Food First Part 13




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 48 What Can We Do?

Question: If you say that it is all up to the underdeveloped countries themselves, then what role is left for us?

The basic message of Diet for a Small Planet is that all fundamental change has to begin with the individual. Do you still feel that way? Aren’t individual acts no more than symbolic gestures against the enormity of the economic and political reality of hunger?

Our Response: Saying that self-reliance means self-help and therefore there is no role for Americans could be the most convenient way of escaping our responsibilities. Or, it could be the concept that will free us for the first time to perceive clearly an effective path of work and action.

When Diet for a Small Planet was first published there was no movement grounded in the issues of food and hunger. At that time it seemed necessary to focus on what the individual could do. But today it is no longer necessary to speak of the individual. Now we can also talk about a movement. We are in touch with hundreds of groups all over the country who have emerged spontaneously in the last few years. In this very short time, a national movement has taken form. On college campuses, in religious organizations, among certain state and national legislators, in coop movements, and among ecology and natural food groups there is a feeling that food is the right place to start to focus attention and energy for change. At a recent national “hunger” convention we attended, there was a palpable level of positive energy generating hundreds of ideas for local campus and community action. This is definitely not a movement only of young people. It includes farmers’ groups that have been fighting many of the battles we have just discovered for decades. Now they have new allies.

Wherever you are in the country it is possible to make your impact felt within this growing movement. But what should the impact be? What are the most important issues to focus on? What are the pitfalls? These questions we ask continually. We hope some of our answers to ourselves will be helpful to you.

Grasp the root causes – don’t assume we already know enough

It is important to keep in mind where most Americans are starting, how deeply imbedded the myths are in all our psyches. Do not assume there is a common understanding even among “food activists.” There is wide divergence of views, many of them rooted in the old myths we have tried to dispel in this book.

Most of what you read in the future will not reflect the reality that we have tried to convey here. Most of what you read will still frame the questions in the “old” way. You will be hearing that the United States is the world’s only remaining “breadbasket,” that the problem is simply “population pressure,” “severe droughts,” or “lack of openness to foreign investment.”

One of the most important lessons learned in writing this book has been that acting out of ignorance can strengthen the very forces we must counter. Focus on the small farmer sounds good until we recall that in many countries up to 60% of the people in the countryside have no land. Focus on increasing the production sounds good until we ask how the hungry can partake of it if they are excluded from participating in the production process. Introducing mechanization sounds like progress until we ask whose jobs are being eliminated. Sending food abroad sounds good until we look at the impact on local producers and ask what is being done with the proceeds of the sales of food we send as aid. The role of the United States government as helper of the poor abroad sounds noble until we remind ourselves of the overriding impact of U.S. economic and counterinsurgency activities that support the very forces most oppressing the hunger. The desire of American corporations to feed the hungry sounds admirable until we recall that corporations trying to make a profit can only utilize resources, by which the hungry could feed themselves, to grow food for the already well-fed.

A redefinition of “help”

The question suggests that there may be a contradiction between self-reliance as the first goal of the hungry and our ability to help. First, keep in mind that people will feed them selves. If they are not doing so, you can be sure that mighty obstacles are in the way. These obstacles are not, as we have seen, the “hunger myths” – insufficient production, poor climate, inappropriate technology, discriminatory trade practices, or insufficient capital. The real obstacle in the way of people feeding themselves is that the majority of citizens in every market economy are increasingly cut out from control over productive resources, thus the real lessons for us are these:

First: We cannot solve the problem of world hunger for other people. They must do it for themselves. We can, however, work to remove the obstacles that make it increasingly difficult for people everywhere to take control of food production and feed themselves.

Second: We should focus on removing those obstacles that are being reinforced today by forces originating in our country, often in our name and with tax money.

Third: We must support people everywhere already resisting forced food dependency and now building new self-reliant societies in which the majority of people directly control food producing resources. Direct financial assistance is important as is communicating their very existence to Americans still believing that “people are too oppressed ever to change.”

Fourth: Working for self-reliance, both on a personal and national level, benefits everyone. Making America less dependent on importing its food and less dependent on pushing our food on others will be a step toward making America “safe for the world.” Local self-reliance will make it more difficult for elites, both in the industrial countries and the underdeveloped countries, to manipulate prices, wages, and people for their own profit. Self-reliance for America means wholesome food available to all, supplied by a healthy domestic agriculture of widely dispersed control.

