> AR Interviews
Anuradha Mittal: Human Need vs. Corporate Greed
Mittal is the co-director of Food First,
also known as the Institute for Food and Development Policy. She launched
“The Time has Come!”, a national campaign to challenge increasing poverty,
hunger and economic insecurity in the U.S. Anuradha is the co-editor of
America Needs Human Rights (Food First, 1999), and her articles have
appeared in newspapers across the country. She spoke to Angela Starks
about the myths and the facts surrounding hunger’s causes and
What would you say is the
most important political food issue?
At Food First, we are
especially concerned about the myths around the whole issue of hunger and
how these myths prevent us from ending it. We do not have a clear reason
presented to us by the policy makers and the media as to what causes
hunger. The usual reason given is that there is not enough food to go
around. But look at a country like the U.S., which is the largest surplus
producer. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 36 million
Americans do not have enough food, or they do not have adequate food
security. Then there’s India which has a serious hunger problem, even
though it is one of the largest exporters of food. Another myth is the
‘over population’ excuse. The fact is, for every overpopulated country
like Bangladesh, which has hunger, you have countries like Brazil or
Nigeria, which are not densely populated and yet they have
One of the main causes of increasing hunger and poverty is
not the shortage of food production but the shortage of purchasing power.
It’s the absence of living wage jobs, the absence of genuine land reform
(people do not have control over resources, including land, to be able to
grow their own food) and the increasing concentration of corporate power
over our food system which are responsible.
Are there important
differences between the causes of hunger in so-called developing countries
and the U.S.?
In this age of economic globalization, universal
factors are responsible. In the U.S., for example, not everyone receives a
living wage. Also the system does not support the small family farmers.
Family farmers are no longer counted as a profession; they have virtually
disappeared, and yet agribusinesses are getting stronger and stronger. The
need for the redistribution of resources applies globally.
First talks about food as a human right. Why is it necessary to campaign
for the right to food as a human right when it should be a
That is a very important question. Food as a human right
should be a given, but the reality is that even in a country like the
U.S., while we are so gung-ho about trade agreements and the like, we have
not ratified the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights (ICESCR), which would guarantee the right to food. In 1996 at the
World Food Summit in Rome, the head of the U.S. delegation basically
explained that we cannot support the right to food—just as the U.S.
government does not support the right to housing—because it would mean
that welfare reform is in violation of international laws. Because the
ICESCR is a treaty, it would become law if ratified, which means it would
be a government’s job to respect, protect, facilitate and fulfill economic
rights. So when we find that the governments are not fulfilling
obligations, that they represent large corporations instead of their own
people, we need to have campaigns that talk about food and housing as
rights. Just as the torture of one family or individual is unacceptable,
the hunger of one family or individual in this modern day and age, when we
have enough food around the world, should not be tolerated. It would be a
crime against humanity.
In what other ways do economics factor
into the hunger issue?
Governments need to have appropriate
policies for land reform and living wages and to ensure that trade
agreements will not work against working families but in favor of them.
With any social economic policy that a government embarks on it can ask
itself, “is it going to honor and facilitate people to feed themselves?”
That should be its litmus test. It does not mean setting up groups of
people who just knock on people’s doors with free meals—that should only
be a last resort. Donations are not the solution; challenging the
political structures—that’s what we have to do.
It actually makes
better economic sense to have policies that protect the right to food,
because when you have people who are starving they are not able to perform
adequately, including children who are not paying attention in schools.
Living wages are very feasible; they are not just an inspiration to strive
towards but a reality that we can make happen. Unfortunately, the U.S. has
repeatedly seen the end to hunger as a ‘goal’ which is very different from
viewing food as a human right.
So rather than throwing money at
the problem, we need to change the infrastructure?
