A World in Chains

Starvation haunts many of the people of the world. Every year 40 million people die of poverty. Hunger is often claimed to be the greatest proof that humanity has gone beyond the world’s ‘natural limits’, that there are either too many people or not enough food to go round.

Yet the world produces enough food to feed everyone on the planet. Modern famine is not caused by natural forces: drought, flood, or pests; it is man-made. Just as the Irish peasants starved in the “Great Hunger” of the 1840s, while food was exported to England, people today die while warehouses are full of food and farmers are paid not to produce food. Today hunger is due to the way agricultural production and distribution is organized for profit. It is down to a shortage of money amongst the poor rather than a shortage of food.

The world is divided between rich and poor. The gap between the rich and poor countries is increasing. The developed countries, with 1.3 billion people, 22% of the world’s population, control 85% of the world’s wealth and income. The disparities of wealth are not just between rich and poor countries – the advanced capitalist and neo-colonial countries. They also exist, and are widening, within countries. In Britain since 1979, the number of people in poverty has increased from five million to 14 million. In the USA, one in eight children are hungry due to poverty. Even the poorest countries have pockets of obscenely rich.

Feed the World – Agri-Business

Modern agriculture produces quantities of food that Malthus would never have imagined. Even Saudi Arabia, almost entirely desert, produces thousands of tons of wheat every year, through the application of modern technology. However, food production, like all other production under capitalism, is dominated by profit. Food is produced by the labor of millions of workers around the world. But many of them are too poor to feed themselves and their families. This vital production is controlled, the decisions taken and the wealth creamed off, by a tiny minority – mainly in the advanced capitalist countries.

A handful of multi-nationals – or ‘agri-businesses’ like Nestlé, Brooke-Bond, Del Monte, Unilever and others – dictate what is grown, how much of it and where. They control the shipping, transportation, processing, packaging, advertising and marketing of the products. They can even control the selling of the product, if they also own a supermarket.

Agri-business is responsible not only for some of the worst environmental destruction on the planet today, but is also driving down living standards, attaching trade union organization and the health and safety rights of agriculture workers throughout the world.

They do not care for one moment whether people have enough to eat, only whether their company makes a profit. In fact for some agri-businesses, there’s a lot more profit to be made in keeping people hungry. The foods that make the biggest profits are often the least nutritious but the most expensive. Advances in technology allowing food to be processed, so that it can be kept longer and the cooking process is much shorter, could have been an enormous benefit to society, freeing women in particular from some of the drudgery of housework. Instead, the agri-business bosses have just found another way to rip us off. Agri-business spends a huge proportion of its investment on marketing and advertising to convince us that we need their processed foods.

Of course, we all sometimes want to be able to put a pre-prepared dinner in the oven or micro-wave to heat up quickly, but the way that the multi-nationals create markets for processed food where none previously existed is obscene.

Susan George, in her excellent book, How the Other Half Dies, quotes a number of examples from Mexico after the advertising men and women had been busy. A rural sociologist explains: “The two products which peasants want and buy the moment they come into contact with the advertising message are white bread and soft drinks.” Rural doctors say; “It is not uncommon in Mexico for a family to sell the few eggs and chickens it raises to buy Coke for the father, while the children waste away from lack of protein.

Formula Milk is Best?

One of the worst examples of the way in which the food multinationals behave is that of Nestlé. Nestlé used posters, radio adverts and loudspeaker vans to push their products, encouraging African mothers to abandon breast feeding (despite that being the best possible food for babies) in favor of formula milk. They employed saleswomen dressed as nurses to go round maternity hospitals.

The result was that poor African women, convinced through advertising that Nestlé equals healthy babies, bought formula milk. Because of the conditions under which they lived, it was often mixed in unsterilized bottles with unboiled water, leading to gastro-enteritis and other diseases. In the meantime, the mother’s own breast milk had dried up, so even if they wanted to return to breast-feeding they couldn’t. They were hooked by Nestlé’s marketing strategy, their wages barely able to afford proper amounts of milk and their babies much less healthy than if they’d been fed breast milk. But at least Nestlé’s sales in Africa went up.

