Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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World Grows More Food but has More Hungry People

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday, October 31 / 09

Zack Gross

While food production in the world continues to grow, thanks to a concerted effort over the past decade, the number of hungry people has also grown. As of June of this year, it rose to over one billion, or one in every seven on the planet. 

Some scientific experts may argue that there is enough land, water and agricultural expertise to feed everyone, but people working “on the ground” predict that the problem will worsen as population rises. 

The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals includes the drastic reduction of hunger by 2015 but the opposite seems to be happening, reported the UN Food & Agricultural Agency on World Food Day, October 16.

The recent global financial crisis is said to have added over 100 million people to the list of hungry.  Food shortages in certain areas caused by natural disasters and the rising price of oil led to food price increases that meant consumers could afford less food for their families.  Spending on health and education also dropped. 

Hunger affects women and children most, as proper nutrition is vital to a child’s development and the health of the mother who works hard on behalf of her family and also produces and nurtures children.  Continuing problems with growing conditions and prices are what will keep people hungry.

Paul Collier’s award-winning recent book, The Bottom Billion, argues that, counter-intuitively, the people living in the most resource rich parts of our world are often the ones who are poorest and suffer most from starvation, disease and conflict.  In areas such as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the abjectly poor of Earth live, the land may be rich in fertility and mineral resources.  However, agricultural land is often used for export crops and bio-fuels, rather than feeding local populations. As well, conflict rages as corrupt “strongmen” and their armies put down their people and fight over oil, diamonds, timber and other natural resources.

Thirty countries now require emergency food assistance, twenty of them located in Africa.  60% of the hungry people in our world live in Asia and the Pacific, as these are the high population areas.  As the “Global South” is more and more integrated into the world economy, ironically it is also more exposed to events such as the current recession.  

“Globalization”, which has meant increased corporate investment in developing countries, has one of its downsides in this instance.  Food aid, which often seems like the only alternative, can take the place of local producers and is vulnerable to black marketeering, thus potentially creating as many problems as it solves.

A half-century ago, Western scientists created “The Green Revolution”.  They used new agrichemicals to vastly increase food production in the world, seemingly averting massive hunger at the time. 

Yet, particularly in India which was a showcase for this initiative, many small farmers lost their land during this time to larger land owners who had harnessed the new technologies to their own advantage.  As well, the chemicals used, which held great promise for a world of plenty, turned out to also have negative side-effects for the health of land and people.

 Today’s proponents of organic agriculture argue that a renewed emphasis on nitrogen fertilizers will just exacerbate the world’s greenhouse gas problem.  A new round of chemicals, they say, is not the answer.

While the new US Administration and other active international players stepped up their promises to aid the hungry at recent G8 events, the truth is that so far only a fraction of promised assistance has been delivered, and many “new” efforts are really repackaged old ones.  To some extent, the promises have been made in good faith and then been broken due to the worldwide recession.  As well, competition has raged between the United Nations, the World Bank, domestic aid agencies and others over who will, and how to, deliver new aid programs. 

Much aid has gone into disaster relief in recent years and into programs administered by International Financial Institutions. 

Grassroots, long-term development efforts, particularly in agriculture, has suffered from neglect. 

World Bank figures show that over the past generation, agriculture’s share of all foreign assistance has shrunk from 17% to 4%.  What is needed in today’s world of fragile water supplies is new, appropriate technology such as irrigation systems, and training for producers in productive but low-input methods. 

At this time of year, Manitobans are enjoying the last vestiges of their own agricultural efforts. Gardeners have put up their tomatoes and pickles, and loaded bags of carrots into the old fridge.  Farmers are cleaning up their fields, mucking out their barns and thinking of next spring. 

The fact is that hunger is a long way from us, but it is there.  Better understanding why a modern world still faces (and maybe creates) poverty, and finding ways to respond, must be on everyone’s agenda.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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