Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some things are too important to be left to the "free market"

Amidst this implosion of financial markets, I think that it's critical to discuss a few ideas. Namely, that there are some things that are simply too important to be left to the vagaries of the market. Water and food, especially.

Since the days of Upton Sinclair, we've known that capital markets have been ineffective in guaranteeing food to consumers that is fair, clean and healthy. It's no different today- it seems as though there are new reports of tainted meat, tainted vegetables, or tainted milk.

But we are also still dealing with famine and food riots around the world. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reported this week that another 40 million people have been pushed into hunger this year, bringing the worldwide total to a staggering 963 million. FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem:

For millions of people in developing countries, eating the minimum amount of food every day to live an active and healthy life is a distant dream. The structural problems of hunger, like the lack of access to land, credit and employment, combined with high food prices remain a dire reality.

Notice that he didn't implicate farming techniques, climate change, seed quality, or any other technological problems as the reason for hunger- the problems he cites are due to the failures of markets to ensure that people get fed. It's not just the UN either- Bloomberg news yesterday reported that the World Bank's consistent prioritization of free markets has been a "manmade recipe for famine [that] included corrupt governments and companies that profited on misery."

It's not just the World Bank, it's the World Bank working in concert with the IMF and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to create "open markets" that are increasingly unable to provide either farmers with a living, or consumers with food. At least 87,567 farmers in India committed suicide between 2002 and 2006, largely as a result of globalization of the food trade:

Analysts cite several factors for the suicides, including crop failure due to agrochemicals and climate change, lower prices due to U.S. farm subsidies, state restrictions on export trade, and the dumping of surplus crops in an oversaturated domestic market.

As the economic crisis is making us aware, capital markets to not always function properly in America either. Our food aid program has recently been implicated in starvation around the world, due largely to the influence of lobbyists and monopolistic corporations in charge of the food chain.

Increasingly, it's becoming clear that food and water are different. They should be basic human rights, completely independent upon one's ability to pay for them. I just hope we don't have to wait until billions are starving around the world before we figure that out.

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