Nestlé have consistently tried to present themselves as having cleaned up their act and actually adopted a voluntary code of practice on advertising. The international boycott of its foods was called off in 1984 – only to be restarted in 1988 when it became clear that they were up to their old tricks, once they thought that the heat was off them.

As a speaker at a Nestlé-sponsored US conference in November 1995 said: “In many (if not all) emerging markets, it is simply impossible to make money without overt violation of normal Western ethical principles.” Perhaps he should be forced to explain such ‘business principles’ to the Pakistani woman in the photograph below. 1

twins These babies are 18-month-old twins. The one on the left was fed on breast milk and the one on the right fed on powdered milk. The baby on the right died the day after this photo was taken.

Credit: New Internationalist

Small farmers are increasingly being driven out of business by the monopoly power of these giants. Across the neo-colonial world the World Bank estimates that one-third of the ‘active agricultural population’ have no land at all. In Africa three-quarters of the people have access to less than 4% of the land. And in the USA, particularly from the Reagan era onwards, there has been a catastrophic collapse in the number of small, family-owned farms. Instead, huge ranches and farms produce acre upon acre of the same products on an industrial scale.

The Environmental Impact

Agriculture is now a hi-tech business, with wide-scale use of chemicals in an effort to replace lost soil fertility and limit losses due to pests and disease. It is based on large-scale plant and machinery and hybrid seeds. The use of hybrid seeds, which are sterile, means farmers cannot save seeds from the crop but have to buy new seeds every year. In India, peasant farmers make a profit have organized demonstrations against the big seed companies who make a profit by selling the sterile seeds and own the patents on genetically engineered breeds. The high use of chemicals depletes natural resources, damages the soil, pollutes water, kills plants and animals and can have harmful effects on consumers and workers.

The use of pesticides has increased dramatically in the last 50 years. In the USA there has been a 33-fold increase since the 1940s yet losses due to pests have increased from 31% to 37%. The pests have evolved immunity to these chemicals. There are now some 20 insects, called superpests, that are immune to all widely used insecticides. Insects evolve immunity faster than laboratories develop new chemicals. The pesticides often also kill the natural predators of pests, so there is virtually no natural control over the pests that survive the spraying, which can then rapidly reproduce. 2

The World Health Organization estimates that every year one million people are poisoned from pesticides and between 4,000 and 20,000 are killed. As well as direct poisoning, pesticides also enter into the food chain and the water system, poisoning other animals and humans.

The workers on the Sulmar plantation in Kenya have been at the sharp end of the use of dangerous chemicals. This plantation, a subsidiary of Brooke-Bond/Unilever, produced flowers for export to Britain, mainly through Manchester airport. Skin diseases, rashes, miscarriages and a number of spontaneous abortions have been linked to the use of pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers and fumigants. A number of workers have died of lung cancer. Flowers are constantly sprayed, but workers are not told to move away; instead they often drink and eat during the spraying, their cups being hidden under the flowers. The main pesticide used – TEMIK – which has the trade name of aldicarb – is one of the ‘dirty dozen’ pesticides that agricultural workers’ trade unions want banned. It doesn’t wash off the skin, so workers return home to prepare food, or even to breastfeed their babies with it all over their skin. 3

Freedom of Choice?

Over 90% of all human food comes from 15 plant and eight animal species. Wheat, corn, rice and potatoes provide over half of all food. The range of species used has been reduced so the narrow genetic range is at risk from disease and pests. It is also harder to develop new varieties. Monoculture with huge fields of a single crop are more susceptible to attack from pests, weeds and infection, which in turn need higher chemical inputs for control. Yet in the wild, many breeds of plant that could increase resistance to disease, are near extinction due to human action. A species of wild corn that was more resistant to disease and had better growing properties than domesticated corn was recently found. It was near extinction, only growing in one ten-hectare site, soon to be cleared.

These farming methods are wasteful of the basic resources, water and soil. Agriculture takes 70% of human water use, yet 70% of irrigation water is wasted, in spite of the existence of techniques that could reduce waste to below 20%. Over 30% of the world’s irrigated land suffers from increased salt concentrations and waterlogging, which leads to reduced production. In some cases irrigation schemes have actually reduced crop yields.

