27. Hunger, Poverty, and Food Justice: First Thoughts

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel prize in economics for his work showing that famine deaths in India had been primarily due not to lack of available food but to hungry people not having enough money to afford to buy what food was available.

He could have cited as another example the Irish Potato Famine, when over a million people starved to death and millions more emigrated while English absentee landlords who owned Irish farmland were exporting Irish-grown wheat that the Irish poor could not afford to buy.

On a different note, American Farmland Trust reports on the growing number of aging farmers who have no one to pass their farms on to, while a growing number of young would-be farmers cannot afford to buy farmland — at the same time that weekly newspaper Wisconsin State Farmer reports on a trend in which non-farming millionaires buy farmland as an investment (WSF, 1/6/17, p. 9B).  They hire people to work it, but these are employees who are required to produce a profit over stewarding the land or growing what feeds people (and will not become independent farmers themselves).

Similarly, nations like China and Saudi Arabia that cannot feed their people on their own land are increasingly buying up agricultural land in places like Africa.  African governments are happy to accept payment for this — but local Africans whose ancestors have farmed these lands from time immemorial (often without formal title because their tenancy stretches back prior to such notions) lose their lands and thus their ability to feed themselves and their families, and inequity increases while hunger is merely shifted, not solved.

Meanwhile, food pantries in the U.S. are needed because minimum wage jobs plus SNAP/ “food stamps” together do not enable people to buy enough food for their families.  The need for free and reduced-cost school lunches is part of the same picture.

Even the factory-farming of chickens and pigs for “cheap” meat and eggs is deeply  abusive.  For the typical set-up is that a big corporation owns the animals and contracts with a farmer to raise them.  But the farmers do not get paid unless they do exactly as the corporation specifies, no matter how inhumane or unsanitary that may be, yet they are paid so little even when they comply that they can barely scrape by and have no extra money left over to, for example, control manure safely, while if anything goes wrong it is the farmers and not the corporations that take the financial hit.

In short, there’s an abundance of evidence that hunger and misuse of agricultural assets is very often not at all a matter of inadequate food supply or agricultural capacity, but rather a direct result of poverty and oppression.  So any discussion of solving the hunger problem needs to include consideration of economic equity.   A well-fed world would be one in which the farmers who work the land and raise the animals are the people who own those assets, and in which they are able to make a living because everyone is able to pay enough for food to make farming economically viable.  But this is decidedly not the system we have now.

For this ideal to come about, a lot of changes would have to happen.

One area to look for changes would be the US Farm Bill, which is passed by Congress twice a decade (the next one is in 2018) and which shapes government food policy for the subsequent five years.  For some time now, it has mostly benefited industrial agriculture, with subsidies that support mega-farms at the expense of small family-size ones, chemical use as opposed to IPM and organic practices, commodity crops including high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol as opposed to vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds (which are all amazingly called “specialty crops”) that people would eat directly.

A different area for action would be increasing the wage scale for low-level workers so that anyone willing and able to work could afford to buy adequate food — even at prices that would pay farmers enough to support their families decently through farming.

Land reform also has to be part of the picture, for while it may be profitable for governments and corporations and millionaires to buy large tracts of land to grow crops for trade, this dispossesses people who had been feeding their families on those lands’ production, thus increasing hunger and injustice simultaneously.

Changing all these things will require enormous political effort, and is unlikely to come either easily or quickly.  But if hunger is to be ended, such changes in the status quo will have to be implemented.  The sooner we get started, the better.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley