World Food Day was celebrated on October 16. There wasn’t much coverage in the papers and that surprised me. Not just because October 16 should be the annual occasion to say and repeat everything there is to say and repeat about this problem, but also because this year the words of Kofi Annan addressed an issue that has been weighing on consciences and exercising brains. Our world, said the Secretary General of the UN, has enough resources to feed 12 billion people at a level of at least 2800 calories per day. The media reported it as just another news item. But for someone who has been involved in agriculture and development for years, it was revolutionary – and liberating – news. Twelve billion, and the world’s population is currently about half that, a little more than 6 billion. Yet, of these 6 billion people, almost 3 billion live on less than 2 dollars a day, with 840 million of them suffering from hunger.
Every day sees 24 thousand people dying from causes connected to malnutrition, many of them children (one every 7 seconds to be precise: in the time it took you to read this far, a dozen children will have died). In the meantime, somewhere, the food that these people should be able to eat – the food these people have a right to eat – remains unused. Or ends up blocking the arteries of someone eating too much. Or is thrown away because it has gone bad. In the meantime, our “experts” tell us that there is only one way to solve the problem of world hunger: increase production, maybe making use of the miracles of biotechnology. And lower the costs of production, producing food “for the masses”. All right, let’s hold it there.
Now we can go back to the beginning. The “masses” already have food. Actually, they have too much of it. Thinking about it in general terms – is everyone listening – production could be relaxed, we could begin to produce less, perhaps 40 or 50% less. Isn’t that amazing? And maybe all that intellectual effort and the financial resources currently laboring to find ways of increasing production could be directed elsewhere. What about infrastructure, for example? Sometimes food in Africa simply can’t move – it can’t get from a more fertile province to a less fertile one simply because there aren’t roads or suitable vehicles. Or what about finding a way for developing countries to gain fair access to world markets?
It’s odd how the market seems to be one of the great taboos of international cooperation, whether at governmental or other levels. It’s as though the rich West, which has made itself sick with the market, is jealous of its sickness. Now, when it thinks about poor countries gaining access to the market it suddenly has a thousand doubts and hesitations. Poor countries obviously have to develop neighboring markets, because they are the ones that have to function first. But you can’t decide – unilaterally what’s more – that international markets are too “aggressive” and too “dangerous” for agricultural producers of these countries. There seems to be a bizarre paternalism in this attitude: it is as though we consider these societies as children who mustn’t risk playing adult games because they could hurt themselves. But at the same time we admit that we, the adults, weren’t able to play those games either, we have in fact made ourselves sick, we have created defective and unbalanced societies. But we did it independently.
Well, then – how come independent action is no good any longer? Who said the West had to be the protector of developing countries? And what has happened to that role of predator that it played until not long ago? Developing countries are beginning to talk about a new “colonial alliance”, they are beginning to speak out: forget it, stop “helping” us, let us produce what we can and want to produce and allow us to eat it.
First printed in La Stampa on October 20 2003