The Famine Next Time


    is the title of this New York Times op ed by Samuel Loewenberg.   I think it should be mandatory reading.  The Horn of Africa is facing massive famine.   Loewenberg writes, appropriately I would say,

    American attention to the hunger crisis has focused on the dire conditions of Somalis, but they account for just about a third of the 13 million people affected. According to the United Nations, hunger afflicts 4.5 million people in Ethiopia and 3.75 million people in Kenya, which has about half of Ethiopia’s population. An estimated half a million Kenyan children and pregnant or breast-feeding women suffer acute malnutrition.

    He also writes

    Unlike earthquakes or hurricanes, droughts and food price increases take time to develop, and the resulting hunger crises are forecast well in advance. From water harvesting to livestock support to cash assistance, there are a plethora of steps that could have significantly ameliorated the current crisis. Why weren’t they taken?

    There is more, much more, in his op ed, including why it makes more sense to send money than our excess food –  the latter loses half its value in transport, while the former allows local purchase which can help build up a sustainable food production system; to build roads –  transport of food stuff and broader markets for local agriculture.   We know that.  You can read what he has to say.

    I want to use his column as a starting point for a further discussion.

    There are two parts to this discussion.  The first is how we are contributing to famine around the world.   The second is the real fear of the impact of malnutrition not just around the world, but here at home.

    If these topics do not interest you, then please – stop reading.

    Otherwise, I ask that you continue.

    The United States is a major contributor to famine and hunger around the world.  Our energy policy is one contributor.  So are our agricultural policies – and this includes our own individual diets.  So are the policies we impose on other nations through things like the IMF – and our policies on birth control.   And finally, we cannot discount the impact of our aggressive use of military force in other nations.

    Our energy policy –  so long as we continue to pursue grain-based ethanol we are a major contributor.  We drive up the price of grains, which are basic to the diets of many around the world.  We encourage or at least acquiesce in the destruction of agricultural lands for the production of energy and the building of infrastructure.  We devote more resources to the transportation of petroleum and liquified natural gas than we do to providing sustainable agriculture and nutrition, both at home and abroad.  Our continued expansion of the use of fossil fuels is a major contributor to global climate change that seems to be a major factor in the kinds of droughts we are seeing ever more frequently, and not just in the Horn Africa –  think of the extended droughts and fires in Texas, for example.

    Our Agricultural policies –   here I remind people that I am a close friend of the current Secretary of Agriculture, whom I believe is trying to address some of these issues, but is not totally free to act.   Also, not all of our agricultural policies are in his domain.  Internationally we are pushing for genetically modified crops.   We have patenting of seeds, we overly emphasize the use of chemical fertilizers.  We insist on markets overseas for our ‘excess’ food production.  We have for too many years had a policy that puts too much emphasis on monoculture production of “cash crops.”  Our own diet requires far too much energy to produce – not merely in transportation, but also in how we fertilize our fields.   We have tried to export our methods of agriculture – seed and fertilizer companies see “markets” and “profits” and insist our government assist them, even as these destroy sustainable agriculture in other nations.  And of course our heavy reliance upon petroleum-based agriculture contributes to global climate change, as noted in discussing energy.

    Our individual diets – In my lifetime the expansion of our consumption of meat, pork as well as beef, has been simply astounding.  We use far too much of our grain for the fattening of livestock, which in terms of food energy is incredibly inefficient.   Our demand for beef is so great that we are seeing the destruction of rain forests for the planting of grains to feed livestock and for greater grazing areas.   This destruction is also a contributor to global climate change.  Then there is the loss of potable water, in this case through pollution created in some case by the animal waste of things like massive pig farms in North Carolina.   Water pollution is also occurring because of energy – think of the threat to the Ogallala Aquifer by the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline – and destruction of environment to gain access to energy sources in remote areas also risks poisoning water supplies for many.    I also note that we want cheap seafood, which leads to things like the massive driftnets that kill much aquatic life (not just dolphins) that we don’t consume so that we can have cheaper prices for those species we do eat, or at least greater profits for some of the companies providing our sea food.  In the process we are destroying the livelihoods of many –  Nicholas Kristof has in the past pointed out the connection between the development of piracy in Somalia and the destruction of livelihood for Somali fishermen by the kinds of fishing Western companies do,.

