A billion people still go hungry

| June 26, 2011 | 0 Comments

 

A Congolese woman receives food at a refugee camp in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo.

A Congolese woman receives food at a refugee camp in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Globe-trotting journalist Don Cayo explains why millions of impoverished people are doing better — and why millions more are doing worse

There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
— Mahatma Gandhi

When men and women feel compelled to bind their midsections tight, tight, tight to try to fool their bellies into thinking they’re full, there’s not much point in preaching peace. Or democracy. Or living in respect and harmony. Or the rights of women. Or sending the kids, especially the girls, to school. Or any of the many other high-sounding ideals that energize the earnest evangelists of the secular West.
For food is at the core of human existence. And it’s getting too expensive for too many human beings — perhaps a billion in all — to get enough to eat.
So this essay doesn’t concern itself with the shocking price of organic soy products at Safeway or Loblaws. It’s about survival, about living and dying on the margins of life as we in the rich world know it.
The issue of hunger is a complex one, and at its root are factors as many and varied as the peoples it afflicts.
You find it in the most obvious place — in sub-Saharan Africa, the region that persistently lags in every measure of quality of life, where the number of malnourished adults and children exceeds 30 percent. But you find it, too, where you might not expect it — in the economic tiger nations of Asia where millions and millions are doing well, though millions and millions more are not — at least not yet. China and India, those two poster children for the world’s fast-growing economies, have populations so vast that, even though they have a fairly small percentage of citizens who remain profoundly poor, they are nonetheless home to 40 percent of the world’s seriously hungry people.
Similarly, the reasons people don’t get enough to eat are as simple as old-fashioned crop failure, and as complex as geopolitics and the vacillations of the global economy.
In broad terms, hungry masses are found in three sets of circumstances that may have degrees of overlap.
Some people live in places where food production has been disrupted by huge natural or man-made calamities. Haiti, hit by a massive earthquake that was the latest and the biggest in a long string of hardships, is one such place. Iraq and Afghanistan, each wracked by war, are two more. As are Zimbabwe and North Korea, both under the brutal thumb of corrupt autocrats who’ve spent decades ruining their economies.
Some other people — and the line separating these from the first group may be thin — live in countries that have totally missed the wave of globalization. Thus they’ve been left mired in poverty and economic dysfunction, sinking farther and farther behind everywhere else. Much of sub-Saharan Africa, plus a handful of countries in other parts of the world, are in this trap.
Still other hungry people have missed the boat closer to home. Their countries are making progress — maybe, like China and India, they lead the world in poverty alleviation and economic growth. But these people are stuck among the millions and millions of unfortunates, often rural-dwelling and almost always under-educated, whose lives have been untouched by any hint of prosperity.
It may seem obvious that when people are starving or seriously malnourished, no matter the cause, the humane and helpful response is for better-off countries to send food. Yet food aid has costs for its beneficiaries as well as for the donors. When it comes in such quantity that it disrupts the ability of local farmers to make a living, then the former may outweigh the latter.
Time was when rich countries slyly regarded food aid as a high-sounding way to get rid of gluts, and thus keep prices artificially high in their home markets. This was never shown to be an effective way to bolster farm incomes in rich countries and, thankfully, the practice has waned.

The World Food Program distributes food in Rafah, Gaza.

The World Food Program distributes food in Rafah, Gaza.

But food brought in from the outside, no matter what the motivation is for sending it, continues to make up a significant portion of global food aid, and it invariably undercuts the price for farm products grown in the receiving nations. Yet, as is demonstrated by the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and others, famines don’t come about because the afflicted regions have run out of food, but rather because the mechanisms to distribute it have broken down. Ironically, it’s farmers who often suffer the most. When their own crops fail, they are left with no income and thus no ability to buy replacement food to feed their families until another harvest rolls around — or even to buy the seeds that would give them a promise of another harvest and a shot at getting back on their feet.
So the best short-term response in instances where food aid is warranted is usually for donors to buy food locally and distribute it as efficiently and fairly as they can. This shortens the supply chain, which makes the food aid both faster and cheaper. And it strengthens local markets that are giving hard-hit farm families a much better chance to rebuild their livelihoods and their own and their communities’ self-sufficiency.
Finding an appropriate long-term response, however, is much more complex. And the problem of hunger, chronic for some and intermittent for others, is likely to get worse before it gets better for at least three reasons.
Global population continues to grow, and, perversely, by far the greatest increase is in the poorest places — the very countries that can’t properly feed the people they have now. You need not subscribe to theories of global population over-running global resources to understand that, no matter how much food technology can produce, it will have to be distributed to and shared by more people. This creates more opportunities — seven billion by this fall, and 10 billion by the end of the century according to the latest population growth estimates — for individual people to fall into the cracks.
As well, global food prices are, and likely will remain, linked closely to energy prices. No credible analyst expects the cost of oil and its alternatives to be stable for the foreseeable future, but nor is there any evidence the trend price over time will be anything but up.
There is, of course, the prospect that new technology will ease energy prices and/or boost food production. Indeed, in the 300 years since Thomas Malthus famously stewed about whether the global population of one billion in his day would soon overwhelm the earth’s resources, technology has wrought a long and steady series of miracles. These have not just saved the world from starvation, but they’ve also created a hitherto unimagined level of convenience and luxury for at least a third of all seven billion of us who are alive today.
So history gives the world much reason for optimism that we’ll see more of the same. And present-day analysis gives much reason why we urgently need it.
Marvelous as modern-day food-producing technology may be, it is not yet sufficiently widespread to do the job. If it were, we wouldn’t have a billion hungry people today. Not only is this number growing fast in the hardest-to-feed parts of the world, some key tools and techniques now in use are starting to yield ever-shrinking results.
This has been well understood for years in such areas as the vast swaths of sub-Saharan Africa where, driven by climate change and abetted by over-grazing and poor water management, the desert is encroaching on the well-populated, agrarian Sahel. Or in Haiti where, with its hillsides denuded of once-rich forests as desperate people cut every stick to sell or burn or build with, the loss of topsoil washed out to sea is measured in cubic kilometres per year.

