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As Food Insecurity Surges, Leading Scientist Says Hunger Is a Deliberate Choice by Those in Power

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As the World Food Programme accepts the Nobel Peace Prize, we look at the growing global hunger crisis amid the pandemic, the climate crisis and war. In the United States, as many as 50 million people could experience food insecurity before the end of the year — including one in four children. “It’s important to remember that hunger does not always happen because of natural disasters,” says Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It is often the result of things that we do to each other deliberately.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We look now at the growing hunger crisis and how the World Food Programme, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient, projects 270 million people may be pushed to the brink of starvation amidst the combination of conflict, climate crisis and COVID-19. Here in the United States, the group Feeding America predicts more than 50 million people in the country could experience food insecurity before the end of the year — including one in four children.

We’re joined now by Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you start, Ricardo, by responding to the World Food Programme winning the Nobel Peace Prize today and the comments of its director, David Beasley, saying, “Food is the pathway to peace”?

RICARDO SALVADOR: Yeah, well, first of all, this is a very apt recognition for the organization. However, I think that executive director Beasley will also agree that the best circumstance would be that there be no need for an organization like the World Food Programme. What it is doing is heroic because it’s essentially delivering emergency food to populations that have no recourse. But we really need to be asking ourselves: How is it that in the 21st century, when the planet as a whole is producing almost half, again, as much in terms of calories that we need to feed everyone, that there are some people that are in such dire circumstances as he described? So, we must always do that work. We must support that work. We must congratulate the people that devote their lives to do that. But I think a more important calling is actually to prevent the incidence of hunger on the planet, which is entirely doable.

And to your question, the formula that food is the way to derive peace actually should be more properly understood in reverse. The answer to my question of why we have so many hungry people on the planet when there is no need for that is that it is a deliberate decision that some human beings make in order to appropriate the resources of others, or, as in the case of one of the hot spots on the planet right now for hunger, which is Yemen, it was a deliberate strategy to disrupt the food system specifically to weaken the country in the pursuit of the war between proxies, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And so, it’s important to remember that hunger does not always happen because of natural disasters, which is a mental model that most of us fall back upon; it is often the result of things that we actually do to each other deliberately.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ricardo, also today, when Beasley was speaking, the head of the World Food Programme, he said that food is the pathway to peace. He’s also pointed out in a piece in The Guardian that even before the pandemic, in 2019, twice as many children died of malnutrition and hunger than have died in total from the pandemic so far. That is, over 3 million children died last year from hunger and malnutrition. Can you talk about what you think the underlying causes of this are? You hinted at it earlier. What are the problems with the global food system that creates this kind of systemic hunger in certain places?

RICARDO SALVADOR: Yeah, I’d be happy to lay that out. The most important thing to understand about the modern food system is that it is a creation of about the last 70 years, and it is a business model. It is a wonder of global logistics. And it is not a philanthropy. It costs a great deal to invest in the production, the processing, the distribution, the transportation logistics, all of the blinking lights that make it so that for those of us that have economic and political power, that food system can serve our needs. It literally can deliver on our whims in an instant. Most of us, per deliberate strategy of the food system, are just within arm’s reach of anything that it can manufacture and deliver. But note the qualifications that I just described. You need to have economic and political power in order to make that food system serve you.

Now, that system does not serve everyone. When we cite statistics like the ones that we’ve been hearing this morning about the millions who are hungry, another way of hearing that is to say the global food system that relies on wealthy people to be able to interact with it actually does not serve hundreds of millions of people on the planet. And the reason why these people are not served is that you provide your food in one of two ways. It’s very simple. You either grow it and produce it for yourself, meaning that you have access to land and you can apply your labor and entrepreneurship to produce your own food, or else you generate cash income from some other activity, and you interact with a global food system that does it all for you. If you’re hungry, then it means you have no access to land or else you’re not able to apply your entrepreneurship to produce your own food, and you also don’t have access to the capital, to the cash that’s required to be able to interact with the food system.

So, the questions are: Why is it that some people are not able to produce in their own backyards, on their own land, enough to feed themselves? And the answer to that is that often it’s the folks interacting with the food system, that second category of people that I mentioned, that are the explanation. Those of us that enjoy cocoa, coffee, tea, the products of most of the tropical part of the world, are actually utilizing tropical land, are actually utilizing the resources of other people. In our mind, we believe in such theories as comparative advantage: We’re actually trading for these artifacts. But in fact what is happening is that most of the time we’re appropriating the resources of very vulnerable, economically desperate people that are not able to fight back against millionaires that are investing in land leases in order to produce industrial crops, such as jatropha for biofuels, or to produce the luxury crops of the Global North.

