless and ugly human environments, to name just some. And the reason for this is simply that each and every one of these phenomena has it’s origin in or is sustained by the current social dispensation, by the manner in which society is organized today. Money, in other words, is what these evils are all about. When humanity eventually chooses to embrace communism, then truly it shall have crossed a threshold between barbarism and civilisation.

At this juncture, it should be noted that arguments in favour of communism and indeed of its feasibility are extraordinarily various and complex. It is not simply the issue of food production that has relevance to the argument. All manner of subjects and disciplines - from medical science to war, from psychology to environmental depredation – can be ransacked for evidence demonstrating both the desirability and feasibility of a communistic form of society. This is obviously not the place to set out such arguments in any detail. But for those who are interested, I would urge you to have a look at my website, ‘A Point of View’ ( http://andycox1953.webs.com/), which considers the whole issue in some detail.  It suffices to conclude my contribution to this ‘crop yield idea jam’ by boldly asserting that world hunger will forever remain with us until such time as we finally embrace the only civilised, rational, and humane alternative open to us: Genuine communism.

Andy Cox 


(1) http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_power
(3) http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/sep/08/food-waste#history-link-box
(4) http://www.naturalnews.com/024023_food_beef_cattle.html#ixzz1Hj3xe1qA
(5) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/02/discard-common-fisheries-policy-waste-eu
(6) http://aprodev.eu/files/Trade/position_paper_agrotrade_poultry_engl.pdf
(7) http://www.globalissues.org/issue/9/food-dumping-aid-maintains-poverty
(8 http://paepard.blogspot.com/2011/03/taste-waste-documentary-about-worldwide.html
(10) http://www.bioethics.iastate.edu/classroom/traitprotection.html