Nursery school children in a village northwest of Pyongyang, North Korea, receive rations of food.

Nursery school children in a village northwest of Pyongyang, North Korea, receive rations of food.

Now, a new study published in May in the journal Science tracks a worrisome loss of productivity in corn- and wheat-growing areas in countries as diverse as Russia, China and Mexico. It blames hotter temperatures and drier conditions over three decades for shrinking average yields by 5.5 percent for corn and 3.8 percent for wheat. So far, the bread-basket regions of Canada and the United States have not been affected, and some scientists believe climate change may — at least in the short term — boost yields there. But the global prognosis is, at best, uncertain and, at worst, bleak.
The report’s author, David Lobell of Stanford University, says climate change to date has added about 6 percent to the cost of these two staples. So it’s a small, but significant, factor in the doubling of corn prices and the 80 percent increase in wheat prices between April 2010 and April 2011.
Another worrisome trend is the increasing use of productive land for crops to produce ethanol — a seven-fold increase over a decade in the amount of corn diverted in the U.S and Canada, plus massive amounts of sugar cane in Brazil, sorghum and cassava in Africa, and beets and wheat in Europe.
Then there are energy-price-driven hikes in what it costs to produce and distribute food.
And there are huge takeovers of farm land by foreign corporations taking place in many countries where people are living on the edge. Investors from wealthy foreign countries are buying or leasing millions of hectares in land-rich places, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where the people are dirt-poor. The huge farms investors assemble may grow food — or maybe grow just inedibles like flowers, tobacco or biofuels. But no matter what they grow on such a huge commercial scale, it’s for export. So it weakens local food security and it further constrains what the at-risk inhabitants can do to feed themselves and their neighbours.
Ethiopia, just one of well over a dozen sub-Saharan African countries to go this route, has made nearly 1,000 such deals with foreigners, mostly from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. Lease rates run as low as $1 per hectare per year. The Ethiopian government echoes the argument heard throughout Africa that this is “spare land” that wouldn’t otherwise be in production, and that the new corporate farms create jobs and generate wealth. But some critics dispute this, and others point out that industrialized agriculture is a profligate user of water, a scarce and precious commodity for which the corporate owners are not charged.
There are similar for-and-against arguments for almost every proposed solution to almost every big problem you can name.
No one disputes the potential of new methods and technology to dramatically improve yields in places where modern methods have not yet taken hold. Asia’s Green Revolution of the 1970s is living proof of this. And the immense improvements in farm efficiency have freed up masses of workers who have collectively evolved into the driving force behind the region’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution.
The same kind of thing happened, at least to an extent, in many other poorer parts of the world, but not in sub-Saharan Africa. So this region is ripe for big and potentially positive developments. But other dilemmas are brought to light by the encroachment of corporate farming into what has been, since time immemorial, the domain of small-holders and/or complex village collectives whose delicately balanced dynamics may be little understood — and hugely disrupted — by outsiders.
While the Western example of large-scale factory farms illustrates beyond doubt how production levels can be dramatically boosted, there are hosts of reasons to question the wisdom of adopting this model in the developing world.
For one thing, what would happen to all the surplus labour that mechanization would free up? While it is true that Asian cities have been able to absorb great numbers of workers and make them productive, the Green Revolution’s productivity increases have by no means produced North American-scale results, and Asian farms still provide a livelihood for many, many millions. In Vietnam, for example, 67 percent of all employment is still on the farm. In India, the number is 60 percent, in China it’s 47 percent — and in Canada, “the bread-basket of the world,” it’s 2 percent. Our workers cultivate an average of 117 hectares; Bangladesh’s cultivate just 0.2 hectares.
Mechanized farms also require massive investment — a huge problem in countries with little or no capital of their own and where the foreign dollars that are urgently needed for all manner of priorities are scarce or non-existent.

