Food First Part 9




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 8: Does Ignorance Breed Babies?

Chapter 9: Sophisticated Fatalism?

Chapter 10: Controlling Births or Controlling the Population?



Chapter 11. Why Can’t People Feed Themselves?

Question: You have said that the hunger problem is not the result of overpopulation. But you have not yet answered the most basic and simple question of all: Why can’t people feed themselves? As Senator Daniel P. Moynihan put it bluntly, when addressing himself to the Third World, “Food growing is the first thing you do when you come down out of the trees. The question is, how come the United States can grow food and you can’t?”

Our Response: In the very first speech I, Frances, ever gave after writing Diet for a Small Planet, I tried to take my audience along the path that I had taken in attempting to understand why so many are hungry in this world. Here is the gist of that talk that was, in truth, a turning point in my life:

When I started I saw a world divided into two parts: a minority of nations that had “taken off” through their agricultural and industrial revolutions to reach a level of unparalleled material abundance and a majority that remained behind in a primitive, traditional, undeveloped state. This lagging behind of the majority of the world’s peoples must be due, I thought, to some internal deficiency or even to several of them. It seemed obvious that the underdeveloped countries must be deficient in natural resources – particularly good land and climate – and in cultural development, including modern attitudes conducive to work and progress.

But when looking or the historical roots of the predicament, I learned that my picture of these two separate worlds was quite false. My “two separate worlds” were really just different sides of the same coin. One side was on top largely because the other side was on the bottom. Could this be true? How were these separate worlds related?

Colonialism appeared to me to be the link. Colonialism destroyed the cultural patterns of production and exchange by which traditional societies in “underdeveloped” countries previously had met the needs of the people. Many precolonial social structures, while dominated by exploitative elites, had evolved a system of mutual obligations among the classes that helped to ensure at least a minimal diet for all. A friend of mine once said, “Precolonial village existence in subsistence agriculture was a limited life indeed, but it’s certainly not Calcutta.” The misery of starvation in the streets of Calcutta can only be understood as the end-point of a long historical process – one that has destroyed a traditional social system.

“Underdeveloped,” instead of being an adjective that evokes the picture of a static society, became for me a verb (to “underdevelop”) meaning the process by which the minority of the world has transformed – indeed often robbed and degraded – the majority.

That was 1972. I clearly recall my thoughts on my return home. I had stated publicly for the first time a world view that had taken me years of study to grasp. The sense of relief was tremendous. For me the breakthrough lay in realizing that today’s “hunger crisis” could not be described in static, descriptive terms. Hunger and underdevelopment must always be thought of as a process.

To answer the question “why hunger?” it is counterproductive to simply describe the conditions in an underdeveloped country today. For these conditions, whether they be the degree of malnutrition, the levels of agricultural production, or even the country’s ecological endowment, are not static facts – they are not “givens.” They are rather the results of an ongoing historical process. As we dug deeper into that historical process for the preparation of this book, we began to discover the existence of scarcity-creating mechanisms that we had only vaguely intuited before.

We have gotten great satisfaction from probing into the past since we recognized it is the only way to approach a solution to hunger today. We have come to see that it is the force creating the condition, not the condition itself, that must be the target of change. Otherwise we might change the condition today, only to find tomorrow that it has been recreated – with a vengeance.

Asking the question “Why can’t people feed themselves?” carries a sense of bewilderment that there are so many people in the world not able to feed themselves adequately. What astonished us, however, is that there are not more people in the world who are hungry – considering the weight of the centuries of effort by the few to undermine the capacity of the majority to feed themselves. No, we are not crying “conspiracy!” If these forces were entirely conspiratorial, they would be easier to detect and many more people would by now have risen up to resist. We are talking about something more subtle and insidious; a heritage of a colonial order in which people with the advantage of considerable power sought their own self-interest, often arrogantly believing hey were acting in the interest of the people whose lives they were destroying.

