The Politics of Food reviews


PBS Documentary Explores ‘The Politics of Food’

December 29, 1987 | Bill Steigerwald

The premise of  The Politics of Food is that there is more than enough food to feed the planet and that world hunger is not caused by famine or overpopulation but by inept or misdirected politics.

This premise, however, is applied rather selectively. The documentary, produced by an international consortium headed by Yorkshire Television of England and edited for PBS by KCET, appears to offer a balanced and thorough view. Instead, it seems intent mostly on trying to prove that the West is the cause of Third World economic problems.

The opening sequence of monstrous grain combines chewing across wheat fields intercut with film of starving African children is an early hint of the direction in which the producers are headed.

When, for instance, the film makers visit a Minnesota farm to lament the demise of the American family farmer, they attack agribusiness for being too concen-trated, too efficient and too mechanized. The benefit to consumers in lower food costs is breezed by in a sentence and quickly contradicted by a Hunger in America official. His statement that 20 million Americans still are “without proper nutrition” because our national government isn’t caring enough is left unclarified and unchallenged.

In Brazil, we are shown scenes of urban squalor and rural poverty. These conditions are blamed on faulty government agriculture policies (Western mechanized methods that displaced smaller farmers) and the World Bank, the documentary’s conspiratorial devil, which is later blamed for food scarcities in the Sudan and Bangladesh.

By the time praise is heaped on an apparently paradisiacal state in India–where the Communist Party is the political power, and where food is subsidized and no one is hungry–the film makers have demonstrated their leftist political bias.

There are no doubt many things wrong with the politics of American and European agriculture policy, including protective tariffs and generous, politically motivated government subsidies to farmers that create huge food surpluses, drive world prices down and undercut Third World farmers in their own countries.

There’s no doubt that the cheap loans of the World Bank and the free food of the international aid agencies often have actually impeded the ability of Third World nations to feed themselves.

Whether it’s all been a conspiracy to unload the West’s mountains of surplus grain, as is intimated in this Martin Sheen-narrated program, is less certain.

Some Third World developmental experts, such as Peter Bauer of the London School of Economics, have said that severe food shortages are created by internal politics–by civil wars, by the Draconian application of ideologies (e.g., Communist Ethiopia) and by deliberate economic policies that subsidize their more politically important urban populations and hurt their own farmers. But in two hours of examining the politics of food around the world, the producers never found the time to address these issues.


January 06, 1988 | John Corry

The Politics of Food examines worldwide hunger and finds it’s the fault of the West. Western creditors and governments, particularly the United States, have joined to choke off world food supplies. The two-hour documentary, on Channel 13 at 10 o’clock tonight, is provocative, but it doesn’t have much breadth.

The documentary – produced by an international consortium headed by Britain’s Yorkshire Television, and narrated by Martin Sheen -visits Minnesota, Brazil, the Sudan, Bangladesh and India. Dispossessed farmers in Minnesota, it finds, have conterparts in the third world; they are all burdened by debt, manipulated by creditors and forced off the land by big business.

Consequently, much of the world goes hungry, even though there is ample food. The world distribution process, the documentary says, is faulty. Grain and other surpluses pile up in the West, while millions of people starve to death or suffer from malnutrition.

The documentary is persuasive about this. How could it not be? The West does indeed have food surpluses, and much of the world does starve. Why does this happen? The documentary suggests that a principal villain is the World Bank, which forces debtor nations to grow cash crops, rather than food that will feed their people.

Nonetheless, the documentary does seem a shade simplistic. Revolutions and wars, one thinks, have done at least as much to disrupt third-world food supplies as bureaucrats in Washington or on Wall Street. At the same time, ”The Politics of Food” is ambivalent about centralized economies. Are they good or bad? The documentary wants it both ways.

Thus it pleads for family farmers the world over; it argues for rural economies, where governments and banks stay off the farmers’ backs. That’s decentralization. On the other hand, the only bright spot the documentary seems able to find is a region in India that makes grants to the poor, practices land reform and regulates food prices. That’s not decentralization.

On television, however, the region is prettily filmed. Mr. Sheen says the inhabitants even elect Communists to office, and that the system is such that ”everything is shared more equally.” Well, perhaps, but surely world hunger is more complicated than that.

The documentary concludes with a warning about ”antidemocratic structures.” It says they ”are the main cause of hunger.” That’s sufficiently vague to include many things, but whatever they are, they all have their roots in the West. ”The Politics of Food” is interesting, but it never looks beyond its own horizon.