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The US Drought and Global Hunger: What We Know and What We Don't

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The failure of the U.S. corn harvests spells a disaster for the world's poor, but not because the poor eat our corn. They don't eat corn-fed livestock from CAFOs either, nor do they fill up at the pump with ethanol-blended gasoline.

The poor will suffer the third global food disaster in four years because the price of corn will push up the price of other food commodities, like wheat, soybeans and rice. This will push up food prices overall. So, if the 2008 and 2011 food price crises are any guide, the global effects of the U.S. drought are fairly predictable.

The bump in commodity prices will send a market signal for speculative investment, thus pushing the price of grain up even further. The countries with good harvests -- or reserves -- will use them to avoid buying grain on the global market and will institute export bans. Those countries with fragile regimes will be challenged to keep the price of food below the "riot" thresholds, and will direct food primarily to the cities. The highest prices will be in the countryside, where the rural poor will not be able to afford to buy food.

Some 50 percent of the planet's hungry people are poor, smallholder farmers -- mostly women and girls -- eking out a subsistence on small parcels of land. They have no reserves and will be forced to buy expensive food for their families, precisely when they can least afford it.

The increase in food prices will also further increase the value of farmland and increase the financial pressure to drive smaller farmers off the land. Many will migrate. A few will find plantation jobs. All will likely go hungry.

The global response to food crises is also well rehearsed...

Following alarming reports from the World Food Program, world leaders will hold meetings of the G8 and the multilateral institutions to reiterate their call for the further liberalization of global agricultural markets and public-private partnerships to expand industrial agriculture. The United States Agency for International Development, the United States Department of Agriculture, the seed and chemical monopolies and the mega-philanthropies will launch a desperate call for unleashing "climate-ready" GMO seeds (which are still not ready) across the planet. The much-lauded public-private partnerships between the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the agri-food monopolies controlling the world's food value chains will continue to insist only they can end hunger, while -- from Monsanto to Walmart -- they will again make record profits, just as they did in 2008 and 2011.

We also know what is not likely to happen.

The 2009 l'Aquila commitments by rich countries to invest $22 billion to rebuild the Global South's agriculture will not be honored. The U.S. will not rescind its Renewable Fuel Standard -- the legislation that funnels 40 percent of its corn to ethanol. Chicago and Wall Street are not going to be restricted from speculating by any reinstatement of financial regulations. Grain monopolies will not be prevented from hoarding.

In other words, none of the immediate causes of hunger will be addressed.

But just as frustrating, neither will world leaders do anything to address the root causes of hunger: the global concentration of market power, political decision, land, water, seeds, resources and our rapidly eroding agro-biodiversity into the hands of a few dozen corporations with absolutely no accountability to anyone except stockholders.

Agriculture will not be removed from the World Trade Organization. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will not allow poor countries to protect their agricultural sector from the volatility of the world market, they will not allow poor countries to establish grain reserves and they will not move to stop land grabs.

There are also a number of things we don't know.

We don't know how many more than 1 billion of the planet's people will go hungry, for how long, or how many will die. We don't know how many food riots will lead to full scale rebellions, or how many governments will be toppled. We don't know to what extent the increase in the price of soybeans will inflate China's economy or the severity of the global economic crisis this will provoke.

And, we don't know how much longer the world's poor and underserved communities -- in the Global North and the Global South, in rural and urban areas -- will put up with this.

These communities need land, jobs, protection from speculators and the volatility of global markets. They need access to fresh, affordable, healthy food. If given the chance, many of them could do this for themselves. They could rebuild our economies by rebuilding our local food systems, literally, from the ground up. They could keep those food dollars in their communities, recycling them three, four and five times, creating new businesses, jobs and distributing the wealth of the food system horizontally, where it is needed, rather than concentrating it upwards. They could diversify our food system, both agroecologically and economically, thus building back in the environmental and economic resilience we have lost under the present corporate food regime. They could end hunger and poverty.

Wouldn't that be a better scenario?