The Hunger of Reproach: Is There Hope for Our Food System?

I once sat with farmers at a long table during a Bizkaia winter, warming up with a flaming carajillo, trying to keep my wits in the steep, unforgiving drizzle of the Basque country. A grizzled sheepherder listened wordlessly to my proposals for action-research on how farmers practice food sovereignty, a call for the radical democratization of the food system. Suddenly, he slapped his hand on the table; "Stop studying the poor!" he bellowed, "Study the rich!"

His meaning was clear: "We farmers can take care of ourselves if you get the rich off our backs."

These days, everyone is concerned about income inequality and the mega-rich. Presidential candidates, voters across the political spectrum - even Hollywood and corporate billionaires are talking about it.

David Rieff's new book, The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the Twenty-first Century adds to the conversation by offering a wide-ranging analysis of how the rich define "progress" and why their proposals to end hunger are based more on technological faith than science, and on hubris rather than empathy. This book takes on the heroic assumptions behind the calls for international economic development, and in doing so, skewers the sector's neoliberal champions from academia, science, industry--and big philanthropy.

My Basque farmer friends would certainly approve.

The Reproach of Hunger is a "millennial edition" to the many critical tomes about the failings of development--this time framed by climate change, high food prices, economic inequality and the social myopia of the uber-rich. Rieff denounces the idea that we can end hunger by spreading the North's technological bounty to the underdeveloped South. He challenges the premise that things are improving due to technology and development, and asks whether under current conditions ending hunger is even possible.

But Rieff doesn't limit his critique to the development industrial complex. He also takes progressives to task for proposing rights-based alternatives--like food sovereignty--that he considers unfeasible. In a world in which increasing economic inequality is systematically destroying democracy, Rieff is unconvinced that the food system can be transformed without a "radical transformation of the entire global political system." But since he doesn't think global systems change is possible, he doesn't believe that radical proposals are reasonable aspirations.

The Reproach of Hunger dismisses both the shallow optimism of the Right and the blind hope of the Left as denials of reality. In the last paragraph of the book, Rieff says "I wish I had a better answer, but it seems to me the only feasible one is to be found in the strengthening of the state and in the promise and the burden of democratic politics" So now what? Rieff dismisses both neoliberal development and the radical social movements who are challenging our inequitable and unsustainable food system - all while suggesting that the only feasible answer is to strengthen government.

David Rieff, I'd like to invite you to reflect and to dream - in a politically practical way, of course.

Without re-establishing the public sphere pushed for by food sovereignty movements, the state's return will be dominated by the corporate monopolies currently holding our economy hostage. The struggle to reassert the public sphere is taking place at local, regional, and municipal levels in many forms, from food policy councils to land takeovers. Yes - the corporate odds are stacked against us. However, Bill Gates and his technocratic optimism for big development are fundamentally different from the call for food sovereignty. In the first case, optimism is a way of diverting attention from fundamental inequities in a system that condemns most of the world's farmers to abject misery and locks our civilization into a protracted climate disaster. In the second case, food sovereignty is a hopeful utopian vision of those for whom giving up hope is not an option.

Historically, capitalist systems tend to swing between periods of liberalization and reform. Reform is not inevitable, however, and requires powerful social movements to force changes upon the state. The question is not whether we can end hunger in the absence of systems change, but how the food movement might catalyze society to demand the transformational reforms upon which our collective future depends.