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The “Green Chomsky” on the Hidden Hunger Crisis

Structural barriers to sustainable development are woven in the malfunctioning neoliberal economic policies. For issues like food security, poverty eradication and reaching a sustainable environment, governments have to think outside the neoliberal box. Neoliberal institutions like the G20 are not looking to help developing countries to become food secure. Instead, developing countries are increasingly dependent on food imports, and the G20 chooses to look the other way since they don't want to hurt the commercial interests of corporate agricultural giants. In this interview, Devinder Sharma explains.

By Eduardo Almeida

September 27, 2010
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Devinder Sharma is an analyst on trade and food policy, as well as an award-winning journalist, writer, thinker and researcher. Well known for his forthright views on the implications of the free trade paradigm for agriculture in developing countries, Sharma has been dubbed the ‘Green Chomsky' by India's leading English magazine, The Week. Living in New Delhi, he chairs the independent Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security. He also regularly updates the influential blog, Ground Reality - Understanding the politics of food, agriculture and hunger.

This interview was conducted via the internet by Eduardo Almeida, a freelance journalist based in Brazil who specialises in development and agrarian issues.

Eduardo Almeida - Mozambique witnessed food riots in the first week of September. Seven people were killed when protestors voiced angry over bread prices increasing by 30 per cent. Do you think it is likely to trigger a repeat of the global food crisis of 2007-08?

Devinder Sharma - Food riots in Mozambique, and the rising anger in Pakistan, Egypt and Siberia over spiralling food prices shows how vulnerable is the world to food crisis. Although the UN FAO has expressed concern, but does not fear a repeat of the global food crisis of 2007-08, there is no effort to remove the imbalances in the food management system that is responsible for the crisis. Agribusiness giants have in the past made a killing over growing hunger. When the world was witnessing food riots in 37 countries, the stocks of multinational grain trading and agribusiness companies had skyrocketed.

There is no lesson drawn [by most governments] from the food debacle of 2007-08. In fact, the G-20 is encouraging more of the same. It is directing member countries to remove all impediments to allowing foreign direct investments in food retail, and at the same time is aggressively pushing developing countries to remove all trade barriers under the Free Trade Agreements and other regional treaties. Developing countries are therefore increasingly becoming food importing countries. The more the dependence on food imports, the more the vulnerability to food crises. After all, Mozambique witnessed food riots when Russia imposed a ban on wheat exports for another year following the severe drought and wildfires.

What happened to Mozambique in September is a story that can be repeated anywhere in the coming years. Unless the world encourages developing and least developed countries to become self-sufficient in food grains, the threat of impending food riots will remain hanging over nations like the sword of Damocles. But since it hurts the commercial interests of the agribusiness giants, the G-20 is looking the other way.

EA - You recently spent seven days in Brazil where you have both praised and denigrated this country's food policies with respect to the fight against hunger, and large-scale agribusiness with a big appetite for deforestation and genetically modified organisms. Which aspects of these contradictory themes drew your attention most in Brazil?

Devinder Sharma - I went to Brazil at the invitation of AS-PTA [a Brazilian agroecology NGO] to participate and speak at an international conference on GM foods/crops in Rio de Janeiro. The conference brought together activists, experts, NGOs, government officials, and representative of farmer's organization from India, Brazil and South Africa, the IBSA countries, besides other countries. In a way it was aimed at strengthening the GM movement in Brazil. Knowing that Brazil is fast adopting GM crops, and it has now replaced Argentina as the country with the largest area under GM crops in Latin America, it was important to have a first-hand understanding of the reasons behind the increasing spread of GM crops, and at the same time to know of the people's struggles against these crops.

In addition, in the week that I stayed in Brazil, I also looked into two other areas of my interests. One relates to the Zero Hunger programme that President Lula had launched sometimes in 2003-04, and the other pertained to the remarkable turnaround that Brazil has made in developing the pure breeds of some of the Indian cattle breeds, and also emerging as a major exporter of these breeds to Latin America, Africa and Asia. These cattle breeds provide milk yields matching Jersey and Holstein Friesen, while their poor cousin in India are categorized as ‘unproductive' with very poor milk production capacity.

