World Food Day 2007: The Politics of Food

What you eat is political.

The theme of this year's World Food Day is "The Right to Food." Usually the international community focuses on the billions of people who are suffering from hunger and poverty. But this should also be a day to examine the food that we do eat.

Globalization has dramatically changed the way the world gets its food. Half a century ago most food we ate was grown locally. Today food is grown and packaged by corporate farms and shipped around the world quicker than the blink of an eye. While many might see this as an advancement for mankind, it could also be argued that the globalization of food has larger and far more harmful consequences.

In the new documentatry, The Price of Sugar, a spotlight is put on the politics of sugar. In the Dominican Republic Haitian migrants are illegally brought into the country to cut cane on sugar plantations. They work long hours for low pay and limited access to healthcare, education and adequate housing and food. If they try to escape, they are beaten and sometimes murdered. Even if they try to escape, they can't go far because they are stripped of their identity when they enter the DR and virtually become invisible.

This is modern day slavery. It is even more ironic that it is happening to Haitian immigrants, considering that Haiti was the first nation to abolish slavery in the Western Hemisphere.

The point here being that the US government and the sugar lobby has a hand in these human rights abuses, as it gets more sugar from the Dominican Republic than any other country in the world because of a preferential agreement it has with the DR. But don't expect Washington to do anything about the woes of the Haitian migrants anytime soon...

According to the Washington Post:

U.S. sugar policy stands for all that's bad about our political system. The government restricts imports through a series of quotas, pushing U.S. sugar prices to between two and three times the global market rate. As a result, a handful of sugar producers, notably in Florida, a battleground electoral state, pocket $1 billion a year in excess profits. To protect this cozy arrangement, the sugar barons plow a chunk of their revenue back into the political system. During the 2004 election cycle, two Florida sugar companies gave a total of $925,000 to election coffers.

This corruption has victims. Producers' enviable profits come straight out of consumers' wallets, so that ordinary supermarket visitors are made to subsidize welfare for corporations. At the same time, efficient foreign sugar producers, many of them in poor countries, are denied a fair chance to export their way out of poverty. Meanwhile there is an environmental cost: In Florida, sugar cane production has contributed to the degradation of the Everglades. Sugar-using industries are losers too. As Kimberly A. Elliott notes in a paper for the Center for Global Development, some candymakers have closed U.S. factories rather than pay crazy sugar prices.

Big Sugar is just one, small example of how trade politics can effect how and what we eat. Environmentalist Vandana Shiva has been on the forefront of food justice for years. Shiva recently published a book she edit, Manifestos on the future of Food and Seed, which explains the drastic effects of globalization on food sustainability.

Here are some facts:

* 8,000 edible plants are grown in the world, only about 150 are being cultivated for actual consumption, and just eight are traded globally.

*The world's industries produce food for 12 billion people when there are only 6.3 billion people living.

* 800 million suffer from malnutrition and 1.7 billion suffer from obesity.

* Food is modified to travel long distances according to WTO regulations rather than to be nutritious and flavorful.

* To reach agricultural trade policies foods have to be grown to look and taste a specific way in order to be put up on the world market, meaning that most foods are not organic, but rather saturated with pesticides

* Food that is considered "organic" is now seen as "rich people's food," as it is usually too expensive to be purchased by the world's poorest.

All people should have economic access to safe, fairly traded food. Now that is some food for thought.


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