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Eat your words, Mr Bush

Bush and his EU cheerleaders are diverting the attention of the world away from the real causes for the global food crisis, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: May 08, 2008, 02:40 IST

George W. Bush’s proclivity to tread the absurd is amazing. He sought to blame the Indian people for the global food crisis by saying, “[India’s] middle-class is bigger than our entire population... When you start getting wealth, you demand better food... and prices... go up.” So far, many thought that his insights concerning foodgrains were inspired by his trusted lieutenant, Condoleezza Rice. Rely, he did, on the intemperate comments made by Rice a day earlier: “Improvement in the diets of people, for instance, in China and India” was contributing to the global food crisis.

Not to be left behind, the European Union (EU) has emerged more loyal than the king. EU Commissioner for Agriculture Mariann Fischer Boel has asked the world not to overlook the “elephant standing right in front of them”. This, we are told, “is the huge increase in demand from emerging countries like China and India. These countries are eating more meat. It takes about four kg of cereals to produce one kg of pork, and about two kg of cereals to make one kg of poultry meat. So a dietary shift towards meat in countries with populations of over 1 billion people each has an enormous impact on commodity markets”.

Apart from being as ridiculous as the proverbial story of the blind describing an elephant, these comments are a brazen admission by the industrialised West that their levels of prosperity are mainly dependent upon the levels of impoverishment and malnutrition in the developing world. Having plundered for centuries through colonialism, they seek to continue to fatten themselves by a similar plunder through current phase of imperialist globalisation, whose hallmark is the sharp escalation of inequalities.

However, let us first consider certain facts. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the per capita consumption of grain in the US is 1,046 kg compared to 178 kg in India, i.e. five times more. The per capita consumption of poultry is 45.4 kg in the US, 16.2 kg in the EU, while it is 1.9 kg in India. So who is eating more?

The fact that under imperialist globalisation, the vast majority of the world’s population continues to remain undernourished is confirmed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which estimates that in 2001-03, there were 854 million undernourished people worldwide. Of these, 820 million are in the developing world and 25 million in the transition countries (former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries). The World Food Summit (WFS) held in Rome in 1996 had targeted to halve the number of undernourished by 2015. Since 1990-92, the baseline period for the WFS’s target, the undernourished population in the developing countries has declined only by 3 million. These are the years of the ‘globalisation offensive’. This contrasts starkly with the reduction of 37 million in the 1970s and 100 million in the 1980s. A decline of 26 million between 1992 and 1995-97 was followed by an increase of 23 million up to 2001-03.

This situation will only worsen given the sharp declines in the global food stocks. Wheat stocks in 2008 are forecast at 142 million tonnes down from 197 million in 2001 — the lowest since 1982. The rice stocks are expected to tumble to 107 million tonnes in 2007 from 136 million in 2001. Caving in to pressure from the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank, poor countries dismantled tariffs and other barriers to trade, enabling large agri-businesses and subsidised goods from rich countries to undermine local agricultural production. To some degree, food aid — in the form of dumped subsidised goods produced in rich countries — also played a role in diminishing farming in poor countries. Roughly 70 per cent of all developing countries are currently net importers of food.

It is ironic that such comments should come when 78 per cent of Indians live on less than Rs 20 a day. According to official data, 136,324 farmers have committed ‘distress suicide’ between 1997 and 2005. The per capita consumption of cereals has declined from 468 gms in 1990-91 to 412 gms in 2005-06. The consumption of pulses, the main source of protein, declined from 42 gms (72 gms in 1956-57) to 33 gms during this period.

Even if we were to presume that Indians are consuming more food, its impact on the global economy would be felt when Indian exports to the global market are significant. The fact is that India’s share in the total world exports is a mere one per cent. Of this, the export of agricultural products is a sheer 11.7 per cent. Indian consumption patterns, thus, in no way, contribute to the global food crisis. Fidel Castro had warned a few years ago that a global foodgrain crisis is imminent given the large-scale shift towards bio-fuels. Bush, however, defends the shift, anointing himself as “an ethanol person”, stating, “I think it makes sense for America to be growing energy. I’d much rather be paying our farmers when we go to the gas pump than paying some nation that may not like us.”

The entire growth of global maize production is being diverted towards bio-fuels. The World Bank informs that the production increase of 51 million tonnes between 2004 and 2005 was absorbed by the US alone for ethanol production. The EU has declared that by 2010, nearly 6 per cent of fuel should be bio-fuels. To fill up an average tank with bio-fuel, the amount of maize required is equivalent to the per capita annual human consumption as a staple diet.

Last fortnight, when this column observed that the main cause for the recent spurt in the world prices of foodgrains was the frenzied hedge fund speculation in the futures markets, many dismissed it as the predictable Left hyperbole. They would do well to read an article, ‘The Trading Frenzy that Sent Prices Soaring’ in the New Statesman. It states that the food crisis has developed over “an incredibly short space of time — essentially over the past 18 months”. It continues: “The reason for food ‘shortages’ is speculation in commodity futures following the collapse of the financial derivatives markets. Desperate for quick returns, dealers are taking trillions of dollars out of equities and mortgage bonds and ploughing them into food and raw materials. It’s called the ‘commodities super-cycle’ on Wall Street, and it is likely to cause starvation on an epic scale... Just like the boom in house prices, commodity price inflation feeds on itself. The more prices rise, and big profits are made, the more others invest, hoping for big returns. Look at the financial web sites: everyone and their mother is piling into commodities… The trouble is that if you are one of the 2.8 billion people, almost half the world’s population, who live on less than $2 a day, you may pay for these profits with your life.”

So clearly, Bush and his EU cheerleaders are diverting the attention of the world away from the real causes for the global food crisis — the search and generation of super profits for international finance capital, the prime driver of imperialist globalisation. India must protect itself from importing such speculation. At least now, the UPA government must ban futures trading in essential commodities and protect the aam admi from further onslaughts of price rise.

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