From Socialist Voice, July 2009

World food and water shortage the biggest threat to the world’s population

Urgent political change needed to avoid worldwide catastrophe

The knowledge by developed countries that a billion of the world’s population are starving and many more millions living in abject poverty is not new. The method of ignoring this crime against humanity is to give them charity and make grand-sounding statements while organising a world political and economic system that has ruthlessly robbed most of the world of the right to live decently.
     It is only now, when alarm bells are ringing for the capitalist countries themselves, that the warnings of those advocating a better system are being listened to. Climate change has dominated the arguments, with powerful transnational and political interests trying to hold back the evidence of how a destructive worldwide economic system is causing global warming.
     Food and water shortages, together with the way in which technology is used for economic growth, are threatening the predator countries themselves. For the first time (having refused all previous requests) the World Trade Organisation has agreed to hear a report by a United Nations expert appointed as special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, on the effects of free trade on the right to food. This report, presented to the Human Rights Council in March, condemns trade agreements that include agriculture with obligations that cause food shortages to a country’s people.
     A leading columnist of the New York Times, Tom Friedmann, warns of the “collapse of civilisation” but thinks the United States can lead the new “green” economy! A devastating article in the May issue of Scientific American, “Could food shortages bring down civilization?” by a leading environmentalist, Lester R. Brown, says that, unless the world’s political, social and economic system is changed, food and water shortages will lead to the end of civilisation and the world will descend into chaos, with the collapse of national governments.
     All these commentators’ solutions are centred on the consequences for the predator countries, because their world order will be threatened beyond manageable containment. Nevertheless, it is no longer possible to disguise the destruction caused by the capitalist economic system. Surreptitiously these same countries have been buying up land in agricultural countries, to the detriment of national farmers, and China too has been buying and renting agricultural land in many countries. A report in the Guardian (London) on the 3rd of July headed “Fears for the world’s poor countries as the rich grab land to grow food” states that neo-colonisation or “land-grabbing” is taking place at a rapid pace as these states buy land from poorer countries. It is estimated that land at least half the extent of Europe has been bought or leased in the last six months.
     Free-trade policies have accelerated this process, and unless change is rapidly agreed the 21st century may be our last.
     There is increasing agreement on the state of the world’s ecosystem and the main areas that need immediate fixing. The year 2025 is now seen as the crisis point for critical shortages of food and water, leading to large-scale worldwide famine and resource wars if economic policies are not radically changed.
     The report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 confirms what environmentalists have been saying for years about human activity being responsible for global warming. The report of a conference held in Copenhagen, “Climate change: Global risks, challenges and decisions,” published in March in preparation for the next IPCC meeting in December, says that new scientific evidence confirms that we are reaching the tipping point of irreversible change.
  • Rising sea levels are likely to be far worse than previous UN projections, leading to mass migration by displaced populations.
  • Desertification is increasing all over the world.
  • The main water systems of the world are drying up: rivers are being diverted to massive metropolitan areas and large-scale agricultural systems. The non-renewable aquifers or water tables (those not supplied by rain and the atmosphere but laid down over billions of years deep in the earth) are being depleted rapidly. The water tables in the centre of the United States, China and Saudi Arabia are drying up. More than half of India’s wells have dried up, and Indian farmers are committing suicide at an alarming rate.
     Capitalist countries have been achieving high returns on food by plundering the rest of the world’s agricultural resources and by high technology, using the largest portion of the world’s non-renewal energy resources of hydrocarbons, fresh water, arable land, forests and fisheries and destroying the air we breathe.
     It is estimated that as much as a third of the world’s topsoil is eroding faster than it can be replenished, caused by wind and erosion resulting from incorrect agricultural policies and the felling or not planting of trees, hedges, and other plants that hold soil.
     World grain yields have peaked, and grain stocks are controlled, both in distribution and use, by transnationals. Grain is traded as a commodity in the world’s stock exchanges. China, India and the United States are the largest suppliers of wheat and rice in the world, and their production has fallen dramatically since 1997. In the 1960s and 70s the widespread use of fertilisers and irrigation led to the belief that this would solve the world’s problems, and more recently genetically modified crops were hailed as solving the problem; but they are not producing the wonder increase in yield that was expected.
     A quarter of the American grain harvest is now being used for bio-fuel. As higher prices can be got for bio-fuel production, grain producers are switching away from food production. Increasingly land in other countries is being used to supply ethanol.
     Logging is intensifying global warming as well as destroying indigenous populations in the rainforests. Rich sources of herbs and plants are taken from the forests by pharmaceutical companies and licensed for their exclusive use.
     Diversity is disappearing, because of the dominance of large-scale corporations in producing only high-yield crops. Allowing transnational corporations, including genetic engineering companies, to license and trademark grain and seeds has reduced variety and freedom for small farmers.
     Globalised free trade allows transnationals to operate without the restrictions imposed on national governments by international law. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank dictate agricultural policies in accordance with neo-liberal free-trade dogmas.
