In May 1998, Cuba’s president Fidel Castro attended the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. This is an annual meeting held by the World Health Organization (WHO). Castro focused his attention on hunger and poverty, which he said were the cause of so much suffering. “Nowhere in the world,” he said, “in no act of genocide, in no war, are so many people killed per minute, per hour and per day as those who are killed by hunger and poverty on our planet.”
Two years after Castro made this speech, the WHO’s World Health Report accumulated data on hunger-related deaths. It added up to just over nine million deaths per year, six million of them children under the age of five. This meant that 25 000 people were dying of hunger and poverty each day. These numbers far exceeded the number of those killed in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, whose death toll is calculated to be around half a million people. Attention is paid to the Genocide – as it should be – but not to the genocide of impoverished people through hunger-related deaths. This is why Castro made his comments at the assembly.
In 2015, the United Nations adopted a plan to meet certain Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The second goal is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. That year, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began to track a rise in the absolute number of hungry people around the world.
Six years later, the Covid-19 pandemic has shattered an already fragile planet, intensifying the existing apartheids of the international capitalist order. The world’s billionaires have increased their wealth tenfold, while the majorities have been forced into a day-to-day, meal-to-meal survival.
In July 2020, Oxfam released a report called The Hunger Virus, which found – using World Food Programme data – that up to 12 000 people a day “could die from hunger linked to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic before the end of the year, perhaps more than will die each day from the disease by that point”.
In July 2021, the UN announced that the world is “tremendously off track” to meet it SDGs by 2030, citing that “more than 2.3 billion people (or 30% of the global population) lacked year-round access to adequate food” in 2020, which constitutes severe food insecurity.
The FAO’s report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021, notes that “nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020 – an increase of almost 320 million people in just one year.” Hunger is intolerable. Food riots are now in evidence, most dramatically in South Africa. “They are just killing us with hunger here,” said one Gauteng resident who was motivated to join the July unrest. These protests, as well as the new data released by the UN and International Monetary Fund, have put hunger back on the global agenda.
Numerous international agencies have released reports with similar findings, showing that the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has solidified the trend of growing hunger and food insecurity. Many, however, stop there, leaving us with the feeling that hunger is inevitable and it will be the international institutions with their credit, loans and aid programmes that will solve this dilemma of humanity.
How we got here
Hunger stalks the planet because so many people are dispossessed. If you do not have access to land, in the countryside or in the city, you cannot produce your own food. If you have land but no access to seed and fertiliser, your capacities as a farmer are constrained. If you have no land and do not have money to buy food, you starve.
That’s the root problem. And it is not addressed by the bourgeois order, according to which money is supreme, land – rural and urban – is allocated through the market and food is just another commodity from which capital seeks to profit. When modest food distribution programmes are implemented to stave off widespread famine, they often function as state subsidies for a food system captured – from the corporate farm to the supermarket – by capital.
In recent decades, the production of food has been enveloped into a global supply chain. Farmers cannot simply take their produce to market; they must sell it into a system that processes, transports and packages food for sale at a variety of retail outlets. Even this is not so simple, as the world of finance has enmeshed the farmer into speculation.
In 2010, the UN’s former special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, wrote about the way hedge funds, pension funds and investment banks overpowered agriculture with speculation through commodity derivatives. These financial houses, he wrote, were “generally unconcerned with agricultural market fundamentals”.
Hunger is the story of our time, but so is solidarity. Amid systemic collapse and state abandonment, solidarity has been the cornerstone of survival. People’s movements have ensured the survival of the most vulnerable by distributing food hampers, hot meals and basic sanitary supplies, as well as imparting public health training to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. They give not what is surplus, but of what little they have. These acts of solidarity are not merely humans extending a helping hand in times of need, they are part of innumerable global campaigns seeking an enduring and systemic solution to the problem of hunger.
Based on the experience of such movements, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research shared 10 demands:
- Enact emergency food distribution. Surplus stocks of food controlled by governments must be turned over to combat hunger. Governments must use their considerable resources to feed the people.
- Expropriate surpluses of food held by agribusiness, supermarkets and speculators, and turn this over to the food distribution system.
- Feed the people. It is not enough to distribute groceries. Governments, alongside public action, must build chains of community kitchens where people can access food.
- Demand government support of farmers who face challenges to harvest their crops; governments must ensure that harvesting takes place following WHO principles of safety.
- Demand living wages for agricultural workers, farmers and others, regardless of whether they are able to work or not during lockdown. This must be sustained after the crisis. There is no sense in looking at workers as essential during an emergency and then disdaining their struggles for justice in a time of “normalcy”.
- Encourage financial support for farmers to grow food crops rather than the large-scale production of non-food cash crops. Millions of impoverished farmers in less wealthy nations produce cash crops that richer nations cannot grow in their climate zones; it is tough to grow pepper or coffee in Sweden. The World Bank “advised” the less well-off nations to focus on cash crops to earn dollars, but this has not helped any of the small farmers who do not grow enough to support their families. These farmers, like their communities and the rest of humanity, need food security.
- Reconsider the food supply chain and its carbon cost. Reconstruct supply chains based on regions rather than on global distribution.
- Ban speculation on food by curbing derivatives and the futures market.
- Allocate rural and urban land outside of the logic of the market, and establish markets to ensure that food can be produced and the surplus distributed outside the control of corporate supermarkets. Residents should have direct control over the food system where they live.
- Build universal health systems, as called for by the Declaration of Alma-Ata in 1978. Strong public health systems are better equipped to constrain health emergencies. Such systems must have a strong rural component and be open to all, including undocumented residents.
Hunger: A series
If hunger is the story of our time, the stories of hunger need to be told. Media projects in Argentina, Brazil, Morocco, India, South Africa and the United States share six stories that survey the global situation of the hunger virus and the work being done by people’s movements to provide relief and a new path towards a world without hunger.
Hunger in the World is a collaborative series produced by ARGMedios, Brasil de Fato, BreakThrough News, Madaar, New Frame, NewsClick and Peoples Dispatch.