National | Opinion

Final words: ag and world hunger

Western Producer Editor’s Note: The following column was sent to us by the writer, Paul Beingessner, on June 22.

On the afternoon of June 25, Beingessner, 55, died in a farming accident near his home at Truax, Sask.

His final column, which we publish here by way of tribute as well as comment, is typical of the man and the farmer. He possessed an ability to see the larger agricultural picture, to comment thoughtfully upon it and in that way, foster discussion with potential to bring about change.

Whether farmers agreed or disagreed with his views, it cannot be argued that the agricultural community has lost an articulate champion in Mr. Beingessner. He will be missed.

The World Food Program, an agency of the United Nations, announced two weeks ago that the number of hungry people in the world rose this year to more than one billion.

It is a startling number. It says that, though the world continues to grow richer in many senses and for many people, it is growing poorer at supplying more of its citizens with food.

This is not the way it was supposed to be, not the way it was from 1990 to 2005. In that time period, poverty (extreme poverty) in developing countries fell steadily. Around 2005, this reversed, and poverty, and with it hunger, began to rise again. This has continued unabated.

The large increase in hunger in the first half of 2009 has been blamed by the World Food Program on continuing high food prices, but it has been much longer in the making than the commodity boom that arose from the banking crisis in the U.S. last year.

Like the market crash and sub-prime mortgage mess, hunger in poor countries has been caused in many cases by actions taken in rich ones.

Until recently, international agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury Department promoted policies that came to be known as the Washington Consensus. These policies became requirements for countries that wanted loans from the World Bank and IMF.

The American government and governments in Europe also demanded that countries wanting to receive aid follow the prescriptions of the Washington Consensus. Key among these were trade liberalization, privatization of state enterprises and deregulation.

One of the results of the Washington Consensus was that spending on agriculture by poor countries declined. This was often demanded as a condition for aid and loans.

Meanwhile, the amount of money given by rich countries for the development of agriculture in poor countries also declined. While imposing these restrictions on underdeveloped nations, the U.S. and the European Union continued to provide ample subsidies to their own agriculture sectors.

It was fully expected that poor countries would be able to buy their food needs on international markets while switching their economies to export oriented agriculture and industries. They would export flowers to us and we would export food to them.

The result was that the food producing capacity of many poor countries declined. Agricultural research and infrastructure were neglected and subsistence farmers were pushed aside for oilseed plantations and other export crops.

In 2007-08, food prices began to rise as a long period of declining food stocks world-wide suddenly got noticed.

On top of that, the economic collapse in many developed countries reduced markets for the production of the poor.

They could no longer afford to eat.

Some world governments continue to prescribe more of the same as the cure for hunger and poverty – more trade, more deregulation and more privatization.

But here is the odd thing. Two of the largest and poorest countries in the world have reduced poverty to a greater extent than any, and they did it while violating most of the principles of the Washington Consensus.

I’m talking, of course, about India and China. Both countries resisted privatization of government services, continued to protect their own economies with tariffs and did not make deregulation the be-all-and-end-all of political policy.

So what’s to be done? We have rapidly increasing hunger at a time when rich countries are preoccupied with their own economic troubles.

Various international agencies have proposed solutions. These include:

  • Increasing aid to agriculture in poor countries and targeting it at appropriate production that will meet the needs of rural and urban poor.
  • Building food reserves, like India and China did, that can be released at times when supply is low and prices high. This will prevent price volatility.
  • Tighten regulations on stock exchanges that trade in commodities to prevent excessive speculation.
  • Negotiate trade agreements that allow poor countries to protect their economies in times of crisis and exploitation.
  • Control the market power of massive corporations that can cause markets to swing on their whim.

Of course these measures run counter to the laissez-faire economic policies promoted by the world’s major powers. But in the current economic crisis, they are precisely what is needed.

Having caused the problem to a great extent with the failed policies of the Washington Consensus, rich nations bear some responsibility toward the poor.

In the short term, we need to alleviate the hunger that is pressing down on one billion people.

Nor is the cost significant compared to what we are showering on our own economies. Less than one percent of the global stimulus package would fund the current deficit in the World Food Program.

We should not underestimate the value of living in a world where hunger is eliminated.

As someone pointed out, any country is only four missed meals away from anarchy. And anarchy that strikes in one country often has ramifications for another half a world away.

Paul Beingessner
About the author

Paul Beingessner

Paul Beingessner was a farmer, an activist, and a writer who defended Canada’s family farms until his tragic death in a farm accident in the spring of 2009. His widely-read and respected weekly columns brought a fresh and progressive perspective to rural and farm issues. Some of them are collected here. Through his words, his insight and wisdom continue to inform, raise important questions and encourage action. Working with Paul's family, the NFU has established an annual literary prize in honour of Paul and his contribution to rural and agricultural journalism.

All stories by Paul Beingessner »

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