Topsoil is being destroyed, with a further 270 square kilometers suffering such severe desertification and degradation every year that is no longer suitable for agriculture. The dust bowl of 1930s America has become a feature of both the advanced capitalist and neo-colonial world. A huge area of land is being damaged by unsuitable agricultural methods.

Huge quantities of food are wasted. In spite of the widespread use of chemicals, around 55% of the potential food world-wide is still lost to weeds, disease, insects, and animals. Once harvested more food is wasted – in Britain, at least 25%. At the same time, farmers are paid not to produce food. In the USA, farmers are paid not to grow food on an area the size of Texas. In 1995, the European Community ordered the destruction of 2.5 million tons of fresh fruit and vegetables, in order to keep prices for farmers artificially high as part of the mad ‘Common Agricultural Policy’. British farmers are currently (1996) paid £338 a hectare (£138 per acre) not to grow food on land, while the subsidy for growing wheat is ‘only’ £267 per hectare (£110 per acre)! At the same time, the European Commission began taxing its exports of grain in December 1995, after subsidizing them for nearly two decades.

The oceans’ food potential is misused, with pollution and severe overfishing on the one hand, and out of 20,000 species of fish only six accounting for two-thirds of commercial catches. 20% of fish caught is wasted and another 35% is used as animal feed or fertilizer (often to restore damaged soil fertility). More than one million tones of small fish – sprat, whiting, pout and sand eel – are used to make oils for products as diverse as biscuits, cosmetics and cakes. Yet these are the base of the marine food chain and should be an important food source for sea birds, porpoises and larger fish. European Union fishing regulations don’t cover this type of catch.

The regular disputes, bordering on skirmishes involving the navies, within the European Union nations about fishing quotas and rights to fish are an example of how nationally based capitalist economics act against the general interest of the people and the environment of Europe. It is not surprising that workers in traditionally very specialized communities are acting to protect their jobs and livelihoods. Only a rational socialist plan of production, including the democratically planned use of the resources of the sea, and the diversification of industry in traditional fishing areas, could begin to address this particular problem.

It is possible to produce better quality food with less damage to the environment. Most damage to soil, desertification, salinization, and erosion can be halted and even reversed, one estimate is at a cost of $150 billion. A policy of land reform; sustainable agricultural policies such as effective irrigation and reversal of topsoil damage; and the growing a mix of crops at the same tome to prevent erosion and loss of nutrients – rather than monoculture, would allow the world to increase food production and reduce environmental damage. However a change in the power and policies that dominate agriculture is required.

Running Fast to Stand Still

Most neo-colonial countries have to sell goods on the world market. Their main products are raw materials either from extractive industries like copper mining or from cash crops, e.g. tea. The terms of trade, the balance between the price of raw materials they export and the manufactured goods they import, have deteriorated. Countries are producing more yet getting less money. They have to run fast to stand still and in most cases are still sliding back. They also carry a huge weight of debt on their backs. Neo-colonial countries’ debt now stands at 1,200 billion dollars, $272 for every one of the 4.4 billion people. This is more than many of them earn in a year. The cancellation of these debts would probably be the single biggest action to both help the people and to protect the environment.

The policies of the world’s bankers, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, mean that the burden falls on the poor in these countries not the rich. Sub-Saharan Africa sends $10 billion a year to the banks, more than is spent on health and education. IMF ‘Re-structuring Programmes’ increase the burden on the poor. In Zimbabwe spending on the primary health and basic education was cut by a third between 1990 and 1993.

Spending of Sub-Saharan Governments

  1980 1987
Interest 100 110
GDP 100 60
Health 100 60
Education 100 50
Agriculture 100 50


The minerals from the neo-colonial world are extracted without regard to the environment. Rivers and the air are polluted, wildlife habitats destroyed, soil erosion increased and workers brutally exploited.

Food as a Weapon

It is claimed by many economists that it makes good sense for countries to grow what is most suitable to their climate. If Senegal is well suited for peanuts and the USA for cereals why not have it that way and trade crops? As the USA produces 80% of the cereals that are exported, doesn’t this show the USA is naturally the best place to grow grain?

However the terms of trade between the USA and most of the neo-colonial world are not equal. The US government subsidizes its big grain farmers $8 billion a year, while most neo-colonial world countries tax their farmers.

