Nov 1 2008

The Food Crisis and the Fear of Scarcity

Media binders blind us to real food solutions

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Mike_tn

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Mike_tn

The rising cost of food was all over the news in the spring of 2008, from Fox News (“Food Prices Soaring World-wide,” 3/24/08) to CNN (“Rising Food Prices and Rising Concerns,” 4/21/08) to CBS (“Price of Rice Skyrockets,” 4/23/08). Everyone was covering the story. Many will never forget news clips of desperate Haitians rioting in anger and even forced to eat dirt to stave off hunger.

Then in September came the grim U.N. assessment: The number of hungry people worldwide had shot up in one year by 75 million people—reaching 925 million at the beginning of 2008, declared Jacques Diouf (Agence France Presse, “Rising Prices Tip Another 75 Million Towards Starvation,” 9/17/08), director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). He blamed rising prices, as the global food price index had climbed by a quarter in 2007 and then another 50 percent in just the first eight months of this year. The number of hungry could climb by another 75 million to hit a billion by the end of 2008, Diouf warned.

This unprecedented bad news, however, seemed to hold little media interest. Only a handful of major U.S. outlets (AP, 9/17/08; Business Week, 9/17/08; Bloomberg, 9/18/08) made Diouf’s alarming announcement breaking news. The global food-price catastrophe was old news. By fall, the summer flood of thousands of media hits each month had slowed to a trickle. Hunger was back where it typically is: off the front page.

In a quick search of the Nexis newspaper and wire service database for stories that mentioned the “food crisis,” coverage soared from 33 mentions in March to 621 in April, peaked at 1,114 in May and remained high at 724 in June. By July, the number of “food crisis” stories fell to 411, and by August was under 200. This is just a back-of-the-napkin estimate, but it does indicate a dramatic rise and fall in coverage.

The scarcity myth

Diouf called for more aid, in this case a $30 billion additional annual infusion to increase farm output in poor countries, as well as for “policies and programs, such as social safety nets” to enhance “access to food by the hungry.” But Diouf’s FAO, much like the G8 Summit a month earlier, appeared to emphasize the first part of this prescription: production. In June, it announced that the most “influential” factor in the food price spikes was “utilization outstripping production . . . in a number of major exporting countries.” The takeaway? Higher prices mean supply is short, so more supply is the way to lower prices and ease hunger.

Corporate media have run with this frame, emphasizing demand outstripping supply—demand by new meat-eaters in China and India, demand for corn-consuming ethanol, and, indirectly, demand for oil, which helped double the price of fertilizer and increase food transport costs. On the supply side, experts noted Australia’s drought as a key factor and a depleted grain reserve (even though many recent years have seen bumper crops). There isn’t enough food to feed the planet’s growing population, this argument goes, especially with its newly wealthy able to pay a pretty penny for grain-fed meat. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (4/21/08) suggested that with food, as with oil, we’d be smart to acknowledge that we are reaching the limits of our “finite planet.”

In NPR’s four-part series on Morning Edition (8/4-7/08), Dan Charles used Honduras as a case study to discuss solutions to the world hunger crisis. “Across the globe,” Charles reported (, 8/4/08), “food is expensive and there’s not enough to feed empty stomachs.”

At the same time, major media have continued to uncritically propagate the notion that dependency on pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified seeds is necessary to produce enough food to feed us all. Organic practices, they claim, yield less food, so in a supply-strapped world, organic food is a luxury only the callous rich still endorse. Eric Reguly, in a Toronto Globe and Mail column (“No Organic for Me, Please,” 8/29/08), called organic farming a “land-gobbling luxury.” Time’s Bryan Walsh (9/4/08) put it bluntly: “Organic farming yields less per acre than standard farming.”

Fear of scarcity is a weapon here. When the New York Times (8/19/08) interviewed Nina Fedoroff, the new science adviser to Condoleezza Rice, asking her a question about opposition to genetically modified seeds, she said:

We’d like to go back to what we think is a more natural way. But I’m afraid we can’t, in part, because there are just too many of us in this world. If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn’t support the earth’s current population, maybe half.

Reporter Claudia Dreifus did not follow up with a question about Fedoroff’s evidence. In fact, her editor featured Fedoroff’s negative verdict on organic farming in a prominent pull quote. This despite considerable evidence to the contrary: In the most extensive study, released last year by University of Michigan scholars (Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 7/07), what the authors called the more realistic model of alternative agricultural futures indicated that the worldwide adoption of organic practices could increase available food by over 50 percent.

In June, the Wall Street Journal (6/25/08) ran a piece reflecting Fedoroff’s assumptions, but presented as market analysis. In “Food Shortage Recasts Image of ‘Organic,’” journalist Karen Richardson suggested that because Whole Foods Market stock was down 10 percent in 2007 and Monsanto’s—with over 90 percent of patents on genetically modified germplasm—was up 22 percent, “trading at a breathless 37 times estimated 2008 per-share earnings,” clearly the future belongs to GMOs. Richardson wrote:

As global food shortages threaten to ignite social and economic instability from Nigeria to India, the popular aversion to genetically modified foods is turning into more of a luxury for the wealthy than a practical option for the masses.

Who controls the markets?

The trouble is, the facts simply don’t support the case. The world produces close to 3,000 calories per person per day—more than enough for everyone in the world to have an adequate diet. And that’s counting only the leftovers—what remains after we turn well over a third of the world’s grain and the world’s fish catch into animal feed, which comes back to us in the form of food with only a fraction of the calories put into it, and after we use nearly a third of U.S. corn to feed ethanol-powered cars.

