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Just Who's Doing the Hoarding? Food Independence and Real Democracy

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As about 30 countries scramble to protect their citizens from hunger by limiting food exports, the title of a front-page New York Times article calls out: "Hoarding Nations Drive Food Costs Ever Higher."

But where does responsible government action end and hoarding begin? (If the Irish government had begun a little hoarding instead of exporting grain in 1845, many deaths could have been avoided in the Irish potato famine.) It's not an easy question to answer, which suggests that it might be a perfect time to ask how countries got into this no-win, export-or-not quandary to begin with.

Part of the answer is the longstanding premise, assumed by international lending agencies, that nations should use their farmland to grow what's most profitable in world trade and use the proceeds to import food as needed. For decades countries have been "encouraged" -- even by making it a condition of a needed loan -- to use prime farmland to grow luxury and non-food items from coffee to cut flowers for export, and to adopt an agricultural model dependent on imported fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds.

At the same time international agencies, dominated by the industrial countries, have given this "advice," the U.S. and Europe have also been busy subsidizing their own agriculture at almost a billion dollars a day. Their huge subsidies make their farm commodity exports so cheap they undermine the sales by the very poor farmers in the Global South who they encouraged to depend on exports.

Surely today's deepening hunger crisis reveals the dangers of vulnerability to policies completely outside one's control. The end of hunger and real food security require provisioning from domestic resources wherever possible. This approach, combined with a solid international grain reserve to be released in response to unforeseeable setbacks, has the best chance of assuring adequate food supplies. Could we Americans ever breathe easy if we were dependent on imported food for our very survival? I doubt that any people could. Why is it that "energy independence" is embraced by the left and right, but you never even hear anyone utter the phrase "food independence?"

Analysts go on vying to tease out the varied pieces of the puzzle of today's renewed hunger crisis: Is it "hoarding" that's to be blamed? Is it heightened speculation? Is it the growing Asian elite's market-demand for grain-fed meat? The rising price of oil? The diversion of food to produce agrofuel? (A leaked World Bank report suggests that this diversion alone could have pushed prices up 75% since 2002.)

But these questions avoid asking why we have failed to end hunger even in the good times.

For years, the world's more-than-ample supply of food -- keeping well ahead of population growth -- has left over 800 million hungry. Because we've not grasped the root causes, today's prices risk pushing another one hundred million people into the ranks of the hungry. No amount of lifting of agricultural trade barriers will address this longstanding, now intensified, crisis.

Understanding hunger begins here: In our world where the bottom 40 percent of us have to survive on just over three percent of world income and eight in ten live in societies where inequalities are worsening, the real "hoarding" is done by those with vastly disproportional income: Their market demand diverts 37 percent of the world's grain and about a third of the world fish catch to livestock, and now almost a third of U.S. corn to ethanol.

How could this extreme and worsening inequality happen? Because of our thin concept of democracy -- that elected government plus a one-rule economy (highest return to existing wealth) are all we need to meet human needs. As a result, economic and political power concentrate in such a way that policies emerge which defy the values and common-sense of most citizens.

For, where are everyday citizens who would choose to have their survival dependent on the vagaries of volatile international markets? Nowhere.

Thus, our hunger crisis is actually a democracy crisis. Hunger can be eliminated only as we remove the influence of concentrated wealth over public choices and ensure the ongoing, healthy distribution of power. The sooner we start recasting the crisis thusly, the sooner we'll all be able to thrive.

Frances Moore Lappé of the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the author of sixteen books, most recently Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad.

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