By Natasha Burge
Today marks the beginning of my second exploration of world hunger, as part of Conducive Chronicle’s 21 days for Hunger. For these two days I will be focusing on women in hunger, a topic I covered last May in my first souljourn for world hunger. As Kenda mentioned in the Intro to the series yesterday, I work as a women’s rights activist and educator, and the fact that 70% of the world’s hungriest people are women and girls sits uneasily in my heart. It is this fact, and the constellation of injustices that lead to it, that I will be exploring today in my article and in my interview with world renowned food justice activist, global south advocate, and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva.
Everything about world hunger is unfair. The fact that there are nearly 1 billion people starving in the world right now speaks to the vast amounts of injustice that our global system is built on. That 1 out of 6 human beings goes to bed hungry every night while there is more than enough food to feed everyone generously, seems to me the very definition of unfair. When I began my first exploration of world hunger last May, the endless stream of inequality and injustice was enough to make me want to scream. But out of all of the rage inducing facts and statistics, the one that haunts me the most, that makes me lose sleep at night, that I still find hard to believe, is that the people who grow the world’s food, our farmers, are some of the most likely to experience hunger.
In our world, farmer means woman. 80% of the developing world’s food supply, and 60% of the world’s food in total, is grown by women’s hands. Women plant, nurture, and harvest the food we all need to survive, yet they own less than 1% of all farmland, and are generally the last to eat. 70% of those suffering from chronic poverty and hunger are women and girls. They feed us, and while we eat they starve. The industrialization of our food system has led us to a place where we are now so removed from the food we eat that most of us barely know what’s in it, let alone where it came from or who grew it. What kind of life did she live? Was she well fed, able to enjoy the literal fruits of her labor? Or was she drowning in debt, a slave to the chemical and agricultural companies that have quickly devoured our world? Was she able to protect her land and grow her food in the way her mother and grandmothers did for centuries before her? Or has she been forced to pollute her land and her body with the genetically engineered seeds that promise so much, while yielding so very, very little? How much do we know about our food and the people who grow it? Why are they always the last to eat?
In India, 75% of people make their living by farming, and 60% of those farmers are women. These women plow the fields and raise our food, and yet their harvest is being stolen. In 1994, the completion of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) legitimized corporate growth based on harvests stolen from nature and people. The WTO’s agricultural agreements and ‘free’ trade policies allow transnational corporations that do not grow the food or work the land to make super profits off of the small farmers and their back breaking labor. The WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement made seed-saving and seed-sharing a criminal act, disrupting millennia old traditions practiced in agricultural communities throughout the world. Corporations are now allowed to monopolize the right to a seed, the basic building block of our food security, by claiming it as their exclusive private property. The Agreement on Agriculture legalized the dumping of genetically engineered foods on countries, and criminalized actions taken to protect the biological and cultural diversity on which indigenous food systems are based.
Under World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment mandated reforms, India was forced to radically alter the way food had been grown in the country for centuries. Flashy advertising campaigns assaulted the country and images of gods, goddesses, and saints were used to sell new, hybrid seeds directly to small farmers, even as their land was being devalued, redrawn, and sold out from under them. Once the farmers began to purchase these new corporately ‘owned’ seeds they discovered they were highly vulnerable to pests, fungi, and weeds. Encouraged by their government and the corporations, the farmers bought the necessary corporate owned pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides on credit, comforted with the knowledge that these new seeds would produce yields so large they could repay their debts and have money to spare. Unfortunately, the new seeds were a dismal, drastic failure and crops failed throughout the country. Farmers were left with barren fields, polluted waterways, sky high debts, and empty bellies. Since 1997 200,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves, many by drinking the toxic pesticides that were supposed to save their crops. This cycle of debt and loss and more debt and more loss has been termed the ‘suicide economy’ and has created millions of chronically hungry and debt enslaved people throughout India.
Not only does this suicide economy lead to debt and impoverishment created hunger, it also destroys a region’s ancient biodiversity by creating huge swathes of lifeless monocrops in its place.
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