The colonial mind

The colonizer viewed agriculture in the subjugated lands as primitive and backward. Yet such a view contrasts sharply with documents from the colonial period mow coming to light. For example, A.J. Voelker, a British agricultural scientist assigned to India during the 1890s, wrote

“Nowhere would one find better instances of keeping land scrupulously clean from weeds, of ingenuity in device of water-raising appliances, of knowledge of soils and their capabilities, as well as of the exact time to sow and reap, as one would find in Indian agriculture. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of “mixed crops” and of fallowing. I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of cultivation.

None the less, viewing the agriculture of the vanquished as primitive and backward reinforced the colonizer’s rationale for destroying it. To the colonizers of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, agriculture became merely a means to extract wealth – much as gold from a mine – on behalf of the colonizing power. Agriculture was no longer seen as a source of food for the local population, nor even as their livelihood. Indeed the English economist John Stuart Mill reasoned that colonies should not be thought of as civilizations or countries at all but as “agricultural establishments” whose sole purpose was to supply the “larger community to which they belong.” The colonized society’s agriculture was only a subdivision of the agricultural system of the metropolitan country. As Mill acknowledged, “Our West India colonies, for example, cannot be regarded as countries. The West Indies are the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee and a few other tropical commodities.”

  • Prior to European intervention, Africans practiced a diversified agriculture that included the introduction of new food plants of Asian or American origin.
  • Colonial rule simplified this diversified production to single cash crops – often to the exclusion of staple foods – and in the process sowed the seeds of famine.
  • With colonial rule so much of the best land was taken over by peanuts (grown for the European market) that rice had to be imported to counter the mounting prospect of famine.
  • Northern Ghana, once famous for its yams and other foodstuffs, was forced to concentrate solely on cocoa.
  • Liberia was turned into a virtual plantation subsidiary of Firestone Tire and Rubber.
  • Food production in Dahomey and south-east Nigeria was all but abandoned in favor of palm oil.
  • Tanganyika (now Tanzania) was forced to focus on sisal and Uganda on cotton.
  • Through a production system based on enriching the large landowners, Vietnam became the world’s third largest exporter of rice by the 1930s; yet many landless Vietnamese went hungry.
  • Rather than helping the peasants, colonialism’s public works programs only reinforced export crop production.
  • Because people living on the land do not easily go against their natural and adaptive drive to grow food for themselves, colonial powers had to force the production of cash crops.


Forced peasant production

As Walter Rodney recounts in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, cash crops were often grown literally under threat of guns and whips. One visitor to the Sahel commented in 1928: “Cotton is an artificial crop and one the value of which is not entirely clear to the natives.” He wryly noted the “enforced enthusiasm with which the natives have thrown themselves into planting cotton.” The forced cultivation of cotton was a major grievance leading to the Maji Maji wars in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and behind the nationalist revolt in Angola.

  • Although raw force was used, taxation was the preferred colonial technique to force Africans to grow cash crops.
  • The colonial administrations simply levied taxes on cattle, land, houses, and even the people themselves. Since the tax had to be paid in the coin of the realm, the peasants had either to grow crops to sell or to work on the plantations or in the mines of the Europeans.
  • Marketing boards emerged in Africa in the 1930s as another technique for getting the profit from cash crop production by native producers into the hands of the colonial government and international firms.
  • Purchases by the marketing boards were well below the world market price.
  • Peanuts bought by the boards from peasant cultivators in West Africa were sold in Britain for more than seven times what the peasants received.
  • These marketing boards, set up for most export crops, were actually controlled by the companies.
  • The chairman of the Cocoa Board was none other than John Cadbury of Cadbury Brothers who was part of a buying pool exploiting West African cocoa farmers.

These marketing boards of Africa were only the institutionalized rendition of what is the essence of colonialism – the extraction of wealth. While profits continued to accrue to foreign interests and local elites, prices received by those actually growing the commodities remained low.


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