A world food crisis; empty rice bowls and fat rats

A world food crisis; empty rice bowls and fat rats
A short look at the problems in world food production and supply, and its links with rising oil prices, global warming and changes in farming techniques.

In the Chittagong hill tracts of rural south-eastern Bangladesh the bamboo is in bloom - and the local poor are hungry and facing famine. Bamboo blooms and seeds itself roughly once every 50 years; the rats love the seeds, and their high protein content causes them to breed four times faster than normal. After finishing off the bamboo seeds, the massively enlarged rat population moves on to other crops. Rice, ginger, turmeric and chillies fields have all suffered from the plague of rats. Rat trappers are working constantly, and the cooked rat itself has now become an important part of some diets, as crops are devastated and even wild food sources are depleted. Food aid from government and NGOs has been slow to reach the area.

The immediate effect is increased desperation for the poor - in Asia many spend 50-70% of income on food. But this is only a local manifestation of a serious global food supply problem that will affect us all to varying degrees. Food inflation of over 20% in the past year in the UK is only an early symptom.

Dhaka; collective bargaining as riot

Last Saturday thousands of striking garment workers rioted in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, demanding increased wages to compensate for spiralling food inflation. After rejecting an insufficient wage offer from factory bosses, they demonstrated and then began to attack garment factories. A massive police contingent arrived and fierce clashes occurred; some police were beaten and then chased out of the area by furious workers. Cops were seen to throw away their uniforms and hide in local houses and shops. The cops eventually restored order with clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. At least 50 people, including 27 cops, were injured.

The whole world in a grain of rice
Rice is the staple food of poor Bangladeshis, along with billions of others - half the world's population - and now the world faces a global grain shortage and soaring prices. Last December's Sidr Cyclone in Bangladesh destroyed $600 million worth of the country's rice crop, and prices have doubled in the past year. A kilo of rice now costs 30p ($0.60).The government has tried to import rice stocks, but now the major exporting countries, such as neighbouring India, have severely restricted their exports to try and limit price rises for their domestic consumers. Long queues form daily outside shops where soldiers sell government-subsidised rice at three quarters of the market price. It used to be only the poorest queueing, but now they are joined by the lower middle classes - teachers, government workers etc.

But this is far from a local problem... there have been food riots recently in Egypt, Argentina, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere - while in Haiti last week protesters blocked roads, shot at UN peacekeeping troops and then tried to storm the Presidential Palace.

Several factors have combined to create the present shortages. Hoarding by suppliers to further push up prices is a factor. There are the consequences of global warming; abnormal weather conditions have led to severe crop damage and drought, while increased planting of bio-fuel crops has taken land out of food production. In the rapidly developing ecomomies of Asia greater consumer spending power has changed diets, particularly among the emerging affluent middle classes; a growing demand for more meat means cattle and poultry feed crops take over agricultural lands, feeding far fewer mouths from the same acreage. As the economies industrialise, migration to the cities causes a labour shortage in the countryside; rice is a labour-intensive crop. Industrialisation also eats up farmland and government policies try to push small farmers off the land into urban wage labour and proletarianisation.

Rising oil prices mean rising transportation costs that are passed on to consumers in food prices, which in turn makes bio-fuels more economically feasible - which then takes more land out of food production. (So, ironically, so-called ecological measures are contributing to the 'food crisis'. And recent research has just found that bio-fuels increase air pollution by discharging more harmful particles than normal fuel.) The price of oil-derived agricultural fertilisers is also rising. As farmers have been encouraged to move away from traditional farming practices, they have become dependent on chemical fertiliser; the International Rice Research Institute says that the sustainability of rice farming in Asia is threatened by overuse of fertilisers and and its damage to soil health.

It is possible that the rising price of diminishing oil reserves and unpredictable weather conditions as a consequence of global warming may eventually force governments to begin planning for greater 'food security' and a degree of self-sufficiency. Policies moving away from domestic food production may be reversed. A UN report has recently called for a more ecological and locally sourced approach to food production. Yet, just as the immediates demands of market competition mean global capitalism is unable/unwilling to bring any any co-ordinated response to trying to deal with global warming - so the dictates of market forces may prevent any concerted planning to deal with what is likely to be a long-term problem. Unless, of course, the hungry millions become so threatening that Capital is forced into giving concessions.