A subsistence or traditional peasant farming, without use of chemicals, hardly enters into the world market, so there is little profit to be made. On the other hand cash crop production, that uses pesticides, fertilizer, machinery and irrigation and sells the crop on the market, creates many opportunities for multinationals to make a profit. There is money to be made by chemical combines, machinery manufacturers, construction companies, transport firms and marketing men.

The big companies also ensure that they get the profit without any risk. They contract out the growing of the crops – and therefore all risk – to small farmers. If the crop fails or world prices collapse, the ‘man from Del Monte’ just says ‘no’. The farmer doesn’t get paid, but still loans and debts to pay for all the capital and technical investment have to be paid. Usually it is only the richer farmers who can afford to take such risks so the poorer farmers are driven off their land either to become wage laborers or onto less favorable land.

The shift from farming for consumption and local markets to producing cash crops ties the society into the world market, and at the same time increases poverty and inequality.

Spiro Agnew, a former US vice-president, pointed out that the USA’s domination of world cereal markets was one of its most powerful political weapons. The cereal is used to open doors for the multinationals, as a political bargaining tool during famines and a threat against governments that challenge the aims of US big business.

It may be sensible for a country to grow cash crops for export but only if the ecological and social needs are considered and the stranglehold of the multinationals is broken.

Cash Crops

Large parts of the world that could produce food for local people are used to grow cash crops, such as sugar, coffee or tobacco, often damaging the environment, while local people starve. Many in Senegal go hungry while half the cultivated land is used for growing peanuts, overwhelmingly for export.

The Nile’s annual flood, which enriched the soil, has sustained Egyptian agriculture for thousands of years. One of the aims of the High Aswan dam, built in the 1960s at enormous cost, was to improve irrigation to boost production of crops for export. Yet, because the dam prevents the annual flood, river silt no longer reaches the fields and Egypt has to import fertilizer to replenish the soil. The impacts of the dam and intensive irrigation have also been to increase the salt levels in the soil, increase water-borne diseases and virtually wipe out the fishing industry at the Nile’s mouth. To pay for the fertilizer imports and its debts, the country grows cash crops of cotton, rice and sugar for export, all of which need a lot of fertilizer and irrigation. At the same time food has to be imported. A vicious spiral leads to disaster.

Bananas and Bullets

Governments often give huge subsidies to the production of cash crops. Costa Rica, in the early 1980s, under pressure from the IMF to reduce its debt, one of the highest per capita in the world, launched a program to encourage export agriculture. The government gave subsidies to banana production, while cutting education and health.

The banana industry is dominated by five multinationals. Although Costa Rica is now the second largest banana exporter, the policy is a total failure. Almost all the profits go abroad. Peasants have been cleared from farms and workers’ living standards have fallen. Already one of the most deforested countries in Latin America, clearing has continued for plantations. The soil is eroded and degraded by the production of bananas. Large quantities of imported pesticides, often banned in the country of manufacture, have poisoned workers, domestic animals, wildlife and coral reefs. Costa Rica has gone from being virtually self-sufficient in food to exporting half of its cereal needs. And it is still heavily in debt.

According to a Costa Rican ecologist, the banana industry is, “not just an environmental problem, it’s a human rights problem and a sociological problem as well.5

In April 1994, Costa Rican banana workers employed by Geest, a UK-based multinational, went on strike for three days against wage reductions. After being promised talks, they returned to work, only for 1,005 of them to be sacked. Over a thousand workers went on strike against the dismissals, for a reduction in the working day (which can be up to 13 hours), protection against herbicides and for an end to sexual harassment of women workers. The company closed all access roads to the plantation. Security forces using company vehicles established road blocks to prevent support for strikers getting to their assistance. On 13 May, government forces attacked the barricades set up by the workers. Police fired M-16 rifles indiscriminately at the crowd and strikers were arrested.

Brazil is the world’s fourth largest exporter of agricultural products. Agriculture is dominated by the large latifundia. Less than 1% of the population own 57% of the land, while the poorest one-third of the rural poor have only 1% of the land. One highly successful crop for export is soya. Land used for soya growth increased from half a million acres in the 1960s to 26 million acres in 1990. Some small farmers who produce 80% of the food on only 12% of the land have been driven out by the soya plantations. Some of the landless poor have been driven into the Amazon basin. The soya plantations have damaged the environment, increasing soil erosion, water demand, chemical use, and wildlife destruction.

