More than 49 million Americans — or one in seven — struggled to find enough to eat last year, according to a report from the US Department of Agriculture released Monday. That’s the highest total since the federal government began keeping track of food insecurity. Meanwhile, leaders from most of the world are gathered in Rome to tackle hunger on a global scale at the UN World Food Summit, but leaders of the world’s richest countries were largely absent from the summit. We speak with Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: More than 49 million Americans, or one in seven, struggled to find enough to eat last year, according to a report from the US Department of Agriculture released on Monday. That’s the highest total since the federal government began keeping track of what they call food insecurity. The numbers for 2008 shot up by three-and-a-half percent, or nearly 13 million people, from 2007, marking the greatest deterioration in access to food in a single year. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the numbers a, quote, “wake-up call,” and President Obama described the report as, quote, “unsettling and troubling.”
Meanwhile, leaders from most of the world are gathered in Rome to tackle hunger on a global scale at the UN World Food Summit. The chief of the UN food agency, however, has criticized a draft final declaration for not setting targets or a timeframe for concrete action. The summit also rejected the UN agency’s request to increase funding for agriculture in poor countries to $44 billion a year. By contrast, farmers in rich countries received $365 billion a year in 2007.
But leaders of the world’s richest countries were largely absent from the summit. Italy’s Berlusconi was the only leader from the Group of Eight industrialized nations to attend the summit.
Brazilian President Lula da Silva criticized the bailout of bankers, while the poor are left to go hungry.
PRESIDENT LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] In the face of the threat of an international financial collapse caused by irresponsible speculation and reinforced by the state’s omission of regulation and fiscalization of the system, world leaders did not hesitate in spending hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars to save the banks. With less than half of that, it would be possible to eradicate hunger in the whole world.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the hunger here at home and around the world, I’m joined in San Francisco by writer and activist Raj Patel, the author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. His forthcoming book is called The Value of Nothing.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what’s happening in Rome.
RAJ PATEL: Well, Rome is one of a number of summits that have happened over the past couple of years addressing the global food crisis. And it is a global food crisis. Of course, we know now that 49 million Americans went hungry in 2008, but that figure is part of a global trend. Around the world last year, over a billion people didn’t have enough to eat. And that figure is part — I mean, no one thinks that that figure is going to be going down anytime soon.
The reason that we have this huge increase in hunger in the United States, as around the world, isn’t because there isn’t enough food around. Actually, we produced a pretty reliable solid crop last year. The reason people are going hungry is, of course, because of the recession. The reason people go hungry is because of poverty. And that’s why, for example, if you look at the United States figures, you will see that those most deeply affected by those figures are women. And around the world, hunger is a gendered phenomenon. Of the people going hungry in the world today, 60 percent are women or girls. And this — the sort of structural causes behind hunger, the fact that, for example, the safety nets that once used to be there have been cut away by decades of privatization and of shrinking of the welfare state, those are the deeper underlying issues that haven’t been addressed by any of the summits that we’ve had over the past couple of years.
And unfortunately, Rome seems to be spinning its wheels with the — the governments have been — who are at Rome and the representatives at Rome from our governments seem to be doing very little. They’re — obviously they’re wringing their hands. They’re moaning and lamenting and rending of clothes, and they’re making all the right sounds about hunger around the world, but as some of the activists outside that summit are saying, poor people can’t eat promises. And the consistent problem with these summits is that they’ve been full of these kinds of high-minded commitments, but very little is happening on the ground from government.
However, what government is doing is enabling the private sector to come in and take advantage of this hunger crisis. And so, we’re seeing, as we just heard, the US government is fronting for the pesticide industry and the genetically modified crop industry to make headway in trying to offer its solutions to hunger. We’re also seeing a lot of private sector activity around land grabs. The NGO GRAIN has observed that over 40 million hectares has either been grabbed by private sector — by the private sector or is under negotiation. In other words, companies from outside a country will come in and get the best farmland with the best water underneath it as a way of ensuring that as food prices go up, as everyone believes they will over the next few years, they will stand to make a profit. So while our governments are sitting idly by, the private sector is going in with a lot of money, over $100 billion by some estimates.
And, of course, while governments stand idly by and the private sector gets — you know, gets ready for profit, there are moments of resistance. The international peasant movement La Via Campesina is in Rome right now leading an international protest called the People’s Food Sovereignty Forum, where genuine solutions to hunger around the world are being pushed, solutions that empower women, solutions that are about sustainable technology that make sure that we’re able to feed our children, not only today, but through 2050, when there will be nine billion people.
AMY GOODMAN: The figures in the United States, did they surprise you? The Agriculture Department, one in seven people trying to get enough food last year in the United States.
RAJ PATEL: Frankly, I was gobsmacked. I mean, to see, for example the number of children going hungry go up from 11 million to 17 million children in this country, when we have enough food, I think was appalling. And frankly, I mean, one knew that it was going to be bad because of the recession, but quite that bad, I think, has taken everyone by surprise.
AMY GOODMAN: Raj Patel, I want to thank you for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this issue.