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Beyond the Hunger Myths

by Frances Moore Lappe & Joseph Collins - 1980

While control over land and agricultural production remain in the hands of the exploitative land owners in the world, hunger will continue to be a major insoluble problem for the poor. (Source: ERIC)


Our country is now buzzing with groups whose primary concern is world hunger. Churches, campuses, even the White House—each has its own task force on hunger, its causes and remedies. All of this attention, quickening particularly since the global food crisis of the early 1970s and the World Food Conference called to address it, has resulted in a marked improvement in development rhetoric. No one would even think of dragging out old, discredited concepts like Rostow's "stages of growth" or "trickle down theory" or "progressive farmer strategy." Of course not. Only catchwords such as "small farmer," "appropriate technology," "participation," and "land reform" are acceptable.

The development establishment has now agreed, it seems, on an "appropriate terminology." What we have found, however, as we travel into the Third World and rely on the firsthand reports of social scientists and grass-roots organizers here and abroad is that even while the language of development becomes increasingly enlightened, the reality of the lives of the poor is becoming even more desperate. How can this be?

First, and most obvious, is that what development "experts" are saying does not speak to the reality of the lives of the poor. Their hunger is determined by forces that development experts are not prepared to address, as we discuss below. Then why is what they say important? The one powerful function of the development experts—those working in national and international bureaucracies officially designated to "conquer hunger"—is to sustain myths about the causes of hunger. Their impact is, no doubt unintentionally in most cases, to obscure the forces that create hunger. For, if the forces were laid out in a graspable way, minus the mythology, average Americans would come to see the powerful connection between the causes of hunger in a remote part of the Third World and the causes of our own rural decline, persistent poverty, and deepening economic malaise.

In this brief article, we take on the task of laying bare some of the mythology that lies behind even the new, "enlightened" language of development, the mythology that prevents Americans from grasping their own real connection to the forces of hunger and from discovering a response that is both appropriate and possible.


Hunger exists in the face of plenty; therein lies the outrage. Right now the earth is producing more than enough to nourish every human being, both on a global level and within the very countries we all associate with hunger and starvation.

Measured globally, there is more than enough to feed everyone. Considering only grain, enough is produced to provide everyone with ample protein and more than 3,000 calories a day, about the caloric intake of the average American. (A third or more of this grain is now being fed to livestock.) And this 3,000-caloric estimate does not include many other foods—beans, root crops, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grass-fed meats.

But global estimates mean little except to dispel the widespread notion that we have reached the earth's limits. What really explodes the myth that scarcity is the cause of hunger is the fact that enough food is being produced even in countries where so many are forced to go hungry.

In India, while tens of millions are chronically underfed, soldiers patrol the government's sixteen million tons of "surplus" grain. In the Sahelian countries of West Africa, even during the much-publicized drought and famine of the early 1970s, surveys by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), squelched by displeased aid-seeking governments, documented that each Sahelian country, with the possible exception of mineral-rich Mauritania, actually produced enough grain to feed its total population. In Mexico, while at least 80 percent of the children in the rural areas are undernourished, livestock (much of it raised for export to the United States) consumes more basic grains than the country's entire rural population.

In Bangladesh, one of the world's most densely populated countries, enough grain is produced to provide, theoretically, each person with 2,300 calories a day. Yet over half the families in Bangladesh daily consume less than 1,500 calories per person, the bare minimum necessary. During the 1974 floods, millions in Bangladesh perished. But they did not die because of scarcity. One Bangladeshi describes what happened in her village: "A lot of people died of starvation here. The rich farmers were holding rice and not letting any of the poor peasants see." Asked whether there was enough food in the village, she replied, "There may not have been a lot of food, but if it had been shared, no one would have died."

Nor should we ever forget that in the United States millions go hungry. Who would argue that it is because there is not enough food produced?

While hunger then is real, scarcity is not.


If "too many people" caused hunger, we would expect to find the most hunger in countries having the most people for each cropped acre. Yet we find no such pattern. Compare China and India, for example. China has merely half the cultivated acreage for each person that India has. Yet, in only twenty years the Chinese people succeeded in eliminating visible undernutrition while so many Indians still go hungry.

We also find countries with comparatively large amounts of agricultural land per person that, even so, have some of the most severe and chronic hunger in the world. While severe hunger is a daily reality for most Bolivians, their country has well over one-half acre of cultivated land per person, significantly more than in France, and potentially ten cultivable acres per person. Brazil has more cultivated acreage per person than the United States, yet in recent years the percent of the people undernourished has increased from 45 percent to 72 percent. Mexico, where most of the rural population suffers from undernourishment, has more cultivated land per person than Cuba, where now no one must go hungry.

In Africa, south of the Sahara, where we find some of the worst and most chronic hunger in the world, there are almost two and one-half cultivated acres per person, more than in the United States or the Soviet Union and six to eight times more than in China.

Certainly there are a few countries in Latin America with both a relatively high population density and widespread hunger—countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti and the Dominican Republic, nonetheless, have just slightly less cultivated land per person and a much longer growing season than Italy. This calculation does not even include the considerable additional area uncultivated in these two Caribbean countries that many agronomists agree is good agricultural land. This land is officially classified as "permanent pasture" simply because the well-off owners choose to graze livestock on it.

We can only conclude that so-called overpopulation is not the cause of hunger when we realize the tremendous and needless underutilization of food-producing resources. Of all the earth's cultivable land, less than half is now being cropped. In most Third World countries, average grain yields are less than one-half of those in industrial countries. And much land, presently harvested only once yearly, could provide two or even more harvests. Bangladesh, for instance, has excellent conditions for rice cultivation—rich alluvial soils, tropical sun, and abundant rainfall that could readily be controlled for irrigation. Yet on most of the land rice is planted only once a year and the average yields are only one-third of those of the industrial countries and one-sixth of those proven possible in Bangladesh.

