Review: The Reproach of Hunger

Mike Downham reviews leading expert on humanitarian aid and development David Rieff’s book The Reproach of Hunger, which addresses the burning question of why have we failed to address the crisis of hunger in the twenty-first century.

Food Banks erupted across the UK following the 2007-2008 financial crisis, their number surging in late 2010 when austerity politics began to bite. Now there are about 2,000 of them. It’s estimated that in 2012 8% of our adult population experienced not having enough money to buy food.

Meanwhile the UK produces less than 60% of what it consumes. In the face of low farm-gate prices and rising costs of production British farmers – the 70% who own the land they farm – have increasingly resorted to growing houses as their most profitable crop, exploiting crazy property prices and relaxed planning policies.

Shocking enough in our back yard. But look over the fence and we see that world prices of wheat, soya, maize and rice (the staples upon which nearly three billion people depend to avoid hunger) have spiralled upwards over the 10 years since the crash, pushing 1 billion people into constant hunger, and another 2 billion into food insecurity. 36 million people are dying each year as a result of hunger and poor nutrition, not because there wasn’t enough food – there’s plenty – but because these people couldn’t afford it.

It’s hardly news to be told that the global food system is broken. Where Rieff’s book is important is in his analysis of why. Marshalling a great deal of evidence, he concludes that there are six underlying reasons for the international mess: exclusive reliance on technological solutions, without political change; ideological and unrealistic optimism that hunger can be banished from the world in just a few years if only enough money is made available; increasing privatisation of aid, to the extent that humanitarian policies are now largely led by big business and philanthropists; opening up rather than protecting markets in poor countries; speculation in food as a commodity by banks, hedge funds and pension funds (i.e. gambling on hunger); and the diversion of food grains into the production of biofuels (40% of maize currently grown in the US is lost to biofuels).

Rieff supports his case well with detailed and referenced information. About the Green Revolution of the 1960s, for example, he says:

The rises in agricultural productivity it fostered were based on an environmentally and financially unsustainable model of industrial agriculture that was far too dependent on expensive inputs such as chemical pesticides, herbicides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer … [and on] human costs, above all putting hundreds of thousands of farm laborers out of work as combine harvesters replaced human muscle in the wheat fields of Punjab and the pesticides sprayed on the paddy fields of the Philippines killed off the fish and wild vegetables on which poor Filipino farmers had always relied.

However Rieff’s writing is uneven. He has a tendency to slip into lengthy and convoluted sentences, clause piled on clause, with an economical use of commas. The reader holds her breath to arrive at the verb and does not always find one. With a little more sub-editing this could have been a much better book. At times, in contrast, the writing is succinct and engaging. For example, having told us that the Gates Foundation, whose central focus is health and nutrition, is the largest single shareholder in Coca Cola (with more than a $2 billion holding) yet has not attempted to influence Coca Cola’s policies, Rieff continues:

In 2013, 71 percent of the Mexican population was either obese or overweight, overtaking the United States, where the figure was 68 percent. Of the Mexican population 14 percent now suffers from diabetes. On average, Mexicans consume 665 servings of Coca Cola products per year, more than the average American (399), British (202), Chinese (32), and Indian (9) combined.

Rieff’s final position is pessimistic. What little hope he has for reducing hunger and malnutrition across the world he pins on strengthening the state and democratic politics. He is equally dismissive of ‘technoutopian’ and revolutionary solutions. His case against the former he amply justifies in the book, but he gives no reasons for his case against the latter beyond his personal lack of confidence in revolutionary socialism.

On 17 July 800 delegates, representing 200 small farmers from 450 peasant movements in 70 countries, met in Basque Country for the seventh conference of La Via Campesina (The Peasants’ Way) to continue their 25-year “struggle against capitalism and to propose concrete ways to build an alternative world based on dignity and Food Sovereignty”. Has Rieff underestimated what hunger may unleash?

The Reproach of Hunger by David Rieff is published by Verso.

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