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World Food Day a Reminder of a Global Crisis Further Sidelined by Campaign Frenzy, Financial Woes

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As the financial crisis dominates the attention of the news media and the presidential campaign, a global food crisis continues to affect millions of people around the world. Last night, a group of farmers and food policy experts gathered in New York for an event to mark World Food Day. We speak to Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, and Ben Burkett, president of the National Family Farm Coalition. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As the financial crisis dominates the attention of the news media and the presidential campaign, a global food crisis continues to affect millions of people around the world. The World Bank predicts the number of malnourished people will increase by 44 million this year because of high food and fuel prices. That would bring the total number of malnourished people to nearly one billion.

Jacques Diouf of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization said, “The media have highlighted the financial crisis at the expense of the food crisis. But for those who live on less than a dollar a day, it’s a matter of life and death.”

According to the 2008 Global Hunger Index, thirty-three countries have “alarming or extremely alarming” levels of child mortality, child malnutrition and other hunger-related health problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is urging wealthy nations to do more to tackle the problem. He said, “My position is that the financial crisis is a serious one, and deserves urgent attention and focus, but so is the question of hunger, and millions (are) likely to die.”

Last night, a group of farmers and food policy experts gathered here in New York for an event to mark World Food Day. Two of the speakers join us here today.

Raj Patel, writer and activist, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, formerly worked for the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. He is currently a fellow at Food First.

Ben Burkett is president of the National Family Farm Coalition. He’s been farming vegetables in Mississippi since 1973, also the director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start with Raj Patel. What should we know right now about the food crisis? I mean, I haven’t heard it mentioned in any of the debates, for example.

RAJ PATEL: Right. And, I mean, as usual in the debates, poverty is the issue that people never talk about. But it’s worse than actually we just heard in the introduction, I mean, nearly a billion people going hungry. Well, those figures were calculated before the financial crisis. And now we’re kind of in the worst of all possible worlds, because we have these sort of commodity price fluctuations.

You know, earlier on this year, we had the sort of skyrocketing prices for basic grains. Well, those prices have come down now, but at the same time — so, the result of that is that farmers are not getting as much money for their product. But us, in the supermarkets, the world of consumers, haven’t seen those kinds of price drops. We haven’t seen prices return to what they were in 2007, for example.

So, at the same time as there are high consumer prices, low prices for farmers, and now we’re moving into recession, which means that the poorest people in this country, but also around the world, are going to find it much, much harder to eat. And that crisis is a sort of a long chronic one. It always happens with a recession, but it happens — this recession is poised to be one of the most deepest and most biting recessions, particularly for working people, wherever they are.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what will that mean in terms of increasing numbers of people leaving the farms and moving to cities or to other countries?

RAJ PATEL: Well, there’s been a long trend in international policy, particularly authored by organizations like the World Bank, to turf farmers off their land. Small farmers, sustainable farmers are considered inefficient. And so, under the rubric of bringing efficiency to agriculture, they’ve been kicked off the land and have been ushered into urban areas, where, increasingly now, there’s going to be unemployment. Now, the tragedy is that small sustainable and independent family farms, as Ben can well attest, are much more efficient, they’re much more in harmony with the environment, and they’re able to actually provide work and healthy — healthy, organic, sustainable produce to a much larger population than these big megafarms.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Burkett, let’s talk about farms here at home. And welcome to Democracy Now!

BEN BURKETT: Thank you. Well, the number of farmers continues to decline here in the United States, especially small family farms. Past eight years, farm bill was devastating to family farmers, where it considers — big farmers got most of the subsidies. Small farmers did not receive any of these subsidies.

As Raj first stated, the prices of grain have fell in the last month or so, but the cost of farming went up, the cost of inputs. A few months ago, we were paying $4 a gallon for diesel. Labor is up. Supplies are — fertilizer prices have almost doubled. Well, that impacted the net income of farmers. So the numbers continue to decline.

