According to the Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) published by the United Nations in 2022, 193 million (nearly 20 crore) people across 53 countries were facing acute food shortage in 2021. This is an increase of nearly 4 crore people in this condition, compared to the previous year. It is a 25 percent jump in the number of hungry people.
Global food prices shot up nearly 33 percent in September 2021 compared to the year before. They have gone up by a further 40 per cent since then, according to the Food Price Index of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Food has become unaffordable to poor and unemployed workers in almost all countries. It has become unaffordable for the majority of the population in many poor countries.
What are the underlying factors?
The Corona Virus induced lockdowns, global warming and the war in Ukraine are among the factors being cited as being responsible for the food crisis. The most important underlying factor, which is deliberately not highlighted in any document of the UN or other institution of the international bourgeoisie, is the domination and control of food supply by giant sized monopoly capitalist companies.
The case of wheat is revealing. The rapid rise in the international price of wheat began in 2020 itself (Fig A). It started rising well before war disrupted the transportation of wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia.
While production in some countries were affected by adverse weather conditions in 2021, it did not translate into a serious supply shortage that year. Yet wheat prices kept rising rapidly. The key to the puzzle lies in the profiteering activities of monopoly capitalist companies which dominate the food market.
Every time the price of any food crop rises, due to weather shock or disruption of supply due to the pandemic or due to war, the private companies further aggravate the shortage by hoarding so as to maximise their profits.
Over the past three to four decades, a handful of multibillion-dollar companies have come to dominate the global food market.
By the 1990s, the degree of concentration and monopoly in retail trade including food supply had reached an unprecedented level in the United States of America. A handful of powerful companies controlled the market for almost all the grocery items bought regularly by working class families. Retail giants like Walmart started dictating the price at which they would agree to buy goods from any supplier. The size, power and profits of these mega retail giants expanded in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. They expanded globally, establishing their supply chain network in various countries. Monopoly agribusiness companies and retail giants based in European countries also joined the monopolistic competition over the world food stocks and sales.
In 1995, agriculture was brought into the World Trade Organisation negotiations. Under the guise of promoting a “free market”, the US led group of imperialist states dictated rules to all other member states. They declared limits on the amount of subsidy to be given to farmers (which the US violated at will). A ceiling was imposed on the rate of import duty on food items. The WTO even imposed limits on the amount of food stocks that can be held by the governments of member states.
Despite huge opposition from the peoples of the majority of countries of the world, the agenda of agricultural trade liberalisation was implemented, by the WTO and the majority of governments around the world. That paved the way for the expansion of giant monopoly capitalist corporations, not only in seeds, pesticides and other input supplies but also in the procurement, storage and sale of food and packaged food products on the world scale.
Liberalisation of agricultural trade has also expanded the scope for speculative profiteering or gambling. Food grains, oil seeds and sugar are traded on international commodity markets, both spot markets and futures markets, for reaping speculative profits. Such speculation is a factor that further increases the volatile fluctuations in the prices of food commodities.
While crores of people face starvation, giant monopoly capitalist companies and institutions of financial speculators are making huge profits. They have used the war in Ukraine as a justification to raise fertilizer, seed and chemical prices even further. Oil companies have used the US and NATO sanctions on Russian oil as an excuse to justify steep price increases, even though Russian oil continues to be exported.
Hunger in India
India is one of the countries with the largest number of hungry and under-nourished people.
The majority of Indians cannot afford a healthy meal and lakhs die every year due to diseases that are directly linked to poor diet. The “State of India’s Environment 2022: In Figures” (a statistical compendium published by the Centre for Science and Environment) reports that 71 per cent of Indians cannot afford a healthy diet. This is much higher than the average of 42 per cent for the world’s population as a whole.
The lack of access to healthy diets can be attributed mainly to the unprecedented food price inflation in recent years. Prices of food grains, edible oil, vegetables, meat and eggs have sky-rocketed in the last one year. More and more people are unable to afford the required nutrition, both in rural and urban areas.
Successive governments over the past three decades have implemented the program of liberalisation of internal and external trade. This is a program of Indian and foreign monopoly capitalists, who are eager to further penetrate and gain control of Indian agriculture and food stocks.
The public distribution system (PDS) built in the 1960s and 1970s used to fulfil at least most of the people’s need for food grains. The PDS has been deliberately neglected and wrecked as part of the liberalisation program. Poor people have been left to fend for themselves, with many of them being driven to starvation and early death.
The main reason why human society is unable to prevent food crisis in the world in this 21st century is because monopoly capitalists who consider food as a source of maximum profits have gained control of its storage and distribution. Monopoly capitalists keep pocketing huge profits through extremely intense exploitation of wage workers, robbery of peasants and other small producers, plunder of natural resources and extortion of all the working people through consumer credit, private insurance and other means. They exploit every temporary food shortage to turn it into a crisis so as to reap mega profits.
Hunger and starvation can be eliminated only by putting an end to the capitalist-imperialist system. In our country, the domination and control by Indian and foreign monopoly capitalists must be replaced with control over procurement, storage and distribution of food by the workers and peasants. We who toil and produce all the wealth need to take the destiny of India into our hands. We need to take the country out of the international imperialist system, and steer her on the path of building a truly self-reliant socialist economy. Only then can we be permanently liberated from hunger and malnutrition.