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World Hunger: There’s more to the problem than we’re led to believe

Food security is a basic human right. In a world that produces more than enough food, why does hunger afflict so many?

November 6, 2014

It’s projected that the world population will reach 9 billion people in 2050, and experts fear there won’t be enough food to feed everyone. That’s because 805 million people throughout the world currently suffer from chronic hunger. If we can’t adequately feed the present population, around 7.1 billion people, how will we meet the needs of an even bigger one?

Among the proffered answers to this question are a) to increase the output of industrial agriculture and b) to rely on genetically engineered (GE) crops. Monsanto, the GE seed megacompany, insists that food production must increase by double in order to feed the world. Not surprisingly, Monsanto wants us to believe they’re just the company to save the world from hunger.

With global food security as the goal, (a term meaning “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”), letting Monsanto, or any industrial food corporation take the reigns will only perpetuate the problems we’re facing. That’s because their approach to eliminating world hunger is flawed and ignores the real reasons why hunger exists (it has little to do with food production yields).

This is the first of a two-part post about food insecurity. This post outlines the real reasons of global hunger. The second, to be published soon posted here under “3 ways to help reduce world hunger”, gives details of implementing effective changes for eradicating hunger from the world.

Why chronic hunger exists:


1. Inefficient distribution of food calories

World Hunger: There's more to the problem than we're led to believe (2) There’s already more than enough food calories available to feed the world; hunger is not the result of insufficient rates of food production. In the U.S., there are 3,800 food calories available per person per day of which the average American consumes about 2,700. As Michael Pollan explains in this animation (very much worth watching), enough food was grown in 2008 to feed 11 billion people (in 2008, the world population was 6.7 billion)…this year is otherwise known as the year of the Global Food Crisis. If an overabundance of food is produced during a food crisis, why are there starving people in the world? Because the majority of  food produced is in the form of commodity crops which never reach a human mouth. These crops are turned into livestock feed (to appease a more and more meat-hungry world) and converted into ethanol to fuel the automobile industry. These are not efficient uses of the available cultivable land or the food calories produced from that land.

2. Production of the wrong kinds of food

World Hunger: There's more to the problem than we're led to believe (3) Most of the U.S.’s arable land is dedicated to growing corn, wheat, rice and soy: commodity crops that receive government subsidization. Their government support has allowed these foods to completely infiltrate the food system. The portion of these commodity crops which is not fed to meat animals or cars is turned into highly processed “food substances” (to borrow a term from Michael Pollan): junk food (crackers, chips, candy, cakes, cookies…), boxed cereals, fast food meals, frozen meals, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable oils, preservatives…These food substances are devoid of nutritional value and linked to major diseases.

So why do they proliferate the food system? Because more commodity crops are produced per day than can be absorbed by the meat and automobile industries or us, the food consumers. Processing commodity crops into packaged foods ensures they can sit on supermarket shelves for months (sometimes years), allowing them loads of time to sell before they’re considered unfit to eat. This deal works out great for the Big Food corporations who buy the government-subsidized crops at low prices and make large profits from them in their processed forms. It’s not so great for a world suffering from a deluge of processed foods and animal protein and in desperate need of fruit and vegetables. Monsanto and other Big Agriculture companies want us to believe that in order to eradicate hunger from the world, the current yields of commodity crops must be doubled. This makes no sense when there is already an excessive amount of these foods produced and yet still a deplorable number of people going hungry.

Further problems with placing our trust in GE foods and industrial farming as it currently exists is that these industries are dependent upon huge quantities of fossil fuels, water and toxic agrochemicals. If our wish is to continue using the earth’s resources in unsustainable methods, polluting waterways, depleting the soil of its nutrients and fertility, threatening the survival of wild animal species, and releasing toxins into the atmosphere, then by all means let’s support industrial agriculture. Otherwise, it’s time to stop putting up with this nonsense.

3. Misplaced Support

World Hunger: There's more to the problem than we're led to believe (4)To truly ensure food security for everyone, every country has the right (and the need) to make bountiful supplies of locally-raised food accessible to its nationals. A plenitude of willing farmers and arable land exist throughout the world. What’s missing is the international trade rules which endorse the development of local foodways and food systems. The World Trade Organization and the World Bank have instated policies under the guise of “free trade”. In reality these policies curtail the efforts of small family-based farmers in favor of powerful countries . In this scenario, food is produced cheaply in the powerful country then exported to poorer countries and sold at prices which crush local competition. An example: Mexico where imports of U.S. corn have led to the demise of an estimated 2 million farm jobs for Mexican workers and spurred the levels of poverty within the country as well as illegal immigration out of it.

What’s more, the World Bank’s policies support multinational investors in their pursuits of land governance in developing countries, which they obtain at the expense of locals. The story goes like this: an investor takes over a large tract of cheap land in rural Africa then evicts the natives who have farmed that land for generations. The land is turned into an industrial farm while the local population slumps into poverty without the means to address the food shortages which ensue. It’s little surprise that hunger is a great threat to human life when so many vulnerable countries are stripped of the resources to feed themselves.

4. Food Waste

One in every 9.

It’s clear that the world doesn’t need more food. What we do need is to become more efficient with the food that’s already produced and the land that’s available to farm.

5. Conflict and Poverty

World Hunger: There's more to the problem than we're led to believe (5)The root causes of hunger run even deeper than the methods and quantities of food production. We can (and must) transition to methods which promote sustainability, but this will only take us so far. Complete food security for everyone requires the eradication of conflict, poverty, inequality and insecurity. The United Nations eloquently describes the plight we’re in on its website:

Hunger exists because of poverty, natural disasters, earthquakes, floods and droughts (…) Hunger exists because of conflict and war, which destroy the chance to earn a decent living. It exists because poor people don’t have access to land to grow viable crops or keep livestock, or to steady work that would give them an income to buy food. It exists because people sometimes use natural resources in ways that are not sustainable. It exists because there is not enough investment in the rural sector in many countries to support agricultural development. Hunger exists because financial and economic crises affect the poor most of all by reducing or eliminating the sources of income they depend on to survive. And finally it exists because there is not yet the political will and commitment to make the changes needed to end hunger, once and for all.

I may be mistaken, but I doubt Monsanto or any other industrial food corporation possess the capability, interest or initiative to tackle the true causes of hunger.

Look out for my next post on this topic. It will address the changes that must occur to eradicate hunger and what we can do to work towards this goal.

Update: Read the second part of this post here at “3 ways to help reduce world hunger”. 

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