    Policies imposed on other nations –  our economic policies often create crises for other nations, especially financially.  When the IMF comes it, it is likely to insist on economic activities that will produce cash to repay the financial aid that is given.  Often this means conversion of agriculture from sustainable internal use to the growing of cash crops to be sold often less for the benefit of the producing country than for economic actors –  financial institutions as well as food producers – in the more developed world (Europe, North America, and Japan).  This disruption of agricultural processes in the less developed world is often directly related to the shortage of food locally.

    Also imposed on other nations, our policies on birth control – we are seeing massive growth of population in the less developed world, beyond their ability to feed their own people.  The US could help with family planning, but religious conservatives in the US has made that almost impossible.  It might be worth noting that not only does an uncontrolled population growth create real pressures on food supplies, it also contributes mightily to economic and military instability, as increasing numbers of young un- or underemployed men is highly correlated with violence of all kinds, from crime to military adventurism to terrorism.  

    Our aggressive use of military force – we destroy societies.  We often contribute to instability.  That and our use of economic sanctions can lead to medical crises as well as food crises.  We are spending resources on destruction when the world desperately needs resources on turning to more sustainable production of energy, more sustainable production of food.  One of the societies we are destroying is our own –  the hundreds of billions we continue to spend on military and related activities prevents us from even maintaining the infrastructure that allowed the US to flourish.  Our water systems; our bridges, tunnels and dams;  our public buildings including schools;   these are all in desperate need of repair to say nothing of upgrade.  Our rail system, passenger and freight, is in many ways a joke compared to other nations.  We use too much energy for transport, in part because of inefficiencies in our system.

    Above the fold, I said that we should be concerned with malnutrition not merely in places overseas, like the Horn of Africa, but at home as well.

    On January 20. 1937, the nation heard these words from Franklin Delano Roosevelt:  

    I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

    We are not yet back to the depths of the Great Depression.  NOT YET.  But in the past decade plus we have seen an explosion of unemployment, a reduction of buying power, increasing numbers of Americans losing their homes.  Along the way food pantries have seen empty shelves at the same time as the need for nutritional support has exploded.  People’s incomes have stagnated, or in real dollars declined – except for those at the top.  The government has, instead of spending as it did during the Great Depression, begun to emphasize “fiscal responsibility” to the point that even as those in need of supplemental nutritional support expands we are cutting the funds to provide such support.  That kind of approach will be as destructive in this country as similar mandates by the IMF and the World Bank have been destructive of the economies of other nations.

    Someplace along the way the American people have a decision to make.  If we continue to operate on the assumption that a pure, unregulated capitalist system is desirable with the profit motive the highest goal, we will discover several things.  First, unregulated capitalism is incompatible with democracy.  Second, it is unsustainable, even for the the capitalists.  Third, many people will suffer, perhaps not immediately the kind of malnutrition that leads to the bloated bellies of children that periodically appear on our television screens and in our newspapers that then motivate Americans to temporary interventions to alleviate suffering.  

    A child who is hungry will not learn.

    A child with poor nutrition will have serious health problems.

    Infants and small children who lack appropriate and balanced nutrition suffer in brain development.

    We need to think systemically.  There are many things that are interrelated.

    Our own level of consumption – of energy as well as of some foods – is unsustainable for the current population of the world.  We are destroying the environment, including that needed for production of OUR food, for maintaining OUR supply of potable water.

    Now we see it overseas.

    But the Famine Next Time could be here –  in our poor rural areas, on our Native American Reservations, in our inner cities.  

    Too many people around the world, and far too many in the United States, are for the long term food insecure.

    Do we have the will, the moral fortitude, to recognize this, and to address it?

    I wonder. . . .


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