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Seeds of Hunger

Seeds of Hunger

by Yves Billy and Richard Prost, Directors
Produced by ARTE Auteurs Associés
Icarus Film, Brooklyn, NY, 2008
DVD, 52 mins., col.
Sales, $390
Distributor address:  http://www.icarusfilms.com.

Reviewed by Giuseppe Pennisi
Economics Università Europea di Roma
Rome (Italy)


Nearly 40 years ago, Nobel Prize Amartya Sen wrote a fundamental and, at the time, controversial book on the reasons for recurring famines in several areas of what it used the be called the Third World (Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982). In that book and in the later essay Hunger and Public Action (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989) he coauthored with the Belgian-American economist Jacque Dèze Sen contended that there are not technical fundamentals for the lack of food production and, thus, for hunger in the world. The roots have to do with policies and politics: mostly, wrong agricultural policies (from seeding to marketing) due to strong empowerment of certain social groups (mostly urban consumers) and the weak empowerment of others (by and large, the farmers). In the 1982 book, Sen looked primarily into famines into his own home land in the Bengal Gulf, and the feudal and post-feudal agrarian tenure system. In the 1989 book authored with Dréze, he demonstrated that the same asymmetric empowerment worked not only nationally but also at the international level: the EU Common Agricultural Policy (PA) and the US farm subsidies system provide clear evidence of such an asimmetry.

The film by Yves Billy and Richard Prost is a good popularization and updating of Sen and Dréze’s analysis and contention. Interestingly, it is produced by ARTE, a French and German joint venture in cultural and educational television. France, and to a lesser extent, Germany are among the worst offenders in agricultural policies domestically and in international trade in agriculture as well. The film is quite forceful in showing the CAP damages on European consumers and on agriculture exporting countries too. Yet, it is rather strong in depicting like how in the US, certain aspects of  environmental  policies (viz. the production of renewal energy from bio-mass) have worsened the problem because crops are channeled from food to power production.

The movie is filmed in Africa, China, Latin America and the US, but it is not shy about Europe’s responsibility even if it does not show the Brussels buildings where CAP is formulated and enacted. Well photographed sections on farming techniques, farmers’ life and related topics (e.g. the processing of energy from crops, the impact of genetically modified food) in several continents are skillfully intertwined with interviews with specialists from a large sample of agricultural research agencies and international organizations. Thus, it is attractive and useful film that can be effectively be utilized as a teaching tools in courses on economic development and international economic relations.

There is an area where , in my view, the movie is comparatively weak: the rather cursory treatment of international trade negotiations on agricultural produced – from the attempts at the GATT Kennedy Round to those at the most recent, and still unfinished, WTO Doha Development Agenda. In my opinion, it would be very hard to reach a national or even regional (e.g. EU, or NAFTA) solution the basic empowerment asymmetry until a worldwide agreement on agricultural trade rules and governance are developed and there is a broader, although longer term, prospective of a better balance.

Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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