Mechanized farms produce great amounts of food but require massive investment, a huge problem in countries with little or no capital of their own.

Mechanized farms produce great amounts of food but require massive investment, a huge problem in countries with little or no capital of their own.

Western agriculture techniques involve several other double-edged swords:
• Pesticide and fertilizer use, which can provide dramatically higher yields and protection against crop failure, can also contaminate land and water, create health hazards for workers and neighbours, harm or kill wildlife and beneficial soil microbes and lead to higher input costs.
• Irrigation, which can also hugely increase yields, but can also drain water tables, parch vast areas that aren’t irrigated and leach the nutrients from over-cultivated land.
• The factory farm model of animal husbandry, which brings with it not only high yields, but also a potentially dangerous level of dependence on antibiotics in disease-prone tropical climates as well as the animal welfare issues that producers and consumers in the West have never fully grappled with.
• Genetically modified foods, which, depending whom you talk to, are capable of producing either miracles of enhanced nutrition and/or productivity, or dangerous mutants that threaten the health of both man and beast. In fact, neither research nor common sense establishes that either of these outcomes is inevitable in any given instance, but both are well within the realm of what’s possible.
Not to mention the very real issue of patented GM seeds, and the worrisome possibility that smallholders will become dependent on monopoly suppliers of the seeds they need to survive.
Yet, no matter how many warning signs there may be on the road to modernization of the agriculture sector, there are also huge dangers in standing still. The status quo is grim for the world’s billion hungry people — and there’s a real prospect that this huge number could grow.
The World Bank’s food price index increased by 15 percent in the quarter from October last year to January this year. This brought it to within 3 percent of the peak in 2008, and it drove a net increase of about 44 million people living in extreme poverty in low- and middle-income countries.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 22 countries — just over 10 percent of the global total — are considered to be in a protracted crisis. Among other things, this means the quality of nutrition suffers as well as the quantity, and this raises serious health and developmental issues, especially for children.
Even in countries that don’t make the FAO list, poverty and food inflation can have far-reaching implications. It’s worth remembering that Tunisia’s revolution — the catalyst for a cascade of popular uprisings in many parts of North Africa and the Middle East — started little over half a year ago with the dramatic suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old man who had been denied by corrupt and arrogant officialdom the means to feed his family.
It’s a sad irony that ought not be forgotten: Rising food prices and poverty foment unrest and, when it gets out of hand, unrest drives people from their homes. To the extent this happens, the global problem will worsen. Refugees, pretty much by definition, have little or no ability to feed themselves. Currently, there are 42 million refugees worldwide, most of them living as displaced people in countries as poor, or nearly as poor, as the ones they fled  — places with little or no capacity to feed the newcomers.
Yet, it would be wrong to end this essay with the impression that everything is bleak.
The Green Revolution made a real and positive mark in Asia and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. And, even though sub-Saharan Africa largely missed out on it in the first go-round, it continues to hold real promise. Countries such as Canada, working through CIDA, have made some notable contributions over the years, and now the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has added huge heft — and capital — to private initiatives to research and establish sustainable agriculture practices.
I’ve seen first-hand examples of this. In countries as diverse as Cambodia and Colombia, farmers who’ve never tainted their soil with chemicals — because they couldn’t afford to — are now learning how to leap-frog from 19th-Century technology into the 21st-Century world of certified organic production. In equally diverse Nicaragua and Kenya, I’ve looked at surprisingly large-scale cooperative marketing programs, funded by outsiders, that let tens and tens of thousands of smallholders maintain their traditional subsistence plots while developing new high-value export crops that bring the first significant cash income to their families and their communities. In Malawi, I saw how low-tech irrigation techniques can boost yields without significantly depleting fresh water supplies or driving the farmer into debt. Low-tillage techniques, which lessen the workload and conserve both the soil and its moisture, are becoming commonplace. Similar kinds of advances, many of them highly innovative and some capable of being hugely scaled up, are being tried in countless countries and communities around the globe.
The point is that modern agriculture can offer much that is not dependent on mechanization, chemicals and/or genetic manipulation. Our species’ track record is good. Since Malthus’s day, and even before, we’ve always managed to ultimately keep ahead of the curve.
With a billion people now hungry and millions more at risk, the world is at one of those junctures where we’ve slipped a bit behind. The question isn’t whether we can catch up, but rather whether we have the will to do it quickly.

Don Cayo is a columnist for The Vancouver Sun. Email dcayo@vancouversun.com to reach him.

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