Free Trade and Food Security

Earlier, I wrote about the effects of free trade on its victims in the Irish Famine. Most people are aware by now that Ireland was a net exporter of food at the peak of the famine, even while many people were starving to death. How was this possible? It was all due to the “free market,” in which food goes to the people who can afford it, no matter where they are, rather than the people who need it, even if they produce it themselves. Giving aid to starving people would create a “culture of dependency”; the exact same rhetoric you hear today about giving aid to the victims of globalization.

I hadn’t realized that Ireland was not the only case of free trade ideas causing the deaths of millions of people during this period. The British also used their Indian colony as a laboratory for the ideas of Adam Smith et.al. with even more disastrous results:

Unidentified British Male: “If you talk about atrocities committed in the colonial period by the British Empire most people would just stare at you blankly. They have no idea what you’re talking about. If you talk about Stalin‘s atrocities, they’re fully apprised of those. But Lord Lytton, in India, probably killed as many people as Stalin did, by very similar methods, exporting grain in the midst of a famine, huge, huge quantities of grain, often from places where there was a surplus of production, a very successful harvest, and engineered a famine in which tens of millions of people died. But we hear nothing of this. We know nothing of this.”

NICHOLAS WOODESON (narrator): “How many British students learn about the work of the historian Mark Curtis? Drawing on formerly secret UK government files, he estimates that Britain is complicit in the deaths of over ten million people from countries around the world since 1945.”

The Lottery of Birth (Lumpenproletariat)

Here’s Wikipedia’s entry on the Indian Famine:

Great Famine of 1876–78

In part, the Great Famine may have been caused by an intense drought resulting in crop failure in the Deccan Plateau. However, the commodification of grain, and the cultivation of alternate cash crops also may have played a role, as could have the export of grain by the colonial government; during the famine the viceroy, Lord Lytton, oversaw the export to England of a record 6.4 million hundredweight (320,000 ton) of wheat.

The famine occurred at a time when the colonial government was attempting to reduce expenses on welfare. Earlier, in the Bihar famine of 1873–74, severe mortality had been avoided by importing rice from Burma. However, the Government of Bengal and its Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Richard Temple, were criticized for excessive expenditure on charitable relief. Sensitive to any renewed accusations of excess in 1876, Temple, who was now Famine Commissioner for the Government of India, insisted not only on a policy of laissez faire with respect to the trade in grain, but also on stricter standards of qualification for relief and on more meager relief rations. Two kinds of relief were offered: “relief works” for able-bodied men, women, and working children, and gratuitous (or charitable) relief for small children, the elderly, and the indigent.

And the entry on Lord Lytton. Queen Victoria’s Durbar occurred during the same years that the famine was taking place and millions of Indians were starving. One is reminded of the Presidential Inaugurations in Washington DC taking place miles away from post-collapse neighborhoods ravaged by drugs and crime.

I was reminded in that entry of Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts, which details these victims of free trade in detail. I have not read it, but ought to pick it up to give essential details of the results of free trade. Here’s a good discussion on Reddit AskHistorians on the famine.

From my understanding the root cause for the worsening famine in the eighteen seventies was that the British (notably East India company) completely centralized the grain market in just a few years time, thereby destroying the localized market system. at the end of it not only the provinces under drought had to suffer trough famine but provinces with grain surpluses too because the centralized prices completely skyrocketed.

On top of that officials didn’t (want to) realize the extent of the problem and they actually continued to export grain which worsened the famine even further.

I thought this comment was especially interesting.

Polanyi himself writes of the situation (pp. 159-160):

Indian masses in the second half of the nineteenth century did not die of hunger because they were exploited by Lancashire; they perished in large numbers because the Indian village community had been demolished. That this was brought about by the forces of economic competition, namely, the permanent underselling of hand-woven chaddar by machine-made piece goods, is doubtless true; but it proves the opposite of economic exploitation, since dumping implies the reverse of surcharge.

The actual source of famines in the last fifty years was the free marketing of grain combined with local failure of incomes. Failure of crops was, of course, part of the picture, but despatch[sic] of grain by rail made it possible to send relief to the threatened areas; the trouble was that the people were unable to buy the corn at rocketing prices, which on a free but incompletely organized market were bound to be the reaction to a shortage.

In former times small local stores had been held against harvest failure, but these had now been discontinued or swept away into the big market. Famine prevention for this reason now usually took the form of public works to enable the population to buy at enhanced prices. The three or four large famines which decimated India under British rule since the Rebellion were thus neither a consequence of the elements, nor of exploitation, but simply of the new market organization of labor and land which broke up the old village without actually resolving its problems. While under the regime of feudalism and of the village community, noblesse oblige, clan solidarity, and regulation of the corn market checked famines, under the rule of the market the people could not be prevented from starving according to the rules of the game.

The term “exploitation” describes but ill a situation which became really grave only after the East India Company’s ruthless monopoly was abolished and free trade was introduced into India. Under the monopolists the situation had been fairly kept in hand with the help of the archaic organization of the countryside, including free distribution of the corn, while under free and equal exchange Indian perished by the millions. Economically, India may have been–and, in the long run, certainly was–benefited, but socially she was disorganized and this thrown a prey to misery and degradation.

