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World Food Day

October 16, 2011

To mark World Food Day on 16 October 2011, DW-World presents an exclusive interview held earlier this month with Jean Ziegler, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, about the causes of world hunger.

Jean Ziegler
Ziegler: Death by starvation is murderImage: AP

Jean Ziegler, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, is a stark advocate of the right of every individual to have access to food. Since 2008, Ziegler has been a member of the Advisory Committee to the UN Human Rights Council. He spoke to Deutsche Welle in Geneva about the current global food situation.

Deutsche Welle: All people have a right to food, but food has also become a speculative commodity on the world's stock markets. Where do you see the reasons for this, and what effects does it have?

Jean Ziegler: Financial speculation on basic foodstuffs is completely catastrophic. In the first place, the big hedge funds, large banks and large-scale speculators moved to the commodities exchanges, particularly the food stock markets, after the financial crash and are now making astronomical profits, quite legally, with forward transactions. The result is that corn has become 93 percent more expensive in the past 18 months. The price of rice has gone up 110 percent. And the third basic foodstuff is wheat. A ton of wheat now costs 271 euros ($372), exactly twice as much as last year. Why is that a catastrophe? If you take the example of developing countries such as the 53 countries in Africa, 37 of them have to import food in normal periods, not just when there is famine, and they can't do that if the prizes explode. That is why stock market speculation on basic foodstuffs should be banned.

One of the biggest obstacles in the fight against hunger is that poor countries in particular are dependent on food imports. How could this development be reversed? How can countries regain some degree of the food security that they once had?

African refugees in a queue waiting for food
More than 10 million people are affected by the current food crisis in parts of AfricaImage: dapd

By canceling their foreign debt. If developing countries spend everything they earn in the way of foreign currency to pay off interest or to pay back creditor banks in Frankfurt, London, Paris or New York, they don't have any money. Take Ethiopia as an example: this huge country of a million square kilometers, with 70 million inhabitants, has 3.8 percent of arable land. Because there is no investment, no fertilizer or selected seeds, and no market development, productivity is low. In normal periods, in the Sahel, Burkina Faso or Niger, they harvest 600 to 700 kilograms (1,300 to 1,500 pounds) per hectare (2.47 acres). In Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany, they get ten tons, or ten thousand kilograms (22,000 pounds), not because the farmers in Baden-Württemberg are so much cleverer or work so much more than farmers in the Sahel, but because farmers in the Sahel have no investments. No draft animals, so no natural fertilizer, no seed, selected seed, no pesticides, no irrigation. The only thing they have is the same short-handled hoe they have had for three thousand years, and they use rain-based agricultural methods, totally dependent on weather conditions that have gone mad.

You have said that death by starvation is murder. Who is the murderer?

The recently released World Food Report says that a child of under 10 years of age dies every five seconds. Some 37,000 people die of hunger every day. The same World Food Report says world agriculture could feed 12 billion people without any problems. There is no objective lack of food any more.

A child that dies of starvation these days has been murdered. The murderer is the cannibalistic world order. That world order is dominated by multinational corporations. The global agricultural market is dominated by some 10 multinational companies that function according the principle of profit maximization; that's completely normal. It's not a matter of attacking them. What matters here is the structural violence of a cannibalistic order. Last year, Cargil controlled 26 percent of the entire global wheat trade. Monsanto controls 85 percent of all seed, both genetically modified and normal selected seed. Archer Midland, Louis Dreifus control the rice market and decide every day who on this planet will live and who will die.

According to the human rights organization FIAN, chronic hunger results above all from the fact that the perpetrators are not punished. Is that how you see it, and who could bring them to trial?

Skips containing grain for bioethanol
Huge quantities of grain are needed to make bioethanolImage: DW-TV

Last year, the Americans burnt 138 million tons of corn and hundreds of millions of tons of wheat to produce bioethanol and biodiesel. The production and import of bioethanol and biodiesel have to be banned. Stock market speculation on basic foodstuffs must and can be banned. The 27 states of the EU pay billions in production and export subventions and swamp the African markets with cheap products, completely ruining the local farming industry. This form of dumping can and must be stopped. The foreign debt of the poorest countries must be canceled so that these countries can invest in subsistence farming. And land-grabbing has to stop, it must be banned. All of these are very concrete demands that a democratic public sphere could implement today, now.

What demands would we have to make on global agricultural production to be able to feed nine billion people in the long run?

The world could feed 12 billion people already today. It's a problem of distribution.

It's not just raw agricultural products that are being destroyed - you spoke about wheat and corn from the USA - but we also hear that around a third of all food on offer is wasted here in Europe. What can be done there? Who is to blame?

Millions of tons of food are thrown away by supermarkets, by bakeries. That is the consumption mania, the neoliberal consumption mania that we have, the total lack of responsibility for people. It isn't a matter of transporting the bread that is thrown away here as dry bread for Somali refugees. That is nonsense, complete nonsense. It is a matter of wresting the structures of production and consumptions away from the corporations; of saying: there is a right to food, it is produced and the amount of food is distributed in such a way that everyone has access to the food that gives and preserves life.

The tyranny of the oligarchy of globalized financial capital has existed for 20 years. Things have been liberalized and privatized as never before in the history of humankind. Nation-states are like snowmen in summer; every week they lose more sovereign rights. And hunger is growing. Minimum wages for farmers, land rights, rights to seed, rights to fertilizers, the legally protected access of people to sufficient food: these are things we can achieve - it isn't a utopian dream.

Author: Andreas Zumach / tj
Editor: Sean Sinico