Consanguineous Minds

A blog of endless curiosity

Man, Controller of the Universe…

Things that are connected can fuck each other up. This seems a fairly commonsense statement, but other than in sappy pop songs about teenaged romance, it seems that this understanding is only slowly coming into the collective consciousness.We’re only just starting to ‘get’ that opening up a previously non-market based society to an enormous globalised, market system can fuck up, among other things, access to and availability of food, for example.

From my point of view, putting a market system in charge of the thing on which many human behaviours, needs and desires are predicated seems like putting a  cat amongst a gaggle of hobbled, blind, sun-stroked pigeons with obesity problems and telling it not to gorge itself. The nature of the market, er, I mean cat, is to consume everything in sight as quickly as possible, leaving none over for other cats, or for other days. In the process it makes itself sick, and further down the track its cat children will tut at its cat stubs of diabetes amputated legs and make jokes to each other about what a sick fuck their fat cat parent is. (I realise I’m now overworking this, but what is a blog post without an overwrought metaphor, complex to the point where it stops making sense? It’s like a jackdaw wearing flippers trying to climb a tree, I tell ya!)

So, anyway. The normative conceptualisation of starvation since Robert Malthus’s time has been that of population growth outstripping food production. Looking at major famines and starvations, however, it becomes apparent quite quickly that a lack of food ain’t usually the problem. There’s this radical economist, Amartya Sen, who says many great things about the food problem. This is one of them:

In every society that exists, the amount of food that a person or a family can command is governed by one set of rules or another, combined with the contingent circumstances in which that person or that family happens to be placed vis-a-vis those rules” (Sen, 1981, p.95).

So, obviously, the set of rules is globalised food production, imports and exports. The contingent circumstances of areas experiencing starvation have often been a sudden integration into the global food market. Many such transformations took place under the auspices of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) run by the World Bank and IMF, designed to bring neo-liberal reforms to ‘developing’ countries. Unfortunately, these required government austerity policies designed to funnel any spare cash into paying back debt, privitisation, trade liberalisation, and the removal of subsidies to and safety nets for farmers. Amartya Sen talks about a person’s ‘entitlement’ to food, referring to their legal, economic means to produce or purchase food through exchange of labour or owned items.

So, imagine for example that you live in a country which, to try to pay off previous debt by taking on a new debt, has agreed to a Structural Adjustment Programs. The result of trade liberalisation in your country is that  cheap corn from first world countries (which  still subsidise farming, such as the US & Britain) begins to flood into your local area. This is great, right? Cheap food, and so plentifully available! It’s more complicated than that.  Imagine your food entitlement relies on a) the price you can get for corn grown on your land or b) your employment growing corn for a landholder. The price of imported corn is so low, nobody is buying your unsubsidised corn anymore, and you have to lay off your workers, though you may be able to continue feeding your own family. These destitute labourers may move to other farms or to cities in order to find other work, but they may be unskilled, and forced to find work that pays far too little to provide for a family on. But at least corn is cheap, so, while you are struggling, you can still manage to eat most days.
What then if the country from which your country is importing corn has a bad year, and decides to keep most of its corn for itself? That would surely drive up the cost of the small amount now able to be imported to your country. Imagine the increase in price caused speculative hoarding by the privitised companies providing your country with corn and corn products. What if, in the interest of making future profit, they held back your food in the hope that the price would rise again? And what if your government was so tied up repaying its development loan that it would not subsidise even the most base calorific intake for the hungry among its people?

protesting tortilla prices – “With the new prices, workers earning the minimum wage of about $4 a day could spend a third of their earnings on tortillas for their family.” said USA Today

This is a description of what happened in Mexico after the North America Free Trade Agreement, and in countless other variations in many other countries (particularly those who had experienced colonisation). You can read a little more about Mexico’s Tortilla Crisis of here. So this is one reason I feel justified in jumping up and down about the utter idiocy of markets being the main source of control over food. It’s also a good example of the social and economic relationships that can cause hunger and destitution, far, far more complex and difficult to solve than the simplistic Malthusian division of population by food stocks.

Amartya Sen says this other great thing:

“If we live in a society in which food is distributed equally among all the members of the society, quite clearly it will be the case that the command over food that each person has  will be simply given by the aggregate food availability per head…there is no such society” (1982, p.95).

So… this leads me to a question that always itches in the back of my mind when I read about food politics, which is…why is food availability decline still the standard narrative of starvation? And it leads me to wonder if it might be because it is a profitable narrative. Think about the enormous companies involved in food production, processing, distribution and packaging. Might they profit from solutions to starvation which involve increased crop production, and from governments opening up land for agricultural uses which before might have been retained for environmental reasons? And what about those of us in the first world? Do we profit in a more emotional sense from our governments’ provisioning of food aid in that we need no longer think harder about the causes of starving countries’ inability to feed themselves?

Perhaps it’s food for thought, or perhaps the only thing you’ll remember from this article is an image of a legless, diabetic cat.


Consanguineous References for those of you as nerdy as me:

  • Sen, A. (1982). The Food Problem: Theory and Policy. Third World Quarterly, 4 (3), 447-459
  • Sen,A. (1981). Poverty and Famines – An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press, London.


Other great readings:

Great Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis
Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel
The Food Wars by Waldon Bello


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This entry was posted on May 28, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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