But at the National Family Farmers Coalition, which we represent, over thirty to forty grassroots organizations of members throughout the country, we are trying to reverse that trend. And we need a farm bill, that it is a supply and management where farmers know that they’re going to receive a certain price for their commodities at a good price with a profit of return. And we also need on-farm reserve of grain. Under the last farm bill, most or all of on-farm storage was did away with. So we have no reserve grain in this country now. And it’ll have an effect on the worldwide supply of grain.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, these free trade agreements that our government is continuing to negotiate, most of the emphasis is usually on the industrial —- in the trade in consumer goods, but not in the impact on farming. In the debate this week, for instance, Barack Obama made a distinction that he opposed the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, but he supported the Peru Free Trade Agreement, because it had supposed labor safeguards in it. What is the impact of these free trade agreements on farming in this country, as well as in the other countries that are a part, signatories?

BEN BURKETT: Both NAFTA and CAFTA had a huge impact on family farmers in this country. I, myself, grow certain vegetables grown in my region. The acreage have almost decreased because of the production in Central America coming in. I can’t compete with that price. So we take the position that NAFTA and CAFTA are both devastating to family farmers, and we are totally against it, CAFTA and NAFTA. It brings prices down here, and it exports labor in other countries, so it’s not beneficial to either one. Tomato farmers in the South has almost been wiped out. And you look at the corn going to Mexico, and now Mexico farmers cannot compete with import of grain from the United States. So we’re totally against it, and we -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Peru, was there any difference in the Peru agreement at all, or…?

BEN BURKETT: Well, the Peru agreement, we feel that it’s not fair at all to the local indigenous population, as well as to small farmers such as myself here in America. There’s no benefit whatsoever to either side.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ben Burkett, you were affected by Hurricane Katrina. You’re in Mississippi.

BEN BURKETT: Yes. I was — my farm is about fifty miles inland, so we was affected very much in South Mississippi. I personally lost my home, as well as tending my pecan trees and all. We’re still rebuilding. And it’s an effort there even to get the assistance we need from our own government to really rebuild, help those farmers that need to be replaced — to help them come back alive and to go back in production. We had a number of farmers decided that they would not try to come back behind Katrina. And also Ike and Gustav affected some of our members in Louisiana.

AMY GOODMAN: Raj Patel, what has to happen now? And what can people in the United States and the government of the United States — what do you think it needs to do? Last year, we saw food riots around the world. Many people died. We saw riots in Nigeria and Haiti.

RAJ PATEL: Well, and those riots are still going on, even though the mainstream media won’t cover that. As recently as last month, there was another — a food riot or food rebellion in Haiti, for example.

Now, if you look at Haiti and see how — what it is that people are rioting over, people are rioting over grains of rice — I’m sorry, bags of rice that have the American flag on them and the words “gift of the people of the United States.” And that should point out, I think, that underlying these food riots is a sort of long-term problem with trade agreements and with this aggressive pushing of agriculture as a weapon of US trade policy, and foreign policy, as well.

So I think certainly we need food aid from — to be purchased within the region, and that means reforming the US food aid laws. The United States is the only country that insists on shipping US grain on US flag carriers to developing countries. No one else does that, because everyone realizes that when you do something like that, you wipe out local markets and wipe out local farmers. And food aid has long been used as a sort of aggressive weapon, in terms of making countries dependent on the United States. So that needs to stop.

But also, I think we need to rein in the power of agribusiness over our leaders. I mean, John McCain, for example, was aggressively — is on record as saying that he very much wants US trade policy to be — to be in favor of American farmers, because the world is a market waiting for American products. Now — and even Obama, with his — you know, his sort of qualified support of the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement, is still nonetheless in support of these agreements.

Now, who benefits from that? Well, if you think about who exports, it’s not farmers like — it’s not farmers like Ben; it’s Archer Daniels Midland, it’s Cargill, it’s the big grain companies. We need to shift our food priorities away from sponsoring agribusiness and these billion-dollar subsidies to the megafarms and to agribusiness, and to move towards sustainable agriculture that small, independent family farms, both here and in developing countries, are well placed to take advantage of.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is there any — are there any countries in the world, since you’ve — you’re familiar, you’ve worked with the World Trade Organization and the UN, that are pursuing a more sustainable national policy in terms of agriculture?