EA - In other tropical countries (especially in Africa, but also across Latin America), Brazil is increasingly promoting technologies for large scale "green revolution" type grain and meat production in packages that frequently include genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and chemical inputs that take a heavy toll on the environment. Do you think the so-called "success story of modern Brazilian agribusiness" is a good example for developing tropical countries?

Devinder Sharma - This is a cause for grave concern. Brazil's deliberate shift from sustainable agriculture, utilizing the vast storehouse of biodiversity and genetic wealth it has, to industrial agriculture, which is ecologically destructive and leads to global warming, is not only leading to the marginalization of the farming communities but is leaving behind a large ecological footprint the cost of which will be borne by the future generations. The ecological debt that Brazil has created in the process outweighs the short-term economic gain that it is looking for. Since there is no way to measure the ecological footprint in economic terms, Brazil seems completely unconcerned.

I am dismayed at the way agribusiness companies, including multinational giants, control the Brazilian economy. Agribusiness thrives on destruction of the pristine forests, poisoning the soils, mining groundwater and contaminating the food chain. Recent studies show that small farmers are the worst hit, and are swarming into the cities. Regardless, the Ministry of Agriculture as well as the Ministry of Commerce appear to be simply facilitating the corporate takeover of agriculture, and are therefore pursuing farm and trade policies that do not protect the farming and livelihood interests, not only of Brazil but also of the other developing countries.

EA - What role do you think democratic countries like India and Brazil could play in the building of a new world order that is free from hunger and promotes sustainable agriculture, respect for biodiversity, social justice and fair commerce? Considering that India is the world's largest democracy, are you critical of the Indian governments' unwillingness to prevent recurrent social oppression? If democracy is failing to assure real power to people in so many countries, should democracy be redesigned?

Devinder Sharma - There was a time when Abraham Lincoln had remarked that "democracy is of the people, by the people, for the people." Today, the so-called democracies across the globe, including India, Brazil and the United States, have turned into "of the industry, by the industry, for the industry." Big democratic giants among the developing world - Brazil, India, South Africa - are therefore busy creating a new world order where corporate interest reigns supreme. The governments in all these countries have lost touch with the masses, and are following an economic model that does not look beyond business, trade and industry.

In India, which claims to be the world's largest democracy, there is no plausible justification as to why a third of the 1.2 billion people should be living in hunger. With nearly 47 per cent of the children below the age of six years malnourished, and with 55 per cent of the population classified as poverty-stricken by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), India is projecting itself to be the emerging superpower. In the past few years, ever since India ushered in economic liberalization, the economic disparities have only widened. The rich have become richer and the poor are being driven against the wall. The gradual take-over of the natural resources by industry has created a sense of despair among the tribal communities. Such is the deepening mistrust against the government's policies in the poorest of the poor regions of India that almost a third of the country, predominantly the mineral-rich belt, is facing rebellion by Maoists.

I wonder how India can be a proud democracy if the successive governments have failed to fulfil the aspirations of the majority population. How can hunger and poverty exist at such an alarming rate in a democracy? The projection of economic growth, which proclaims India to be the second fastest growing economy, therefore has little semblance with the realities. The governments have lost touch with the masses, and the real power is in the hands of the ‘Corporate'. So much so, that a majority of the people's representatives who are elected to parliament now are millionaires. You cannot win elections if you are not rich. The true essence of democracy has therefore been lost. Democracy has turned into Corporatocracy. I strongly believe that the time has come to have a re-look at what democracy means. Business as usual cannot be allowed to go on for much longer.

EA - You have expressed that stock markets are the main protagonists in causing the depletion of the world's natural resources, escalating levels of hunger and widening inequalities. Do you believe in alternative ways of development that benefit the excluded majorities and minorities in socially and environmentally sustainable ways?

Devinder Sharma - There is no other innovation (if you don't like to use the word invention) in recent times that has not only influenced but hastened the process of unbridled consumption than the emergence of the Wall Street. In fact, the economists may refuse to accept it now, and for obvious reasons, but the stock market will lead the world towards the extinction of the human race that an Australian scientist Frank Fenner has warned us about.

