The poor feed the rich

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Global Justice and Ethics in Food Choices

The highest level of consciousness in food selection includes consideration of not only our own health and environment, but of other human beings: future generations as well as those presently living on our planet. Unfortunately, in Western society, the “us vs them” paradigm pervades all fields of human behavior.  Competitiveness is first instilled in children as they are encouraged to participate in sports and other contests. These contests are “won” by inflicting losses on the other individual or team. The “other guys” must suffer for us to be victorious. When we become adults, the business world is described as “cut-throat economics” or “dog-eat-dog.” For our success, others must be trod upon in some way because profit takes precedence over fairness. To truly feel compassion for others, especially those economically, physically, culturally and/or religiously different from us, we have to detach ourselves from these prejudices. It would be ideal if the altruism or unselfishness which we all possess could override the competitiveness that now characterizes much of human behavior.

The Poor Feed the Rich

The most ignoble practice in regard to diet is wealthy, well-fed countries importing foods and other commodities grown in poor, hungry countries. It seems absurd that poor nations feed wealthy nations, but this has been happening for many years. It is a legacy of the colonial period.

Slash and Burn

In many tropical regions of the world, traditional agriculture used a system called “slash and burn.”  In this system, a farmer cleared a patch of land by chopping out the vegetation and then burning it off. Crops were then planted for a season or two, after which the thin soils wore out as they were exposed to the powerful equatorial sun. The farmer then moved on to a nearby patch of land and repeated the cycle. This would be repeated again several times before the first patch was used again. In this way, any given plot would only be cultivated about one year out of seven, giving the land time to replenish itself naturally.  When European colonial powers began invading these lands a few hundred years ago, they found much “unused” land, which in reality was the six of seven plots left unused that year. The colonists claimed these lands, and began establishing “plantations” on them. They built fences around these plantations to keep the native farmers from returning to them. Bananas, coffee, tea, and sugar cane plantations were thus started throughout the tropics, leaving the local farmers to eke out a meager subsistence on the little patch that was left to them.  As those soils gave out, the farmers had no choice but to sign on to work on the plantation or try to revolt against the superior weaponry of the colonists. Eventually, colonial-based corporations, like the East India Tea Company, came to dominate these countries, both economically and militarily.

What began as 17th and 18th century colonialism in which rich countries “mined” colonies for their natural resources has now evolved into a system owned by multi-national corporations.  These corporations use cheap land and labor to grow products that can be sold at low prices in richer countries. Because of higher labor costs in the richer countries, these products cannot be grown and sold so cheaply at home. This in spite of the greater transport costs to import the cheaper products from abroad. The sad effect, besides the exploitation of the poor workers and the usurping of their land, is the loss of small family farms in the richer countries, as only large conglomerated farms (often owned by the same corporations that own the land in the poorer countries) can compete. The people in the richer countries end up overeating because food is so cheap (and often devoid of full nutrition as the produce has to be picked green before the long shipment).  The poor countries get hungrier as their food leaves their country, leaving less and less fertile soil on which to grow their own food.  Buying produce from poor countries does not help the poor people there. It makes their situation worse, as the land is owned by a handful of rich people and corporations who pocket the gains.

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