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It's About Power, Not Food: The True Causes of World Hunger

05/27/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

Some of the world's most agriculturally abundant nations are also the hungriest.

Take India, for example. Last year, according to the Indian government's Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority India exported 30 million metric tons of food, worth $23 billion in U.S. dollars. That included 11 million tons of rice, six million tons of wheat, two million tons of vegetables and a million tons of buffalo meat.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), India's food-insecure population is 255 million people, constituting about 36 percent of the people who are hungry on the planet. By the government of India's own count, using a measure of poverty based primarily on the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet, 355 million Indians, or 30 percent of the population, lived in poverty in 2009-2010. That means that India exports about 270 pounds of food per year for every hungry Indian and 186 pounds of food per year for every Indian in poverty.

Why is this allowed? It is allowed because successive governments of India placed a higher priority on earning large sums of money for agribusinesses and exporters than on feeding the nation's own hungry populace.

According to Forbes, there are now more than 100 billionaires in India, with a combined wealth of US $346 billion, up more than a third from US $259 billion in 2013. Mass numbers of Indians literally starve in the streets just feet from gleaming luxury skyscrapers. Not surprisingly, it's the skyscraper owners, not the starving masses, who have the political power to decide how food stocks are utilized.

In the U.S, our leaders also generally prioritize wealth creation for the richest, over-feeding our populace. While the severity of the hunger in the U.S. is generally far less than in India, U.S. hunger is far worse than in any Western industrialized country, and fully 49 million Americans live in food insecure homes, unable to afford an adequate supply of food. Yet in 2013, the U.S. exported $144 billion worth of food, equaling $2,938 worth of food for every American struggling against hunger.

As the chart below demonstrates, between 2002 and 2013, the combined net worth of the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans rose by 30 percent, while food insecurity rose by 34 percent. The net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans, according to Forbes, now tops two trillion dollars, which is more than four times the amount of the entire U.S. budget deficit. That's right, 400 people have four times as much money as the entire federal shortfall for a nation of 314 million people.

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Instead of building on the success of effective safety net on. The Congressional majority just voted for a budget that would reduce federal spending by five trillion dollars over 10 years, with 63 percent of the cuts in non-defense spending coming out of programs that aid low-income Americans, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

According to the Center, the budget:

Reduces basic food assistance for low-income families and individuals substantially and significantly cuts grants and loans to help low-income students afford college. The budget also allows key provisions of tax credits for working-poor families to expire after 2017, which would push 16 million people into -- or deeper into -- poverty.

Yet the House of Representatives also recently voted to eliminate the estate tax, aiding only couples who inherit more than $10 million. It clear that, in the U.S., like in India, the mega-wealthy have far more political power than the very hungry.

In neither India nor the U.S. is hunger caused by a scarcity of food. It's obviously the case that if nations have enough food to export vast amounts of it, they have enough food to feed their own people. The main cause of food deprivation in both countries is the inability of mass numbers of people to either grow their own food or afford to purchase enough food, which in turn is caused by mind-boggling inequality of wealth. While defenders of inequality trip all over themselves to manufacture supposedly unalterable economic or cultural reasons for inequality of wealth, its main cause is inequality of political power.

In fact, in every nation on earth that has significant hunger, poverty and economic inequality, there is significant political inequality. The converse is also true: The countries that do the best job of meeting the basic living needs of their residents also have political systems in which most citizens have an active and effective stake in their governments. In the last few years, I have visited India, Australia, Colombia and all the Scandinavian countries, and this correlation was crystal clear everywhere.

Political power results in public policies favorable to those who hold that power, and public policies do matter, in nation after nation.

India has more than twice as much food insecurity as the U.S. per capita. Australia has just a third. In Australia, according to a national nutrition survey in 1995, more than five percent of the population is food insecure, although some more recent, less comprehensive surveys, indicate the percentage may be a bit higher. Thirteen percent of Australians live below their poverty line. In contrast, in the U.S., 14 percent of Americans are food insecure, and 14.5 percent live in poverty. The difference is public policy. While wages and safety nets in the U.S. are inadequate, they are far more robust than in India.

Why does Australia have so much less poverty and hunger, even per capita, than the U.S.? Again, its public policies. The minimum wage in Australia is about double that of the U.S. And despite right-wing claims in both the U.S. and Australia that a higher minimum wage harms wealth creation, the wealthiest in Australia are obviously doing just fine. According to Forbes, Australia has 26 billionaires, and their combined net worth tops 74 billion dollars.

It is also important to note that in Australia, like the U.S., poverty is unequally distributed by location and ethnic group. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than one in five (22%) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 2012-2013 were living in a household that, in the previous 12 months, had run out of food and had not been able to afford to buy more. This was significantly higher than in the non-Indigenous population (3.7 percent). While the plurality of people who are poor, food insecure, hungry, and receiving SNAP in the U.S. are white, members of minority groups in the U.S. are also disproportionately impacted. In 2013, U.S. household food insecurity rates for Blacks (26 percent) and Hispanics (24 percent) were double the rate (11 percent) for white, non-Hispanics.

Yet, the U.S. poverty rate in the U.S. in 2013 for Blacks (27 percent) and Hispanics (24 percent) is double the rate (10 percent) for white, non Hispanics.

Yet, while doing better than the U.S, Australia has a far less comprehensive safety net than Western Europe and thus far more per capita poverty and food insecurity than Europe. The European Union calculates that the poverty rate across Europe is nine percent. In other words, the least hungry population in the U.S -- non-Hispanic white people -- are hungrier than Europe as a whole, even including nations with significant poverty now such as Spain and Greece.