I am amazed at the way the stock markets work. These markets have commodified everything. Much of the world's environmental ills are a direct fallout of the stock market. Stock markets will squeeze every drop of water (or other natural resources) out of the planet. There is a price for everything, including the air you breathe.

The ‘growth economics' that emergent economies follow is in reality nothing but violent economics. It unleashes violence against natural resources, against the climate, against nature, and also against fellow human beings. It shifts natural, physical as well as financial resources from the hands of the poor into the pockets of the rich and the elite. We have been often told that 20 per cent of the world's population of haves controls and uses the resources of the 80 per cent of the have not. Globalisation further strengthens that monopoly control and widens the already existing disparity. It takes away resources from the hands of the poor, to add on to the wealth of the rich.

EA - Many socially concerned thinkers and economists have been arguing that it is inevitable to first push up GDP by all means and only then implement income distribution policies. Do you think this is an effective strategy?

Devinder Sharma - The economists are a clever breed. They designed GDP as an indicator of growth. They crafted it so deftly that we accepted an indicator of personal wealth to be a pointer to national development. What an illusion of growth they created. They made everything, including global climate, look like a commodity to be sold and exploited. The more you exploit, the more GDP goes up. You can destroy a country in war, and then when you rebuild it, the GDP soars. This is what happened to Iraq.

GDP in layman's term means the amount of money that exchanges hands. If you buy a car, the GDP goes up. If you cut a tree, the GDP goes up. But if you preserve the tree, the GDP does not grow. Now you have to decide whether you need the tree or the GDP.

If you look at it globally, the increase in GDP has not led to all round development. Even in the United States, the richest country in the world, hunger has broken the 14-year record. Today, every person in 10 in the US is hungry. Unless we reverse this faulty prescription of economic growth, we will never have income being distributed fairly in any population. Let us remember, GDP is not the touchstone to development. It is a smokescreen for the rich to exploit the poor.

EA - In the context of the present economic crisis and its impact on agriculture and food security, what guidelines and approaches, in your opinion, should be adopted by developing countries in order to prevent disasters and resume sustainable social development?

Devinder Sharma - The economic meltdown has brought in globally US $20 trillion as bailout packages. This package has actually gone to those banks and investment firms who in reality should have been penalized for bringing the world economy to the brink. Instead, they have been applauded and honoured for the economic crime they indulged in with all impunity.

The question that needs to be asked is why did the world pump in so much money into banks/investment firms? The answer is to keep the financial flow, which will allow governments to keep the pace of economic growth. I have often asked as to what is the underlying objective of this generosity. The answer I get is to ameliorate hunger and poverty by providing livelihoods, and income opportunities. Unless there is growth, there will not be opportunities for livelihood creation. This is certainly amusing, and smacks of intellectual arrogance bordering stupidity.

What is being conveniently ducked is that the world needs just US $1 trillion to wipe out hunger, disease and poverty from the face of the planet. We don't have money for that. But we have US $20 trillion for bailing out the corrupt and the crooks in business and industry.

EA - To overcome the political, economic and ideological structural barriers to sustainable development, including zero hunger, is certainly not an easy task. In this struggle, how can we cope with the extra challenges represented by the so-called world emergencies like global warming, climate changes, biodiversity loss and energy crisis?

Devinder Sharma - The structural barriers to social and sustainable development, including fighting hunger, are actually woven in the faulty neoliberal economic policies. The extra challenges of climate change, global warming, loss of biodiversity and the ever-growing energy crisis is also the result of the growth paradigm.

Let me ask you a question. If the economic prescriptions for the global economy that the world has been following were so good, please tell me why has the world come to a tipping point? Why has the planet's natural resources been polluted and plundered? Why are the rivers flowing dirty, and why are the freshwater sources all drying up? Why has the biodiversity disappeared at an alarming rate, bringing the world closer to extinction? How come the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sponsored by the UN] has to warn that if we do not make any radical change in the way the world is progressing, there is not much time left before the human population collapses? This is a clear indictment of the economic policies that the world has been made to follow. The emergencies that you talk about are the outcome of grossly flawed economic thinking.

