Hunger in Plenty

Image: Nishant Aneja


The economic nature of food cannot hide the right to food

Amartya Sen[I] he was 10 years old and still remembers the continuous cries of people asking for help for lack of food. In his recently published autobiography, A home in the world (Companhia das Letras), he reports the shocking scene, 77 years ago, of a man, in the courtyard of his school, in Santiniketan (a neighborhood of the city of Bolpur in West Bengal, India), completely out of his mind and who, by which the students discovered, had not eaten for a month.

The city is just 150 kilometers from Calcutta, a port city through which Indian agricultural exports transited, under the spur of rising prices, at the height of World War II. Food existed, but it was inaccessible to those who needed it. The famous Bengal famine of 1942/43 killed between two and three million people.

This paradox of hunger in full abundance never left his mind and when, in the 1970s, already an economist, Amartya Sen, addressed the issue, his conclusion was unequivocal: “it was more important to pay more attention to the right to food and not to the their availability”. The simple phrase sums up the spirit of the whole work of this Nobel Prize in Economics, won in 1988, for his contribution to a branch of economic science called welfare economics. And nothing better sums up his position in this very technical and mathematical field of microeconomics than his definition of development.

For Amartya Sen, development does not refer to the power to increase the production of goods and services, technologies or social organization aimed at this purpose. Definition of it, which gave rise to the title of book he published the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize, goes much further: development is the permanent process of expanding the substantive freedoms of human beings. The important thing is not things, but what people do with things and how their production affects their lives. Between the potential benefits that an economic good and, even more, economic growth could bring and its real effects on people's lives, the distance can be miles.

In Bengal, people were free to produce and buy food. But this freedom was purely formal, it was not substantive. India was a British colony at the time, and Amartya Sen shows that neither the British Parliament nor the Indian press, under heavy censorship, conveyed the tragedy that did not escape the eyes of a 10-year-old child.

The economic nature of food, the fact that it is produced, distributed and consumed within the scope of a market economy, cannot conceal the right to food. In other words, the efficiency in the allocation of resources and the incentives that the markets offer to economic agents are important, but they do not guarantee sufficient and healthy food for everyone. The “right to food” cannot be purely formal and abstract. If the price of food is far above what the poor can afford, their “right to food” is irremediably compromised, even if food exists and, in theory, can be bought.

That's what Betinho[ii] realized in the 1990s, and this is the reason why Brazilian democratic governments, under pressure from organized civil society and memorable campaigns, implemented, over two decades, state organizations and initiatives that allowed the country to exit the hunger map in 2014. These organizations and initiatives were discussed in Congress, but, above all, they were designed, implemented and evaluated by councils with strong citizen participation. Such an important portion of the country's economic life (the food of its population) was guided by a set of organizations that had an active voice in the organization of food policies.

People's bodies are an unavoidable social marker: 22% of children aged up to five in the Northeast, in 1996, had a height that revealed their chronic nutritional deficiency. In 2006, this total dropped to 6%. It is clear that the increase in the food supply resulted in the cheapness of food and contributed to this result. But he would not have reached without a set of public measures aimed at providing vulnerable populations with the means to satisfy their needs.

The construction of cisterns, which made it possible to live with the drought, the decision to improve the composition of school meals with the purchase of food from family farming, the gradual increase in the minimum wage and direct income transfers were essential for the increase in agricultural production would substantially translate into a reduction in hunger. This is an example of expanding the substantive freedoms of human beings (the freedom to have food that allows healthy growth) without which there is a huge risk that economic growth will move away from the satisfaction of social needs.

But the influence of democratic organization on social life cannot be limited to its distributive dimensions. Contemporary economic growth has been sacrificing the socio-environmental fabrics on which it has so far been supported. The destruction of ecosystem services on which the supply of goods and services depends is much faster than nature's ability to recover from the war that the economic system systematically wages against it. The contemporary food offer depends on a small number of products, whose offer is concentrated in a few regions of the world. On the one hand, the monotony of agricultural landscapes and the uniformity of animal husbandry increase the risks of collapse: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the last 30 years, episodes of severe drought (such as the one that hit the grains in Brazil this year) reached 75% of the planted area.

On the other hand, the gigantic biodiversity that could be at the base of food systems is wasted. According to a report by the British organization Kew Royal Botanic Garden there are more than 7000 edible plants in the world, of which more than 450 can be grown. However, 60% of humanity depends on four crops: soy, wheat, corn and rice. The concentrationary (and genetically homogeneous) creations of animals only do not result in viral and bacterial contamination on a large scale due to the consumption of antibiotics on which these technologies are based. 70% of the antibiotics produced today are intended for animals and a good part of these materials escape into the soil and watercourses, resulting in a worrying advance in antibacterial resistance.

The paradox of hunger in the midst of abundance has taken on a new face in Brazil: our agri-food system is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and yet hunger and malnutrition have grown exactly as these emissions have increased. Child hospitalization due to malnutrition reached, in 2022, the worst rate of the last fourteen years, as shown Fiocruz research.

It is essential that democracy reaches the heart of decisions and economic initiatives and is not present only in mechanisms aimed at the distribution of wealth. It is increasingly evident, for example, the contrast between people's real food needs and what the agro-food system offers them, even in the richest societies on the planet. The food guides, which have been published all over the world (an issue in which Brazilian research has a strong global leadership), signal the urgency of increasing the consumption of greens, vegetables and leaves, reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods in the diet and also significantly reducing the consumption of meat.

If it strictly depends on the handful of large companies that dominate the agri-food sector, this change will not occur. The transition to healthy and sustainable agro-food systems depends on strong social participation and public institutions aimed at disseminating healthy eating and cooking patterns, but also on the decentralization of initiatives capable of decentralizing the food supply and promoting diversity in crops and animal husbandry. and culinary practices. The different forms of urban and peri-urban agliculture that, all over the world, gain importance in empty land in cities, through initiatives of social movements, are an example in this sense.

The contemporary socio-environmental crisis demands that the scope of what economics considered until now belonged to the domain of public goods be expanded. As important as squares, roads, the water and sewage system and the internet are the impacts of economic decisions on nature and society. These impacts can no longer be treated as “externalities”.

The recently deceased sociologist Bruno Latour wrote a book a decade ago in which he proposes the overthrow of the Ivory Tower of academic life and has as its subtitle the proposal of “put science in democracy”. In this moment of recovery of Brazilian institutions, it is also essential to “put the economy in democracy” and stop treating it as if it were an autonomous sphere of social life.

*Ricardo Abramovay is senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Amazon: towards an economy based on the knowledge of nature (Elephant/Third Way).

Originally published in the magazine science and culture.


[i] Amartya Sen is the Thomas W. Lamont Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. Previously, he was Professor of Economics at Jadavpur University of Calcutta, Delhi School of Economics and London School of Economics, and Professor of Political Economy at the University of Oxford.

[ii] Herbert José de Sousa was a Brazilian sociologist and human rights activist. He conceived and dedicated himself to the Citizenship Action against Hunger, Misery and for Life project.

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