Sunday, November 15, 2009

Deciding Who Gets to Eat and Who Gets to Starve

A curious feature of some of the big famines in history is that the countries experiencing the famine were not necessarily short of food. Likely as not, the majority of people were very poor and did not have the money to buy food, but food was being produced and exported.

Many millions of people in a number of developing countries currently face food shortages, malnutrition and probably famine at a time when the world is producing record crops. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 2008 saw the highest recorded cereal crop production figure ever. It is predicted that 2009 will see the second highest figure.

Wikipedia is a great source of information but their bald statement that "[f]amine is caused by a human overpopulation relative to the available food supply" is in need of qualification. It is estimated that as many as 10 million Kenyans face serious food shortages, but this is not clearly because the country is overpopulated. There are several other significant pressures on food production and access to food.

For example, many people are extremely poor, have always been poor and have little prospect of ever becoming less poor. Food prices have been driven up over the past few years by market speculation and by the use of productive land for growing biofuels. So poorer people, who could barely afford enough food before these trends began, are now facing starvation.

Other pressures include droughts, often followed by serious floods, which result in poor harvests and destroy large tracts of arable land. There was also widespread unrest in Kenya in 2008 and people abandoned their land. A number of these internally displaced persons (IDP; the Kenyan government is not keen on releasing figures for just how many are still displaced) now have little means to feed themselves and no chance of returning to where they came from. And the majority of people have only a tenuous hold on land, renting it from unscrupulous landlords, who can treat tenants as they wish and sell their land at the drop of a hat.

In addition to growing biofuels in Kenya, there are other trends that result in less land being used for affordable food. Land is bought up by natural resource prospectors, such as those in search of oil around Isiolo and those in search of gold in the Mara. This land will not be used to benefit any Kenyans and certainly won't be used to grow food. And much of Kenya's land is used for non food crops or for food products intended for export, such as coffee, tea, flowers, fruit and vegetables. Controversially, a lot of land comprises national parklands, preserved for use by those who can afford to visit it. Most can't.

Despite all these pressures, there is a lot of food being produced in Kenya for export and a lot of arable land available for food production. The reasons people face food shortages and poor nutrition are the same as they have always been: widespread poverty and increasing levels of impoverishment along with rising food prices that mean the poorest will lose out.

When things get really bad and people are dying of starvation, maybe other countries will start shipping in relief food, but this will not improve food security in Kenya. Food security refers to access to food, as well as its production. As with other countries that experienced famines throughout history, resilience will continue to be low, there will be widespread disease, many people will have abandoned rural areas and moved to cities; there will be no remaining seed to grow the next season's crops, no fertilizer, no chance of resisting whatever new pressures arise.

The more I read about famine, the more it seems like a process whereby the rich systematically deny food to the poor in order to increase their profits. But that couldn't be correct, could it?


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