Monday, April 28, 2008

World Food Riots: When The 'Free' Market Starves Many Millions

"Free" market dogma and stereotypes have long portrayed "socialism" and protectionism as ideologies that bring only poverty and hunger to nations. There is some modest historical evidence for that case. Yet now, after decades of globalization, neoliberalism, deregulation, tearing down trade barriers and such, world food prices are alarmingly inflated. Food riots are erupting all over the developing world.

The Bush administration's response to a suddenly burgeoning crisis has been predictably pathetic. Congress has been ineffectual as well. The modern agricultural marketplace, with aggressive and skewed export policies and overemphasis on "free" trade, has brought the U.S. and the world the latest in a cluster of existential crises.

Well-fed Americans can truly no longer just look the other way while many millions around the globe go hungry. World hunger is a threat to our own national security.

Oakland Institute Executive Director Anuradha Mittal, writing for AlterNet, reports:

World food prices rose by 39 percent in the last year. Rice alone rose to a 19-year high in March - an increase of 50 per cent in two weeks alone - while the real price of wheat has hit a 28-year high.

As a result, food riots erupted in Egypt, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. For the 3 billion people in the world who subsist on $2 a day or less, the leap in food prices is a killer. They spend a majority of their income on food, and when the price goes up, they can't afford to feed themselves or their families.

Analysts have pointed to some obvious causes, such as increased demand from China and India, whose economies are booming. Rising fuel and fertilizer costs, increased use of bio-fuels and climate change have all played a part.

But less obvious causes have also had a profound effect on food prices.

Over the last few decades, the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have used their leverage to impose devastating policies on developing countries. By requiring countries to open up their agriculture market to giant multinational companies, by insisting that countries dismantle their marketing boards and by persuading them to specialize in exportable cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, cotton and even flowers, they have driven the poorest countries into a downward spiral.

In the last thirty years, developing countries that used to be self-sufficient in food have turned into large food importers. Dismantling of marketing boards that kept commodities in a rolling stock to be released in event of a bad harvest, thus protecting both producers and consumers against sharp rises or drops in prices, has further worsened the situation.

Those policies of marketing boards, of keeping commodities in a rolling stock in the event of a poor harvest, sound a lot like Keynesian economics in principle, do they not? It's analogous to, in government fiscal policy, running a surplus in good times and a deficit in bad. That's classic Keynes.

Regulation and planning, when done judiciously, moderately and in the genuine public interest, are suddenly looking very wise. Too bad so few people have been heeding that viewpoint for the past 30 years.

From The Washington Post, we have a report on what the Beltway People are doing. The report:

The Bush administration and Congress have been caught flat-footed by rapidly escalating global food prices and are scrambling to respond to a crisis that they increasingly view as a threat to U.S. national security, according to government officials, congressional staffers and human rights experts.

(Never mind all those hungry bellies. National security is Job One.)

The White House released $200 million in emergency wheat stores for developing countries last week ...

Top Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are pressing the White House to devote more money to emergency food aid ...

But administration officials and legislative aides acknowledge that they have only recently begun to focus on the severity of the problem, and humanitarian groups fear that assistance from the United States, which supplies about half of the world's total food aid, may come too late to provide much benefit in the near term.

It is an especially horrible problem in Haiti, one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest countries. Local rice production has been gradually undermined by "market" preference for exports from Florida, rendering the nation much less able to feed its struggling population than ever before. The crisis recently cost Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis his job.

Poor people down there are literally eating cookies made partially from mud. I'm not joking; there are stories and photos about this. Impoverished Haitians are really doing anything, and everything, that can be done to fill empty bellies.

Welcome to the New World Order -- it's a lot different from the one advertised 15 or 20 years ago. Most of the world literally got f**ked on the altar of "free" enterprise and globalism.

Mittal goes on to make what seem like very sane suggestions to prevent mass starvation:

First, it is essential to have safety nets and public distribution systems put in place. Donor countries should provide more aid immediately to support government efforts in poor countries and respond to appeals from U.N. agencies, which are desperately seeking $500 million by May 1.

Second, we should help affected countries develop their agricultural sectors to feed more of their own people and decrease their dependence on food imports. We should promote production and consumption of local crops raised by small, sustainable farms instead of growing cash crops for western markets. And we should support a country's effort to manage stocks and pricing so as to limit the volatility of food prices.

To embrace these crucial policies, however, we need to stop worshipping the golden calf of the so-called free market and embrace, instead, the principle of food sovereignty. Every country and every people have a right to food that is affordable. When the market deprives them of this, it is the market that has to give.

Amen, bro. Now try telling that to American Republicans, and in particular to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. You know, one of the three people from among whom we will choose the next U.S. president. That's a chilling thought.

Crossposted at Manifesto Joe.