Such underutilization of food-producing resources characterizes every society where, as in Bangladesh, land is controlled by a few and those who work the land do not have direct control over it. For in almost all countries the barriers to greater production are not really physical but political and economic—as we detail in our response to Myth Four.

The fact that the myth that hunger is caused by overpopulation is so widespread is in itself revealing. It says a lot about how we all are conditioned to regard people. We are made to think of people as an economic liability when, in reality, all the wealth of any country begins with people—with human labor. The economic security of a nation does not depend so much on rich natural resources as on how effectively its people can be motivated and their labor utilized.

While Americans think of agriculture in the Third World as being deluged with excess people needing work, the facts reveal that their labor could well be effectively used. Agriculturally successful countries like Japan have twice the number of workers per acre found in countries like India or the Philippines. According to the World Bank, if countries like India attained Japan's level of labor intensity (two workers per hectare), their agriculture could absorb all the labor force expected by 1985. Many economists, moreover, have argued that certain countries in Africa are underpopulated in view of the sizable labor force needed to bring into production untapped agricultural resources. In other words, people appear as a liability only in a certain kind of economic system. People are not born marginal.

This illusion of "marginal people," hunger itself, and high birth rates all turn out to be symptoms. They are symptoms of the same disease—the insecurity and poverty of the majority resulting from the monopolizing of productive assets by a few.

High birth rates are often people's defensive reaction to such a system: People need to have many children in order to provide laborers to augment meager family income. Many children are also needed to provide old-age security and to compensate for the high infant death rate, the result of inadequate nutrition and health care. Moreover, high birth rates reflect the social powerlessness of women, which is exacerbated by poverty. In most cases, the greater the poverty, the greater the oppression of women. Birth rates do not fall until women gain control over reproductive decisions, a process that cannot occur in isolation from both men and women achieving economic self-determination.

No one should discount the long-term consequences of rapid population growth. High population densities can exacerbate the difficult tasks of social and economic restructuring necessary to eliminate hunger. The error, however, is to transform the problem of population—a symptom and exacerbating factor—into the cause of hunger. This is not semantic squabble. Getting at the solution to any problem hinges on how well one can pinpoint its root cause. The root cause of hunger has to do with the relationships of people to each other and to their control over resources. As long as people think the fundamental cause is elsewhere, the hungry will in fact be made hungrier. Indeed, to attack high birth rates without attacking the causes of poverty and the powerlessness of women is fruitless. It is a tragic diversion our planet cannot afford.


Food production per person in underdeveloped countries as a whole is above the level of twenty years ago. Yet in some of the most productively successful countries, there is more hunger than ever. How can we explain the apparent contradiction of more food per person and yet more hunger?

Wherever we find unlimited private control over resources and individual producer pitted against individual producer, we find emerging extreme inequalities in control over resources. In such systems, those with even the slightest edge are able to expand at the expense of the others. One measure of inequality in control is the fact that, according to a United Nations survey of eighty-three countries, approximately 3 percent of all landholders have come to control almost 80 percent of the land. Another measure of inequality is the access to credit. Only an estimated 5 to 10 percent of all producers have access to institutional credit. The rest must turn to the landlord or moneylender at usurious rates, running as high as 200 percent.

When a new agricultural technology such as hybrid seeds, machinery, irrigation, and fertilizers enters a system shot through with power inequalities, it inevitably benefits only those who already possess land, money, credit "worthiness," or political influence or some combination of these. This is simply a social fact. Indeed, strategies that have avoided the issue of who controls productive assets, attempting only to get more produced, have set into motion a catastrophic chain of events that actually worsens the plight of the poor majority.

The potential productivity represented by the new technology attracts a new class of "farmers"—moneylenders, military officers, bureaucrats, city-based speculators, and foreign corporations—who rush in and buy up land. Land values soar—up, for instance, three- to fivefold in the "Green Revolution" areas of India. As land values rise, so do rents, pushing tenants and sharecroppers into the ranks of the landless. Seeing new profit possibilities, landlords evict their tenants and cultivate the land themselves with the new agricultural machinery. The percentage of rural work force that is landless has doubled in India (now over one-third) since the introduction of Green Revolution innovations. In northwest Mexico, the birthplace of the Green Revolution, the average farm size has jumped from 400 to 2,000 acres while over three-quarters of the rural labor force now has no land at all.

And, while more landless are created by the expansion of the better-off growers, fewer jobs are available to them. The large commercial operators mechanize to maximize profits and avoid "labor management problems." After mechanization in the agricultural boom areas of northwest Mexico, the average number of days of employment for each laborer fell from 194 to 100.

In country after country where agricultural resources are still regarded only as a source of individual wealth, the narrow drive to increase production totals ends up excluding the majority of rural people from control over the production process. And, we have found, to be cut out of production is to be cut out of consumption. As a 36C a day agricultural laborer in Bihar, India, observes: "If you don't own any land, you never get enough to eat, even if the land is producing well."

Empirical studies recently prepared for the International Labor Organization document that in the very Asian countries—Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia—where the focus has merely been on increasing food production and where food production per capita has risen (with the exception of Bangladesh), the rural poor are absolutely worse off than before. The study concludes that "the increase in poverty has been associated not with a fall but with a rise in cereal production per head, the main component of the diet of the poor." These seven countries account for 70 percent of the rural population of the nonsocialist Third World. In-depth investigations by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development of the impact of Green Revolution techniques in a variety of underdeveloped countries have confirmed this consistent pattern—a decline in well-being for much of the rural majority even as agricultural production bounds ahead.

