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Davis, California

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Column: Third World problems

As an ag school, the UC Davis campus at large should be aware of how important a role agriculture plays in modern society. It seems that in contrast, Africa has yet to realize — or rather, exploit — the benefits of farming at home versus obtaining produce abroad.

Where the U.S. is a net exporter of agricultural products, Africa remains a net importer with $50 billion of food imported to the continent every year. Subsidized agriculture in the developed world thus becomes one of the greatest obstacles for developing nations.

I don’t mean this to be another rant on how America the Beautiful is proverbially defecating on all other struggling countries, nor is this a cri de coeur to End Poverty and Save the World. But I would like to begin discussing precisely why, in factual terms, there remains a frightfully drastic difference between First and Third World nations.

I have not had the privilege of visiting Africa, but my younger sister traveled to Ghana this summer with a group of schoolmates. One of her first reactions, among many other perturbances, was that while millions on the continent starve, those same people are producing in their own backyards food for Japan, Europe and the U.S., among others.

There is the argument that the food crisis abroad can be solved if Americans, for example, ate less. Put quite bluntly by an official in India, if Americans slimmed down to the weight of middle-class Indians, “many people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plate.”

Yet, the issue of obesity is not exclusively an American one. In fact, my sister went to Ghana for the purpose of conducting an obesity study, where the overall crude prevalence of overweight and obese adults aged 25 years or older was 23.4 and 14.1 percent, respectively.

So if overconsumption isn’t problematic (where this column is concerned) for either wealthy or poor nations, then perhaps waste is.

A recent study revealed that Britons toss away a third of the food purchased. In Sweden, families with small children discard about a quarter of food bought. An estimated 27 percent of the food available in America, according to a recent government study, ends up in our landfills.

You can’t help but wonder if one country’s table scraps could become another country’s meal. But I don’t think the problem necessarily and completely lies in more countries wasting food and others not receiving enough. In some parts of Africa, a quarter or more of the crops go bad before they can be eaten.

But if we take a closer look at whom these crops are feeding, it certainly isn’t the producers.

Farm subsidies theoretically sound like a nice idea. Industrialized countries spend a total of $300 billion on crop price supports, production payments and other farm programs. These strategies actually encourage overproduction and cause markets to flood with surplus crops.

Rudimentary economics says that an increase in supply causes a decrease in price. The dumping of agricultural commodities at prices lower than the cost of production is devastating to developing countries.

The result of subsidizing farms, in addition to high import tariffs, reduces the global price of agricultural products enough that African countries in particular are unable to compete. African farmers’ only competitive advantage then becomes cash crops like cocoa, bananas and cotton. Because of these unfair market forces, Africa devotes itself to growing only cash crops for export, where the shortage of foodstuffs causes hunger and starvation within the country that produces them.

A friend of mine who visited the area around Ivory Coast and Cameroon made a joke, unbeknownst to him, when he asked the locals for a cup of coffee and they first offered him Nescafé. When he said, “No, no the real stuff. The stuff you grow,” they roared with laughter, “Nah man, that stuff isn’t for us!”

I am personally disturbed, as a citizen of a very wealthy nation, that I literally enjoy the fruits of other people’s labor while those same people can’t even enjoy real fruit. I’d join the masses and say to eat and waste less, but those solutions, while momentarily helpful, don’t get at the crux of our global, endemic and historically rooted situation.

It unfortunately remains difficult to break people out of their habits, especially when their mindset may be, as a Ghanaian put it to my sister, “If one is happy, one is healthy.”

If you have a viable, and preferably profitable, solution to world hunger, contact CHELSEA MEHRA at cmehra@ucdavis.edu so she can add her name to the patent.

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