There is no more severe poverty than the poverty called starvation. It’s really quite simple; we eat or we die. There is plenty of food in the world today to feed all six-and-one-half billion of us and feed us well. But the fact is that today at least one billion and perhaps close to two billion of our fellow humans face each day a desperate insecurity, unsure of enough food to keep themselves and their family from starving. The poor of the world know what it means to have to pray for “our daily bread.”
What does all that have to do with Indonesia? Today in this country one half of your population is living in what the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization calls “Absolute Poverty.” And that means that half of your fellow Indonesians are having to survive on $1 or less a day. And two years ago, in the first three months of 2008, the price of rice rose an astonishing and devastating 300 percent! Just think what that means for the truly poor who spend 60 percent or more of their financial resources on food! That sudden 300 percent increase in the price of rice forced many Indonesian families into drastic measures—such as saving money by taking the kids out of school in order to feed the family and not starve, or at least starve more slowly.
In this brief essay, I intend to examine this kind of poverty called starvation and ask and answer the question, why is this happening? Once I have named the problem, I will offer some suggestions as to its solution.
It will help us get started to think more generally and historically about the human work called food. As in the past so also today, the work of food involves more humans than any other single work: in its planting and cultivation and harvesting, in its transportation, in its marketing and its preparation and serving. Food remains The Great Work of our species. So saying, it is instructive to note that almost 99 percent of the 200,000 years our species has lived on planet earth we did so as hunters and gatherers. It was this kind of food work that provided our species with our first “science.” Our ancient ancestors studied the habits of the animals they sought to track and to kill. So also close attention was paid and careful reflection was applied to the flora and fauna—what was good to eat and in what places and seasons it could be found. These crucial knowledges were stored up and passed along orally from one generation to the next. As knowledge was added to knowledge we humans got better and better at getting food and thus extending our time before dying.
It was only about 10,000 years ago—a mere blink of the eye in terms of the human story–that we learned to do agriculture. Our ancestors discovered wheat and thus began a new form of civilization, beginning in the fertile crescent of the Middle East. Slowly city life became possible, especially with the new tool of irrigation which secured a more dependable food supply. This living together in cities vastly expanded the division of labor, including the specialization of knowledge. Writing appeared. Oral customs became written laws, laws that allowed and insisted that tribal strangers become dependable neighbors. Belonging took on a new meaning.
But still, food continued to mean eating locally and seasonally. The work of food followed the logic of human hunger and the task of satisfying that hunger turned us to and tuned us into the logic of local natural environments. And so it was to remain until in the West in the 19th century food work began to become industrialized. The first tractors which replaced horses and oxen were driven by steam. And then in the West came the railroads. The majority of passengers on those early trains in the United States were not humans but pigs and cows destined for cities in the East. But an even more fundamental transformation in food work has come in just the past thirty years. The work of food has gone global. Today, a supper in the United States has on average traveled 1500 miles to get that table. Food flies through the air or travels the Interstate highways across my country and other so-called developed nations.
Food for hunters and gatherers and for pre-industrial agriculture was about the ground under their feet. It was local and seasonal. But today food has taken to the air and to the oceans and to the superhighways. Food in the older industrialized nations and in many places here in Indonesia has become a kind of immaterial abstraction—something wrapped in plastic on supermarket shelves, and we don’t know where it came from or how it was produced. What is the meaning of this new way we privileged folks of the world do our food work? Here is a Haiku worth thinking about: Time conquers Space, and a Sense of Place gets Erased.
It used to take a lot of time to travel across significant space. We humans were for most of our evolutionary history a space-confined species. But no longer, trains and planes and automobiles have loosened the hold that space has on our time. For example, trade in food was until very recently the face to face barter of perishables in local markets and governed by the seasons. Food was space and place confined. But now trade in food is guided by capital investment flows that surge around the world at the speed of a computer’s “Enter” key. Food work has become global, and the logic of that work is no longer the logic of human hunger but the hunger of global food corporations for profits. And it is right here that we find the key to that modern poverty called starvation here in Indonesia.
