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Op-Ed

Global Hunger

Justin Frewen, February 21, 2010

A child from the remote Turkana tribe in northern Kenya waits his turn to fill an empty food aid tin with water at a riverbed pit on Nov. 9 near Lodwar, Kenya. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images)

Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on development aid and the launch of high-profile initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals, the blight of hunger has not been defeated. If anything, its grip on hundreds of millions of people is as tight as ever.

In 2000, some 790 million people in the southern hemisphere were deprived of basic food security. According to the World Bank's 2009 Global Monitoring Report, the number of chronically hungry people—those consuming under 1,800 calories a day—rocketed upwards when the global economic crisis hit. The number went from 850 million in 2007 to 960 million in 2008. By mid-October 2009, the figure had risen to over a billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. To put this in perspective, this total exceeds the combined population of the European Union, the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

It is important to remember that deaths caused by hunger are generally the result of chronic malnutrition rather than starvation. Just as in the mid-19th century Irish famine, when many of the fatalities were due to accompanying infectious diseases—typhoid fever, typhus and dysentery—people in the South suffering from nutritional deficiencies are far more prone to attendant illnesses. The death toll from hunger and related diseases has also mounted and now approaches a daily total of 25,000 people, an average of one life lost every few seconds.

Children are badly affected both in their physical and mental development as a consequence of malnutrition. According to UNICEF there are almost 200 million children under the age of five in developing countries who are suffering from stunted growth due to a lack of sufficient nutritional intake, of which 90 percent live in Asia and Africa. While there has been progress in Asia with the percentage of children afflicted by stunted growth falling from 44 percent to 30 percent between 1990 and 2008, the situation improved only slightly in Africa, as the percentage declined from 38 percent to 34 percent. It has been estimated that over 25 percent of children in the South are underweight and as many as 10 children die each minute from undernourishment and related diseases.

Tragically, this situation exists in a "world of plenty" where, despite a 70 percent population increase over the past 30 years, agriculture globally is producing 17 percent more calories per person today than it was then. We would appear, therefore, to live in a world where hundreds of millions go to bed hungry simply because they are too poor to be able to purchase sufficient food.

Food is like any other product in a market economy, a commodity. Farming is a business. Accordingly, large tracts of the best agricultural land are devoted to the cultivation of tea, coffee, tobacco, cotton and so forth, given the significant market demand for them. Similarly, over half the grain produced in the United States is used as livestock feed, despite the fact that it would provide food for far more people than the livestock to which it is fed.

Approximately 80 percent of all food commodities produced globally is consumed by the richest 20 percent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the World Health Organization estimates that there are now a billion overweight adults, with at least 300 million of them obese, a figure that is almost identical to the worldwide total of people who exist in a condition of food insecurity.

Furthermore, many farmers produce cash crops for export as well as for alternative energy. There is now more corn being grown than staple food items such as wheat or rice, as corn can be used for bio-fuel. Conversely, the reduction in wheat and rice production has led to shortages in these crops, thus triggering higher market prices and rationing. This concentration on producing crops and food for export instead of domestic consumption has exacerbated the ongoing global food crisis, as many in the South cannot afford food sold in the international marketplace.

The volatility of food prices, particularly of those essential for the staple diets of the poor, has had a drastic impact on the nutritional intake of hundreds of millions of people. Studies have shown that staple foods are responsible for between 40 and 80 percent of energy intake for the majority of population groups in the South. Even a slight increase in the price of staple items can therefore have a significant impact on food consumption. Families that might previously have been able to afford two or more meals a day may now have to cut back to just one, often with less costly ingredients of inferior nutritional value.

While governments in the South have tried to tackle the food crisis and stem the rising prices of staple items through the provision of subsidies as well as cash and food assistance, the resources at their disposal are limited. It is therefore imperative that the North play a role in overcoming this crisis, not only by making development assistance available but also by revisiting their policies in areas such as bio-fuels. It is essential that the issues of poverty and inequality are dealt with in order to ensure everyone has access to sufficient nutrition.

What is required is a complete rethinking of the manner in which agricultural production in the South, and indeed in the North, is viewed almost exclusively in terms of its market value, with scant consideration being given to the nutritional needs of people, particularly those living in poverty. The pressure placed on states in the South to adopt a policy of encouraging the production of cash crops for export needs to be urgently revisited. Instead, resources should be made available for agriculture and rural development that support domestic food security needs and contribute positively to the livelihoods of local communities.

 

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