A world of hunger amid plenty

Published: 22 September 2011 7:00 CET
  • The ONAHA (National Office for Hydro-agricultural developments) is planning to develop a rice sorter machine which avoids the loss of 10% of production compared to traditional techniques. Farmers working with the traditional method in the Saga paddy field. Julien Goldstein/IFRC
  • Sapna Rani Roy serves the midday meal she has cooked for children of the Kajoli Model Sishu Kendra (a pre-school where her son studies), at Purvadangapara, Lakhichap village. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Dan Maxwell
The ONAHA is planning to develop a rice sorter machine which avoids the loss of 10% of production compared to traditional techniques. Farmers working with the traditional method in the Saga paddy field. Julien Goldstein/IFRC

Bekele Geleta is secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, whose World Disasters Report 2011 focuses on the crisis in world food

Among the ever-widening range of critical issues facing us today, few keep me awake at night more than one of the oldest and most persistent: hunger. As an Ethiopian I saw first-hand my country’s terrible famine in the mid-1980s. I know what it means for people to starve.

Now, in 2011, I find it perplexing and dismaying that when there is more food available than ever before, when agricultural yields have increased hugely, when there are 1.5 billion people worldwide classified as obese, 925 million people simply don’t have enough to eat.

Fifteen per cent of the world’s population goes to bed at night hungry. Most live in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly on the Indian subcontinent and in sub-Saharan Africa. Each year three million children tragically die before their fifth birthday from under nutrition, a condition arising from a serious lack of one or more key nutrients. It is staggering that this can still be happening in this age of plenty and modern technology.

And yet, against this backdrop of severe hunger and misery, over a billion people are tackling the opposite problem of obesity and, perhaps surprisingly, malnutrition. In contrast to undernutrition, malnutrition can arise from the over-consumption of poor quality and unhealthy food and is becoming a serious health problem for those living in societies where food is plentiful.  Poor and rich alike are at serious risk from an epidemic of malnutrition.

Indeed rich countries are no longer immune from hunger. The US Department of Agriculture reports that in 2010 nearly US$70 billion was spent on food stamps for just over 40 million people. Some 240 organizations are now part of the European Federation of Food Banks, which rescues excess food from industry and restaurants for distribution to the poor; they operate in no fewer than 18 European countries.
  
And how scandalous is it that an estimated 30 per cent of all food crops worldwide are wasted? A figure that is sure to shock children who were taught by mum and dad to clear their plates because “it’s a crime to waste food.”

Furthermore, in any discussion about the quality and accessibility of food, we need to factor in the increasing prices of basic foodstuffs.  Wherever you live, you have probably noticed an increase in the cost of your weekly shop. In fact, as our World Disasters Report 2011 highlights, in 2011 global food prices reached the same levels as during the 2008 economic crisis. For most, but not all, people in wealthy nations, this may not be much more than an inconvenience, requiring just a minor tightening of the purse strings.  But for others, this price hike has pushed tens of millions of people in poor countries to the very edge of survival.

As our report details, the factors behind this new inflation of food prices are many and difficult to pinpoint. They certainly include a general reduction in global food stocks, the impact of climate change on agriculture, and increasing use of land for ‘eco-friendly’ bio fuels. There is also a growing consensus about the role of financial speculation in causing the volatility of food markets: when the US property bubble burst, investors apparently found new, safer opportunities for profit in the food-commodity futures.

They do not, as often thought, seem to include ballooning demand for more and better food from the new economic powerhouses of the world like India and China, which remain net exporters of cereals. The EU, by contrast, remained the largest importer of oil seeds and the fifth largest importer of cereals in 2007–8. 

But for all these complex reasons, the volatility of global food prices is here to stay. The era of cheap food appears to be over.