The rice harvest in Bangladesh (known as the 'Boro') is due at the end of April and a bumper crop is predicted - but that will only provide a temporary relief. Bangladesh cannot feed its population without rice imports and it's the same story in many other countries.

Land and liberty

The law is hard on man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose

- Old English rhyme

The 'Green Revolution' in agriculture introduced to 3rd World farmers in the 1960s made them dependent on supplies of fertilisers, pesticides and artificial irrigation. Monoculture cash crops became the norm; yield was doubled, but at the expense of using 3 times as much water by accessing groundwater using electric pumps. This and fertiliser pollution has caused widespread damage to soil and water.

In recent years farmers are being pressured to use 'hybrid seeds'; this is a commodified seed - engineered so it cannot reproduce itself and can only grow with the aid of chemical fertilisers. So farmers are locked into dependency on the multi-national companies selling them this seed.

In indigenous agriculture, a cropping system includes a symbiotic relationship between soil, water, farm animals and plants.

Hybrid agriculture replaces this integration at farm level with the integration of inputs such as seeds and chemicals. The indigenous cropping systems are based only on internal organic inputs.

Seeds come from the farm, soil fertility comes from the farm, and pest control is built into the crop mixtures. In the hybrid package, yields are intimately tied to the purchased inputs of seeds, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and petroleum, and intensive irrigation."

...For 10,000 years, farmers and peasants had been producing their own seeds on their lands, selecting the best seeds, storing them, replanting them, and letting nature take its course in the renewal and enrichment of life. With the introduction of hybrid seeds, farmers will no longer be their custodians." (Op.cit.)(Nazrul Islam - New Age, 6 Apr 08)

If farmers become dependent on hybrid seed, this biological diversity and local adaptation will be lost. Such commercialisation of traditional farming techniques often puts tremendous economic pressure on farmers - in India, 10,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past year, mainly due to debt worries.

The substitution of chemical fertilisers for organic methods of returning nutrients to the soil, such as composting, crop rotation and manure creates lifeless dusty soils prone to soil erosion. An estimated 24 billion tonnes of soil are eroded from the world's agricultural land each year. Dust levels in the lower atmosphere have tripled in the last 60 years.

Modern hybrid seeds require large amounts of water often necessitating the construction of irrigation systems and dams. The experience in poor countries is that dams serve the rich minority and disrupt the natural watersheds essential to poorer farmers. To build these dams millions of people have been forcibly moved from their homes and fertile soils in river valleys have been flooded. (Primal Seeds).

The world faces numerous environmental and agricultural problems caused by the capitalist mode of production; but, for the moment, access to the necessities of life are still determined by capitalist laws;

Food availability depends on a number of factors. The first one is the purchasing capacity of the people. We should not forget that, during the 1974 famine, Bangladesh's per capita food availability was the highest to date. Even then, over 30,000 people died of starvation and millions suffered from malnutrition at that time, as the poor didn't have access to food grains for lack of purchasing capacity. (Op. cit., New Age)


Apr 16 2008 22:55

In recent weeks food riots have also erupted in Haiti, Niger, Senegal, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. Protests have also flared in Morocco, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Mexico and Yemen. More info here:

Apr 18 2008 03:17

Where can I get some more info about the 1974 Famine?

Red Marriott
Apr 18 2008 10:13

An article on 1974 ;
"The question might be posed as to why no serious food crisis or famine conditions occurred in Bangladesh in some later years, even though there were severe floods and damage to crops. There was a great scare and fear of shortages following crop failures in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1998. If the speculative fever in 1974, arising from flood damages and expectations of a short fall in Aman crop, led to such spectacular rise in price, why it was not repeated in the later years? Paradoxically, in all these years [output was reduced], whereas in 1974 the reverse had happened i.e. output was larger than in previous years. The answer was that, in all these years, imports (commercial and food aid) were available to dampen speculation."

Apr 18 2008 17:58

Thank you!