The answer lies in what Mahatma Gandhi had told us. He had said that the earth has enough for everyone's need, but not greed. He had also said that what is needed is a production system by the masses and not for the masses. This in essence is the foundation of the concept of food sovereignty that the civil society talks about. Instead of pushing free trade, using the WTO as the policeman, to basically provide a market for the highly subsidized farm produce of the OECD countries, the world must revert back to attaining food self-sufficiency. Making countries dependent upon food imports is a recipe for disaster, but it certainly adds to GDP - yet we are not told that [increasing trade will also increase] to global warming. Nevertheless, you will be surprised to know that in the past 30 years or so, ever since the World Bank/IMF began the structural adjustment program, 105 of the 149-odd Third World countries have already become food importers. If the Doha Development Round, the way it is being designed, comes to a conclusion soon, mark my words the remaining of the Third World countries would also become food importers in no time. And don't forget, importing food is like importing unemployment. Food will then become the strongest political weapon.

EA - How do you evaluate the role being played by the UN and its system (UNDP, FAO and others) in the effort to cope with humanity`s major problems? The UN established the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) to be accomplished by 2015. Will that work?

Devinder Sharma - The MDGs are not going to work. I remember when the World Food Summit in 1996 first declared that it is criminal to see that 24,000 people succumb to hunger every day, and the international leadership expressed [an] urgency to address hunger, promising to remove 50 per cent of the estimated 842 million people living then in hunger by the year 2015, I had expressed shock and disgust. I had said that this is a classic case of political dishonesty.

By the time the world promises to remove half the number of hungry, considering that 24,000 people die every day somewhere from hunger, 128 million people would have perished from hunger alone. How can this be called urgency? Isn't this a crime against humanity?

The MDG's have merely reiterated the WFS promise. And as we know now, the number of hungry has actually increased - from 842 million in 1996 to 1.1 billion in 2010. The UN can surely bask in the sun, be satisfied with the ‘great' humanitarian task it is working towards. But the reality is that the UN is no better than the World Bank. The line between the UN and the World Bank has blurred over the years.

EA - What are your views on South-South co-operation? Countries like India and Brazil share similar conditions in many respects but still have relatively weak commercial relations and technical-scientific exchange. Old North-South links, with the inheritances of colonialism, seem to collide with the perspective of Third World countries aligning themselves to cope with common challenges. What do you think India and Brazil could do together to strengthen their struggle against hunger and for sustainable development in respective and other Third World countries?

Devinder Sharma - It looks nice to hear of South-South cooperation. Academicians have used this as the answer to the TINA (There is no alternative) factor. I have always felt amused when I hear of South-South cooperation. I don't know of any country in the South, which does not aim at emulating the North. Whatever the political leaders might say, they feel honoured when invited to queue up for a photo session at G-20 summits. Academicians do the same; economists of course excel in this. If you look at their CVs, they proudly mention the universities in the North they have visited or worked with.

Even when President Lula and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh talk of bilateral collaboration, it is more often than not to promote the same system they have borrowed from the western countries. In reality, the South-South cooperation if any is built on the same principles of exploitation. The big brother does exactly the same to the smaller cousin what the US does to India and Brazil.

It does not however mean that South-South cooperation is not possible. All it needs as the starting point is trust and respect. This is possible only if the leader of the big developing country exhibits political statesmanship and refrains from being the big fish that eats the smaller one. Let us hope someday someone shows political sagacity, and a new world order would be born.

Africa is launching an ambitious programme, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to increase agricultural production. Kofi Annan [ex-UN Secretary General] is heading this initiative. Unfortunately, this programme is based on industrial farming and encourages corporate takeover of agriculture. AGRA is not what Africa needs. It is here that Africa could have gone in South-South cooperation with countries of the developing world to look for sustainable farming systems that do not kill farmers. Africa needs to learn lessons from the debacle of the green revolution in India. Over 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past 15 years in India, essentially because the green revolution equation has gone wrong. I am sure African leaders don't want their farmers to die. Therefore, Africa does not need AGRA, it needs SAGRA - Sustainable Agriculture for Africa.


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