And so, it is very important to understand that, as I mentioned at the outset, these are deliberate human decisions, tactics that look like investment decisions to other people but in fact actually have the perverse result of immiserating and making other people hungry in different parts of the planet.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ricardo, could you talk about that actually in the context of what David Beasley also said, these staggering figures, $400 trillion of wealth in the world today, an additional $2.7 trillion added over just 90 days at the height of this pandemic, the connection between inequality and the kind of resource appropriation that you’ve been speaking of?

RICARDO SALVADOR: Yeah. I’ll add a few more statistics to that. So, for instance, globally, the value of the food system approaches $5 trillion. It is a very high value-add business proposition to take the raw products that most of us wouldn’t know what to do with — so, for instance, raw corn, raw soybean or livestock on the hoof — and turn that into the edible bites that most of us expect from the food system that we’re accustomed to. Those of us that have only known the food system of the last 70 years know only those edible bites, by and large. And so, it’s a very profitable system, and that nearly $5 trillion that I’ve described says things are going to stay this way.

And so, this means people on the planet who are displaced, who formerly owned land and produced for themselves but have been displaced for banana plantations, for cocoa plantations, for tea plantations, for bioenergy plantations and so on, these are populations of people that do not have the political power — often don’t enjoy the support of their own governments — in order to assure their food sovereignty and their own well-being.

Prime example of this is the continent of Africa. The majority of us are accustomed to grab, for a stereotypical image of somebody suffering from hunger, by going onto the internet and finding images of desperate people on the African continent. We are conditioned by those images to think of the continent as a basket case when it comes to economic development and to agricultural production. The continent of Africa not only could feed itself, it is currently producing more calories than needed to feed its own population. Just one country, Sudan, could be a breadbasket for the entire continent. But what is actually occurring is that governments are making land lease deals with foreign companies or other nations, namely China, so that the production of Africa is literally appropriated to meet the needs of other countries that have the capital to compete for that land and for the production of that land against the interests of native Africans.

And so, this is just another instance of the principle, that I keep repeating, that hunger does not just happen to people. It isn’t just that climate change has occurred. It isn’t just that there’s been a temporary catastrophe such as a typhoon, a hurricane. It is that we deliberately make decisions to deprive other folks of the factors of production that they require to take care of one of their prior needs, which is to provide for their nourishment. So it’s a matter of power. It’s a matter of whether there is actual democracy for people to be able to fight for their own rights within their own countries. And so, the abstract notion of hunger can be translated into very deliberate power plays, that we all can interact with, that we all can shift.

AMY GOODMAN: Ricardo Salvador, what can the pandemic teach us about treating hunger?

RICARDO SALVADOR: Well, the pandemic is an instance of a disruption that has been global, in this particular instance, but let’s go to one of the hot spots of hunger in the world right now that I’ve mentioned already, the country of Yemen. It is a civil war that is a proxy war being fought by Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has gone on for five years. The United States is a part of this war on the side of Saudi Arabia, backing Saudi Arabia, providing armaments, providing moral justification. It is a country that would not be able to provide for its own food. It is primarily a desert country. So, 80% of its food is imported. If you disrupt the economic system there, as the war had done prior to the pandemic, then that means that people are going to be vulnerable. There will be no actual flow of food. But the pandemic has actually exacerbated that to the point where essentially the 85% of food that has to be imported to meet the demand of the internal population has been disrupted just logistically. Just because of the war, the food cannot get in.

And so, there are two ways that you don’t have access to food. One is the one that I just described, physical access. And I’ve given you an example of a place where a decision is made by people — let’s go to war, and let’s specifically disrupt the food system of Yemen so that it can be vulnerable and we can win the war there — so, an intentional act. Or the other way that you can not have access is because you don’t have the capital, you don’t have the cash. And so, the fundamental thing to remember always in these situations is you must provide access so that people can actually meet their own needs in one of those two ways.

The pandemic itself has actually exacerbated existing vulnerabilities all over the planet. Where people were on the razor’s edge of food sovereignty and survivability, often this has tipped them over the edge. And it has occurred not only in the Global South; it is actually something that exists within the Global North. So, there are populations the size of, say, Sudan, a 50 million total population. That is the number of food-insecure people embedded within the United States.

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