Caiman del Barrio
Apr 23 2008 05:46

The Mexico protests were about a year ago over a sudden hike in tortilla prices, after mass protest the government subsidised it back down to a little over the previous price. Things are still pretty touchy over food prices though, looks like NAFTA hasn't worked out in Mexico's benefit after all. All the maize is imported to the States to be made into tortillas and sold back here with a huge markup while Mexico records the lowest annual economic growth in Latin America.

May 5 2008 20:36

This is a very interesting article, but I only wished that it were sourced more thoroughly. According to the BBC web site (I think) 10,000 farmers have committed suicide every year during the last ten years - but I can't find the source page and hesitate to make what might seem extravagant and appalling statements.
The only thing I would take issue with is the suggestion that "indigenous farmers" do better - there are plenty of examples of indigenous farmers wrecking the land (Sahara desert is one example) - the problem is not scientific farming so much as capitalist farming.

Red Marriott
May 6 2008 12:11

Well what I said is "in India, 10,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past year, mainly due to debt worries."
Which doesn't contradict, but fits in, your statement about a wider timescale. In the vastness of the internet facts/statistics get reinterpreted, fragmented etc. But this article; http://www.independent-bangladesh.com/features/is-india-facing-a-food-crisis.html verifies your claim.

I take your point about , e.g., the Sahara - but what was being referred to were those indigenous farming practices that have stood the test of time as sustainable - (which are a product of a kind of practical farmers' 'science' themselves) as against the imposition of destructive capitalist farming.

May 6 2008 22:20

Thanks for the source on the situation in India - 100,000 people committing suicide out of desperation because of debt is truly a ghastly figure, even more so when you think that most of them must have left behind wives and children who will be even more deeply in the shit than they were.
Here's another article from the BBC
Under pressure from India's World Trade Organization commitments and its own debts, it is getting rid of official subsidies - and announced in 2005 that it was no longer committed to procuring cotton from local farmers.
The effect was catastrophic. For the first time, local farmers had to sell on the open market.
Traders browbeat them into selling at much lower prices than the government rate of $60 a quintal (40kg) - and then often delayed payment for days.
The result was much lower incomes for farmers this year, and therefore high rates of debt default.

In other words the problem is purely an "economic" one.

I think there are different aspects to the question of indigenous farming. On the one hand, it is certainly true that "indigenous peoples" - for want of a better term - have developed an extraordinary wealth of knowledge about the natural environment which is being lost in rather the same way as bio-diversity is disappearing. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the beginning of scientific farming methods lifted agricultural productivity (for example by introducing more effective use of manure and making it possible to keep cattle alive in winter) such that the population as a whole was no longer in permanent imminent danger of starvation as a result of a bad winter (there is a lot of detail on this in Fernand Braudel "Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme" but I don't know if it's translated into English).

By the way, the ICC has published an article on the food riots which is not bad and includes some interesting quotes from Marx on the way capital ruins the land - even back then!

Red Marriott
May 6 2008 23:14

I don't dispute that scientific knowledge can be utilised in an ecological non-capitalist form of agriculture.

So the ICC is quoting me on their site now - well, flattery will get them nowhere. hand

May 7 2008 17:56

I don't know why it should be considered flattery to quote an article... or even why the ICC should want to flatter you confused
Incidentally on the food issues I came across this article on the food crisis in the Philippines

Red Marriott
May 7 2008 19:24

It's all about irony and historical context, LJS...

And these articles you "incidentally... came across" just happen to be on ICC sites - or you're a member?

May 7 2008 22:36

A quick answer - yes I am ICC. Unfortunately I don't get the time to participate on libcom as much as I would like, so I'm afraid I may be missing something about "irony and historical context"...
I did not mean to imply that I had "incidentally come across" these sites (and I don't think that it is suggested by what I wrote either) - I just thought you might be interested given that you've written on the food subject. I should just point out that the Internasyonalismo site is not an ICC site. This is a group in the Philippines which is in contact with the ICC (as you could see if you were to read the report of our last congress), but they are not part of the ICC - so they speak entirely for themselves. I think it is worth pointing out their take on the subject since they are in the "front line" of rising food prices, so to speak. But that's just my opinion of course.