This process of cutting increasing numbers of rural people out of control over production is not confined to Third World countries. The same forces are operating here in the United States. In California, for example, forty-five corporations have now come to control 30 percent of the state's prime farmland. And, in the nation as a whole, 5.5 percent of all farmers have come to control over half of the farmland. At the same time, the Department of Agriculture reports that 20 percent of all small farmers are living below the poverty line. Black farmers, among the poorest farmers in the United States, are now losing almost 10,000 acres per week. At that rate, blacks will be landless by 1983.

Farmers today are more heavily in debt than ever. They have been forced into such deep debt to buy, for instance, increasingly high-priced farm machinery. The monopoly control by a handful of machinery corporations has, according to a 1972 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation, resulted in $251 million in overcharges to American farmers.

A full one-half of the net income of U.S. farmers now goes out in interest payment on a $120 billion debt for 1978. Such a heavy debt burden means great vulnerability—especially for the smaller operator. As one U.S. farmer explained to us, "When the prices we get drop below our costs, a big operator can write off his losses and plan for next year. But the small guy has to get out."

Agricultural technology in the United States also abets the "shakeout" process we described in the Third World. Designed to be profitable only for the large operation, new machinery can cut production costs. Those who do not control enough land and capital to warrant the new technology find it hard to compete. Witness the fate of the small tomato growers in California. After the introduction of mechanized tomato harvesters in the 1960s, 3,400 out of 4,000 growers went out of business. It should be noted that cost-cutting gains of technology to the remaining tomato growers are not passed on to the consumer.

Our point in addressing the "myth of the production solution" is not to disparage the role of technology in development. The issue is not pro or con technology. The issue is: technology in whose interest? Even so-called appropriate small-scale technology can further undermine the position of the poor in a society structured against them.

Take biogasification, a relatively simple method of fermenting organic raw materials such as crop residues and manure to produce both fuel and fertilizer. A small-scale biogas plant can be built from local materials. But even this apparently beneficial technology has created greater problems for the poorer groups in a country like India. First, even the smallest plants require a significant investment and the dung from two cows. Thus only well-off farmers who have cows and some capital to invest now control the biogas. Furthermore, the dung, which was free, now has cash value. In areas where biogas plants operate, landless laborers can no longer find it on the road and use it for fuel. And since the landless and the other poor villagers are in no position to buy biogas, they end up with no fuel at all.

Before we can begin to move forward, we must come to understand that a strategy emphasizing increased production while ignoring the social realities of hunger is not neutral. It does not "buy us time"—that is, feed people while the more difficult social questions of control can be addressed. No. Such a strategy is taking us backward, itself creating ever greater impoverishment and hunger.


For many Americans, large agricultural entrepreneurs appear to have all the know-how and to have proven their efficiency by the simple fact of having gotten so big. Those with this view then feel trapped: On the one hand, a food system increasingly controlled by a few cuts the majority out of land and jobs, making them hungry because they do not have access to the resources to secure food, as we pointed out in Myth Three. On the other hand, if redistribution of control over resources were attempted, it is assumed that production would be undercut. People would then go hungry because there simply would not be enough food.

But this trap is an illusion: It vanishes when one realizes that the most productive food system is in fact a democratic one—one in which all who work in producing share in decision-making power, in which social planning takes into account the needs of all, and in which agriculture is given highest priority as a necessary ingredient in creating all other wealth. Since such a realization flies in the face of conventional wisdom, we feel we should lay out how this analysis can be substantiated: first, in the negative—by demonstrating how an antidemocratic food system actually ends up underusing and misusing food-producing resources, and then in the positive—by showing how a system embodying, however imperfectly, the features outlined above has led to increased production and, most important, to the reduction or even elimination of undernutrition.

First, the negative. Concentration of control over productive resources leads to waste. In northeast Brazil, where the majority go hungry, large estates controlling most of the land actually cultivate only 15 percent. The rest is used as pasture or left completely unused. Studies in central America indicate that the largest landholders cultivate only 14 percent of their land. Throughout the world, larger landholders consistently produce less per acre than the small producers.

Moreover, rural economists have concluded that when a few control the land, credit, and marketing system in a village, as much as one-half to three-fourths of the value of agricultural production is siphoned out of the village. It is not returned to the development of the area's agricultural resources. Those who own the land squander their profits on luxury consumer items. Or they "invest" in urban areas—tourist resorts, real estate, bars, taxi fleets, even foreign fast-food franchises. Likewise in the United States, sociologists have shown that where a few large operators control most of the land around a town, there are fewer parks, good roads, and stores, and more unemployment. The wealth produced leaves town.

Inequality in control over productive resources also leads to their underdevelopment. Inequality in control thwarts people's motivation to develop these resources. In Bangladesh, where about 90 percent of all the land is worked in whole or in part by tenants and day laborers, one sharecropper tells us: "Why should I apply more fertilizer or spend more time weeding? I know they are needed but wouldn't my work just benefit the landowner who gets most of whatever I grow?" Hired laborers, moreover, are concerned about their wages, not the landlord's yields. And since the landlord pays for their labor, he uses it sparingly.

The monopolization on control over resources also thwarts cooperation among people—cooperative work that is essential to development. In Bangladesh, cooperation in digging and maintaining ponds for irrigation and fish cultivation was common before 1793. But in that year the British instituted individual ownership of land. Now today, when 10 percent of rural households have come to control 51 percent of the land and while almost half of the families have virtually no land, village-wide cooperative work is not possible. Many ponds, once a shared village asset, are now silted up and useless.

Inequality in control also leads to the destruction of productive resources. When the land is worked by tenants, sharecroppers, and day laborers, the soil is often depleted, not protected. People who do not know if they will be working the same piece of land next year cannot be concerned about conserving it.

