Is Cameron’s Hunger Summit just a good photo opportunity?

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‘Our future is in our own hands. The powers-that-be have got it horribly wrong and we cannot afford to leave our affairs and our children’s lives in their hands.’ Colin Tudge

It may be that like the editorial writer in the Guardian you require an Olympian suspension of disbelief to take at face value David Cameron’s Downing Street hunger summit just hours before the Games’ closing ceremony (1), but there is no doubting the horrifying and cruel nature of hunger and malnutrition.

World Hunger Facts

1.02 billion people in the world are hungry.
UN Food and Agriculture Organization

1 billion people in the world live on less than $1 a day.
”World Development Indicators 2007.” The World Bank.

27 percent of children under 5 are moderately to severely underweight in the developing world.
”State of the World’s Children 2007.”UNICEF.

Nearly one in three people die prematurely or have disabilities due to poor nutrition and calorie deficiencies.
”Malnutrition.” World Health Organization (WHO)

One in nearly seven people do not get enough food to be healthy, making hunger and malnutrition the number one risk to health worldwide.
UN World Food Programme (2)

Duncan Green certainly questions whether the summit will just be ‘Mouthwash’…  ‘the nutritional equivalent of greenwash, an approach to ending hunger that is more about fragrant PR than finding long-term solutions to feeding the planet without destroying it.’(3)

It seems likely that the summit will echo the Obama administration’s reliance on private sector solutions However, the only realistic solution is ‘to put smallholders centre stage, to focus on inequality and to end the escalating land grabs that reduce the rural poor to labourers. In Africa alone, an area larger than Germany and France together has been sold for agribusiness while untold thousands of farmers have been evicted with scant compensation’ (1).

There need to be concrete commitments:

‘putting a stop to the spate of land “grabs” in poor countries by large international companies lured by high commodity prices and the prospect of future scarcity;

tackling the perverse impact of biofuels, which in the name of rich-world energy security are ousting hundreds of thousands of small farmers from their land, deepening poverty and hunger;

greater investment in the 500m small farms that 2 billion of the world’s more vulnerable people rely on for their sustenance,

and reforming an international tax system that allows western tax havens to actively encourage capital flight and tax evasion, sucking billions of dollars out of poor countries’ economies.’ (3)

I would add that there also has to be an end to food speculation.

US Investment bank Goldman Sachs convinced government officials in the early 1990s to allow it to start gambling on the price of food.

… Investors accustomed to scarcely interrupted stock-market gains needed something that could restore a semblance of balance to their financial lives. Low interest rates made parking money in a bank account unattractive. Real estate that was supposed to rise forever, didn’t. But everyone needs to eat. Investors wanted a safe haven from a stock-market boom gone bust. (4)

 

Colin Tudge, biologist and writer, encapsulates the political realities of food production in a piece that he wrote on his blog about his book ‘Feeding people is easy.’  An abridged version is reblogged with my emphases.

Feeding people is easy 

I am struck…. by the contrast between what could be in this world, and what is. In particular, everyone who is ever liable to be born could be well fed, forever, not simply on basic provender but to the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy. That is not all that matters of course but if we get the food right then everything else that we need and want in life—good health, fine landscapes, the company of other species, peace, amity, personal fulfillment—can start to fall into place. The title of my new book—Feeding People Is Easy—is a slight exaggeration, but only slight. The necessary techniques and wisdom, and the good will, are all out there. So why aren’t we doing the things that are so obvious? Why is the world in such a mess and getting worse? And what must we do to put things right?

Most obviously, if we, humanity, seriously want to feed ourselves well, then we need to farm expressly for that purpose—create what I portentously call “Enlightened Agriculture”. The bedrock is sound biology and common sense. Focus first on the staple crops—cereals, pulses, nuts, tubers—that provide the bulk of our energy and protein. Devote the best land to horticulture—fruit and vegetables. But then—for we don’t need to be vegan, and crops grow better if there are animals around—fit in the livestock as and when. Cattle and sheep should graze and—especially in the tropics —browse on the leaves of trees, up on the hills and in the damp meadows and woods where cereal is hard to grow, and pigs and poultry should be fed as they always used to be on surpluses and leftovers. In general, farms should be mixed and must therefore be labour intensive—because well-balanced farms are complex and need very high standards of husbandry….

