Manna in the Desert

Herd About It?

by Ana Grarian

I’ve been reading an article in Harper’s magazine (June 2009) about feeding the almost 1 billion starving people of the world (Let Them Eat Cash by Frederick Kaufman). I was struck by one paragraph “..almost none of the food riots had emerged from a lack of food. There was plenty of food. The riots had been generated by a lack of money to buy food, and therein lay what may have distinguished today’s hunger from the hunger of years past.”

The world produces enough food to feed the world twice over.The people lack the money to buy it. This brought to mind the changes over the centuries to farming.

There was a time when farming was a very local, family based enterprise. People – most people – farmed, or at least gardened to supply their own food. Surplus was sold for the supplies and luxuries that weren’t grown. Perhaps the carpenter bartered for a beef but his yard likely held a garden and some chickens. Even doctors and preachers accepted product in exchange for services. My Great Grandmother accepted food in exchange for rent in the 1920’s and 30’s in what is now the bedroom communities of NYC. Her extended family ate a lot of chicken. My paternal grandparents had a big garden in the Adirondacks where the growing season is short that supplemented the venison and other game that was hunted in that vast forest. I still have neighbors who fill vast pantries with beautiful jars of canned fruits and vegetables, homemade ketchup and relishes, jams, even homemade mincemeat. When I first came to the community we had a project called “The Lord’s Acre”. The premise was to set aside one acre of land to produce income that was donated to the church. For some folks it was literally the income from the sale of one acre of grain, for the others it was the sale of an animal, garden produce, or handcrafted items. For those of us who worked in “the city” it was a part of our paycheck..

According to the article, and my thinking, one of the major problems with food supply today is that we must trade money for food. Even farmers raise crops for sale and then live off the cash generated by that sale. In part that’s because of the monoculture’s of our agri system.

In the hunger talks depicted in the article, while 25,000 people die every day from hunger, members of the conference discussed how “high food prices and increasing demand present a huge, historic opportunity”. Do you smell a rat looking for profits?

The programs have some good aspects. At one time most contributions to the World Food Program were food. Now contributions are monetary. This could allow local farmers to be paid for food to feed local populations, thus being a help to all in a community or region. Unfortunately life is more complex than that. Farmers grow what will bring in the most money, not what is most needed (due to Internationalmarkets they are not always the same thing). Governments and corporate farms will often sell agricultural products in the market rather than using them to feed their starving populations.

To some extant this is an old story.

In Old Testament times farmers were taxed a portion of their crop which was stored in the event of famine. (That’s how Jacob of the coat of many colors was reunited with his brothers, when they went to Egypt to get grain during the famine). Farmer’s were encouraged to not too carefully harvest their fields so that the poor could go in afterwards and get their meager share (an early work for welfare program?).

Greed is an old story too.

Serfdom, share cropping etc could have worked if greed did not drive the landowners to demand an unfair amount of the yeild during hard times. The famine in Bangladesh in the mid 1970’s occured during a time of peak food. During the Irish potato famine, boat loads of grain, livestock and food were shipped from Ireland to England. In Ethiopia in 1973 food moved out of the hardest hit province to the more profitable capitol.

Ah…. maybe money is the root of all evil, because unlike the manna in the desert, it can be stored up and hoarded for the future, and allow us to develop unhealthy appetites.