Thursday, August 27, 2009

Starving during surplus; surplus of starving

Another bit here reinforcing the importance poverty/lack of socio-economic power in causing hunger and malnutrition (a topic J recently got in an extended discussion with J-friend NP; to be re-posted here eventually).

Quoting Ms. Nierenberg of the WorldWatch Institute,
One of the most interesting things Thurow explained was how the success of African farmers became their failure-in 2001, the Ethiopian harvest was the best most farmers had ever seen. They had record yields and had more food than ever to feed their families, as well as to bring to market. But that surplus caused prices to collapse more than 80 percent. Farmers couldn’t pay their debts and they cut back their expenses the next season-they planted less, they used less inputs like fertilizers and hybrid seeds, and planted just enough to (hopefully) feed their families. When the famine hit hard in2002-2003 , the same farmers, write Thurow and Kilman, who had carried their surplus grain to market the season before, were now carrying their malnourished and starving children to food aid centers. And at the same time, Ethiopian grain traders had warehouses packed to the ceiling with surplus food because foreign aid agencies were buying foreign-mostly U.S. grain-instead of from local suppliers. As a result, while millions of people in Ethiopia went hungry, more than 300,000 tonnes of grain rotted either in fields or in storage.

This is rather similar to a story that was formational in the J-career related to food issues, from a 2002 NYT story, Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots (original article is here, but I wanted to make sure readers weren't blocked by a possible NYT subscription wall). Not to pick another debate with NP, but these articles reinforce the pivotal role of poverty/lack of political power in hunger, as in both cases, there are surpluses that are going to waste rather than feeding people (although the details seem reversed, with farmers getting high, possibly inflated prices in one circumstance but underpaid in another, although J highly suspects that the farmers benefitting in India in 2002 were primarily large farmers). Fortification or yield increases or self-generation of pesticides (through genetic modification or other means) would none of them address the problems of hunger confronting the millions of people in these cases, because neither production nor nutrient content were the problem. (The argument with NP to be reprinted here revolved somewhat over Golden Rice (yes, again); one of his points was the fact that it might not solve "the" problem is not a reason it can't solve "a" problem; we'll leave it here by saying that is at least plausibly true, even if I think it to not be the case in the overwhelming majority of the time that genetic modification can solve hunger problems when market/governance problems are at root in the examples given, so even granting his point it appears like it may not be generally applicable solution, beyond potential safety and health problems J sees with GMOs... BID (but i digress)). One certainly can't make the point that production could have a secondary positive effect by lowering food prices in the Ethiopia case as in that case, low food prices (and a reliance on agricultural sales rather than self-sufficiency) contributed to hunger via farmer poverty; in the Indian case it appeared that the government was controlling the distribution of surpluses based on international and domestic political pressures, so price and supply themselves weren't necessarily prime factors there either.

Great quote from J-friend JCR, in response to a quote from another J-friend (""Americans are a stupid people by and large--we pretty much believe whatever we’re told.” -- Det. Norris, Baltimore PD, "The Wire"):
We have a very long history of mistrusting the government and believing in the importance of the individual over the community. We're steeped in it, and we don't often question it. This fundamental attitude is easy to manipulate, so that health care for everyone is bad (because you need more government investment to do it), while tax cuts for the rich are good (on the assumption that someone who is rich got that way by individual merit).

We're no lazier or dumber than the rest of the world, but our basic beliefs don't serve us as well as they could.

For the record, JCR partly credits this blog post by Frank Schaeffer for what he calls a not "completely original" sentiment. (Of course he's right; "There's nothing new under the sun", but then again, genius is, in a way, saying what others have thought but perhaps did not realize: "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.")

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