Saturday, April 19, 2008

The battle for food control

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The battle for food control

The rise in global food prices has sparked a number of protests in recent weeks, highlighting the worsening epidemic of global hunger. The World Bank estimates world food prices have risen 80 percent over the last three years and that at least thirty-three countries face social unrest as a result. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned the growing global food crisis has reached emergency proportions.

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. In most of West Africa, the price of food has risen by 50 percent -- in Sierra Leone, 300 percent. The World Food Program has issued a rare $500 million emergency appeal to deal with the growing crisis.

Several causes factor into the global food price hike, many linked to human activity. These include human-driven climate change, the soaring cost of oil and a Western-led focus on biofuels that critics say turns food into fuel.

Raj Patel is a writer, activist and former policy analyst with Food First, which is based in the Bay Area. He has worked for the World Bank, World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and he's also protested them on four continents. He has just come out with a new book called Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. He recently joined me in San Francisco to talk about the book and the food-price crisis.

Raj Patel: There are two kinds of stories that we can tell about the food prices. One is an economic story, and that's a story about a perfect storm of poor harvests and a demand for meat in developing countries, which is diverting grain, and the high price of oil, which is driving up food -- farm inputs, and at the same time, the biofuels boom, the process of growing fuels in order -- sorry, growing food in order to burn it rather than eat it. All of these are economic factors that are driving up the price of food.

But at the same time, there's a political story here, and it's a longer-term political story about how countries have been forced to abandon their support for farmers and to abandon things like grain supplies and grain stores. And this is a longer-term story, and it involves organizations like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization that have a fairly iron control over the economies of most of the poorest countries in the world. And what the World Bank and what the WTO and, to some extent, the International Monetary Fund have done is force these countries to tie their hands behind their back, effectively, and to bind them very firmly to an international economy in food. And the consequence of that is that when the price of food goes up, these economies have very little recourse and very little possibility of defending themselves economically.

Amy Goodman: Raj, you worked at these institutions that you're now critiquing. You worked at the World Bank. You worked at the World Trade Organization. How much contact do you have with people at the other end -- for example, the people who are now rising up all over the world, the most destitute?

Well, I mean, I certainly don't have any contact with anyone at the World Bank or the World Trade Organization. I was there when I was doing my doctoral work. I did some research for the World Bank. It was a disaster. And I interned at the World Trade Organization just to find out what it was like.

But my allegiances are and always have been with the people on the streets. And I'm working right now with shack dwellers in Durban in South Africa. But also I'm connected to groups of peasants and of landless people around the world by occasionally doing some research for Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, that by some estimates has over 100 million members. So I'm definitely more connected and more supportive of their efforts to develop a more positive and more genuine food democracy.

In your work there, even as a researcher, what was -- how much understanding did people who work there have of what was going on and what their institutions were doing?

I mean, to some extent, there's a lot of creative denial about the suffering that these organizations cause. I mean, certainly within the World Bank, when I worked there, there was a banner, sort of five stories high, as you enter into the World Bank building, with a beautiful African child on it and beneath it the slogan, "Our dream is a world free of poverty." And certainly, there's a sort of myth-making enterprise within the World Bank that everything they were doing was for the benefit of the poor, whether the poor liked it or not. So I certainly think that there's a sense that when things are tough, it's tough love that comes from the World Bank.

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