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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C

Column Hunger and the horsemeat scandal, both the consequences of inequality

We produce enough food for 10 times our population, but the horsemeat scandal shows just how inequality has forced people to low-price, low-quality food, writes Richard Manton.

AT THE HUNGER, Nutrition and Climate Justice conference the extent of hunger and malnutrition across the globe was highlighted. The statistics, which unfortunately many people have become conditioned to, were given by Michael D. Higgins: “more than one billion people are undernourished, over two billion suffer from nutritional deficiencies and almost six million children die every year from malnutrition or related diseases.”

Higgins called this “the greatest ethical failure of the current global system”. As horrific as this global situation is, one does not need to travel across the world or 150 years back in Irish history to see significant levels of hunger and ethical failure; one need only look around Ireland today.

Hunger in modern Ireland

In Ireland, over one million people experience two or more types of deprivation, including not being able to afford a roast once a week. A Food Poverty Indicator, based on CSO data, found that 10 per cent of the population, or 450,000 people, are in food poverty. Families with children were found to be three times more likely to be in food poverty.

Gerry Murphy, President of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, said that food poverty is hindering primary school pupils’ ability to learn. He said: “Who would have thought that food poverty would be an issue in Irish schools in 2013? Children who are hungry going to school cannot properly access any one of the three Rs.” In a 2010 survey, conducted by researchers at NUI Galway, 21 per cent of children reported going to school or bed hungry.

Even in colleges, Students’ Unions have been forced to distribute food boxes (albeit in small numbers) to hungry students. Twist soup kitchens have opened in Galway and Athlone and serve around 100 people per day. The return of the soup kitchen to Irish society should, alone, be indicative of hunger and economic failure.

Famine reflections

Famine conditions clearly do not exist in Ireland today, but many of the causes and lessons are strikingly relevant: then, as now, hunger was a product of economic conditions; there was situation of starvation in the midst of plenty; large amounts of food continued to be exported; and government policy promoted the profits of a few over the health of the vast majority in Irish society.

During the Famine, the starving poor were forced to rely on soup kitchens provided by the Quakers and temporarily by the state, yet huge quantities of food continued to be exported from Ireland between 1845 and 1849.

Tim Pat Coogan in The Famine Plot writes: “Ireland had no shortage of food. The problem was that people had no money to buy it. The Irish food produce would not have replaced the potato, but had the food that was exported all through the Famine been retained in Ireland, it would have greatly alleviated the situation.”

Coogan tackles the issue of culpability for the deaths and emigration of the Famine and lays the blame with the social conditions imposed by landlordism and the laissez-faire response by the British government. Today, modern laissez-faire has dramatically increased poverty and, in the midst of a horsemeat scandal, Ireland exports 510,000 tonnes of beef and 215,000 cattle worth €2 billion. Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney, has said that we produce enough food for 10 times our population. Yet we cannot feed our schoolchildren.

Inequality has driven the public to cheap burgers

Michael D Higgins told the conference that “the source of this hunger is not the lack of food, but the moral affront of poverty, created and sustained by gross inequalities across our world.” In Capital, Karl Marx describes “the intimate connection between the pangs of hunger of the most industrious layers of the working class, and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined, of the rich”.

Over the last three years, as the poorest in our society have become poorer, the 300 richest individuals have gotten €16 billion richer. One of the richest men in Ireland has a total wealth of around €4 billion, the same amount as the poorest 1,100,000 people in Ireland, a quarter of the population. Not only is such inequality economically unsustainable, it is also a moral affront. There is an intimate connection between the pangs of hunger of the 450,000 people in food poverty in Ireland and the extravagant consumption of the millionaires and billionaires.

The horsemeat scandal shows how this inequality has forced people to low-price, low-quality food with suspect ingredients. Dr Alistair Fraser of NUI Maynooth pointed out that there is a “large class of people for whom seriously digging around for low cost food is a requirement to make ends meet.”

He shows that there is a major difference between what people spend on food with “€221 spent each week in the richest households versus just €66 in the poorest” and “whereas the richest households spent just 12.9 per cent of their income on food, that €66 was 18.8 per cent of income in the poorest households”.

Fraser concludes: “Given this, the outrage this week shouldn’t so much be that anyone has had to eat horse meat, but rather that we have such levels of inequality in our society and indeed such a large proportion of the population that feels forced into finding these so-called bargains”.

Profiteering has driven producers to horsemeat

Large multi-national food corporations have been competing to provide cheaper products in the drive for profit, regardless of the impact on the nutrition of the public. It is this same profiteering that is driving speculation on the food industry. Writing in the Sunday Business Post, David McWilliams said: “in the last five years, financial speculation in food commodities has doubled from $65 billion in 2006 to $126 billion in 2011.”

Multi-national corporations are monopolising food supply: five companies control 90 per cent of the world’s grain, two companies control 50 per cent of the banana trade and six companies control 85 per cent of the pesticide market. This speculation and monopolisation has driven food price hikes internationally, as prices rose by 56 per cent between 2007 and 2010 in developing countries.

The fact that, in a hungry world, gigantic sums of money have been invested in financial speculation on food rather than in food production and distribution, is an indictment of the ruthlessness and backwardness of finance capitalism. The fact that corporate profiteering is driving up price while driving down nutritional value shows that food production must be taken out of the hands of these speculators and profiteers.

Eliminating the profit-drive from food production through locally grown produce, administered by cooperatives and the state, would go a long way to resolving issues of quality and environmental impact. Eliminating the profit-drive from our society as a whole could end the root cause of these issues – inequality.

Richard Manton is a PhD student at NUI Galway and blogs at Public Engineering.

Read: Horsemeat scandal: Dept refuses to release over 200 pages of emails with FSAI>

Column: The Irish beef business model is broken and needs to change>

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