Empty Plate Club

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Articles

What happened to the global food crisis? It was in the news and out again as quickly as a bad Hollywood movie. The media covered the alarming increase in food prices that have hit poor people so hard. Riots broke out in dozens of countries. Zimbabwe, Sudan, and North Korea are on the edge of severe hunger. Earlier this month, world leaders met in Rome to redirect global funds to meet the new problem.

There’s nothing like a big meeting to signal to the news media that adult supervision has returned and everyone can safely focus on other matters.

But instead of addressing the underlying causes of the crisis, world leaders have largely engaged in a high-stakes game of finger-pointing. Everybody has identified a different culprit for the 83% spike in global food prices over the last three years. At the UN conference in Rome, Zimbabwe’s not-for-long leader Robert Mugabe blamed colonialism. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad argued that Western countries had deliberately devalued the dollar and driven up oil prices. Brazil blasted the United States for subsidizing corn-based ethanol; the United States blasted Brazil for diverting agricultural land for sugar-cane-based ethanol.

True, the crisis has generated a small bump up in humanitarian aid. But no one is challenging business as usual in the world of agriculture. Neither the United States nor the European Union has backtracked on their biofuel policies, which has siphoned food into the gas tanks of the wealthy world. Nor has the United States in particular addressed with any greater urgency the environmental constraints that are making food production harder and harder each year: global warming, water shortages, a declining per-capita percentage of arable land.

The bottom line: there are ever more people to feed and a declining ability to feed them all. We face a set of paralyzing trade-offs. Yes, we could bring more land into cultivation, but that would knock down the remaining rainforests and eliminate our carbon sinks. Yes, we could attempt another Green Revolution by imposing industrial agriculture on small farmers, but that requires cheap oil (for fertilizer) and plentiful water (for irrigation) that we simply don’t have. Yes, we could launch a dramatic anti-poverty campaign – think the UN Millennium Development Goals squared – that would eventually drive down population growth. But all those new entrants into the middle class would begin to consume a great deal more meat, and therefore grain, just as the no-longer-poor are doing in China and India.

Our basis for life on this planet has become tremendously fragile. Most of us are dependent on industrial agriculture – which means cheap energy to run the machinery and produce the fertilizer, plentiful land and water, and a temperate climate. This system of industrial agriculture is now under threat. Energy is no longer cheap. We are approaching Peak Land and Peak Water. And the climate is getting seriously out of whack.

The current food crisis is an early warning, and it looks as though we’re ignoring it. We dismissed an even earlier warning, when North Korea suffered a major famine in the late 1990s because of rising energy prices, limited land, and environmental stresses. “After the attacks of September 11, 2001, ‘We are all Americans’ briefly became a popular expression of solidarity around the world,” I write in Mother Earth’s Triple Whammy in TomDispatch. “If we don’t devise policy choices that address energy, agriculture, and climate, while replacing the idolatry of unrestrained growth at the heart of both capitalist and communist economies, the tagline for the 21st century may be: ‘We are all North Koreans.’”

Over the summer, we’ll be rolling out several articles on the global food crisis and the unfortunately growing membership in the world’s empty plate club.

In Search of Oil

To keep our economy going – which means food on our plates and not just gas in our cars – the United States has been frantically trying to find new sources of oil and decrease dependency on the Middle East. We think we’ve struck oil in Africa. The continent has 10% of the world’s remaining oil, and U.S. imports from Africa increased by 65% from 2000 to 2007.

One sign of U.S. interest in African oil is the creation of the Pentagon’s new Africa Command (AFRICOM). Wherever there is a significant amount of crude bubbling up from the ground, the military is sure to follow. As FPIF senior analyst Antonia Juhasz explains in AFRI(OIL)COM, “The Bush administration has increasingly turned to the Department of Defense to ensure more stable governments in Africa that are supportive of both the U.S. government and U.S. (and U.S.-affiliated) oil corporations and to guarantee an amenable (some would argue, subdued) populace.”