The reason the price of rice rose 300 percent in the first three months of 2008 for families in Indonesia is that your country, once rice-independent, has in the past 30 years become dependent upon imported rice. And the price of imported rice is set by the global market. What rice costs wealthy folks in the global North is what the poor have to pay for rice in the global South. Why did Indonesia become dependent upon imported rice?
BECAUSE FOOD FOLLOWS MONEY.
And poor people don’t have a lot of money and are therefore unprofitable sites for corporate investment. And today it is corporations that control the global food system. This was something unforeseen by the idealists at The Rockefeller Foundation who, beginning in the 1950s, funded research on the genetic manipulation of various seeds, especially seeds of subsistence crops like rice and wheat and maize. It was to be a “Green Revolution” that would “end world hunger”. And indeed, they were miracle seeds—producing miracles both planned and unplanned. The stem on rice, for example, was engineered for greater strength which could support a far more substantial florescence. Then, by adding fertilizer and pesticides, it became possible to reap three harvests a year instead of two. It did seem like the end of hunger for the millions of the poor who ate rice in order not to die.
But there was a problem. Fertilizer and pesticides cost money. And the new seeds were produced and patented by corporations and that meant the new seeds cost money. Today, the multinational corporation called Monsanto owns and controls 90 percent of the new genetically altered seeds. And to enhance their corporate profits Monsanto has engineered what are called “terminator seeds” or “suicide seeds”—seeds which become sterile after one planting. The result is that local rice farmers cannot reserve seed from one harvest to plant the next but must buy new seeds for each planting. That makes for corporate profits but drives the once independent small farmer out of the rice business.
Small rice farmers here in Indonesia could not afford the seeds, could not afford the fertilizer and the pesticides. So they had to sell their farm and become seasonal day laborers on giant absentee-owned farms, or they joined the largest migration in human history. All across the global South rural folks are moving to the city looking for work. There is an example of that from my own country. NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) opened the borders between Mexico and the USA. Federally supported corn grown on giant monoculture farms in the USA flooded the Mexican market with cheap corn. The result was that indigenous corn growers in Mexico were forced out of the market. They sold or abandoned their farms and traveled to the cities looking for work.
The same thing is happening right now in your country. Cheap rice grown in China is pouring into your country, especially into city supermarkets. And that cheap rice, confined to urban supermarket customers, is driving rural rice farmers out of the urban markets while local rural populations continue to depend on local rice at the more expensive price, more expensive because local rice farmers have lost their urban customers and have to raise their price to local customers or go out of business. The human price extracted by that cheap corporate-owned Chinese rice is in Indonesia today the poverty that is called starvation.
In the first three months of 2008 100 million people added to 800 million people already living in what the United Nations calls “absolute poverty.” In fact that may be a gross undercount because the poor, the really poor spend between 60 and 80 percent of their family financial resources on food. So when the cost of rice or wheat or maize nearly doubles or even triples in three months, as it did in early 2008, the next billion of those having to survive on $2 a day or less are thrown into desperate survival strategies—like sending their kids into the streets to work selling cigarettes or begging. Why did the cost of the food the poor eat skyrociet so suddenly and with such devastating consequences?
There were many reasons and none of those reasons have gone away. The price of oil spiked; so the cost of fertilizer and transportation shot up. Emerging middle class populations in China and India began to eat the meat of animals fed with cereals, cereals that the poor still needed to eat in order to live. Pigs and cows and humans competed for the same food supply. And then in 2007 one-fourth of the U.S. corn crop—the largest food export in the world—was used to feed trucks and cars! But the biggest reason is the reason caused by the biggest players in the global food business—and that is the search for corporate profits. Food grown to sell to poor people doesn’t make much profit. And food follows money. So, thousands and thousands of acres of land in the global South once planted for local populations were replanted with winter fruits and vegetables destined for tables in the global North where people could afford to eat globally not locally, and certainly not seasonally. But for the poor the demand for subsistence crops remained strong or, given the population growth, even increased, just as the supply of those crops dropped. The result was that what it cost not to starve doubled or tripled in just three months.
The same thing happened to the price of sugar just this past year in Indonesia. Indonesia grows vast quantities of sugar, but more and more of that sugar travels to the global North where wealthy folks can and do pay more. Food follows money. And that means less Indonesian sugar is available to local Indonesian populations. Less supply means higher prices.
