TWN Info Service on Health Issues (November 06/4)

7 November 2006

Hunger due to injustice and free market famines

World Food Day, on 16th October saw the launch of a Right to Food campaign in Spain by NGOs who argue that hunger is a result of social injustice and not a lack of food. Following this a report has exposed the free market famine that devastated the Sahel in 2005. The two articles are reproduced with permission from the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) # 6122, 18 October 2006 and # 6126, 25 October 2006 respectively.

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

Development: Hunger due to injustice, not lack of food

By Tito Drago, IPS, Madrid, 16 October 2006

Millions of people die of hunger-related causes every year. However, that is not because of actual shortages of food, but is a result of social injustice and political, social and economic exclusion, argue non-governmental organisations that launched a campaign in Spain on World Food Day Monday.

October 16 was established as World Food Day in 1979 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), commemorating the agency's October 16, 1945 founding date. Monday also marked the first day of Anti-Poverty Week, which will include events in Spain and around the world to raise awareness of the issue.

FAO's slogan for World Food Day this year is "Invest in Agriculture for Food Security". But NGOs argue that the problem is not a lack of food production, but of the injustice surrounding access to and use of foods.

Theo Oberhuber, head of the Spanish environmental NGO Ecologists in Action (EEA), told IPS that enough food is produced in the world to cover the needs of everyone, so that no one would have to go hungry.

But, he added, there are two problems that stand in the way of this. The first is that a large part of all food, whether agricultural products or food obtained from oceans or rivers, goes towards feeding livestock "whose meat and by-products are consumed mainly in the countries of the industrialised North."

The second, he said, is social injustice. In many countries, the majority of the population cannot afford food, "not even food of lesser quality."

Olivier Longue, director-general of Action Against Hunger in Spain, pointed out to IPS examples of lower-quality food: in Malawi and Guatemala, for instance, corn forms the basis of the subsistence diet, while in the Philippines the staples are corn, potatoes and plantains.

Action Against Hunger reported that every four seconds someone in the world dies of hunger-related diseases and that nearly one billion people suffer from hunger around the world.

The global NGO also noted that six million children a year die of hunger, which is responsible for half of all deaths of children under five. In addition, many children who survive hunger and malnutrition suffer disabilities for the rest of their lives.

The international NGOs Engineers Without Borders, Caritas and Veterinarians Without Borders, along with Prosalus, a Spanish organisation that promotes health care in Africa and Latin America, launched in Spain the campaign "Derecho a la Alimentacion: Urgente" (Right to Food: Urgent), and presented a DVD Monday in which they state that food security cannot be achieved without support for agricultural development.

They note that FAO statistics show that more than 70% of the people suffering from hunger around the world live in rural areas, where they should be able to feed themselves through agriculture.

The campaign is demanding that governments recognise food security as a basic human right, and that they review their policies on the question and promote agricultural development in a framework of environmental sustainability.

But the EEA questions the FAO's call to "Invest in Agriculture for Food Security" because of the growing influence of agribusiness and concentration of land.

The EEA stresses that "more than 70% of the global pesticide market is in the hands of six giant agrochemical corporations, of which only three will be left within a few years."

The group adds that these companies control a large part of global seed sales in a lucrative captive market, by means of sales of genetically modified (GM) varieties that are resistant to the firms' own herbicides.

In addition, the offspring of some GM plants are sterile, which means that they cannot be stored to grow future crops. Poor farmers thus become dependent on transnational companies, and are forced to buy new seeds every year.

The EEA also points out that the world's 10 biggest food companies account for one-quarter of all food produced worldwide, and 10 large chains account for one-quarter of all food sales. As an example of the consequences of that policy, "in Spain, farmers often receive only 25% of the end price," says the NGO.

"If that is the situation in a developed European country, it's not difficult to imagine what happens in countries of the South, where the rural population lives in infra-human conditions," said Oberhuber.

Health: Report exposes a free-market famine

By Stephen Leahy, IPS, Canada, 20 October 2006

In a world of paradox and plenty, 852 million people are starving while one billion people are overweight, with 300 million of them considered medically obese.

And the numbers of people whose health are at serious risk due to starvation or from obesity is rising rapidly.