RAJ PATEL: There’s — I mean, every country in the world has pockets of people who are pushing forward a sustainable agricultural vision. Countries are moving towards doing this. Mali, for example, is moving more aggressively than it used to towards adopting sustainable agriculture and supporting family farms, and that’s because earlier on this year, they saw the food import bill that they would have to pay to feed their population, and they realized, “God, we’re not going to be able to afford it. We need to start supporting our family farmers.” And so, they’re en route to doing something like that. Cuba, for various reasons, has been also aggressively supporting family farms for a very long time and cooperatives, as well.

So, there are sort of islands of sanity. But often it’s not at the national level, because the national level has been taken over by the sort of neoliberals. But at sub-national levels, at regional levels and within different cooperatives, you do see these islands of hope, and I think that that’s something to hold onto.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Burkett, the issue of GMOs — you’re a Mississippi farmer — genetically modified seeds?

BEN BURKETT: I’m totally against the genetically modified seeds. I use only regular seeds on my farm. But —-

AMY GOODMAN: And you grow pecans?

BEN BURKETT: Timber and vegetables. But in the commercial crops, like cotton, corn, soybean, it’s almost impossible to get non-genetically engineered seed. I would say at least 90 percent of corn and cotton and soybeans are genetically modified seed.

AMY GOODMAN: 90 percent?

BEN BURKETT: At least. And we don’t know what the effect that that’s going to be on the environment in years to come.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What kind of pressure is on farmers to move to genetically modified seeds?

BEN BURKETT: Well, the pressure is -— as a farmer, you try to produce crops at a lower cost, and it is said that by using genetically engineered seed you’ll reduce your input cost, will not happen to make as many trips over the land. But that’s not necessarily true once you pay the cost of the seeds. Then you have to pay a premium to the seed company to plant the seed. So, most of the time, you’re back at the same cost.

And if you look at the dairy industry at the cost of production and how the price has fallen in the last month or so, many of our dairy farmers are suffering. And we have to move away from that old policy of, as Raj said, supporting agribusiness and bring it back to our supporting family farmers.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel any presidential candidate speaks to your needs, Ben Burkett?

BEN BURKETT: I hadn’t heard in the debates or any of the discussion very little about agriculture from either one of them. So I’m gong to have to say I don’t see any change on the horizon from either candidate.

AMY GOODMAN: And the lawsuit you brought, together with other African American farmers, can you explain that and where it stands right now?

BEN BURKETT: Yeah, the Pigford v. USDA was a lawsuit that we brought about nine years ago to reconcile the discrimination that was done in the Department of Agriculture against small — well, all African American farmers in this country. I think about 15,000 have been successful in their effort to bring about some justice, and it’s more or less $50,000, which is not a great amount of money. So, we’re trying to get that case reopened, where more farmers can be involved in it. Congress appropriated some money, but not enough. But we are now out getting the word across the South and other parts of the country, signing up farmers to participate in the Pigford lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say farm foreclosures are at epidemic proportions in the black community?

BEN BURKETT: Always have been. And I’m almost to the point that the few that’s left is just hanging on by a thread. And I can foresee the credit issue that’s now here in New York being a farm issue come springtime, when farmers go in to apply for credit for seed, fertilizer and chemicals. I can see that the issue of credit being a major crisis in the farm community in the spring. And it always have been in small African American farmers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And about how many African American farmers are left in the country?

BEN BURKETT: It’s said around 18,000 African Americans that’s active farming. I believe it may be a few more, because we tend not to fill out those census reports when they come in the mail, say “United States government,” and African American farmers will not fill out that document. So I’m going to say it’s probably a few more.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being here to mark World Food Day with us. Raj Patel, fellow at Food First, his book is called Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. And Ben Burkett, who is a family farmer in Mississippi, grows vegetables and pecans, also director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives.

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