It is not just the tenant for whom conservation must take lowest priority. Farmer-owners are pitted for survival against all other farmers and dependent on monopoly-controlled inputs. They are forced to eke every bit of production out of the land each year no matter what that means in the long run. Notes one farm couple from Iowa:

We would like to plant more corn. It protects the soil. But we have two-thirds of our land in soybeans for the third year in a row. We know that soybeans let the soil blow away, but soybeans cost less to plant and bring a better price.

If we planted more corn we'd be out of farming next year.

In Haiti and Java, farmers forced off the fertile valley lands have to eke out a living on steep slopes, massively eroding the hills.

On the debt treadmill, farmers in the United States are also forced to plow up land that should be left as pasture. And they fail to let overused land lie fallow. According to the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, on much of the sloping land in Iowa a farmer now is losing two bushels of topsoil for every bushel of corn produced. At that rate all the topsoil in Iowa will be gone in less than a century. Erosion is a major national problem.

An antidemocratic system, where a few are in control of the resources, also thwarts the efficient use of resources. An anthropologist wanted to understand why an Indian village she was studying required so many pumps to irrigate so little land. She was told that it is impossible to efficiently locate the pumps because the largest landowners insist on having the pumps serve their properties.

Another important measure of the inefficient use of resources that results from their monopolization is simply what is grown. Those few landholders who control the majority of the farmland in the Third World grow what will bring the highest return on the highest-paying market. Most local people are too poor to be in that market. So, in Central American and the Caribbean countries, while as many as 80 percent of the children are undernourished, almost half the cultivated land, invariably the best, is used to produce just five export commodities: coffee, bananas, cocoa, sugar, and beef. And in the Sahelian countries of Africa during the late 1960s and early 1970s, elite-controlled economies in the face of worsening drought and hunger in the Sahel continued to skew production toward exports. Exports of cotton, peanuts, vegetables, and meat to Europe actually increased.

A final measure of the inefficiency of a food system where a few are in control is that it leads to the degradation of our food itself. Today we Americans are paying twice what we paid ten years ago for food-yet we get less. Four or fewer corporations share monopoly control over most food lines—cereals, soup, and canned vegetables, for example. With such tight control, these corporations can cut costs and yet raise profits. And they increase what we spend on food, and their profit margins, by getting us to want more and more highly processed foods. More preservatives, stabilizers, and other additives make possible further shipping and longer shelf lives—essential for taking control of nationwide food marketing.

Now to sum up. So many people have come to associate productivity with private control over resources and even with concentrated decision-making power, the attitude being—well, do not the big outfits have more know-how? Are they not more efficient? Yet we have come to see that this system leads to monopoly control over resources in the interests of the few. Rather than being optimally productive, such a system leads inevitably to the underuse and misuse of resources and even the degradation of our food resources.

So far we have touched on how counterproductive to democracy and to the needs of the majority is the system that so many have been taught to see as the most productive and even as the solution to hunger. But we still have not answered: Are there alternatives? When we at the Institute for Food and Development Policy studied societies where people have eliminated hunger, we find that their food economies do have certain features in common. While there are no models, we do find powerful lessons to be weighed from successes of people in other countries.

One lesson is that when people are actively involved in deciding how resources are to be used, not only will they benefit but also production is likely to increase. In China land is controlled and work is determined by the production team—a village unit of thirty to fifty families. In order to increase agricultural production still further in the 1980s the production team is taking on even greater authority over production. In the African country of Mozambique, since independence from Portuguese rule in 1975, production cooperatives are being organized by and for the workers themselves. "People are beginning to see that their work will benefit them now that the Portuguese are gone, so more and more people want to join our cooperative," one co-op founder told us.

A second lesson is the need for community-based but society-wide planning. Profitability to the individual cannot be the only measure by which decisions are made. In Cuba, the needs and potential production of each region are assessed. Priorities are assigned for fulfilling the basic food needs of the whole country.

Only where resources are controlled by the entire community is planning for the income and consumption needs of all possible. Recall the anthropologist who investigated the waste of irrigation potential in the Indian village. By contrast, in a Vietnamese village where the land is worked cooperatively, she discovered that many fewer pumps are needed because the pumps are located where they can do the most good, not where the big landlords dictate.

A third lesson is that agriculture must come first. A healthy rural economy is the basis of any society. The Chinese planners, for example, from the 1950s onward favored agriculture. They reduced the costs of farmers' supplies. Farmers' taxes were kept small, and they did not go up as production went up. Thus, the farm producers increasingly benefited from their labor. They could use the profits from their production to increase consumption and reinvest in tools, education, and medical care.

Trying to apply these lessons in our own society could lead to desperation and paralysis—unless we keep always in mind that we are not alone. Once we can get beyond the false view that people who face hunger in the Third World are a burden and a threat to us, once we come to see that beneath the surface our problems are parallel to theirs, we can see that they are our allies. But, there is yet another myth preventing such a change in our perception.


Terms like "poor world" and "hungry world" make us think of uniformly hungry masses. They hide the reality of stratified societies in both underdeveloped countries and industrially developed countries like the United States. Poverty and hunger afflict the lower rungs in both. Terms like "hungry world" make hunger into a place—and usually a place that is far away. Rather than being a result of a social process, hunger becomes a static fact, a geographic given.

Worse still, the all-inclusiveness of these labels leads us to believe that everyone living in a country has a common interest in eliminating hunger. Thus, we look at an underdeveloped country and assume its government officials represent the hungry majority. We then are tempted to believe that concessions to these governments, for example, lower tariffs on their exports or increased foreign investment, automatically represent progress for the hungry. In fact, the "progress" may be only for the elites and their partners, multinational corporations.

