©Kat Morgenstern, September 2009, all rights reserved.
What does the concept of human dignity and human rights mean in the face of hunger and poverty? A poor and hungry person cannot pursue his self-development to the same extent as one whose basic needs are met - however much we declare that they should be able to unfold and that their lives are endowed with the same intrinsic value and dignity as anyone else's.
Prompted by the current 'food focus' of my newsletters, I have been contemplating these issues and to refresh my memory, I reread the declaration of human rights, which was originally adopted by the United Nation General Assembly on December 10, of 1948. It still stands as the most significant appeal to all that is humane and noble in our species. It makes very interesting reading, not least to remind ourselves that sometimes even the most atrocious events can bring forth something innocent and worthy, couragous even - at least as an intent.
Unfortunately, that is where it ends, as far as actual every day reality goes. Human rights continue to be kicked and bruised on a daily basis throughout the world by even the most 'civilized' of governments - there are no exceptions.
Intent is a good start, but it must be infused by will and converted into action in order to manifest as reality. Otherwise they remain lofty ideals, void of meaning in the REAL WORLD. Or, as the saying goes...the road to hell is paved with good intentions...
The noble stances of this declaration seem almost naïve today, when we consider the realities of life in the 21st century and the many problems we continue to face. Conscientiousness and hope for a better world continue to clash with the base forces of selfishness, power-mongering and exploitation of the weak and needy. And so, sadly, the noble ideal becomes blurred and diluted in the face of the colossal interrelated problems in which we are all entangled.
But, it is easy to focus on the mess and wail rather than to keep the vision alive and strive, against the odds, for a better world, even though our global problems can at times seem overwhelming. Take 'hunger' for example. We all know there are hungry people throughout the world; perhaps even in your neighborhood. According to the declaration of human rights everybody has the right to food and shelter (article 25). Yet, millions of people are starving, just as they did 60 years ago or at any time in history, and in many cases, they are worse off now than they were then.
We send Aid, yet that only helps some to survive another day. More often than not the neediest people never see any of it. US food aid is based on a system that benefits US farmers: they are subsidized to overproduce and the surplus is bought up and the resold as food aid. Proceeds are supposed to go into an emergency fund. Aid deliveries, especially in war zones or countries that are in the throes of civil unrest, are often intercepted and the supplies end up getting sold on the black market at exorbitant prices. The proceeds of these fuel the war, while civilians continue to suffer. A sad, but all too common scenario. The current system of food aid sets up patterns of dependency and preserves the status quo. It does not offer a sustainable solution.
Gandhi wisely said 'there is enough for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed.' Food is the most basic requirement of all life. It seems obscene that so much of it goes to waste each day when so many people are starving. The root of the problem is not lack of food as such, for those who have money to buy food, or those who own land and can produce food will not go hungry. The root of the problem is poverty and an increasingly monopolized food industry.
In the US, only 2% of farms produce 50% of all the agricultural products in the country. In the poorest countries land is owned by a tiny minority (including multinational corporations) and what is grown is determined by market demand (read: profitability), not by the needs of the local population. There is probably enough beef produced in Argentina and Brazil to supply the protein requirements of all of South America. Yet, the vast majority of it is exported to rich countries where it is sold as cheap burger beef and some of it even ends up as pet food. We are told that bigger farms and more chemicals will increase the output. But they only increase corporate profits. Studies have consistently shown that land redistribution and smaller farms, working integrated systems can increase yields by as much as 80%. This shows that first and foremostly POVERTY is what keeps people hungry.
The vast estates that are spread all over the developing world (many originally established in colonial times) grow cash crops for export so you and I can enjoy our cafe latte, chocolate bars, or cheap beef, while the people who actually work on these estates barely earn enough to feed their family, nor do they own enough land to grow their own food. The situation is remarkably similar to those bad old feudal days of medieval Europe. Not a lot has changed, only the stakes have gotten bigger as the economy has grown to global proportions: each internal market is entwined and influences every other player at that global table. The WTO watches over all, supposedly to make sure a fair game is played. But unfortunately the referee has been bought by the big boys.
