Food for Thought

Hunger is on the rise in the developing world — and in the U.S.


A new U.N. report says that hunger around the world is increasing, with the number of undernourished people up to almost 850 million, an increase of 18 million from the mid 1990s. Perhaps more shockingly, at least in this country, is that around 30 million Americans aren’t getting enough to eat this year. Food for thought at Thanksgiving.

The U.N. report, from the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said the latest figures “signal a setback in the war against hunger.” And the U.N., which in 1996 set itself the goal of cutting the numbers of hungry people in half by 2015, is now having to scale back its ambitions.

The report collected figures between 1999 and 2001 that compare poorly with those from the previous study, which covered 1995-1997. In fact, while the numbers of the hungry were falling in the early 90s — the total number of undernourished decreased by 37 million — this positive trend now looks to be reversing. The number of undernourished people has been rising by some 5 million a year since the mid-1990s. One in every seven people in the world is now hungry.

Only 19 countries, China being one, succeeded in reducing undernourishment. In 26 countries, the numbers of hungry increased by 60 million; countries in transition or mired in conflict, particularly in Central and West Africa, have seen hunger numbers rise.

On the brighter side, some say that the numbers, because they’re not uniform around the world, aren’t as grim as they appear. As the Christian Science Monitor notes:

“[The] overall figure … obscures areas of progress.
For instance, exempting the 30 million that India and the Democratic Republic of Congo added to the rolls of the malnourished, hunger actually continued its decade-long descent by another 12 million.”

Still, there are plenty of people going hungry in the world, with appalling consequences. The Christian Science Monitor reports that some cultures are resorting to drastic means to stave off hunger:

“In impoverished Malawi, for example, activists say the practice of families bartering off young daughters to older men in exchange for money to buy food has once again resurfaced over the past two years.
And in hermetic North Korea, stories of people relegated to eating twigs and bark have now been replaced by reports of sporadic cannibalism.”

The reasons why a particular country is ravaged by hunger are many, but the report makes one thing clear: the situation needn’t be as bad as it is. The report says:
“Bluntly stated, the problem is not so much a lack of food as a lack of political will.”

The London Independent writes:

“The FAO is right about that. Contrary to a widely held perception, the world has long been able to feed itself. While droughts, floods and other natural disasters always have the potential to destroy even the most prosperous agrarian economies, the real underlying, persistent problem of world hunger has for many decades been principally man-made.”

And the principal blame, according to the Independent, goes to Western leaders, especially from the United States, the European Union and Japan:

“George Bush and Jacques Chirac may have their differences of outlook, but both hold as an article of political faith the protection of their respective farmers. Generous subsidies have led to over-production and waste. Agriculture in the developing world cannot hope to compete with the web of support offered in the industrialised West.

If the amount spent on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy were invested in, say, irrigation schemes, that would transform the agriculture of many impoverished nations. Typical emerging economy industries such as textiles cannot cope with the sort of tariffs that are imposed on their exports. Those are the sorts of failure of political will – the failure, that is, to stand up to powerful domestic lobby groups in favour of the world’s poorest citizens – that we in the West can do something about, and shamefully do not.”

Efforts to combat hunger have scored some successes. In Brazil, President a “Zero Hunger project” provides electronic cash cards for needy families and subsidized food. In Vietnam, nutrition education is becoming widespread. But in many countries, such schemes are not in place.

An article in The Independent, by Paul Vallely, offers a poignant picture:

“…I travelled to Sudan where drought had also shrivelled the land. Halfway to the famine area our four-wheel- drive stopped to refuel. There by the roadside in the parched scrub was a dusty straw-thatched hut. Outside a family was huddled around a meagre fire made from a handful of sticks. The children had swollen bellies and thin limbs. The mother was cooking a single piece of flat bread which was the entire meal for the whole family. “Why didn’t you tell me we were in the famine area already,” I said to my guide.
He laughed. “That’s not famine,” he chided. “That’s just ordinary life in Africa. Being hungry is normal.”

Perhaps more shockingly for Americans, this country has a serious hunger problem, too. To take an example at random, according to a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1.6 million New Yorkers, or the equivalent of the population of Philadelphia, suffered from “food insecurity,” in 2002, meaning they couldn’t rely on having enough to eat. Nationally the number of “food insecure” Americans rose from 10.7 percent in 2001 to 11.1 percent in 2002, the last year for which figures are available. That’s about 30 million people. Among the department’s other findings: One in nine people skip meals so their children can eat, go to a food bank at the end of the month or don’t know where they’ll get their next meal. (Food banks, by the way, are getting .overwhelmed by rising demand.) And nationally, nearly 38 percent of all emergency food recipients are children.