Moreover, the rich world versus poor world scenario makes the hungry appear as a threat to the well-being of the majority in the industrially developed countries. In truth, however, hunger will never be addressed until average citizens in countries like the United States see that the hungry abroad are their allies, not their enemies. For the interests of the majority of Americans are linked with those of the hungry majority in the underdeveloped countries through a common threat: the tightening of control over food—both within countries and on a global scale.

As we pointed out in response to Myth Three, concentration of control over food-producing resources that we can identify as a direct cause of hunger and poverty in the Third World is accelerating in the United States. Concentrated control over land and farm inputs is only one aspect. Equally important is the tightening of control over food processing and marketing. In the mid-sixties a study by the staff of FTC estimated that less than 0.2 percent (or 50 out of about 30,000 firms) had gained control of about 50 percent of all the industry's assets. Recently, large companies have been gobbled up by giant companies—Del Monte by R. J. Reynolds, Green Giant by Pillsbury, for example. Thus the top fifty food manufacturing firms now control much more than half of the industry's assets. Even more revealing of their market power, these same top fifty capture over 90 percent of the industry's profits.

Food marketing is also highly concentrated, resulting, according to a report for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, in significant "monopoly overcharges." In 1974, in just thirty-two cities, consumers paid $662 million more than they should have paid, due to the concentrated power of the supermarket chains. In one city alone consumers forfeited $83 million.

But this control by fewer and fewer firms reaches beyond our national borders. Many of these same oligopolistic corporations, having become giants nationally, are now expanding their operations into underdeveloped countries. Finding production sites in underdeveloped countries where land and labor can cost as little as 10 percent of those stateside, large food corporations are seeking supplies and often shifting production of high value items—vegetables, fruits, flowers, and meat—out of countries like the United States. They find ready partners in foreign elites, who, by exacerbating the impoverishment of much of the local population, have depressed the domestic market for their production.

Del Monte now exports pineapples from Kenya and the Philippines to the United States, Europe, and Japan; the House of Bud, the European affiliate of Bud Antle, the California lettuce grower, flies fresh produce from Africa to Europe; and United Brands jets cut flowers from Central America to the United States. These multinational agribusiness firms are busily creating a Global Farm to serve a Global Supermarket. In the Global Supermarket food is auctioned off to the highest bidders wherever they might live. Thus, consumers in the industrial countries unwittingly become a suction force, diverting food-producing resources in the underdeveloped countries away from meeting local needs. And increasingly the prime agricultural resources of countries like the United States will be made to produce, sometimes even under foreign control, for high-income consumers abroad, notably in the oil-exporting countries.

The tightening of control over our food supply, embodied in the Global Supermarket, can also be measured by the degree of monopoly control of international trade in certain key commodities. A mere five corporations control 90 percent of all grain that is shipped across national borders. The multinational corporation Unilever, known in the United States as Lever Brothers, controls 80 percent of corn oil, soy oil, peanut oil, and all other edible oils in world trade. A mere four corporations control 90 percent of all bananas that enter world trade.

Since the beginning of colonial times, Third World agriculture has been viewed as a source of raw materials for the metropolitan countries. What then is different about the Global Supermarket being constructed today?

First, many of the items being exported to the industrial countries are items that had historically been grown by their own farmers. Today, for example, from one-half to two-thirds of certain key winter and early spring vegetables are imported by the United States, largely from Mexico. Indeed, in 1977 the United States imported $13 billion in agricultural products. About one-half of these agricultural imports are commodities that the United States can and does produce—meat, sugar, vegetables, tobacco, wine, and dairy products. Thus U.S. farmers and food processors are threatened.

Second, as those in the underdeveloped countries become increasingly impoverished, they can no longer make effective demand even on their staple food items. Poor people's foods such as cassava in Thailand or beans in Chile become booming exports.

But do U.S. consumers benefit by the global reach of the corporate food giants? No. There is no evidence that U.S. consumers get cheaper food. Nor is the unbruiseable tomato, bred for world travel, more nutritious or better tasting. Who then does gain from the Global Supermarket? Only its creators. The return on equity on Del Monte's Philippine operations has been reported at four times the average of their operations elsewhere.

While U.S. citizens do not gain by the internationalization of food control embodied in the Global Supermarket, they are made, nevertheless, to underwrite its construction. Through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), for instance, more than nine billion dollars from the U.S. treasury now guarantees investments abroad by private U.S. companies. Forty-one percent of OPIC insurance issued between 1974 and 1976 went to just eleven of the largest U.S. multinational corporations. OPIC has insured Del Monte's pineapple processing plant in Kenya and Ralston Purina's fast-food chains in Brazil. Furthermore, taxpayer money going to the Agency for International Development (AID) is loaned to the Latin American Agribusiness Development Corporation (LAAD), an investment company whose shareholders are some of the world's largest agribusiness companies, including Cargill, John Deere, Ralston Purina, Borden, and many more. To date LAAD has collaborated with local elites in Central America and the Caribbean, developing and investing in 101 projects engaged in production and export of luxury items such as fresh and frozen vegetables, cut flowers, and meat.

Encouraged by the U.S. taxpayer's support, protected by strong U.S. military and diplomatic ties to precisely the kinds of governments most favoring foreign investments, the Global Farm and Supermarket are creating the type of the interdependence no one needs.


Export agriculture is not the enemy. Export-oriented agriculture in a country where many go hungry is largely a reflection of the problem, not the problem itself. An export focus in countries where many go hungry reflects the impoverishment of much of the local population and the interests of the elite. Even if all agricultural exports stopped, there still would be hungry people—those who are excluded from genuine control over their country's food-producing resources.