But the food chain we have now is not designed to feed people. In line with the modern cure-all—the allegedly free global market—it is designed to produce the maximum amount of cash in the shortest time…. The simplistic business rules that may (or may not) apply to other enterprises are fatal to Enlightened Agriculture and so, since we depend on agriculture absolutely, they are proving fatal for us.

When cash rules, sound biology goes to the wall and common sense and humanity are for wimps. The goal must be to maximize whatever is most expensive—which means livestock. So now we feed well over half the staples that could be feeding us, to cattle, pigs, and poultry…. By 2050, on present trends, the world’s livestock will consume enough to feed four billion people—equal to the total population of the early 1970s, when the United Nations held its first international conference to discuss the world’s food crisis….

Cash-based farming is not mixed, because that is complicated and labour must be cut and cut again to save costs. So we have cereals from horizon to horizon, cocooned in pesticide, while piggeries in the United States (and soon in Europe, with American backing and European taxpayers’ cash) sometimes harbour a million beasts apiece—unbelievably foul and each producing in passing as much ordure as Manchester. Such farming is dangerous. To save money, corners must be cut. Britain’s epidemics of foot and mouth disease and BSE were not acts of God. They were brought about by cut-price husbandry. The same government that lectures us on health and safety came close, with BSE, to killing us all off.

Worst of all, though—at least in the immediate term—cut-price monocultural farming puts people out of work. That is what it is designed to do. Countries with the fewest farmers are deemed to be the most “advanced”. Britain and the US are the world’s brand leaders, with about one per cent of their workforce full time on the land. Both eke out their rural workforce with immigrant labour of conveniently dubious legal status who can be seriously underpaid—but we don’t talk about that, and in any case that’s the market, and the market must rule….

In the Third World, 60 per cent of people live on the land. If poor countries industrialize their farming as Britain and the US have done, and as they are increasingly pressured to do, then this would put two billion out of work. Unemployment is the royal road to destitution: what a dreadful joke the “war on poverty” really is….

In reality, then, our food problems are of two kinds. The first is to grow food well, get it to people, and then cook it properly. That should be fairly straightforward. Far, far harder is to circumvent the corporates and their attendant governments…. The aim is not to grow good food, but to maximize cash…. In short, the greatest threat to humanity comes from our own leaders.

Certainly the answer to poverty does not lie with an economy that is designed to make the rich richer. (5)

 

Addendum:

As to David Cameron’s Hunger Summit being a cynical ‘mouthwash’ or not, it is worth remembering that he did not think it important to attend the failed Rio+20 Earth summit at the end of June 2012 where many of the aspects involved in tackling world poverty and hunger were at the top of the UNEP agenda.

‘United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP argues that the investment of 1 percent of the world’s gross domestic product — approximately US$750 billion — in five key sectors would be enough to fund the Global Green New Deal and refocus the global economy to increase the supply of jobs and at the same time step up efforts against climate change and environmental degradation and in favor of poverty reduction. Energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy, sustainable transport, agriculture and freshwater are the key areas for structuring the green economy, according to UNEP.’ (6)

Related Post:

Big finance and the great sell-off of ‘our’ natural assets. – The disaster of commodification of the environment.

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/10/hunger-summit-think-small

(2) http://www.squidoo.com/world-hunger

(3) http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/may/31/uk-hunger-summit-olympic-pr

(4)  http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1045180/how_goldman_sachs_started_the_food_speculation_frenzy.html

(5)  http://www.colintudge.com/articles/article12.php

(6) http://lapress.org/articles.asp?art=6653

Big finance and the great sell-off of ‘our’ natural assets.

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Last year, Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish Sociologist, wrote of Capitalism:

 “In the face of financial crisis, any hope that the parasite will die when it runs out of food is in vain…. I suspect that one of capitalism’s crucial assets derives from the fact [of]… its own inventiveness, the arbitrariness of its undertaking and the ruthlessness of the way in which it proceeds… one is entitled to surmise that in the offices of capitalism, hard labour is focused on constructing new “virgin lands” – though also burdened with the curse of fairly limited life expectancy, given the parasitic nature of capitalism. (1)

In summary, Bauman’s thesis is that rather than being fundamentally challenged, capitalism will inevitably shrug off contradictions, such as those posed by the financial crisis, and move on.  In fact, neoliberalism, as embodied in the giant transnational corporations, has hugely increased in wealth and power, since the collapse of Lehmans; in part because of governmental acceptance that certain financial corporations are ‘too big to fail’ (Crouch 2011). (2)

It is now clear that the corporate-financial-political nexus have found their new ‘virgin’ lands to parasitise … in the guise of ‘developing’ the ‘green economy’.