In that post I also mentioned that the “starving African” and “starving Indian” was not a fixture of these societies prior to the last few hundred years. Now this article offers concrete proof of that fact:

An Archaeological Mystery In Ghana: Why Didn’t Past Droughts Spell Famine? (NPR)

The anthropologists in the article found through scientific analysis that there were much more severe famines in the past than the more recent ones in Ghana, yet there was apparently no starvation! People tightened their belts but were able to hold out reasonably well.

In the Banda district of west-central Ghana, July is the hungry season. This year’s sorghum, yams and millet are still young and green in the rain-fed fields, and for most farmers, last year’s harvest is long gone. People survive on cassava. They grind the roots and cook a polenta-like porridge called tuo zaafe and they stir the leaves into a soup. But there isn’t enough to go around always, and the meal lacks protein. It’s hard to know whether autumn will bring more food: Rains in Banda have been erratic lately and harvests sparse. The region has been in the midst of a 40-year drought.

It’s easy to think that life has always been this way in Banda — a poor, mostly agricultural district, a 10-hour drive from Ghana’s thriving capital, Accra. But according to Northwestern University archaeologist Amanda Logan, that could not be further from the truth. Logan says the hungry-season gap likely didn’t exist in the past. In fact, her research shows that before the mid-19th century, people here usually had enough to eat — even when rains failed…Logan reports that food security in Banda peaked about 500 years ago, smack in the middle of an epic drought. By contrast, a much milder dry spell is currently wreaking havoc on local diets.

In the past, droughts were even more severe than the El-Nino influenced droughts that Mike Davis describes in LVH. Yet local economies thrived as did local markets:

From the 11th through 15th centuries…people mostly ate pearl millet, a grain historically loved by communities all over West Africa. Other artifacts…show that during this period, merchants were plugged into trade networks, and local artisans were busy. That suggests there was enough food to feed a significant number of people who weren’t farming. In other words, the people of Banda were thriving.

Then, in the middle of the 15th century, a two-century-long drought set in — sedimentary records from nearby Lake Bosumtwi tell the story.”That drought, in terms of its severity and length, is like nothing we’ve seen in modern Africa,” Logan says. “It’s really intense.”

But here’s the mystery: The archaeological record during this period shows no signs of food stress — no big increase in wild plant remains, which people often eat to get through famines; no shift to less-preferable foods; no major declines in population. People kept eating millet. And a wide range of iron, copper, ceramic, ivory and cloth artifacts show that trade and craft production were still thriving…It wasn’t until the mid- to late 1800s, long after the drought ended, that Logan began to turn up evidence of food stress.

What changed? The anthropologists find it was because they were part of a thriving local economy that had multifaceted aspects and kept most food and economic exchanges local. By contrast, under the free trade regime imposed by Europe, people could not compete with cheaper imports, and the local economy was demolished. People had no other choice than to become export farmers, subject the vagaries of the One Big Market. This meant that in the case of harvest failures, there was no backup plan, and no alternatives.

According to Logan, two key things [changed]: The slave trade siphoned off many young farmers and artisans, and Banda was incorporated into Britain’s Gold Coast colony in the late 1800s. The British wanted to expand markets for their own industrial goods like iron and cloth, so they undercut local production of these items.
“Five hundred years ago, Banda was a producer as well as a consumer of highly sought-after stuff [like] gold, ivory, iron and copper,” she says. “As you get to the colonial period, Banda stops being a producer of anything but agricultural and locally consumed goods” like pottery.

These changes weakened Banda’s economy, and consequently, crippled residents’ ability to survive drought and other disasters. The region remained reliant on agriculture even after Ghana became independent in 1957.

Today, over 70 percent of residents work in farming, fishing or forestry. Because they sell much of their harvest to earn cash, families often run short of food for themselves and have to buy more at the market. If crops fail or prices rise at the wrong time, they go hungry.

In other words, the local culture had evolved over numerous generations to deal with the inevitable crop failures and shortages with minimal disruption. It also provided a wide variety of social niches, and was to some degree self-sufficient.

That local culture was stripped away, just as it was all over the world, as Polanyi describes. In its place, such economies would be “plugged in” by force if necessary, to the One Big Market. Now, the impersonal forces of supply and demand alone would dictate the underlying fabric of society. Economies would become specialized to produce export crops for distant markets, leaving them especially vulnerable to famine.

“It fits really well with the historical record,” says [Scott MacEachern, a professor of anthropology at Bowdoin College and president of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists], who was not involved in the study. “We tend to think of colonization as a fairly dry process, as essentially changes in government. On the ground, they were fantastically disruptive processes to the patterns of everyday life. So it’s entirely plausible that the decline in food security she talks about is associated with those processes.”

Free trade isn’t free after all–someone always pays.

3 thoughts on “Free Trade and Food Security

  1. Presumably also the situation described by Steinbeck in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’? I remember a moving passage about fruit withering on the trees at the same time as the people starved…

    • Not sure about that one, but it makes sense. I know many farmers destroyed their crops during the Depression because they could not get adequate prices in the “free” market, including dairy farmers here pouring milk into sewers at a time when many mothers couldn’t get enough milk for their children.

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