There is ample evidence, some of which I have discussed and summarized elsewhere, that both under colonial systems and in modern times, as primary exports from developing countries grow over time always, there is a fall in domestic food grains output and availability and hence declining nutritional standards for the population—no exceptions are to be seen. In short, there is an inverse relation between agricultural exports and maintaining domestic food security.11 In British India during the half century before independence food grains output virtually stagnated while exported commercial crops grew ten times faster (the respective annual compound rates being 0.11 percent and 1.31 percent) while per capita food grains availability declined about 29 percent in the interwar period.12 In Java, under the Netherlands, the main export crops of sugarcane and rubber boomed, while per capita rice production declined by one-fifth over the same period. Colonized Korea was made to export 60 percent of its rice to Japan by the late 1930s, and the calorie intake of its own population fell substantially. Colonized Ireland experienced the inverse relation with a vengeance, resulting in a massive famine.

In Mexico during the two decades after the late 1960s, the share of total grain output going as animal feed to meet burgeoning export demand for meat went up from 5 to 30, while the output per capita of the food staples of the ordinary people, maize and beans, declined. The six largest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for three-fifths of the region’s population, saw a one-third decline in per capita cereals output over the decade 1980 to 1990 when their primary exports were growing fast, and the decline has continued at a slower rate since then.13

An obvious proposition bears repetition, for it is never theoretically recognized by economists. Agricultural land is a resource that is not produced by human labor (though its productivity can be improved by investment), and once the technological limits to productivity within a given social production system are reached, it becomes conceptually on par with nonrenewable energy resources. There is a struggle by advanced capitalist countries for control over the productive capacity oflimited tropical land resources all over the world, just as there is a struggle for control over fossil energy resources. Moreover, energy resources are, once more, sought to be produced from crops. After a century and a half of reliance on fossil fuels and with spiraling oil prices as the imperialist United States fails to “pacify” Iraq, the matter is again coming full circle, back to the land. Agriculture is under-renewed and there is strong pressure today to grow biofuels and devote a rising part of grain and sugarcane output to conversion to ethanol. A rising fraction of food grains is again being used as fuel. This development is a recent, very serious addition to the threat to food security in developing countries already posed by growing external demands by advanced countries for procuring traditional and new export crops from limited tropical lands. The more advanced societies demand the use of the productive and biodiverse tropical lands of developing countries to underpin their rising living standards and energy needs, the less land is available for meeting the essential requirements of local poor populations.

The entire matter becomes a zero-sum game. Increasing areas of food grains growing land are diverted to export crops, and over time, a rising share of the food grains is used as animal feed and biofuel, which are mainly consumed by the rich or exported. Even where absolute food grains output does not decline or continues to rise, since it rises slower than the population is rising and its end uses change from direct consumption to animal feed, industrial consumption, and biofuels, we find that there is decline in the domestic availability of food grains for direct consumption, per head of population (“availability” is defined as output minus both net exports and net addition to public stocks). In extreme cases, this can become a steep absolute decline in domestic availability. All this leads to declining nutritional standards of the poor in the country engaging in this type of specialization and increases in mass hunger, since food grains alone account for seven-tenths or more of the energy intake of the poor. Any type of shock to the system (e.g., severe drought, rapid food price rise) can precipitate visible famine. Even without this extreme outcome, declining nutrition levels are bad enough. Such “hidden famishment” is the price that poor developing country populations are made to pay as the cost of free trade, but it is a cost that is neither recognized nor addressed by their own governments, which pretend that poverty is declining and continue to follow the same policies increasing mass hunger and malnutrition. Today, international organizations talk of the problems of child and maternal malnutrition, but the fact of increasing undernutrition within the general population as a whole in India, including at least 250 million men, is never recognized or mentioned. This strange reverse gender bias is to be seen in the writings of even progressive Indian academics taking their cue from the discourse of the international organizations.

To summarize, given the nature of tropical land as a limited resource that cannot be augmented by human labor as regards its extent, and whose supply is thus virtually fixed, external demands lead to a decline in domestic food production for local populations to accommodate rising exports. The economic mechanisms urged by developed countries, through which this is brought about, include trade openness, specialization in export crops, reduction of government’s intervention to maintain domestic food security systems, and, most important, macroeconomic deflation hitting the mass of the population even as incomes for a minority rise fast. These issues are discussed briefly in the following sections in the context of India’s experience under neoliberal economic reforms.

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