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Rio+20, the Earth Summit, sought to address global challenges such as climate warming, sustainability, governance, the devastation of biodiversity and the eradication of poverty, that still affects about one billion people worldwide.

United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP argues that the investment of 1 percent of the world’s gross domestic product — approximately US$750 billion — in five key sectors would be enough to fund the Global Green New Deal and refocus the global economy to increase the supply of jobs and at the same time step up efforts against climate change and environmental degradation and in favor of poverty reduction. Energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy, sustainable transport, agriculture and freshwater are the key areas for structuring the green economy, according to UNEP. (3) 

 

But the outcome of Rio+20 was widely regarded by activists as an abject failure. George Monbiot writes:

‘The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue “sustained growth“, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.  The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it.(4)

However, whilst many political leaders failed to attend Rio+20, over 1000 different businesses and corporations joined the delegates and NGOs.

‘Peter Bakker, the president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Business (WBCSD), believes that the corporate sector currently offers the best opportunity for saving the world.’

However…‘What Bakker does not mention directly is the other side of the equation, that if the City does not put a value on sustainability, CEOs … could be brought down if they have two quarters in a row of poor performance, with city figures likely to blame him for paying too much attention to saving the world rather than driving profits.’  (5)

 

World Development Movement report that Nick Clegg attended Rio+20 in order to lobby on behalf of this false green economy.

‘Multinational companies and banks, with the support of the UK government, are using the summit to push for new markets to be created in biodiversity and ecosystems… This could mean, for example, financial speculators betting on whether species become extinct or not.’ (6)

Chillingly, William Buiter, chief economist at Citibank even proposes that water itself (rather than water utilities) must be privatised.

‘I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years… Once the spot markets for water are integrated, future markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments – puts, calls, swaps – both exchange-traded and OTC will follow.’ (6)

This threat to natural resources, and the confiscation of water/land/forests from local people, who have no formal ownership deeds, is from corporate interests seeking to promote the financialisation agenda – a 21st century global version of the 19th century Land Inclosure Acts – which includes removing the previously existing rights of local people to carry out activities necessary for their livelihoods on ‘common land’, such as cultivation, cutting hay, grazing animals or using other resources such as small timber, fish, and turf.

Risibly, it is argued by the corporates, that the environment is being destroyed because it does not have a price tag, and is, therefore, not valued. Their answer is to assign it an economic value, by bringing the resources into the market! 

 

In similar, spurious fashion to the rationale for the privatization of public services, the financial crisis is cited as necessitating corporate involvement.

Like other business leaders at Rio, [Peter Bakker] recognises that global solutions are unlikely in times of economic and financial crises, and the best alternative is to build coalitions at a more local level, with individual countries and cities, or as he and many others refer to them as “the coalitions of the willing.” (5)

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This is a new and more insidious level of commodification… the control of the financial sector, reformulating the fundamentals of the real economy, affecting people’s control over their food, water, energy and air.

We have already seen the result of involvement of the financial sector in food markets.  Millions of people across the world have suffered from hunger and malnutrition because of food speculation leading to high and volatile prices… and food riots.

In the initial stages of capitalist history, the primary appropriation and commodification of nature, was through human labour.  For example, by farming, low level mining or hunting.

However, capitalism has the intrinsic tendency for concentration and centralization of wealth into the hands of the richest capitalists. This is broadly the meaning of the term ‘accumulation’ which evolves and expands through a process of exchange or “trading up” but also through directly taking an asset or resource from someone else, without compensation. David Harvey calls this accumulation by dispossession.

Kees Van der Pijl, a Professor of International Relations, writes:

‘Capital is in constant quest for unpaid labor in its social substratum, and once a major ‘deposit’ is found and incorporated, it seeks to raise the rate of exploitation in the actual labor process; until at some point the social and natural substratum upon which capital accumulation feeds, which it penetrates and transforms, begins to show signs of exhaustion.’  Transnational Classes and International Relations. (7)

Exhaustion and destruction of the biosphere… so-called ‘ecocidal neoliberalism (Elliott and Atkinson) – occurs in the end phase of this process, when ‘social norms and relationships have been shaped to meet the requirements of commodification and exploitation’.