     The Atlantic Ocean has been overfished to the extent that its ecosystem is in danger of imminent collapse. In many areas this has already happened, causing misery to maritime communities. Transnational fishing vessels are now concentrating on the Pacific with the same rapacious fishing techniques. The fishing communities of the smaller countries and islands in the south Pacific are being destroyed: one large fishing vessel in one trip can remove what was previously the annual haul of all the local fishermen using traditional sustainable methods.
     African countries are the centre of warfare for food and water as both disappear and as predator countries continue to plunder their resources and buy their land.
     According to the rapporteur’s report, of the world’s poor 50 per cent are smallholders living on 5 acres or less of cropland, 20 per cent are landless labourers, 10 per cent are nomadic people or pastoralists, fishing people, and foresters, and 20 per cent are the urban poor.
     In countries where more than 34 per cent of the population are undernourished, agriculture represents 30 per cent of GDP and 70 per cent of employment. In the rest of the world it accounts for about 9 per cent of GDP and over 50 per cent of total employment. The urban poor are growing as agricultural populations move to the cities, putting huge extra pressure on metropolitan infrastructure.
     For a long time the capitalist economists have trumpeted high technology as the saviour of the world’s population. According to neo-liberal doctrines, underachiement was a result of technological backwardness and government corruption and mismanagement. Global free trade would benefit all.
     The outcome has been the direct opposite: the gap between rich and poor has widened, and small farmers and fishing communities have been destroyed all over the world.
     Solutions within the present world economic order are severely limited; nevertheless they are a starting point for local organisations and political parties in pressuring the controlling right-wing powers that make up the G20 countries. Progressive forces in India and China could help stem the landslide into neo-liberal policies that have failed globally.
     The message is loud and clear: capitalism has failed to provide the world with a sustainable system. The UN and Copenhagen reports offer solutions that would help stem the speed of disintegration. These are policies that communists and environmentalists have been advocating for years but were branded by the capitalist media and think tanks as backward; but increasingly many governments suffer under the damage done by neo-liberalism and are looking for real alternatives.
     The main points advocated are:
  • International agreement on policies that will begin to reverse the worst damage of carbon emissions causing global warming and icecap depletion.
  • The implementation of national government policy that asserts the right to food, and trade agreements to be agreed with reference to national human rights and development objectives. The use of GDP as a measure of regulating government spending and loan repayments is condemned. The IPCC recommends that a national strategy on the right to food be drawn up with wide participation from organisations outside the government, such as farmers’, peasants’ and fishing organisations. To balance sectional interests it would seem that trade unions should be included in this policy formation.
  • The development of agriculture and fishing nationally to sustain local populations.
  • The removal of agricultural products from WTO and other bilateral agreements on free trade. National governments should reassert the right to protect their agriculture from cheap import surges and from transnational pressure on farmers who are forced to produce at extremely low prices. This would protect our farmers from the likes of Tesco.
  • Reducing the use of fossil fuels, particularly in the transport of food around the world, and the development of solar and maritime energy.
  • Using water sparingly by promoting agriculture based on sustainable farming and repairing existing water systems neglected because private companies find it unprofitable. There should be investment in projects to develop desalination systems that do not use fossil fuels.
  • Protecting the world’s major river systems by examining the supply to growing metropolitan areas, how water is used in them, and how it is used for industry.
  • Reducing logging and developing national strategies for replenishing depleted soil and desert areas by planting suitable plants and terracing.
     Communists know that these measures will be implemented only when pressure is exerted by organised groups on governments to carry them out, but at least more guidelines and strategies are available that can be called on to back up these demands. Cuba showed how it can be done years ago when it helped Nicaragua build terraces to restructure exhausted mountainous areas, but this was destroyed after the United States engineered the downfall of the government, and its right-wing successors had no interest in supporting small farmers.
     Success in reordering the world’s infrastructure and economic relations depends in the long run on socialist planning for the benefit of the whole of society. Communists have traditionally supported large-scale industry. The Soviet Union had to develop such industry rapidly in extreme circumstances of hostility and interference from capitalist countries and later the “Cold War,” with its consequent need for large military expenditure. The Soviet Union also gave aid to progressive movements and governments. In the process its own infrastructure was damaged, but enormous gains were made that have now been lost.
     Scientific knowledge has come a long way since then in understanding the environmental impact of industrial development and of large-scale farming; but the difference between socialist industrial development and the wholesale destruction of the capitalist system was that one was for the benefit of all the members of society. With increasing knowledge this could have moved collectively to a cleaner mode of industry without the wholesale upheavals that occurred.
     In the twenty-first century we can learn from all these mistakes if we are given the time to do so. Communists need to reassess the development of mega-cities and to develop policies that promote a more even spread between industry and agriculture, which need not be backward but can be technologically advanced in a multi-structured way.

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