The Right to Food Means Freedom from Dogma

While celebrating World Food Day, we would do well to learn from those busting the myth of the market's magic so that food might become a human right.
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Today more than 150 countries will celebrate World Food Day, whose theme this year is the right to food. The right to food may sound innocuous enough, but it's a direct affront to the reigning market fundamentalism both guiding and obfuscating U.S. food, farming, and international aid policies.

While we in the United States are still largely locked into this failing paradigm -- the market as sacred arbiter of economic outcomes -- people elsewhere are beginning to make the right to food real, more than fifty years after it was first codified in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

From Malawi's now-flourishing maize farmers to Brazil's successful new farm communities, millions are shedding primitive marketism; they see both government and the market as tools through which to realize basic human values. They've experienced the fallacy that an "unfettered" market -- what Ronald Reagan called "the magic of the market" -- will meet their basic human needs.

No degree in economics is necessary to grasp problem number one of market fundamentalism as it relates to food: The market responds to money, not to hunger.

That simple truth explains what otherwise is of course mind-boggling: Though the planet produces enough calories to make every one of us chubby, 854 million are hungry, up from 830 million six years ago according to the United Nations. Here at home where 13,000 calories a day are produced in grain alone for each of us, market dogma leaves millions hungry: 36 million Americans are food insecure -- that's more than the entire population of Canada.

In India a few years ago, we passed football-field sized hillocks of surplus grain stored along the roads. When we queried the head of India's food distribution in New Delhi about his plans for it, he told us the government was checking out export options. "And why not make it available to the hungry, since almost half of India's children are underfed?" we asked. He looked at us as if we had suggested he donate the Parliament building to the homeless.

And, because the poor can't exert "market demand," 70 percent of the world's agricultural land is devoted to grazing and crops that become feed for factory-farmed animals -- all to produce meat priced beyond the affordability of the poor and hungry.

Market fundamentalism also blinds many to its second pitfall: Left to its own devices -- without a democratic polity enforcing rules to keep it competitive -- the market inexorably concentrates control, killing the competitive discipline that was the rationale to begin with. Economists generally agree that once four companies control 40 percent or more of a market, real competition -- what consumers and farmers rely on for fair prices and practices -- is shot.

Consider that today the four largest beef processors control 81 percent of the market or that the four largest grain processors control 80 percent of the soybean market. One company -- Monsanto -- controls more than 90 percent of the market for genetically modified seeds and Wal-Mart collects an estimated one in four food dollars spent in the United States.

But across the planet people are holding government accountable for using the market as a tool of shared human values, including the virtually universal agreement that food is a human right, now enshrined in the constitutions of twenty-two nations.

Earlier this year in Mali a historic summit on food as a human right brought together people from eighty-four countries. The delegates included consumer advocates and trade union representatives and food producers, from Indonesian shrimpers to Lebanese pastoralists and Midwestern organic farmers, all sharing strategies for bringing food as a human right to reality.

In the sub-Saharan African country of Malawi, ranked last of 194 countries by GDP per capita, the government rejected the market-magic mentality and resumed subsidizing its small farmers, offering seeds and fertilizer below market price. In a few years the country went from desperate World Food Program recipient to a maize exporter, earning enough to pay for the subsidies -- twice over. Malawi even became a WFP donor, giving 400,000 tons of maize to the program this year, according to a recent article in Canada's Globe and Mail . Of course, this one market correction doesn't end hunger in a struggling nation, but shedding a crippling dogma is a start.

Beginning in the 1980s in Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement, or MST as it is known from its acronym in Portuguese, used the right granted in the Brazilian constitution to claim unused land for productive purposes. In a country where less than two percent of the population controls roughly half the land leaving much of it idle, the landless stood up to market dictum, reclaiming millions of acres, and have been reducing hunger ever since. Now, with roughly a third of a million families on almost 20 million acres of formerly idle land, the MST is making a dent in Brazil's hunger crisis, as infant mortality has fallen in its new communities.

Helping to guide the country's national Zero Hunger campaign has been the hunger-fighting experience of Brazil's third largest city, Belo Horizonte. Declaring healthy food a right of citizenship in 1993, city officials drew together voices from labor, church, and citizen organizations. Its solution was not to do away with the market; it was to correct "market failures," as an economist would say.

The local government is making sure the market works for everyone, including the poorest. Their out-of-the-box innovations, coordinated by a new municipal office of food security, range from fair-price produce stands supplied by local farmers to open-air restaurants serving 12,000 subsidized meals daily to city-sponsored radio broadcasts leading shoppers to the least expensive essentials. As a result, the city's infant death rate, a widely accepted measure of hunger, fell a striking 56 percent over the first decade of these efforts. It cost one percent of the city's budget.

Sadly, here at home market dogma is so deeply entrenched that most of don't even notice when our government, beholden to the biggest players in the food industry, intervenes in the market -- not in the public's interest but on behalf of concentrated wealth: for example, the billions in farm commodity subsidies inked into the Farm Bill.

Around the world, millions are shedding the shackles of market fundamentalism to embrace real hunger-fighting solutions. While celebrating World Food Day, Americans would do well to remove the influence of corporations in our democracy and to learn from those busting the myth of the market's magic and so that food might become a human right here, in the world's richest agricultural land.

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