By ‘shaping of social norms and relationships’, Van der Pijl means the creation of a class of workers/ consumers who are ‘groomed’ by education, the media and advertising, to be fully integrated into the capitalist economy. This is the false consciousness, created by such ‘strategies of control’ as described by Chomsky (8), and it is this false consciousness which must be confronted to stop the tide of deregulation and reverse it.

Examples of such ‘false consciousness’ include the untruths inherent in ‘There is no alternative’, ‘We can’t afford it’, the prevailing skepticism about man-made climate change; the discounting of the ‘limits to growth’, negative attitudes towards renewable energy, the absence of insight into the inherent contradictions of sustainable ‘green capitalism’, the acquiescence in high levels of unemployment, and more.

The Left needs to understand that neoliberal capitalism is not only parasitic on human workers and the non-capitalist social world, but also destructive and exploitative of the finite non-human world, upon which we all depend for survival.

‘Ecology can be seen as one of the contemporary conjuctures with which all political-economic projects have necessarily to deal, in transforming the conditions for state intervention.’ (9)

This is an imperative because as Herman Daly, the ecological economist suggests, when ‘manmade capital’ reaches a tipping point of absorbing the finite resource of ‘natural capital’, it is inevitable that the capitalist system enters a series of ever-more-severe crises. (7)  We are already at that point,  with ecological crises such as global warming, oil-dependency; the on-going financial crises; and with increasingly polarized, political crises, which can be seen in the rise of the far right and the various revolts against neoliberalism (mostly evident in Europe and South America).

In 1944, the Hungarian historian, Karl Polanyi wrote about the ‘utopian’ idea of the self-regulating market:

To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment would result in the demolition of society… Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation.  Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighbourhoods, and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. (10)

The slogan of the Sandinistas of Nicaragua was that there could be ‘no revolution without the women’.  Similarly, the global Left needs to understand that there can be no removal of the ‘huge institutional blockages of neoliberal capitalism’ (11) without also incorporating the protection of our natural environment from unsustainable exploitation.

Addendum:

Needless to say, lack of finance is not the reason for the financialisation and commodification of natural resources.

As mentioned above, the giant corporations, the financial sector and the super-rich are richer than ever.

For example, the combined wealth of 1000 richest persons in Britain is now estimated at more than £414bn. (12)  But more staggeringly, the net worth of America’s 400 wealthiest individuals exceeds the net worth of half of all American households, their combined wealth being $1.5 trillion (£959 billion in sterling). (13)

Hence, the entire UNEP programme, costing £482 billion, (3) could be implemented with just half of the combined wealth of America’s 400 richest citizens.

 

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/18/capitalism-parasite-hosts

(2) Colin Crouch  (2011)  ‘The strange non-death of neoliberalism.’  Polity Press, 65 Bridge Street Cambridge C2 1UR, UK

(3) http://lapress.org/articles.asp?art=6653

(4)  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/25/rio-governments-will-not-save-planet

(5)  http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/rio-20-business-sustainable-development?intcmp=239

(6) www.wdm.org.uk/greeneconomy

(7)  http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/12/03/277290/-capitalist-discipline-and-ecological-discipline-or-van-der-Pijl-for-beginners

(8) http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199710–.htm

(9)  Ecology, Political Economy and New Labour. http://www.essex.ac.uk/ecpr/events/jointsessions/paperarchive/grenoble/ws6/barry_paterson.pdf

(10) Thomas Frank (2012) ‘Pity the Billionaire.  The hard-times swindle and the unlikely comeback of the right.’ P.184  Publisher Harville Secker London  ISBN 97818446556029

(11) http://www.michaelmeacher.info/weblog/2011/04/blue-labour-no-thanks/#more-2264

(12) http://www.michaelmeacher.info/weblog/2012/04/britains-1000-richest-persons-made-gains-of-155bn-in-last-3-years/

(13) http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/mar/10/michael-moore/michael-moore-says-400-americans-have-more-wealth-/

Related post:

Peak Oil, NeoLiberalism and Think Left ( Think Left: A socialist Britain in a greener world)