World grain harvests broke records in 2007, keeping up with world population growth, as has been typical for decades. Now the Food and Agriculture Organization foresees another record grain output, up almost 4 percent for the 2008-09 season (, “Global Market Analysis Food Outlook,” 5/08). Compare this to predicted use, expected to climb just 2.3 percent.

But wait—didn’t the head of that organization, Jacques Diouf, tell us to get ready for perhaps another 75 million people going hungry by year’s end? Yes, he did. To understand how hunger can spread in a world of food plenty, one must see through a different lens.

Hunger reflects not a scarcity of food, we like to say, but a scarcity of democracy: Eighty percent of the world’s people now live in countries where economic inequalities are deepening, where power is being concentrated. Giant agribusiness and better-off individuals are increasingly able to divert farm acreage into profits or luxuries for themselves, whether that be into inefficient, highly concentrated feedlot meat or agrofuels. Corn-based ethanol production, says the FAO, is likely to account for nearly one-half of the expected increase in total grain use in 2008-09.

And trade rules—from NAFTA to the new bilateral agreements, like those proposed with Colombia and South Korea—have weakened small-scale farmers’ ability to feed themselves. Hunger is worsening because the world’s deepening inequalities also reflect an increasingly opaque and unaccountable speculative commodities market that can drive up food prices unrelated to supply. Financier George Soros and other insiders note that investors/speculators fleeing the collapsing housing market and financial markets have helped spike fuel and food commodities prices (London Sunday Times, 5/25/08).

But the media tend to tell a different story. In NPR’s four-part series, we were told farmers are poor because they lack markets, but there’s hope: Wal-Mart appeared in Honduras, and now poor farmers can sell their produce and buy food. Sounds nifty. But NPR failed to point out the obvious: If a large corporate buyer were a farmer’s salvation, then here at home, more than 10,000 farmers would not be going under each year (, “The Farm Report,” 2/4/08).Yes, U.S. commodity producers have “markets” to sell to: a handful of giant corporations.

The deeper lack these farmers are experiencing is power. Drawing the distinction between the lack of food—a symptom—and the lack of power—its cause—is essential to perceiving real solutions.

If we want farmers to rise out of poverty, the question is: Who controls the market? When the answer is a few monopoly buyers—what Wal-Mart represents in the NPR case study—power remains with the buyer, not the farmer. The corporation, answerable to shareholders, sets the terms of the purchase and decides whether to stay or to leave. The farm family remains vulnerable. It is in large part the disproportionate power of monopolies or oligopolies—as in the world’s grain trade, dominated by just three corporations—that keeps rural families destitute.

Winning side of history

Sadly, NPR and most media missed the really hopeful story: On every continent are examples of rural communities developing GM-free, agro-ecological farming systems, in which they are gaining control over their lives. The June 25 Wall Street Journal article implied that because Whole Foods is for “all things organic,” it was on the losing side of history. In fact, the opposite might be a more logical prediction; with the price of chemical fertilizer doubling in less than a year, organic farming might suddenly become more attractive to farmers who already feel squeezed by higher fuel prices. Unfortunately, Americans aren’t learning about farmers who are not only successfully adopting organic practices, but who are building healthier communities that provide greater security and enhanced power over their futures.

The La Via Campesina movement, for instance, now numbers 143 farmer associations in 56 countries. They are working to “bring about an agricultural development which is ecologically sustainable, socially just and which allows the producer real access to the wealth s/he generates day in and day out” (La Vía Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants, 2007). A large overview study of farmers transitioning to sustainable practices in 57 countries, involving almost 13 million small farmers on roughly 90 million acres, found that after four years, average yields were up 79 percent (Agroecological Approaches to Agricultural Development, 2006).

Or take India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh. There, in what’s been seen as the pesticide capital of the world, crop pests developed insecticide resistance, and genetically modified cotton failed to live up to the promises of Monsanto, its maker. Facing catastrophic losses that triggered thousands of suicides, many in Andhra Pradesh began to move in a new direction. Switching away from genetically modified seeds and toward organic pest-control practices, farmers found yields were not significantly affected. Moreover, they saved the expense of buying Monsanto’s seeds and pesticides. Their incomes went up on average 18 percent, according to a report in Seedling magazine (7/08).

Now almost 2,000 villages are embracing an approach they call community-managed sustainable farming. People’s health is improving as well. “We’ve all been feeling so much better since we stopped using [pesticides],” a local farmer told Seedling. “We also spend much less on medical care. Altogether, I’m feeling much happier now.” The region’s agriculture minister is now endorsing a plan to transition 2.5 million acres—roughly 9 percent of the farmable land—to community-managed sustainable agriculture within a few years.

Seedling, a small-circulation publication with editorial offices in Spain, is hardly able to counter corporate media coverage that continues to reinforce the dominant myth: A lack of food is the cause of hunger, and our salvation is continued dependency on the world’s largest economic powers, whether through aid or our biotech or chemical industries.

After decades of exposure to the media’s false messages of scarcity, you might feel like throwing up your hands. But we don’t. What’s different today are growing movements of people, as in the Indian example, undermining the false frame from the bottom up. Instead of blaming the earth’s limits, they are tackling the imbalanced human relationships of power that generate hunger (no matter how much food there is!) and finding ways to work with nature to unlock long-term sustainability.

Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé are co-authors of Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, and founding principals of the Small Planet Institute ( and the Small Planet Fund ( Respectively, their most recent books are Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen.