Food crisis: writing on the wall for Imperialism

Since the beginning of 2007, world food prices have increased 60 percent. Rice prices are the highest for 19 years and wheat prices are the highest for 28 years.

Food riots have swept across Egypt, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. Three billion of our fellow world citizens live on two dollars a day or less.

This means that price rises on the scale now witnessed simply mean that they can no longer feed themselves. The United Nations World Food Programme has described the spiralling price of global food commodities as causing “a silent tsunami” for the world’s poor.

In terms of blind destructive force, that is an accurate description. Yet this is not primarily a natural disaster, but a result of the actions of the rich and powerful. As Cuban vice-president Carlos Lage has expressed it, people are left to starve because of an “unjust international economic order” in which “the logic is profit and not the satisfaction of people’s needs”.

For a long time, as a result of hugely capitalised and technically superior agribusiness operating on a gigantic scale, the prices of food commodities on the world market sank very low. As global food production outstripped effective demand (ie, people’s ability to pay for produce), prices were depressed, bankrupting countless small farmers across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Imperialism did not give a damn so long as it could turn this cheapening of food commodities to its own advantage. Cheap food became another weapon in the arsenal of oppression. Cheap food was dumped onto poorer countries, hobbling local economies, wrecking subsistence farming, throwing local trading relations out of kilter and forcing countries into dependence upon a narrow span of cash crops destined for export to the West – on the West’s own terms.

At the time, imperialism hailed this development as wonderfully progressive. As a recent article in the Financial Times put it, “new seed varieties and copious fertilisers enabled farmers to break out of the subsistence trap”. (‘Seeds of change’, 3 June 2008)

Whilst new developments in agronomic science can be a boon to mankind when rationally applied, they turn into a curse when they impose upon local economies a deadly dependence on cash crops exported to a fickle imperialist market. For how many does this “subsistence trap” seem in retrospect like a golden age, now that the value of their export crops has plunged through the floor!

Poverty amidst plenty

Today, the situation has been turned on its head, as the overproduction crisis presents itself in another guise. Now we are told that people must starve because of unavoidable ‘shortages’. Yet the global grain harvest for 2007 was 5 percent up on that for 2006!

And the Cuban newspaper Granma reports that Hugo Chavez has “condemned the fact that more than 800 million people are experiencing hunger in the world due to the unjust social and economic model, which is in crisis, because almost double the volume of food needed for the world population is actually produced” (23 April 2008)

So people are starving in the midst of plenty, just as 200 years ago when Fourier noted that “poverty is born of superabundance itself”. What sense are we to make of this?

The US delegation to the World Food Summit in Rome earlier this month told everyone that the cause of the problem was simple: the Indians and Chinese were just eating too much! However, the Venezuela ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Gladys Urbaneja Duran, rejected this arrogant and puerile assertion.

She told the assembled great and good of the ‘international community’: “The main reason for the rise in food prices isn’t growing demand from the Indian and Chinese markets, or the rise in petroleum prices. The main reason is that food has been turned into yet another object of market speculation.”

She also pointed out that what wrecked local economies in the first place was free-trade treaties and the flooding of markets by US produce. Her conclusion? That the current food crisis “is the biggest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model”. (‘Venezuela: World Food Summit “A missed opportunity”’ by Kiraz Janicke,

A Cuban delegate to the same summit pointed to another key aspect of the food crisis, what he called the “sinister bio-fuels policy” of the United States. Bio-fuel production, whilst falsely pretending to be a ‘green’ policy, diverts vast amounts of land and resources from food production. The ‘shortages’ created by speculation on the one hand and by bio-fuel production on the other are the work, not of nature, but of capitalism. (Ibid)

What medicine does imperialism now prescribe for the disorder of which it is the sole author? More of the same poison that laid the patient low in the first place. The same Financial Times article mentioned earlier cites an agribusiness tycoon, one Mr Maguire, whose genius “solution is large, export-oriented farms”.

Says Maguire, “You need small and medium enterprises rotating around massive farms that will plug them into the global economy” – so that imperialism can continue to bleed the would-be developing world dry! Why else would Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation be stumping up $150m to bankroll the ‘Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’?

And is it not clear that it is in large part Zimbabwe’s refusal to be “plugged into the global economy” in this manner, her refusal to see agriculture forced back down the road of addiction to cash crop export for the enrichment of a handful of white farmers and their imperialist masters whilst the people starve, that has inspired such fear and loathing in the hearts of the ‘international community’ of bankers and parasites?

It was similar advice coming from the World Bank and other ‘aid’ donors that put pressure on African governments in the 1970s to dismantle “state marketing boards to which farmers sold their produce, across-the-board fertiliser and seed subsidies”, ostensibly because of their ‘corruption’, but in reality because of the impediment they posed to the domination of these economies by imperialism.

As the Financial Times piece admits, “similar institutions persist in European and American farming, however”!

Capitalism can only offer capitalist ‘solutions’ – more ‘free-trade’ deals of the type on offer from the EU and the USA, designed further to undermine the independence of struggling economies. Faced with these formidable problems, what is the response from those countries living at the sharp end?

Venezuela shows the way forward

In Latin America, a growing number of countries are struggling to get out from under the unequal terms of trade dictated by imperialism, developing ties of solidarity and mutual assistance both with each other and with other countries prepared to engage as equals, not masters, like China and Iran.

In starkest contrast to Washington’s callous treatment of the underprivileged victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Venezuela was able to lift its eyes from its own pressing worries to send 364 tons of meat, milk, lentils, cooking oil and vegetables to Haiti, whose people are threatened with mass starvation.

By actions of this kind, Venezuela sends out a message of hope and solidarity to the world that puts the official ‘international community’ of an elite minority of affluent nations to shame.

As an emergency measure to protect her own population from starvation, Venezuela recently imported 74,000 tons of food, including powdered milk, beef, canned tuna, wheat, soy, sunflower oil, margarine, mayonnaise and tomato paste.

Of this total, 24,000 tons will be distributed through a supermarket chain and another 16,000 through municipal markets. But the largest amount, 30,000 tons, is being distributed by the PDVAL, a public company specially set up for the purpose and funded by the increased national revenues generated by the nationalised oil industry, no longer in the grip of foreign capital.

The key to this approach is mobilising communities to cooperate in organising this mass public distribution exercise. Community councils are encouraged to get in touch with the company on a free phone number, then a team of experts guides them through the process of setting up a new point of sale.

In May, in one region alone, the South-Western, the PDVAL helped local farmers set up 42 outlets in Tachira State, 39 in Merida State and 29 in Trujillo State. These outlets will serve 2,100 Andean families. The plan for the region is to set up another 277 outlets by the end of 2008, distributing 150 tons of food per day and benefiting over 5,500 families. The Bolivarian Armed Forces have assisted with this work.

The distribution is not charitable; the food is not for free. But the prices of these high-quality food products are regulated by the Official Gazette. This directly brings affordable food staples back within the grasp of the poor. At the same time it takes the ground out from under the feet of the hoarders and speculators who seek to profit from the hunger of the poor.

Not everyone likes this. Spokesperson of big business Noel Alvarez took particular umbrage at a February decree that gave the state power to take over groceries and other food distributors caught hoarding food or selling beyond price ceilings, claiming that such practices hampered trade and the entrepreneurial spirit! Not surprisingly, his is a minority view.

Venezuela’s actions are in line with the discussion on the food crisis at the special Alba conference held at the end of April in Caracas (Alba is the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas). Chavez, Morales, Ortega and Cuban VP Carlos Lage agreed there to set up a $100m food security fund and work on public distribution systems to combat the speculative inflation of prices.

This speculation is not just the work of local spivs and black marketeers. The pace is set by the masters of high finance. As William Pfaff wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune, “Speculative purchases have no other purpose than to make money for the speculators, who hold their contracts to drive up current prices with the intention not of selling the commodities on the real future market, but of unloading their holdings onto an artificially inflated market.” (17 April 2008)

Seen in this light, Alba’s efforts to establish public control over food distribution challenge not only the shady dealers in Caracas and La Paz but also their spiritual mentors on Canary Wharf and Wall Street.

Solving the land problem

In addition to these short-term emergency measures, Venezuela is also starting to tackle the root causes of food insecurity. The key question here is the question of land.

In 2001, an act was passed that made it possible for the state to take over land where private ownership could not be proved or where it was not being used productively. This raised the combative spirit of those peasants with little or no land of their own, encouraging them to assert their rights against the large landlords.

As recently as 1999, the big rural estates accounted for 6m hectares. Already, 2m of these have been confiscated by the government, and 60 percent of these confiscated lands have so far been handed over to 100,000 rural families.

Under an agrarian charter, which keeps ownership of 4.3m hectares in the hands of the state but grants free use of the land to those who cultivate it, collective farms are starting up.

For example, in 2002 and 2003, peasant groups occupied the Santa Rita estate, on the banks of the Masparro river. Under private ownership, the land had been underutilised, so the government assigned 16,000 of its total 31,000 hectares to the occupying peasants. The peasants were encouraged to form cooperative or collective farms, where the land was owned by the state but possessed collectively by those who worked the land together. The government built roads, gave possession papers to cooperatives, and granted credits.

(Interestingly, this pattern of the occupation of élite-owned farmland by landless peasants, encouraged by a revolutionary state leadership setting the process within a legal structure and affording practical assistance, bears a remarkable similarity to what was happening on another continent at the same time, as Zimbabwe embarked on its 2002 fast-track resettlement programme, now successfully concluded. Land is a key question in anti-imperialist struggles worldwide.)

One journalist recounts how five years ago one of Venezuela’s most successful collective farms, the Brisas del Masparro, secured a government loan of $156,000 for the purchase of cattle, horses, equipment and initial crops. Now it’s a thriving dairy farm, with a milk yield that outstrips the national average. In a country that is obliged to import powdered milk this is an important achievement, not least for the children in the neighbouring school to whom the collective donates 20l of milk every day. (‘Co-operatives turn idle landed Venezuelan estates green’ by Humberto Marquez, 18 June 2008,

Here is what one comrade has to say about the farm. “We are socialists. We work as a community, according to the abilities of each, and we take turns so that we aren’t always doing the same thing, and to learn about everything. We realised that if we were each on our own it would be very difficult to get ahead and leave behind our days as labourers, as employees enriching someone else.”

Another comrade explains: “But if in addition to communally owned animals one of us has a cow or a horse, or gets a pig, it can be raised with the others and sold by the individual owner. Some portion will be given to the co-operative, but we don’t oppose that sort of ownership. What we do want is the land and other life-sustaining projects.”

His conclusion? “All around the world there is a food crisis. They want to take food and make it into fuel. We don’t agree with that and we pay back the government’s support by producing more food. This country can’t continue feeding the people based on imports when there is so much land waiting to be worked.”

What the Venezuelan ambassador told the UN was dead right: the current food crisis “is the biggest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model”. The revolutionary-democratic struggles taking place in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere are delivering mighty blows against “the capitalist model”, against imperialism.

By studying and supporting such struggles, the working class in Britain will strengthen its own struggle for emancipation from wage slavery.

> Feed the world? Overthrow imperialism – June 2008