An export focus nonetheless is an active force. Where productive assets are controlled by a few, export agriculture further exacerbates the deteriorating position of the majority. Export agriculture:

1. makes it possible for the local elite to be unconcerned about the poverty at home that greatly limits the buying power of the local people. Through export agriculture the elite can profit anyway by finding buyers in the United States and other high-paying markets.

2. provides the incentive to local and foreign elites to tighten their control over productive resources from which export profits are made and to resist firmly any attempts at redistribution of control over productive assets.

3. necessitates miserable working conditions and wages. Underdeveloped countries can compete in export markets only by exploiting labor, especially women and children. Owners and export-oriented governments will stop at nothing to crush workers' efforts to organize themselves.

4. throws the local population into competition with foreign consumers for the products of their own land, thus raising local prices and reducing the real income of the majority.

A contrast between two countries in the Caribbean reveals that export agriculture itself is not the real enemy. In both Cuba and the Dominican Republic, a large portion of agricultural land produces sugar and other exports. Both countries rely on agricultural exports for foreign exchange and both import significant amounts of grain. Yet today in the Dominican Republic, at least 75 percent of the people are undernourished, while in Cuba there is virtually no undernutrition.

While we have concluded that trade itself is not the enemy, we have come to see clearly that at least basic food needs should be met locally. Basic food self-reliance—and by this we mean adequate local supplies to prevent famine if food imports abruptly jumped in price or were cut off—is the sine qua non of a people's security. Moreover, no country can bargain successfully in international trade so long as it is desperate to sell its products in order to import food to stave off famine.


Many concerned Americans believe that where elite-controlled structures generate hunger we should intervene to "set things right." They focus on improving and increasing official U.S. foreign assistance. They call for "new directions-style aid"—including support for land reform, appropriate technology, and the small farmer. But the presumption made is that U.S. government foreign assistance is the only or, at least, the principal way that the U.S. government intervenes in the struggle between ordinary working people and elites in countries around the world.

In fact, however, official government foreign aid represents only the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. government has at least sixteen other channels through which it supports the governments of its choosing:

1. U.S. military assistance and sales programs shore up indigenous regimes that deny both the right to share control over food-producing resources and the right to work to change the structures that generate hunger. Despite explicit congressional prohibition against military assistance and sales to "gross violators of internationally recognized human rights," military assistance and arms sales in 1978 continued to at least eight dictatorships widely denounced for their violation of human rights: Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, South Korea, Zaire, Paraguay, and Haiti.

In each of these countries we find active popular resistance; in some, U.S. military aid has clearly made the crucial difference for the oppressive elite to be able so far to maintain the status quo. President Carter, for example, recently concluded a $1.5 billion economic and military aid package to the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, where arms and training go to combat growing resistance to a regime whose policies have led to Filipinos' becoming the most poorly fed people in all of Asia.

2. The Treasury Department's Export-Import Bank and the Commodity Credit Corporation offer financing and loan guarantees on favorable terms to foreign purchasers of U.S. products. Such support massively overshadows official foreign aid. In 1976 ten times more U.S. government support reached Latin American countries through the Export-Import Bank alone than through AID. When in 1976 human rights protests forced the Chilean junta to reject U.S. official assistance, financing through the Export-Import Bank and the Commodity Credit Corporation vastly surpassed the lost aid.

3. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a fund from which 130 member nations can borrow foreign currency to help meet the short-term balance of payments deficits. Of the many financial institutions influencing the economies—and therefore the people—of the underdeveloped countries, perhaps it is the most powerful yet the least in public view. The United States holds the largest voting block.

The leverage of IMF is more than as a lender of its own funds. When a country's debt burden and mounting trade deficit force an emergency in which it can no longer get loans from private international banks, it must turn to IMF. IMF is not only a lender of last resort but an international financial auditor whose approval is essential for further bank and government loans. But before giving approval, IMF stipulates a number of domestic economic measures that must be carried out. Governments and private banks hold off lending to a country until it has secured IMF's stamp of approval.

To get this approval, a country is usually obliged to: devalue its currency so as to boost exports and limit imports, cut back government spending, introduce wage controls (lift price controls on even the most essential items), raise interest rates, and remove barriers to foreign investment and free trade. Free trade means that luxury items are still allowed to enter even when scarce foreign exchange should be going for more needed basic items. Indeed, the burden of each of these measures falls mainly on all the working people and especially the poor.

Now, keeping in mind that there are these and many other non-"aid" forms of government-to-government influence, what do we find when we examine U.S. aid programs in themselves? First, where does the money go?

As much U.S. bilateral assistance goes to only two countries—Israel and Egypt—as to all other countries in the world. When we look at the list of top ten aid recipients as planned for FY 1979, we find that only four of the ten are considered low-income countries by the World Bank. The remaining six—including Israel, Egypt, Syria, the Philippines, Jordan, and South Korea—are U.S. priorities because of their strategic location and the fact that they favor foreign corporations.

Clearly, recipients are chosen more on the basis of their supposed importance to the United States than on the basis of their poverty or the genuine interest of their governments in development. In fact, U.S. policy has been to cut off aid when genuine agrarian reforms are underway, for example, in Chile and in Thailand. Whereas when governments, often through the introduction of martial-law dictatorships, actively undermine the well-being of the majority and abolish civil liberties in order to deal with those who protest, U.S. aid is vastly-stepped up. Aid to Thailand and the Philippines increased several-fold after right-wing dictatorships brutally attacked all those organizing for progressive reforms.

But forget for a minute the above points. Let us assume that U.S. aid programs are truly going to the countries most in need and even where governments have some real interest in improving the lot of the poor. What of the programs themselves? What do our aid dollars do?