Ample examples in recent history make it clear whose interests the WTO is serving. This has become most evident in the many disputes over GM crops which at first were rejected by many governments around the world. Before long the WTO stepped in to force GM foods down our throats, whether we want them or not. (In 2008, 80% of US grown corn and 92% of US grown soy was genetically engineered).
Development aid packages are frequently tied to clauses that force farmers to grow GM crops. Under the banner of progress and the promise of greater yields (which are not fulfilled) such manipulative moves are hailed as generous aid packages, when in fact they often create a stranglehold of dependency and ruin to hitherto poor, but independent growers.
GM crops require certain fertilizers and pesticides (fossil fuel based), which poor farmers can ill afford, so they are forced to take loans to finance the investment (often provided as a package by -guess who? The seed companies!). Yet, in the end of the day farmers cannot even keep the seeds for the following year's crop - the seed company owns the patent and demands a tribute ad infinitum, forcing farmers contractually to buy new seeds each year.So, can you imagine what happens when such poor farmers take out loans to grow these crops and find that the return does not cover their investment - let alone provide any profits? From the frying pan into the fire they go...
Those considerations aside, GM seeds remain highly questionable in terms of their safety for human consumption and their long term effect on the environment.
Water shortages and extreme weather conditions are becoming increasingly problematic. It is highly probable that within our life-time climate change will have a dramatic effect on agricultural yields and thus on the world food supply. The first signs of this are already here.
Populations are steadily increasing, putting an ever greater pressure on the finite resources of our mother earth. Food is a renewable resource, but space in which to grow it is limited, especially when it has to compete with urban sprawl, or with crops that are supposed to satiate our ravenous appetite for energy, so called 'bio-fuels', such as corn, canola and palm oil. Marketed as a supposedly green solution to the energy crisis, this solution is anything but green when grain that could feed the hungry is used to produce ethanol. Or when it becomes a hypocritical lie, an excuse to cut down virgin rainforest in order to grow oil palm plantations as a source of 'green' fuel.
Food ought to be a human right, no matter whether you are born rich or poor - as stated in the famous declaration. Isn't it time that we infuse our noble intent with action and indeed place our common humanity and basic human needs at the center of political and economic agendas?
Big questions are always thought of as stuff that concerns only politicians and that 'they' should sort them all out. Their magnitude seems so overwhelming that we feel powerless. We are manipulated into thinking that because this is a global problem we need to find a global solution - and please make your donation here, to absolve your conscience. However, a global solution does not exist. But we are all in possession of a conscience and we can all make judgments and take action accordingly. No wo/man is too small or too insignificant not to make difference.
We need to think globally, but act locally. There are always things that can be done here and now - even if they don't seem to tackle THE BIG ISSUE. Let's reclaim food as an issue that concerns us all, wherever we may be. Only by reclaiming it to a local and personal level can we take responsibility and thereby change our reality. That will not immediately get rid of global hunger, but every little step makes a contribution and together we can create alternative realities that in turn will inspire others. We must free ourselves from the globalized mind frame that tries to impose its rule on everybody, everywhere and dupes us into thinking that 'free' markets are the only option and at any rate, better than co-operative solutions. 'Free' markets are not free. They are controlled by a handful of big players who seek to monopolize and disenfranchise small producers. For them, issues like hunger and poverty serve a purpose - to control and manipulate people with fear and disempowerment, so that they lose faith in their ability do anything to improve their lot.
The seeds of change are the seeds of hope and empowerment, starting with each individual who realizes that by taking responsibility they are holding the keys to their own future.
Here are some resources for further inspirational reading:
Vandana Shiva speaking on 'The Future of Food and Seed - Justice, Sustainability and Peace in the 21st century' at the Organicology Conference in Portland OR Feb 28, 2009
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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.
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