The forms that our energies will take in acting on these four lessons will of course be the outgrowth of our labors together in the coming years. They will differ depending on where you are, who you are, and whom you are trying to reach. Let us welcome a multiplicity of approaches at this stage. Here are some possibilities:

Hunger re-education

v  Find out how “hunger” is being taught in your school or in the school in your community. Are your peers or your children being taught to fear scarcity and hungry people? Examine textbooks and classroom materials. Then develop alternative curricula and special events that present another view – a positive view that the problem is firmly in our  hands.

v  Form a counter-media group to provide an ongoing answer to your local media’s interpretation of hunger here and abroad – through letters to the editor, a regular column, or radio shows sponsored by your group. In the future we ourselves will be developing curricula, study guides, films, cassettes, suggestions for radio program formats, and so on.

v  Our own re-education will continue in the form of in-the-field research and the publication of articles, pamphlets, class curriculum, and study guides. If you would like to be on our mailing list, please write to:

Institute for Food and Development Policy

2588 Mission St.

San Francisco, California 94110

In addition, at the end of this book, you will find a list of helpful organizations and publications.

Work for self-reliance here

v  Work now to open a national debate on the issue of democratic, national planning in the selection and production of food crops to ensure that America’s abundance is available to all its people.

v  Organize a food cooperative and grow your own food so you can opt out of “food-as-a-profit-commodity” system that creates scarcity. Get behind a network to link directly farmers to consumers in your area. It is a sure way to learn about farmer’s problems. Worker-managed food systems are evolving in cities as different as Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

v  Work for regional food self-reliance policies within the United States that will carry with it a message for all Americans: We do not have to import food from hungry countries or waste our fossil fuel transporting food thousands of miles. Energy use for food transportation has tripled in the last thirty years. Four states have begun at least to study a move in this direction – Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Democratize the U.S. food economy

Make America “safe for the world”

The significance of individual life choices

The message of Diet for a Small Planet got converted by some into the view that “if each of us only ate one less hamburger a week, the hungry could be fed.” This is not what was meant. The change in eating habits that the book embodies is a way to take one step out of the make-believe world we live in. By “make-believe” we mean that we are made to believe that the way things are is the way they should be. For instance, we are made to believe that scarcity is a natural phenomenon about which people can do little. We are made to believe that a grain-fed meat diet is both necessary and a sound use of our food resources.

The American meat-centered diet came to represent to us, however, an extreme example of how profit criteria reduce our potential food supply, creating scarcity to ensure profit. Over half of our harvested acreage goes to livestock that only return a small fraction to us. Eating less meat and less processed food – eat in a way that reflects our bodies’ real needs – is thus one way of saying no to a system that looks at food like any other profitable commodity – totally divorcing it from human need. A change in diet has been, moreover, a good place to start realizing that we can make real choices – based on our bodies’ needs and the best use of the earth rather than on what our profit-oriented system dictates.

What motivates us?

  • We have seen over and over again that the ruling groups are constantly on the defensive, trying to protect their power as more and more of us become aware of our worsening position.
  • We believe that anyone who is privileged enough to become aware must make a choice.
  • We either choose to be observers of history, thereby lending our weight to the forces now in control or we choose to be participants, actively building a new culture based on human values.
  • Put this way, do we really have a choice at all?
  • If we answer that the power is in the hands of an elite who alone are making the decisions, we will be doing exactly what the established forces of power want of us.
  • The struggles is against a system that increasingly concentrates wealth and power.
  • The struggle is against a system profiting on hunger in the Philippines or Brazil just as it is in the United States.
  • The real forces creating hunger span all nations in the world.
  • Once the lines of struggle are clear we can no longer be manipulated by profferers of guilt and fear.
  • The economic system we have today is not god-given; it represents a choice on certain human traits – to play on human insecurities.
  • It in no way tells us what is possible.
  • New systems of human organization are being dared, systems that assume people can cooperate and work to provide opportunities for everyone to have a fulfilling life.
  • The tragedy is that we have had to reach the point where millions of people are hungry, including millions here at home, before we can begin to see that our system – a system built on the vulnerabilities of the human personality instead of its strength – can never create a humane society.
  • It will take time to construct a human world. That does not belittle our task; that makes it all the more important.

We want you to join us, not simply because of the necessary struggle to construct a just and life-giving society, but because through our own experience we have become certain that none of us can live fully today as long as we are overwhelmed by a false view of the world and a false view of human nature to buttress it. Learning about world hunger then becomes, not a lesson in misery and deprivation, but a vehicle for a great awakening in our own lives.


Recommended for Further Study

Organizations and Publication


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