It is not fashionable of late to defend trickle-down theory—the notion that investments in physical infrastructures will help the economy and therefore eventually help the poor. But even a cursory survey of AID, as well as World Bank or regional bank programs, reveals that trickle down is still very much alive. In many countries the major outlays of AID continue to be for infrastructure projects—especially highways, dams, electrification—that at best benefit those who already control a country's productive assets. Not surprisingly, defining development in terms of such inputs is good for sales by U.S. corporations. In the spirit of "appropriate terminology," such projects are often listed under the title "Food and Nutrition." For instance, these are a few of the AID outlays cloaked under Food and Nutrition in the fiscal 1979 presentation to Congress: "$100 Million Rural Roads Phase II in Pakistan"; $36 Million Rural Electrification in Indonesia; $10.3 Million "Fund for Local Government in the Philippines." The chief of the AID agricultural mission in Indonesia had to agree with us that the principal beneficiaries of a $125 million AID electrification project will be the better-off farmers who would use the electricity to mill rice mechanically. Elimination of traditional rice-hulling jobs for the poor, especially women, will result.

If trickle down is out, small farmer is in. Helping the small farmer has come to be equated with progressive change. Unfortunately, however, it is not that simple. First, even if the small peasant producers were to become the focus of foreign assistance, there would still be no effective strategy for the real rural dispossessed—the landless and near-landless (day laborers, insecure tenants, sharecroppers, and squatters) who make up 30 to 80 percent of the rural labor force. Indeed, some programs that aim at helping small farmers would, if successful, actually worsen the situation of this huge stratum of the rural poor. Supplying even the most small-scale technology to small landholders could eliminate jobs desperately needed by the landless.

But the fact is that even programs earmarked for the small farmers rarely reach them. For, in part, this depends on how AID defines "small." In Panama, credit programs were made available to any farm of 50 acres or less. Now, such a standard might identify small farmers in the United States, but not in Panama. There, 50 percent of those rural people who have any land have less than ten acres. The government of Nicaragua pushed an AID-funded credit program limit up to $590 per farmer. This amount is five times the annual income of 70 percent of the rural people of Nicaragua. What is to prevent such a loan program from being monopolized by the better-off?

Moreover, an aim of AID is to increase small-holder productivity through the greater use of agricultural inputs. But small holders who are poor and hungry are so primarily not because of lack of inputs but because of lack of economic and political bargaining power. With no increase in that power, will their increased output benefit them? More likely it will lead to plummeting prices or it will benefit merchants, moneylenders, and other exploiters in the rural hierarchy who will continue to siphon off the lion's share.

Many rural people are aware that their only hope is to organize themselves for change—not handout programs from AID. In the Guatemalan highlands last year, for instance, organized farmers refused to accept AID money.

Our basic findings about the real impact of AID's projects apply equally well to World Bank projects—and the U.S. budget commitment to the World Bank is significantly greater than that to AID.

The humanitarian value of chronic food aid shipments has also been called into question by many. Conventional wisdom has shifted: Now even U.S. government agencies (such as the General Accounting Office) agree that food aid rarely, if ever, reaches the hungry. Instead it becomes a principal form of budgetary support for the recipient governments as well as a depressant on prices for locally produced agricultural products. Local producers are further impoverished and discouraged from producing.

But food aid, too, has been dressed up: Development experts are now pushing "food for work" programs. But at best food-for-work projects provide some rural workers with a meager income for a specific period. They do nothing, however, to change the ownership and power structures that produce unemployment in the first place. Indeed, such projects in the long term enhance the power of the already better-off landholders who, for instance, use the road to get their produce out to market. Food-for-work projects can function to take the edge off a potentially explosive rural situation by providing a few jobs during the slack agricultural season. A recent study by FAO stressed that food-for-work programs "lend themselves to misappropriation of grain, misuse of funds, false reporting of works, creation of a new class of profiteers, poor quality construction, etc."

Our institute received in 1978 several communications, independent of each other, from American missionaries in rural Haiti, who decry food-for-work programs using U.S. food aid. One wrote:

In the village where we are living, for example, one family controls all the community and government offices including judge, mayor, community council president, etc. Besides owning vast tracts of land, "the family" speculates in coffee and controls all the illegal tree-cutting in the area. When CARE entered the village with a Food for Work soil conservation project (using U.S. food aid), it came as no surprise that "the family" was the local administrator of the project and chose who would work in the project. "The family", through the auspices of the community council president, is also responsible for seeing to the actual food distribution. To the CARE people this project is a good grassroots effort, but in reality it is not helping those peasants in the area who really need it. CARE, for example, believes that the workers are mostly landless peasants. We have surveyed nearly all of the workers on the project and have yet to find any landless peasants. The workers must work 3 days a week on the project, 1 day on the road for the community council and 1 day in the garden of one of the community leaders (i.e., "the family"). Thus the projects take the farmers away from their own plots for 5 days of the week.1

Finally, even if our government wanted to shift its entire aid program to put itself on the side of the hungry throughout the world, could it do so? We have had to conclude that no official development assistance program can address the social and economic causes of hunger because in doing so it would threaten the very elites with whom overall U.S. policy must maintain relations. Clearly U.S. aid policy will not go against the elites abroad who serve U.S. military and corporate interests; it must side with elites who are resisting challenges to an economic system similar to that of the United States.


The answer to "what can we do?" is overwhelming only when we are trapped in myths about the causes of hunger. Once we grasp that hunger is neither inevitable nor an aberration, once we begin to grasp that the forces of concentrated power actually prevent the rational use of our resources, then appropriate action becomes clear.

In all our research at the institute we have learned that wherever people are hungry many are already struggling against antidemocratic systems that cause hunger. Our role here should not be, therefore, to go into other countries to "set things right." Our first task should be to help remove the obstacles in their way—obstacles now being built by U.S. military, economic, and corporate interventions abroad.