So this is where we are after these thousands and thousands of years of humans doing our work of food, after the golden promise of the Green Revolution, after Washington’s and Wall Street’s Free Trade ideology that was anything but free for the poor, and after the corporatizing of the global food chain—we have arrived at a world divided, strangely and curiously, even grotesquely divided…into the stuffed and the starved. The so-called “developed world” (whatever that means) is beset by obesity; while a billion or perhaps even two billion of our fellow humans can’t get much beyond skin and bones. The hunger of global corporations for profits gets fed and the poor get left behind to scramble in order not to starve.
OBVIOSULY SOMETHING HAS GONE TERRIBLY WRONG. WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Capitalism has always been about making money. That’s why it’s called “capitalism.” But until very recently making money meant making or growing things others needed and would buy. And that produced jobs in fields and factories. But today we have entered a new kind of capitalism, a kind of casino capitalism where money makes money and nothing else. Today, over 90 percent of international financial transactions involve speculation—making wagers on currency exchange rates, or bets on commodity futures, or making calculations on profits from predatory acquisitions and mergers, or betting billions on exotic securitized financial products. None of this adds to the human productive capacity; none add jobs or incomes to average folks much less to the poor. In its new form, capitalism has become a vast, computerized global casino.
The immense legacy of human labor and ingenuity stored up in capital—and that is what capital is, stored up human work—is removed from the commons, removed from the collective human future. It becomes radically privatized, generative for a few individuals but sterile in the larger public world. And precisely here is where the world religions and their moral wisdom pronounce a radical “No!” All religions have objected to greed. In the West, private property was deemed morally permissable, but only because and in so far as it “served the common good.” Islam prohibited riba, the taking of interest on loans. And in the Western Church there was for centuries a moral prohibition against “usury,” because it took advantage of human need without exposing to shared risk the one making the loan. That moral wisdom about how all humans are bound together was eclipsed in the West in the 17th century with the rise of the corporation whose owners became protected by something called “limited liability.” At the time the corporation was thought to bring a vast expansion of human industry and thus would serve “the common good.” But those days are gone. Today, capitalism has become a private casino for those with the big bucks to play. Greed rules the global economy, and greed is not good! It is morally ruinous. It produces disasters. And for the people at the bottom that disaster is called starvation.
So how do we stop this? How can we discipline capital investments to a higher moral end than the private accumulation of wealth by a tiny minority, money that invests in nothing but making more money?
The means to discipline global capitalism to higher moral purposes, such as decreasing inequality and increasing environmental sustainability, are already at hand. They are called The World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Of course these institutions are presently protecting and enhancing capital in its present use and form. But that could be changed, changed to construct a very different international financial playing field. Profits are fine. Markets are fine. Both make for efficient use of investment. But now what would be awarded with profits and market share would be investments that decrease global inequalities and/or increase environmental sustainability. Corporations would continue, but now forced to make their decisions under radically transformed rules of the global investment game.
Can you imagine what it would be like to have global corporations competing with each other for market shares and profits that feed everyone in the world healthful and secure food? Can you imagine what it would be like to have global corporations forced by the new rules of the international financial game to compete with one another for increased environmental sustainability? Can you imagine, as I can imagine, that as this conversation about how to address the increasing inequality and un-sustainability of present global financial practices—as that conversation grows and expands that some CEOs of major corporations might begin to say: “yes, so long as all the folks competing for my market share or my profits have to play by these new rules, I like the idea. Why, because I have grandchildren, and the way the world is working right now just won’t work for them.”
Profits and markets have a place, but they must be kept in that place. They must be disciplined to reenter the commons and serve “the common good” of the whole human family. All world religions can and should agree on that. It is the common sense of our collective moral traditions. And when world religions recognize that, and act upon what they know, and change the world…then, when the world has been changed, our grandchildren will sing our praises. Because we do not inherit the world from our parents, we borrow the world from our grandchildren. And they will know whether we have been good grandparents or, God forbid, failed grandparents. Today, that choice is ours. But tomorrow, it is our grandchildren who will have the final say about us and how we lived our lives.