Hunger Pangs

Lo and behold, a scientist said it. “The problem of hunger in the world does not have anything to do with production.” Farmers can grow more food―but that doesn’t mean everyone will eat.

Those were not new ideas when Miguel Altieri, a UC Berkeley professor in agroecology, spoke at the University of Montana a few days ago. But they were statements seldom heard in academic circles.

More often, experts point to a population nearing 9 billion and the need for a 70-percent increase in agricultural production to achieve global “food security” in the coming years. International agencies seek technological solutions to problems of human need. But scientific advancement doesn’t erase hunger, Altieri said. People don’t starve because there isn’t enough food. Peasants don’t profit from agricultural modernization; big companies and powerful countries do.

He spoke of chinampas, early Mesoamerican croplands often called “floating gardens” that were carved from lake beds. They fed local populations extremely well. (I saw chinampas on the ground, at an organic farm in Thailand that was trying to revive the age-old method. In 1950, Altieri said, Mexican chinampas maize fields produced 3.5-6.3 tons per hectare. US corn fields, at the same time, produced only 2.3-4.0 tons per hectare.

Yet industrial agriculture won. American agronomists took the Iowa method to Latin America. It spread. Fewer than 20 percent of peasants adopted it. But large-scale farmers with access to large plots of land (and large loans) profited. Today, Altieri said, corporations determine what people eat and what people pay for their food. Even the organic and Fair Trade movements have fundamental flaws, he said, because not all small-scale farmers can afford to certify their foods. Most of the organic crops grown in developing countries are harvested for export―not local consumption. “The rules of the game are dictated by the system that is intrinsically socially unjust.”

Altieri said those things.

But over the years, I have seen them. I have seen them in developing societies across Asia, where farmers live in urban shacks with tarps for walls. They didn’t choose the city life. They got sick, they had to sell their land, or someone stole it from them. “If we had land, we would go back,” a young Cambodian man named Thon told me, while standing in the hot stench of his village on the edge of Phnom Penh. Flies buzzed the nearby garbage heaps and sewage stained the dirt road. Many years and many stories lay between his family’s retreat from their countryside rice paddies and his hand-to-mouth existence hauling firewood across the city. He was one of thousands who no longer grew rice, but struggled to buy their daily food in the market.

I remember, years ago, a man in East Timor who sat on the roadside with an array of coffee beans spread across a tarp. He said his beans weren’t certified organic, so he couldn’t sell to “Mr. Tony,” who worked with a USAID-funded coffee cooperative. Instead, he sold to the Chinese for 30 percent less than the USAID rate. When my husband, Jerry, told the man how much Americans typically pay for a bag of coffee in the supermarket, he smacked his head in astonishment.

Food security is not the same as food sovereignty, Altieri said. In order to achieve the latter, the world needs different economic and agricultural systems. “You cannot solve a problem with the same mentality that created it.” Academics have “a huge responsibility” to work for the people with the smallest voices.

My knowledge should serve the most impoverished, marginalized people,” he said.

Photo of a Kelabit rice farm by Jerry Redfern. To see more photos related to this story, check Rambling Spoon.

When she’s not running up mountains or sweating through a buggy jungle, Karen Coates covers food, environment, science, health and social issues. She is a 2010-2011 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environ ...read more

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