Scandinavia is doing even better than Europe as whole, and the poverty rate in Sweden is only one percent. Scandinavia used to be very poor. That's the main reason why, between 1820 and 1940, fully 19,592 people from Finland, 335,025 people from Denmark, 697,095 people from Norway and 1,325,208 people from Sweden emigrated to the United States. Scandinavian art and literature from the 19th century is replete with references to mass hunger and other serious forms of deprivation.

Today, these Scandinavian countries have virtually no hunger and food insecurity, and minimal poverty. It's not that their basic cultures changed. It's not that they developed new natural resources that brought in wealth (with the exception Norway's major increases in oil production). It's that their public policies changes. These nations eliminated hunger and virtually eliminated poverty is that they made conscious decisions as societies to change their economic and social policies in order to do so.

These countries generally do not define poor people's programs as distinct from everyone else's programs. They define government programs, by and large, as stuff everyone in society gets. Everyone is eligible for free health care, and heavily subsidized public transportation, child care, higher education, unemployment benefits, maternity leave, etc. They view these as benefits to the society as a whole, and everyone, especially the wealthiest, pay their fair share of taxes to support these programs in the name of the mutual good.

Not coincidentally, there is much less fraud in social programs in Scandinavia than in India. When everyone believes they are in it together, they are far less likely to steal.

When I suggest that the U.S. should model its programs and policies on Scandinavia, I am told that those countries are just too small and just too homogenous to be appropriately compared to the U.S. Point taken.

Perhaps a better comparison is the U.S. to France, a large, diverse country that has recently attracted many immigrants, including very low income ones. Yet France also has much less poverty and hunger than the United States, even per capita.

According to French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research, (http://www.insee.fr/en/) in 2001, six percent of the population of France (or 3.7 million people) were below the poverty line (which, according to INSEE's criteria, is half of the median income).

In comparison, in the U.S. in 2013, 14.5 percent of Americans lived under the meager federal poverty line, earning $19,510 a year or less annually for a family of three.

Under this definition, the U.S. poverty rate was three times that of France.

The U.S. defines poverty by merely how much money people have in absolute terms, while France, and many other nations, define poverty in relative terms, compared to average families. If the U.S. defined poverty the same as France, then fully 25 percent of Americans would be in poverty, or nearly five times the rate in France.

About six percent of Paris residents lived in households suffering from food insecurity or hunger in 2010, according to a paper published in BMC Public Health. In the lowest income Paris neighborhoods, the rate was 14 percent. In contrast, 17 percent of all New York City residents, and 29 percent of the residents of the Bronx (the lowest income borough of New York City) lived in food insecure households in 2013, according to federal data calculated by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. In other words, Paris had less hunger in even its poorest neighborhoods than New York City had citywide. The lowest-income borough in New York had more than twice as much food insecurity as the lowest income neighborhoods in Paris.

France also has lower levels of obesity and higher life expectancy that the United States. In France, farming is more likely to be conducted by small and medium size family farmers, while in the United States it is more likely to be carried out by massive corporate agribusinesses.
The difference between the U.S. and France is that France has higher wages, a more robust social safety net, and more targeting of farm programs towards smaller, family-owned, farms. Recent outbursts of violence, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in France has recently demonstrated that their society is far from perfect, but, compared to the U.S. they still have far less violence, poverty, hunger and food-related disease.

Disturbingly, there is now a pattern throughout much of the word in which, in the name of some theoretical "austerity," neoliberal policies are eliminating jobs, depressing wages, and slashing social safety nets. At the same time, corporate food businesses world-wide are supporting the creation and growth of food banks, modeled on American food banks, to distribute excess food products to low-income people. According to the Global Food Banking Network, there are now food banks in more than 30 countries. Having visited food banks in Australia, I can attest that they are nearly identical to the industry-backed food banks in the U.S.

Is it wrong to use excess food to aid hungry people? Of course not. Food banks do -- and should -- fill in some gaps in government safety nets. But no place in the world are they coming even close to fully filling in all those gaps. In most, if not all, of the nations in which food banking is growing, hunger and food insecurity are growing far faster than is charitable food distribution.
Making matters even worse, governments -- and sometimes the food banks themselves -- use the existence of food banks to give the public the false impression that these charities are solving the problem, thereby diverting attention away from failing public policies. The public is continually told it can end hunger one person at a time, one donated can at a time, when that's simply not true.

Today, 800 million people world-wide are afflicted by hunger, which not only directly causes mass suffering and death, but is also a major factor in the spread of poverty, war and terrorism.

The only way to end hunger in the U.S. and the world is a fundamental paradigm shift that replaces charity with social justice. And the only way to force that paradigm shift is to develop a mass people's movement worldwide to ensure political power for low-income and working people around the globe.

Throughout the world, there are now pockets of courageous people battling for the right to food, economic opportunity, human rights, and food sovereignty, often facing serious economic deprivation and/or political repression and violence. At times, on-the-ground activists may think that their own struggle is unique. But the causes of -- and solutions to -- the food problem remain essentially the same world-wide, all rooted in the lack of political power.

The time is now for an expanded and empowered world-wide anti-hunger movement, which both mobilizes the low-income people most impacted and makes common cause with the world's middle class, who are also threatened by the world's downward economic trends.
The planet is agriculturally abundant enough to ensure that all people have a sufficient supply of affordable, nutritious, culturally-appropriate, sustainably- grown, food. By joining together as world citizens to demand such an outcome, we can achieve the once unthinkable dream of ending world hunger once and for all.

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