It is with the deepest regret that we must pass on the news that columnist Paul Beingessner died June 25 in an accident while repairing a haybine on his farm near Truax, Saskatchewan. Paul brought a unique combination to his readers – a love of farming, an analytical mind and a gift for writing. It is one thing to hold opinions but another to put them forward in an interesting and readable style, week after week, as Paul did for many years for newspapers across the Prairies.
Paul’s love of his farm, his family and his home province of Saskatchewan were evident in his columns, as was his conviction that farmers and rural people could be better off by working together. He was an early and strong advocate for farmers to work together to operate short line railways, and one of his recent columns observed how successful they had been in Saskatchewan but not in other provinces. That was probably in no small way due to his own hard work and passion.
Paul also understood what farms in the middle of the Prairies mean to the rest of the world, and world events mean to them. Above all, he understood the importance of food, and how that despite the trials and tribulations of farming on the Prairies, the life here is blessed in comparison to that of so many others less fortunate. That was evident in his last column, number 725, which appears below.
Paul is survived by his wife Faye, his sisters Dolores (Ken), Rita (Bill), Cathy (Lawrence), and Virginia, his children Naomi (Dan), Chris (Brenda), Kate, and their mother Laura, and his sons James (Carolyn), and David. The family asks that donations in Paul’s name be made to Amnesty International or Development and Peace.
The World Food Program, an agency of the United Nations, has announced that the number of hungry people in the world rose this year to over one billion. It is a startling number. It says that, though the world continues to grow richer in many senses and for many people, it is growing poorer at supplying more of its citizens with food.
This is not the way it was supposed to be, not the way it was from 1990 to 2005. In that time period, poverty (extreme poverty) in developing countries fell steadily. Around 2005, this reversed, and poverty, and with it hunger, began to rise again. This has continued unabated.
The large increase in hunger in the first half of 2009 has been blamed by the World Food Program on continuing high food prices, but it have been much longer in the making than the commodity boom that arose from the banking crisis in the U. S. last year. Like the market crash and sub-prime mortgage mess, hunger in poor countries has been caused in many cases by actions taken in rich ones.
Until recently, international agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the U. S. Treasury Department promoted policies that came to be known as the Washington Consensus. These policies became requirements for countries that wanted loans from the World Bank and IMF. The American government and governments in Europe also demanded that countries wanting to receive aid follow the prescriptions of the Washington Consensus. Key among these were trade liberalization, privatization of state enterprises and deregulation.
One of the results of the Washington Consensus was that spending on agriculture by poor countries declined. This was often demanded as a condition for aid and loans. Meanwhi le, the amount of money given by rich countries for the development of agriculture in poor countries also declined. While imposing these restrictions on underdeveloped nations, the U. S. and the European Union continued to provide ample subsidies to their own agriculture sectors. It was fully expected that poor countries would be able to buy their food needs on international markets while switching their economies over to export-oriented agriculture and industries. They would export flowers to us and we would export food to them.
The result was that the food-producing capacity of many poor countries declined. Agricultural research and infrastructure were neglected and subsistence farmers were pushed aside for oilseed plantations and other export crops.
In 2007/2008, food prices began to rise as a long period of declining food stocks worldwide suddenly got noticed. On top of that, the economic collapse in many developed countries reduced markets for the production of the poor. They could no longer afford to eat.
Some world governments continue to prescribe more of the same as the cure for hunger and poverty – more trade, more deregulation and more privatization. But here is the odd thing. Two of the largest and poorest countries in the world have reduced poverty to a greater extent than any, and they did it while violating most of the principles of the Washington Consensus. I’m talking, of course, about India and China. Both countries resisted privatization of government services, continued to protect their own economies with tariffs and did not make deregulation the be-all-and-end-all of political policy.
So what’s to be done? We have rapidly increasing hunger at a time when rich countries are preoccupied with their own economic troubles, like whether we’ll be able to keep all the Hummers on the road. With troubles like that, how will they have time to think about the hungry in far-off lands?
Various international agencies have proposed some solutions. These include
Increasing aid to agriculture in poor countries and targeting it at appropriate production that will meet the needs of rural and urban poor.
Building food reserves, like India and China did, that can be released at times when supply is low and prices high. This will prevent price volatility.
Tighten regulations on exchanges that trade in commodities to prevent excessive speculation.
Negotiate trade agreements that allow poor countries to protect their economies in times of crisis and exploitation.
Control the market power of massive corporations that can cause markets to swing on their whim.
Of course these measures run counter to the laissez-faire economic policies promoted by the world’s major powers. But in the current economic crisis, they are precisely what is needed. Having caused the problem to a great extent with the failed policies of the Washington Consensus, rich nations bear some responsibility toward the poor.
In the short term we need to alleviate the hunger that is pressing down on one billion people. Nor is the cost significant compared to what we are currently showering on our own economies. Less than one per cent of the global stimulus package would fund the current deficit in the World Food Program.
We should not underestimate the value of living in a world where hunger is eliminated. As someone pointed out, any country is only four missed meals away from anarchy. And anarchy that strikes in one country often has ramifications for another half a world away.