Starvation on a planet of plenty

November 15, 1996

As the World Food Summit opens in Rome, Laura Kelly shows how hunger is an increasing menace for many just as global food production is stagnating, and Vittoria D'Alessio asks food experts what is the cause of the problem and what can be done to help.

Today 800 million people, nearly 20 per cent of the world's population, will go to bed hungry, over a third of the world's children will not have enough nutritious food and millions of people are suffering from diseases linked to poor nutrition.

The majority of these people live in Asia and Africa but there are pockets of "food insecurity" - the official jargon for not having enough to eat - in the developed world as well.

Yet we know that the world's farmers are producing enough food for everyone to meet their daily needs. The problem arises because of the unequal production and distribution of food worldwide: the developed nations consume 45 per cent of the world's cereals but contain only 23 per cent of the population.

Most people regard it as morally indefensible that children should die of starvation in a world awash with food, yet, although the debate about how to address hunger is highly charged, there is little agreement on what should be done.

Some commentators argue that free trade is the solution; those who cannot grow enough food should buy it on the international market and export what they do produce to pay for it. But trade is neither free nor fair. The European Union and the United States heavily subsidise their agricultural production. The price the developing world receives for its agricultural commodities (which make up the primary source of foreign exchange for most countries in the southern hemisphere) has been dropping since the 1970s. Its share of agricultural trade fell by nearly a quarter between the 1960s and 1990s. Thus its purchasing power in the world's food markets has also declined.

Other commentators focus on the need to achieve self-sufficiency or increase domestic food production in developing countries. They argue that leaving the food question to the uncertainties of the global market where prices can fluctuate wildly risks creating even more hungry people.

But boosting home-grown food supplies in developing countries involves a trade-off. The choice is between investing in regions with good soils and favourable climates, but which are already producing large quantities of food for relatively wealthy farmers, or boosting production in marginal areas farmed by poorer farmers, who are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.

And as we move into the millennium a series of new challenges are emerging. Demand for food will increase as a result of rising incomes and population growth but, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), production is forecast to grow at only about 2 per cent a year - not enough to match the projected demand. The spectacular increases in rice and wheat production in the 1960s and 1970s brought about by the "green revolution" are beginning to decline as soil quality deteriorates. Excessive use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides has harmed water quality and may have caused increased resistance on the part of pests. Trade liberalisation, as a result of the Uruguay Round of GATT, is leading to the removal of agricultural subsidies which will increase world prices for food, in the short term at least. Meanwhile levels of aid for agriculture in developing countries are declining while natural disasters and local wars are leading to worsening food shortages.

The World Food Summit being organised by the FAO in Rome this week offers an opportunity to take up these challenges. It is not without controversy. Already academics have slammed the summit's agenda. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, for instance, says it will play straight into the hands of the supermarket magnates. "Britain and the US have the most powerful food companies in the world and they don't want anyone spoiling their fun," he says. "For the first time, world bodies will be gathered to talk about the major problems, like maldistribution, lack of money and lack of availability of food. But any hard targets have been written off the agenda. It's a farce." The challenge is to reform policies so that they halt and reverse the poverty of the poorest communities, and the widening gap between rich and poor. But how should this be done?

Laura Kelly is natural resources adviser ActionAid, an overseas development charity. The World Food Summit is being held in Rome from November 13-17.

Lester Brown

President of the World Watch Institute, Washington.

"Rwanda is a classic example of why 1.2 billion people in the world are having to live on $1 a day or less and are often going hungry. Since the 1950s the population has increased to eight million and too many people are sharing the crop land. Now they are in their second generation of sub-dividing plots among children, and even using the best technology there are too many people out-running the capacity of resources."

"Between the 1950s and 1990s the world grain harvest tripled to 140 million tonnes, but the effective use of fertilisers is now declining. We have reached the natural limits of crop varieties to absorb fertilisers. Moreover, since 1989 the fish catch has not increased because oceans have been fished beyond capacity. For the first time in history the world cannot depend on fishermen in times of hardship to expand the food supply.

"If the decline in harvests continues, we may have to ask a question we have never had to ask before: is there any moral justification for couples to have more than two surviving children?"

Tim Lang

Professor of food policy, Thames Valley University.

"There is a lack of purchasing power in countries like Britain and the US. We don't get malnutrition like in Rwanda but we see the same forces operating.

There is a blind belief by policymakers that the market is the only way to get food to all. Yet we need to steer markets. We can go to UK supermarkets and find food from around the world. It is shortsighted to see this use of the world as our larder as a good thing when this trend to long-distance food exploits the environment and takes food from people's mouths locally."

Lang sees hope in the rising criticism of the current unsustainable direction of shopping etiquette. In his view human rights and basic food requirements in all countries can only be protected by governments being made to intervene and by developing consumer power. "At home we need to tackle the culture of hypermarkets, overhaul agricultural policy, apply biodiversity principles from farm to plate. The health costs of the modern food economy are starvation in some quarters and heart disease in others."

Barbara Harris-White

Reader in development studies, University of Oxford.

"People will always go hungry so long as countries operate without state-run food redistribution systems. Developing countries like India are moving in a direction that undervalues one gender. As people get richer, it matters more to them if they have a girl or boy. You may have a household that on the face of it is above the starvation line, but they will still cull their daughters. When they lived in mud huts it didn't matter if they had girls or boys but now they need to keep the property in the sons' line for their own security during old age. These problems will only intensify in the future, unless you have some kind of redistribution of food."

Jules Pretty

Head of the sustainable agriculture programme, the International Institute for Environment and Development, London.

"Food is produced in the wrong areas. The grain revolution of the past 30 years passed by 1.9 billion people - a third of the world's population. Technological development has come up with technological solutions which work in certain places, but where they haven't worked we tend to say 'That's the fault of the farmers, they're not very bright'. But it is our fault entirely - there is no participatory approach to help people find their own solutions.

"Developed countries must steer clear of the Geldof approach to food aid. When it is not a disaster situation sending food undermines local markets and lowers incentives to produce more, and it doesn't address the fact that some people are simply too poor. When people talk about GATT and free trade, a lot of support comes from the North and the 'western world to the help' lobby says we can send food to the South but it won't happen because no one will pay for it. Instead, more food should be produced locally."

Tim Dyson

Professor of population studies, London School of Economics.

He is distrustful of apocalyptic forecasts of global food crises and believes the world will keep pace with growing food demands. "If you go back 150 years, virtually everyone in the world was hungry by contemporary standards. Some people have not been able to lift themselves out of humanity's primeval state. But it is extremely difficult to gauge objectively how badly these people are doing - many of them probably do not think of themselves as hungry. And you could argue that as infectious diseases are reduced in the world, people need less food, and as the world becomes more urban so activity rates tend to be lower and people need fewer calories.

"The indication is that things will generally get better. Cereal yields are going up (from the current two billion tonnes to 2.9 billion tonnes by 2020) and demand will be met through greater food trade. The idea that world population growth is outgrowing the world's capacity to produce food is plain wrong."

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