While what the World Health Organisation calls a global epidemic of obesity is a health issue of the modern world, hunger and malnutrition are old and bitterly intractable problems.

More than 50 million Africans currently need food assistance, according to the UN World Food Programme. More than 120 million Africans are living permanently on the edge of emergency food aid, says the British charity CARE International.

Why is hunger chronic in Africa? Why are 300,000 children in the Sahel Region at risk of death from malnutrition each year?

"There is enough food, but people don't have enough money to buy it," says Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, a US-based policy think tank on social, economic and environmental issues.

"Sixty-three percent of people in Niger live on less than a dollar a day," Mittal told IPS.

Hunger is mainly the result of poverty. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that there is enough food to give everyone in the world more than 2,000 calories a day, she says.

This week, the Oakland Institute released a report investigating the causes of the 2005 food crisis in Niger that gained world attention.

Niger is in the heart of the Sahel Region, a largely dry swath of savannah bordering the Sahara that includes the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan and Ethiopia, among others.

"Drought and locusts did not cause the 2005 food crisis as many believe," Mittal said. "It is a result of free market-based development strategies of the World Bank and others."

One year ago, more than one quarter of Niger's 12 million people were starving. Both world attention and emergency food aid came late, too late for many children.

However, food production that year was only 7.5% below what was needed to feed the people, the Oakland Institute report, "Sahel: Prisoner of Starvation", discovered.

Acute malnutrition has been chronic in Niger, the world's poorest country. During the 2005 food crisis, a kilo of millet was more expensive in Niger than a kilo of rice in a European supermarket, said Frederic Mousseau, a senior fellow at the Oakland Institute and co-author of the report.

"The 2005 crisis in Niger highlighted the tragic limits and shortcomings of market-based food security policy," said Mousseau.

A few big grain traders operating under the free-market conditions mandated by the World Bank controlled the market and sold to the highest bidders. Some of those bidders were in other countries, the report found.

Niger used to have a grain bank - a large reserve of stored grain for years of lean harvests - as well as government-regulated cereal markets, but these were abandoned under the structural adjustments dictated by the Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Similar free-market philosophies, such as "the user pays", were applied to medical care so that poor people could not afford medicines and cannot work to earn money to buy food. And school fees mean that only 17% of children now go to school.

Such policies have made most of the people of Niger much poorer and generated "free-market famines".

And when the inevitable 2005 famine struck, it took enormous efforts by non-governmental organisations like Doctors Without Borders to get the world to pay attention.

"It is shameful to ignore the plight of millions of people," said Mittal.

International aid arrives too late, is targeted at the wrong things and is usually only a short-term measure that does not tackle the root causes of hunger, CARE International UK said in a new report this month.

CARE International is one of the world's largest aid agencies, and its report, "Living on the Edge of Emergency - An Agenda for Change" is also in response to the 2005 Niger food crisis and the endemic hunger found throughout the Sahel.

"It is a disgrace that money is still given too late and for such short periods, then spent on the wrong things to truly fight emergencies," said Geoffrey Dennis, CARE International's chief executive, in a statement.

As a result, crises are growing in frequency, the charity said. In the last year alone, 35 million people in southern and western Africa and the Horn of Africa region faced starvation despite a whopping $5.6 billion in aid.

In Niger, one dollar a day spent early would have prevented malnutrition among children. Delayed aid meant that it cost $80 to save a malnourished child's life, the report said.

Aid should be more regular and predictable, targeted at recovery and prevention programmes such as seed distribution and improved veterinary services, and should provide training, the report says.

Ethiopia has suffered food crises almost every year since 1986, yet the United States' spending on long-term development to withstand shortages is less than one percent of its emergency aid, which for the US can top $500 million a year, it notes.

In the short term, national food reserves should be established in Niger and other countries of the Sahel, the Oakland Institute report recommends. Market regulation is also necessary to ensure food sovereignty. Aid should fund support systems for family farmers, such as encouraging consumption of traditional crops, and the levels of cheap food imports that undermine investment in local agriculture should be reduced.

The United States and the European Union spend hundreds of billions of dollars in support of their own farmers, Mittal points out.

"Niger is a small window on what is happening in many other countries," she said.