International Action

Cash crop workers are organizing together and fighting back. For example, workers across the world employed in the cocoa industry – from the plantations of Ghana where it is picked to the Cadbury factories where it is processed – have made links through their various trade unions. Already, there have been important victories in cleaning up the production process. Dockers in Amsterdam recently stopped the use of phosphine – a highly toxic chemical – in the cargoes, using information obtained through their union links in Brazil.

Rainforest Under Attack

In recent years a great deal of publicity has been given to the destruction of the tropical rainforests of the world. Already, over half these forests have disappeared, with another 170,000 square kilometers being destroyed each year. There are very strong aesthetic and scientific arguments that these varied and beautiful places and the life in them should be preserved. The world’s forests are vital to many ecosystems. They are central to the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. They have a crucial role in water regulation, acting as huge natural reservoirs which reduce runoff, erosion and flooding. They moderate local climates, reducing extremes of temperature and increasing rainfall.

They are home to at least half, perhaps three-quarters, of the species of life on earth. The destruction of the rainforests is wiping out many species. As humans don’t know how many species there are, it is hard to say how fast the destruction is taking place, but estimates are that three species an hour become extinct. This will have important effects on the environment. Most eco-systems have a complex interconnection of many species. The removal of one can have a knock-on effect on many more. Once a species is gone, it is gone forever.

Many of these species also have great potential uses for humans. Already 25% of prescription drugs, worth $40 billion, are derived from tropical plants. One of the world’s most widely used drugs, aspirin, derived from the tropical willow, was first commercially produced over a hundred years ago. There are many more potential drugs with a wide range of uses, yet only a tiny handful of plants, about 3%, have been examined. Also chemicals from many animals and fungi could have medical uses. At present research is being done on medicine to deal with leukemia, AIDS and cancer. The forests have a wide range of plants that are potential foods, including at least 2,450 edible fruits, high-protein beans and oils. 6 The rainforests are traditionally home to many different cultures, for example the Amerindians of Brazil. However, the multi-nationals value profit more than these people, often destroying the land which they have made a living for centuries – and the people as well!

The main reasons for the forests’ destruction are logging, agriculture, and mining, which are driven by the multinationals and, to a lesser extent, the local ruling class. Often the land is unsuitable for agriculture and rapidly degenerates into a scrubland with erosion and increased flooding following.

Trees provide over half of the fuel in the neo-colonial world. Traditionally this was a replenishing resource, as trees were not cut wholesale, so wood was available every year. Pressure from demands for land, fuel, and timber all reduce the supply of trees, which increases the pressure on the remaining trees. A dangerous spiral of degradation can ensue. Trees produce many valuable products for local people, but these often don’t register in the market economy and are therefore ignored.

Much of the timber is exported to the developed world as the prime forests of Europe, Japan, and North America have been almost completely destroyed. The USA has clear cut 95% of its old growth forest and much of what remains is under threat. Canada is cutting 2,700 square kilometers a year and only 6% of old growth is protected.

It is hypocritical for the Western governments to condemn the neo-colonial world for cutting trees. The advanced capitalist countries have destroyed their forests, demand that their debts are re-paid, and buy the trees that are logged.

An international program of reforestation is needed. The advanced capitalist countries could grow most of the timber they need. This would reduce the pressure on neo-colonial world forests, improve the environment in the West and help reduce the increase in carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. The cost of such a worldwide program has been estimated at $50 billion over ten years. A sustainable policy to protect the forest is linked to eradicating the poverty of the neo-colonial world and freeing them from the chains of the large multinationals’ greed for profit.

Everywhere the large corporations suck dry the resources of the world, destroying the environment in the process. Almost all the money goes, not to the people of the despoiled countries, but to the big banks. All the people of the neo-colonial world get is poverty and destruction.


  1. How the Other Half Dies, Susan George; New Internationalist, January 1996.
  2. Living in the Environment, Miller, 1994.
  3. Report of TUC and Central Organization of Trade Unions, Kenya, September 1995.
  4. South American, June 1995.
  5. Ecologist, November 1992.
  6. The Diversity of Life, Wilson, 1992.