Yes. Right now,
for every dollar spent on food, only 15 cents goes to the farmer. The rest
goes to corporations like Cargill that control not just the food
production, they are also the buyers, packers and shippers. So we create a
situation that puts our farmers out of business.
to be about small family farms, when a community knew where their food
came from, when children grew up singing “old MacDonald had a farm.” That
whole situation has changed, to “old MacDonald has a factory.” How many
children know that tomatoes don’t grow in a can that you buy at a
supermarket? Look at the distance that food travels today, whether it’s
blemish-free grapes from Chile, or beans from Ethiopia. Industrial
agriculture has managed to effect, in a very detached and impersonal way,
how we connect to our food. The cash economy and exports have become the
new form of agriculture, instead of a local effort around which
communities, religions and festivities are based. It is this
commodification of agriculture that has resulted in the devastation of the
environment, ecology and social and economic life.
What role do
multinational corp-orations play in hunger?
The world’s food and
grain supply system as well as the seeds are now controlled by a handful
of corporations—it is dependent on their whims and fancies. The
agricultural clauses of the World Trade Organization are drafted by the
Vice President of Cargill, which in itself presents a very threatening
situation. To have something like food—that is so integral to political
and economic sovereignty—being taken over by agribusinesses is very scary.
A lot of people might think that with the end of the Cold War, we do not
have to worry about embargoes and the rest because we are one big happy
family. I would like to remind readers of cases like Cuba, which
illustrate the importance that every country be food self-sufficient. Cuba
could have been starved with the collapse of the socialist block and the
trade embargo, but it has managed to feed its own people by practicing
sustainable ecological agriculture.
Are countries exporting a
lot of what they grow on their prime land?
About 78 percent of
countries with child malnourishment are food exporting countries. When you
look at the famine of Ethiopia in the ‘80’s, even at that time—when food
aid was being sent—Ethiopia was exporting beans to Europe.
food aid is not the answer?
At Food First we believe that yes, food
aid might sometimes be important, when it has to be done urgently and can
be provided without political conditions. However, instead of sending food
aid from Canada or the U.S., we should try to buy it from the local
resources. In the case of Ethiopia, all this food aid came from the U.S.
and other countries, finding new markets for Western corporations, even
though the local farmers had crops in their fields.
Most of the
time when we think of food aid, we presume it is free but a lot of it is
sold at a low interest rate, so in the name of food aid we actually find
new markets for U.S. corporations. For example, even though Indonesia
received the gold medal for food self-sufficiency from the Food and
Agriculture Organization in 1984, this country became the largest
recipient of food aid in the world in 1998. The problem was not a shortage
of food production; the reason was that people were too poor after the
Asian financial crisis. 15,000 people were being laid off per day in
Jakarta alone. I met numerous farmers with crops in their fields, but for
the first time ever, the U.S. had found a market in Indonesia for wheat.
Indonesians don’t eat wheat!
What role does debt play in
One of the biggest things that we talk about is annulment
of debt. These are from loans that were given for bad projects in which
local communities had no say. Let’s look at examples of World Bank loans,
for projects like a nuclear reactor in an area prone to seismic activity
in the Philippines—a bad idea; or the building of large dams that have
displaced hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. If you look at
when these loans are given and who gets the contract—say to build a large
dam—very often it is European or American companies. You give it with one
hand and you take it away with the other.
The debts need to be
annulled right away, because these countries have paid far more than they
actually took loans for. The loans are resulting in programs that violate
governments’ obligations to its people; so, to make up for the debt, you
find money going away from social safety nets, you find countries being
forced to engage in export agriculture—growing coffee or tulips or
whatever—instead of feeding their own people.
Do you have a
policy at Food First where you say “this is what we really need to do to
We advocate the right to food as a human right. It’s
an approach we need to take to be able to reshape the terms of the debate.
However, we do not just focus on one solution, we talk about all kinds of
different alternatives. On one hand, we challenge the whole global food
system, whether it is through the world’s agricultural trade policies,
industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, or whether it is looking at
existing alternatives such as the sustainable farming in Cuba. Our
research also shows that small farms actually produce much more than the
large corporate farms, so Food First advocates these
To accept alternatives, people need to understand
what causes hunger: it is not some supernatural force that causes it, or
something beyond our control, it is something called human decisions.
Since human decisions are responsible, we feel empowered because those
decisions can be changed.
For more about Food First and the
Institute for Food and Development Policy visit
http://www.foodfirst.org/ or call