We described above how economic assistance and corporate intervention can actually strengthen the forces that create hunger. Similarly, U.S. military assistance and arms sales shore up regimes around the world that actively suppress their people's efforts for food security. We must work to help overthrow such obstacles faced by people in other countries—obstacles now being supported with our tax money and often in our name.

Second, we can directly support progressive groups already working in their own communities and in the Third World.

Third, once we come to see antidemocratic control by a few as a prime cause of hunger and agricultural degradation, we can take initiative toward forming new, more democratic forms of economic organization. To begin, one must choose a focus. The focus may be a problem in our community, in the larger region, in the nation, or among nations. The problem chosen should both reveal the failure of our current system and show how alternative structures could solve the problem.

Such an agenda for action might appear, in its length and breadth, to be overwhelming. But courage to begin change in our own lives will come the more we appreciate that we Americans are not alone: We are hardly the first to ask the vital questions raised in this essay. While we would be misled to think there are models, we would be even more mistaken to underestimate the lessons to be gained by the critical study of the successes and difficulties in societies now addressing the most basic questions of control over food-producing resources.

But in order to tackle any of the above we must first cut through the hunger myths—those that confuse improved rhetoric with improved analysis, that confuse tactics that exacerbate problems with solutions, and that confuse official development assistance with "helping to overthrow the obstacles to the poor's taking charge of their future.



United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Production Yearbooks and Trade Yearbooks.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Handbook of Agricultural Charts, 1975, 1976, 1977.

Our Land and Water Resources, USD A, Economic Research Service, May 1974.

Impact of the Green Revolution "Production" Strategy

Lappe, Frances Moore, and Joseph Collins, Food First (New York: Ballantine, 1979), pt. IV.

Griffin, Keith, Land Concentration and Rural Poverty (New York: Macmillan, 1976).

-----, The Political Economy of Agrarian Poverty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974).

-----and Khan Azizur Rahman, eds., Poverty and Landlessness in Rural Asia, A Study by the World Employment Programme, International Labor Office, Geneva, 1977.

Hewitt de Alcantara, Cynthia, Modernizing Mexican Agriculture: Socioeconomic Implications of Technological Change, Report No. 76.5, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Geneva, 1976.

The Social and Economic Implications of Large-Scale Introduction of New Varieties of Foodgrain: Summary of Conclusions, Report No. 74.1, United Nations Institute for Social Development, 1974. (The authors have relied also upon data contained in the numerous country studies included in this study.)

Palmer, Ingrid, The New Rich in Asia: Conclusions from Four Country Studies, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Geneva, 1976.

Perelman, Michael, Farming for Profit in a Hungry World: Capital and the Crisis in Agriculture (Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun, 1977).


Lappe and Collins, Food First, pt. VIII.

Barnet, Richard J., and Ronald E. Muller, Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations (New York: Simon 8c Schuster, 1974).

George, Susan, How the Other Half Dies (Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun, 1976).

Ledogar, Rogert J., Hungry for Profits (New York: IDOC, 1976).

The Agribusiness Manual (New York: Imerfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, 475 Riverside Drive, 10027).


Lappe and Collins, Food First, pt. VII.

Belden, Joe, with Gregg Forts, Toward a National Food Policy, Exploratory Project for Economic Alternatives, 1519 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036

Goldschmidt, Walter, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness (Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun, 1978).

Hightower, Jim, Eat Your Heart Out: How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer (New York: Crown, 1975).

Public Policy and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture, Congressional Budget Office, September 1978.

Fellmeth, Robert C., Politics of Land: Ralph Nader's Study Group on Land Use in California (New York: Grossman, 1973).

Marion, Mueller, Cotterill, Geithman, and Schmelzer, The Profit and Price Performance of Leading Food Chains, 1970-1974, Joint Economic Committee, April 12, 1977.

Conner, John M., and Loys L. Mather, Director of the 200 Largest U.S. Food and Tobacco Processing Firms, 1975. Jointly published by Economic, Statistics and Cooperative Service, USD A, and the North Central Regional Project, July 1978.


Lappe and Collins, Food First, pt. IX.

General Accounting Office, Disincentives to Agricultural Production in Developing Countries, Report to the Congress, 1975.

Center for International Policy, Human Rights and the U.S. Foreign Assistance Program FY 1978, pts. I, II, Washington, B.C., 1978.

Hartman, Betsy, and James Boyce, "Bangladesh: Aid to the Needy?" Washington, D.C.: Center for International Policy, 1978.

Payer, Cheryl, The Debt Trap: The IMF and the Third World (New York: Penguin Books, 1974).

Morrell, James, "'Foreign Aid' End Run Around Congress," Washington, D.C.: Center for International Policy, 1977.

Agency for International Development, Congressional Presentation, FY 1979, Main Volume.


Lappe and Collins, Food First, pt. V.

Owens, Edgar, and Robert Shaw, Development Reconsidered: Bridging the Gap Between Government and People (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1972).

Bergmann, Theodor, Farm Policies in Socialist Countries (Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, 1975).

Henle, H. V., Report on China's Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 1975.

Jacoby, Erich, The Green Revolution in China, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Geneva, 1974.

MacEwan, Arthur, Agriculture and Development in Cuba, International Labor Office, Geneva, 1979.

Food and Agriculture Organization, Progress in Land Reform—Sixth Report, Rural Institutions Division, Rome, 1975.

Gough, Kathleen, Ten Times More Beautiful: Rebuilding the Republic of Vietnam (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978).

1 Personal communication received in 1978.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 81 Number 4, 1980, p. 471-495
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1025, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:49:59 AM

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