The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry

Starvation is often the result of inequity and politics, not a shortage of food

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Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle /

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This article is part of a series of articles on food and the American diet. For more, read Food Fight , In Praise of Fast Food , Waste Not, Want Not , and The First Family’s Fallow Gardens . For more writing on food from the alternative press, visit .

What is the most common cause of hunger in the world? Is it drought? Flood? Locusts? Crop diseases? Nope. Most hunger in the world has absolutely nothing to do with food shortages. Most people who go to bed hungry, both in rich and in poor countries, do so in places where markets are filled with food that they cannot have.

Despite this fact, much of the discourse about reforming our food system has focused on the necessity of raising yields. Though it is true that we might need more food in coming years, it is also true that the world produces more food calories than are needed to sustain its entire population. The problem is unequal access to food, land, and wealth, and any discussion must begin not from fantasies of massive yield increases, but from the truth that the hunger of the poor is in part a choice of the rich.

Inequity and politics, not food shortages, were at the root of almost all famines in the 20th century. Brazil, for example, exported $20 billion worth of food in 2002, while millions of its people went hungry. During Ethiopian famines in the 1980s, the country also exported food. Many of even the poorest nations can feed themselves—or could in a society with fairer allocation of resources.

It can be hard to grasp the degree to which the Western lifestyle is implicated. We don’t realize that when we buy imported shrimp or coffee we are often literally taking food from poor people. We don’t realize that our economic system is doing harm; in fact, the system conspires to make it nearly impossible to figure out whether what we’re doing is destructive or regenerative.

We have been assured that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that it is necessary for us to make rich people richer, because that will, in turn, enrich the poor. The consequences have been disastrous—for the planet and for the people whose food systems have been disrupted, who never had a chance to be lifted by any tide.

Journalist Jeremy Seabrook, in his book The No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty, describes First World efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger this way:

“It is now taken for granted that relief of poverty is the chief objective of all politicians, international institutions, donors and charities. This dedication is revealed most clearly in a determination to preserve [the poor]. Like all great historical monuments, there should be a Society for the Preservation of the Poor; only, since it is written into the very structures of the global economy, no special arrangements are required. There is not the remotest chance that poverty will be abolished, but every chance that the poor themselves might perish.”

It is hard for many of us to recognize that the society we live in helps create poverty and insecurity, but it is true. Our economy is based on endless growth. We’re told that if the rich get richer, it makes other people less poor. Think about it for a moment—about how crazy that is. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to enrich the poor directly, to help them get land and access to resources?

Historically, rural people have been quite poor, but often, despite their poverty, could grow enough food to feed themselves. Over recent decades, however, industrial agriculture and widespread industrialization have moved large chunks of the human population into cities, promising more wealth. But rising food and energy prices (rising because of this move and this urban population’s new demands for energy and meat) have left people unable to feed their families.

Multinational food companies have also worked their way into the food budgets of the poor. Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel are the authors of Hungry Planet. “Few of the families we met [in the developing world] could afford a week’s worth of a processed food item at one time,” they report in the Washington Post, “so the global food companies make their wares more affordable by offering them in single-serving packets.”

Around the world, industrial agriculture has consolidated land ownership into the hands of smaller and smaller populations. Rich nations dumped cheap subsidized grain on poor nations. Local self-sufficiency was destroyed. Now, as the price of food has risen dramatically, those created dependencies on cheap grain, which doesn’t exist anymore, mean that millions are in danger of starvation.

Real alleviation of poverty and hunger means reallocating the resources of our world into the hands of people who need them most. This is not only ethically the right thing to do, it is necessary. There is no hope that newly industrializing nations will help us fight climate change if it means a great inequity between their people and those of the United States. Russia, India, and China have all said so explicitly. The only alternative to the death of millions in a game of global chicken is for everyone to accept that the world cannot afford rich people—in any nation.

What is the best strategy of reallocation? One—that is, for those of us who live in nations where there is plenty of land and food so that we don’t have to rely on the exports of poor nations—would be to enable the world’s farmers to eat what they grow and to have sufficient land to feed themselves and their neighbors.

Most of the world’s poorest people are urban slum dwellers (often displaced farmers) or land-poor farmers, agroecologist Peter Rosset notes. Both groups are increasing, in large degree because of economic policies that favor food for export and allow large quantities of land to be held in the hands of the richest.

“The expansion of agricultural production for export, controlled by wealthy elites who own the best lands, continually displaces the poor to ever more marginal areas for farming,” Rosset writes in Food Is Different. “They are forced . . . to try to eke out a living on desert margins and in rainforests. As they fall deeper into poverty . . . they are often accused of contributing to environmental degradation.”

In this system, poor people who depend on the land, and who best understand the urgency of preserving it, are forced by necessity to degrade and destroy it—and they, rather than we, are held responsible. But a large part of the responsibility rests on the way we eat. This is an important point, because it acknowledges that there are things that we in wealthy nations can do to enable poorer people to eat better—or even to eat at all.


One way to do this is simply to grow our own food, to rely not on foods grown thousands of miles away but on foods grown at local farms and gardens. We also can concentrate on creating food sovereignty in poor nations. We can cut back on global food trade, importing primarily high-value, fair-traded dry goods that take little energy to transport, and place limits on food speculation, which drives up prices so that multinational corporations can get richer at the expense of the poor.

Most of all, we can recognize that self-sufficiency is as urgent in the rich world as in the poor. Globalization’s demise is coming. The rising costs of transportation and the trade deficit in the United States make it inevitable that we will increasingly be looking to meet our basic needs locally.

When we grow our own food, or buy it directly from local farmers, we take power away from multinationals. We make it harder for them to extract wealth and the best land of other nations—and if they don’t need that land, local farmers may be able to use it for their own needs.

We also put power in the hands of our neighbors, many of whom are also victims of globalization. There are 49 million people in the United States who can’t consistently afford a basic nutritious diet. It turns out that the things that make us poor—lack of education, lack of access to land and home, and the industrial economy—are precisely the things that make other people poor. By creating local food systems, we can enrich our immediate neighbors as we stop impoverishing our distant ones.


Excerpted from the book A Nation of Farmers, a rousing work by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton about “defeating the food crisis on American soil.” Published in 2009 by New Society, a wellspring of ideas on sustainability and social change.