Even as we try to desperately cling to the old oil economy, a brand new green economy is beginning to emerge around the edges. It’s just too bad so little of this new economy is emerging in the United States. As FPIF contributor Jonathan Rynn explains in How to Enter the Global Green Economy, European and Japanese companies are way ahead of their U.S. counterparts in producing sustainable technologies. Consider the case of Germany. It’s not exactly the sun or wind capital of the world. Yet, “32% of the solar equipment manufacturers in the world are located in Germany. In addition, almost 30% of global wind turbine manufacturing capacity is German.”

And what’s the United States doing instead? Well, there’s AFRICOM, Afghanistan, and, oh, Iraq.

Leaving Iraq

Before we can enter the new global green economy, we must leave Iraq. While other countries seek their comparative advantage in organic produce or sustainable energy, the United States is still trying to corner the market on occupation. As other powers have learned before us, however, foreign occupation is a losing proposition.

If we wanted, we could learn this lesson from the Soviet Union. Its occupation of Afghanistan was a dismal failure that did nothing to broadcast Soviet glory and everything to reveal Soviet weakness. And then, Mikhail Gorbachev startled the world by pulling out the troops. FPIF contributor Yelena Biberman thinks that the United States should do likewise. “In withdrawing, the United States can redefine and reaffirm its leadership by engaging, both actively and symbolically, the international community,” she writes in Learning from the Soviets in Afghanistan. “The Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan represented the ‘new thinking’ that Mikhail Gorbachev brought to Soviet foreign policy, which contributed to ending the Cold War. U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could have a similarly dramatic effect on international relations.”

In An Honorable Way out of Iraq, FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo offers a 10-point plan for withdrawal. For all those who predict an intensified civil war on the heels of withdrawal, he reminds us that occupation has forged a remarkable agreement among Iraqis on the necessity for the U.S. troops to leave. “The Iraqis have reached a consensus — the United States should leave Iraq,” he writes. “Regardless of whether they are Kurds, Sunni, or Shi’a; regardless of political party, there is a general agreement that the United States should depart soon — within the year, or at most, three years.”

That consensus can also be found in the United States – at least, among the general population. “The American people have expressed themselves clearly on the Iraq War itself for quite a while now,” writes FPIF’s Miriam Pemberton in Now Class, Let’s Review Iraq’s Lessons. “By large majorities hovering around 70%, they want it to end. Fulfilling this expressed will of the people is our most urgent foreign policy priority, one that can’t be forgotten, ignored or deferred.”

New Cold War?

In addition to making a bollocks of the Middle East and militarizing Africa through AFRICOM, the Bush administration is pushing ahead with NATO expansion.

NATO? Isn’t that, like, so totally 20th century? Not so, FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan writes in A New Cold War? “NATO will soon begin deploying anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems in Poland and the Czech Republic that are supposedly aimed at Iran, but which the Russians charge are really targeted at them,” he reports. “The alliance has encircled Russia with allies and bases, is increasingly sidelining the United Nations, has added troops to Afghanistan, and is preparing to open shop in the Pacific Basin.”

Hallinan writes about the pushback from China and others. But there has been pushback as well from the grassroots.

In the Czech Republic, 70% of the population opposes the new radar bases that the United States wants to build as part of a global missile defense system. That hasn’t prevented the U.S. and Czech governments from moving ahead with their plans. Two courageous Czech peace activists, Jan Tamas and Jan Bednar, recently went on a hunger strike to draw attention to the discrepancy between governmental plans and public desires.

“On June 2, the two suspended their hunger strike,” write FPIF contributors Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison in Hunger Strikers Take on Radar Base. But, according to Jan Tamas, others took their place and started a chain hunger strike, in which “each person goes on a symbolic hunger strike for 24 hours. These people are all known people in the Czech Republic: actors, dissidents of the former regime, athletes, politicians including MPs, intellectuals, singers and many others. In the past few weeks the chain hunger strike has spread globally, including to Western and Eastern Europe, Australia, and the United States.”

That’s the world that we should strive for – where people go hungry not because they lack enough food, but because they are doing so voluntarily in the cause of peace and justice.

FPIF, June 23, 2008

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