World Hunger: Twelve Myths

In a comment that I made in response to a comment on the post The Local Food Bandwagon, I suggested that people should read the book World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset with Luis Esparza. Back in 2000, I did a review of the book for the International Socialist Review. I thought that I would reprint the review here to see if I can motivate people to read this book. If I were to write the review over, I probably would’ve gone into the author’s criticisms of the Green Revolution a bit more, as well as what they have to say about local production techniques. Maybe I will write another review when the next edition comes out.

Why Does Anyone Go Hungry?

Review by Joe Cleffie

Each day 34,000 children under the age of five die from hunger and the diseases that hunger brings. At any given moment, almost 800 million people in the world are going hungry. Why? Is there enough food to go around? Would feeding everybody in the developing world mean increasing hunger in the West?

Frances Moore Lappe and her coauthors answer “no” again in the second edition of their classic World Hunger: Twelve Myths. In their book, Lappe, Collins and Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, better known as “Food First,” demolish commonly held views about the causes of hunger and famine.

Citing UN statistics, the authors begin by showing that today’s farms actually produce a food surplus:

The world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human being on the planet with thirty-five hundred calories a day. That’s enough to make most people fat? And this estimate does not even count many other commonly eaten foods – vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats and fish. In fact, if all foods are considered together, enough is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day. That includes…nearly [a] pound of meat, milk and eggs.

But aren’t there shortages of food in the places where hunger is most prevalent, such as India and sub-Saharan Africa?

No, say the authors, citing a 1997 study that showed that “78 percent of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses.” In 1995, for example, India exported $625 million in wheat and flour and $1.3 billion in rice while at least 200 million of its citizens went hungry. In sub-Saharan Africa, 11 countries are net exporters of food.

So, do ordinary people in the US benefit from hunger elsewhere? In answer to this common view-that workers around the world are in a winner-take-all competition for the globe’s “naturally scarce” resources-World Hunger blames the market system for the maldistribution and outright squandering of resources that could actually provide for everybody.

“The market,” the authors point out, “responds to money,” not to need. The world market that prices food out of the reach of poor people in Africa, Asia and Latin America does not thereby siphon resources to American workers. That same world market has been sucking American workers dry for the past 25 years!

Instead, the real beneficiaries of the market are the megacorporations that profit when everybody works harder for less. In response to the pressures of the global market, Lappe and her coauthors an internationalist prescription:

In a global economy, our own jobs, wages and working conditions will be protected only when working people in every country establish their rights to organize and protect their interests…If we allow our government to help drive wages down elsewhere, our own wages will soon follow. If, on the other hand, we support improving living standards abroad, those will help push our own back up.

With all of its virtues, though, World Hunger does have some shortcomings. Although they condemn the market, the authors still see it as essential to ending world hunger. They call for pressure on governments and international bodies to curb the power of businesses and to regulate the market’s worst effects. No doubt they were thrilled to see the impact of the protests upon the WTO conference in Seattle. Socialists should join the authors in building such movements, but we need to point beyond the immediate tasks of pressuring government and multilateral institutions that are, in the end, answerable to big business. We need to build this movement of international solidarity to the point where it can create new institutions to begin the democratic deployment of the world’s productive resources.

Despite the limits of its political strategies, World Hunger does the best job of any single book in cutting through the conservative myths that obscure the real social causes of hunger.

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2 Responses to “World Hunger: Twelve Myths”

  1. Naveen Says:

    EXCELLENT book! A must read! This was one of the first books that I read, that led me down the path of Marxism. It is an excellent resource to cut against Malthusians. This and the Singer book “Whose Millenium” decidely pushed me towards anti-capitalism. It makes you realize the world of plenty can’t be equitable without a radial social transformation of the planet.

  2. tom Says:

    Yeah, let the revolution begin!

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