When food insecurity (as it’s called in the humanitarian world) reaches crisis proportions, we will respond to the fullest extent of our capacity. And in practice that means within the capacity afforded to us by our donors. An example: In 2010, drought once again pushed some of Africa’s Sahel region and especially Niger, a country whose people depend largely on rain-fed agriculture, to the brink of mass starvation. Our appeal for 4.4 million US dollars to assist nearly 400,000 people with cash, food and seeds was only just over 50 per cent covered.

Food aid, of course, is not an ‘answer’ to anything. What can be done in the long term?

Specialist opinion is divided between targeting much-needed agricultural investment at smallholders and encouraging capital-intensive, industrial-scale farming. Both have a role. But we believe more must be done as a matter of urgency to assist the smallholders who supply food for half the world, and for 90 per cent of Africa. Smallholder farming is a success story waiting to happen.

Proportionate yields on small farms can actually be higher than on more capital-intensive ones. But small farmers need seeds and fertilizers, and help with marketing. In 2002, good weather and the introduction of new seeds and fertilizers produced a bumper maize crop in Ethiopia, but the result was a glut that saw prices crash. Our report also argues that if targeted investment is made in women farmers, yields can be improved by up to about 30 per cent.
 
Yet foreign investors, backed by giant hedge funds, are now reportedly engaged in a new, 21st-century scramble for Africa, highlighting one of the major challenges to developing smallholder agriculture: land rights. An Oakland Institute report earlier this year found that ‘largely unregulated land purchases are […] forcing millions of small farmers off ancestral lands and small, local farms in order to make room for export commodities, including bio fuels and cut flowers.’

This must stop. The international community must speak with one voice: Africa needs to produce food and not just cut flowers for first world dining tables. 

More attention, meanwhile, could be paid to the treatment of less severe malnutrition, addressing micronutrient (vitamin) deficiencies. But generally, until governments, donors, humanitarian agencies and civil society agree to link their responses on food to the underlying (and admittedly complex) technological, environmental and institutional issues, food insecurity is likely to remain a serious problem. Even as things stand, the first of the Millennium Development Goals –halving the proportion of people experiencing extreme poverty and hunger – is unlikely to be met in many countries. 

The time may be right for a fundamental review of how we all get food onto our plates.

We must wean ourselves off ‘identi-kit fruit’

In the rich word, the whole issue of where food comes from, and from whom it comes, is hugely topical, and has been for a surprisingly long time. The fair trade movement, for example, actually dates back to the 1940s. Consider also the recent controversy surrounding over-cautious “sell-by” dates that lead to much edible food being wasted. Or supermarkets’ ridiculous insistence on fruit and vegetables being the same size, shape and colour – a marketing tactic that excludes smallholders whose perfectly acceptable produce may not look like identi-kit fruit.

Mainly as a result of the 2008 crisis, aid donors have now refocused much attention on agriculture. Most have withdrawn their blanket opposition to input-subsidy schemes, for example. Commitments to agricultural aid by both donor governments and multilateral agencies bottomed out at a dismal 3.4 per cent of the total, but have recently begun to recover.

At the same time as many donor governments untied their food aid, enabling greater local procurement, the idea of distributing cash in humanitarian operations – rather than imported food aid or relief goods manufactured in the North – is gaining ground. This too will help smallholders, stimulating local demand and creating jobs.
 
Increasingly private companies are embracing corporate social responsibility (CSR) not just because they want to look good, but because it’s better for business, helping to create the export markets of the future. In one CSR success-story among many, Unilever has teamed up with the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Ghanaian health service to develop affordable iodine-fortified salt.

Running through the entire issue of the global food system, there is surely a point to be made about equality. If the free interplay of market forces has produced an outcome where 15 per cent of humanity is hungry while a fifth is overweight, something has gone wrong. Economics exists for people, not vice versa. If this lamentable situation is to be corrected, in this arena at least we must find ways to govern the laws of supply and demand.   Maybe: If this lamentable situation is to be tackled, we must find ways to regulate the laws of supply and demand and promote a more equitable distribution of food between those who have too little to eat, and those with too much.

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