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Hunger Myths

There is a knotty problem of defining hunger, subjectively and objectively, and differentiating it from starvation on the one hand and malnutrition on the other. Hunger literally means the physiological desire to consume food. But this subjective definition does not lead automatically to an understanding of the extent of food deprivation.

Jaydev Jana | New Delhi |


The proverbial visitors from Mars to planet Earth might have some difficulty understanding the way earth-dwellers connect food and trade. They may wonder why planet Earth is so divided, with a small number of rich countries and a larger number of poor countries. To them the coincidence of hungry mouths with overflowing grain silos may seem to be a paradox. They may scratch their heads at why countries that are poor, with so many hungry people, seem able to grow food quite abundantly on their land.

But ~ and this is where the real puzzle sets in ~ countries that have millions of hungry people are exporting food to countries where people are already well-fed. Astonishingly, the larger agribusinesses/food corporations, by exerting their enormous power, control the cost of raw materials purchased from farmers while at the same time keep prices of food to the general public at high levels to ensure large profits. Globally, around one in nine humans does not have enough food to eat.

There is a knotty problem of defining hunger, subjectively and objectively, and differentiating it from starvation on the one hand and malnutrition on the other. Hunger literally means the physiological desire to consume food. But this subjective definition does not lead automatically to an understanding of the extent of food deprivation. Hunger can manifest itself in different ways – undernourishment, malnutrition and wasting. According to the World Food Programme (WFP) undernourishment occurs when people do not take in enough calories to meet minimum physiological needs.

Malnutrition is when people have an inadequate intake of protein, energy and micronutrients. Starved of the right nutrition, they can die from common infections such as measles or diarrhea. Wasting, usually the result of starvation or disease is an indicator of acute malnutrition with substantial weight loss. Everyday too many men and women across the globe struggle to feed their children a nutritious meal. In a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone, 821 million people ~ one in nine ~ still go to bed on an empty stomach each night. One in three suffers from some form of malnutrition.

Eradicating hunger and malnutrition is one of the greatest challenges of our time. In 2015, the global community adopted the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development to improve people’s lives by 2030. Goal-2 ~ Zero Hunger ~ pledges to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, and is the priority of the World Food Programme. In fact, abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world food supply. Enough rice, wheat and other grains are produced globally to provide everyone with 3500 calories a day.

There are as many as eight pervasive myths that prevent us from grasping how hunger is generated and how some countries are attacking the root causes of hunger to achieve food security. Myth One: Hunger is caused by too many people pressing against finite resources. We must slow population growth before we can hope to alleviate hunger. Reality: Surveying the globe, we in fact can find no direct correlation between population density and hunger. For every Bangladesh, a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia, where abundant food resources co-exist with hunger.

Or we find a country like Netherlands, where little land per capita has not prevented it from eliminating hunger and becoming a large exporter of food. In 1989, Cornell University sociologists Frederick Buttel and Laura Raynolds published a paper containing their careful study of population growth, food consumption and other variables in 93 Third world countries. Their statistical analysis found no evidence that rapid population growth causes hunger. What they found was that poverty and inequality cause hunger. Overpopulation is not the cause of hunger. It’s usually the other way around; hunger is the real cause of overpopulation.

The more children a poor family has the more likely some will survive to work in the fields or in the city to add to the family’s small income and, later, to care for the parents in their old age. However, birth rates are falling rapidly worldwide and demographic transition is being witnessed in Third World countries. Myth Two: There is not enough food to feed the world. Reality: There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life. The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. In the words of Amartya Sen: ‘A person starves either because he does not have the ability to command enough food, or because he does not use this ability to avoid starvation.’

Even most ‘hungry countries’ have enough food for all their people. Many are net exporters of food and other agricultural produce. In fine, hunger is due to the uneven access to food. Those who have much accumulate more, while those who have little edge towards starvation. Myth Three: Drought and other natural disasters are to blame for hunger. Reality: We often blame nature for hunger without considering that human-made forces are making people increasingly vulnerable to nature’s vagaries. Food is always available for those who can afford it. But the poor suffer from starvation. Millions live on the brink of disasters in South Asia, Africa and elsewhere, because they are deprived of land by a powerful few and trapped in the grip of debt.

The real culprit is not natural disasters, but the economy that fails to offer everyone opportunities, and a society that places economic efficiency over compassion. Myth Four: Hunger is the contest between the Rich World and the Poor World. Reality: Terms like ‘poor world’ and ‘hungry world’ make one think of uniformity hungry masses. They hide the reality of stratified societies in both underdeveloped countries and industrially developed countries like USA. Poor people in the Third World pay food prices that are determined by what people in rich countries are willing to pay. This is the direct cause of hunger in many poor countries.

On the other hand, consumption by rich countries is creating suction force in the world food market diverting from meeting the needs of the very people who have grown it. While average daily per capita intake (in kilocalories) in developed countries like USA and Australia is around 3700 kilocalories, poor countries are suffering from Protein Energy deficiency. Of course, in both rich and poor countries farmers, workers and consumers feel the impact of the system of international control, through artificial shortage of food. Myth Five: Green Revolution can resolve hunger. Reality: Augmentation of food production by Green Revolution is no myth.

Thanks to the new seeds, millions of tons more grains a year are being harvested. But focussing narrowly on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger until and unless appropriate attention is given to the distribution system as well as consumers’ access to food is ensured. That’s why in several of the biggest Green Revolution successes ~ India, Mexico, and the Philippines ~ grain production and in some cases exports have climbed, while hunger persists throughout the country, and the longterm productive capacity of the soil is depleted. Now we should think of a ‘Second Green Revolution’ based on biotechnology. Myth Six: Large farms are needed to increase production of food. Reality: Large landowners who control most of the best land often leave much of it idle.

Sometimes, farming systems remain in the hands of the most inefficient producers. On the contrary, small farmers typically achieve at least four to five times greater output per acre, in part because they work their lands more sincerely and intensively and use integrated, and often sustainable, production systems. The World Bank study of northeast Brazil estimates that redistribution of farm lands into small holdings would raise the output by an astonishing 80 per cent. Some of the most respected food analysts in the world such as Miguel Altieri, after a decade of study have categorically concluded that small farms are the most efficient food producers.

Hence the criticality of small farms for agricultural future today stands undisputed. Myth Seven: The Free Market can end hunger. Reality: The popular slogan in the age of globalisation that ‘Market-is-good, government-isbad’ can never help address the causes of hunger. The market’s marvellous efficiencies can only work to eliminate hunger when purchasing power is widely dispersed. The government has a vital role in enhancing the purchasing power of people. The recent trends towards privatisation and deregulation are definitely not the answer. Myth Eight: Foreign aid will help the hungry. Reality: Foreign aid can only reinforce, not change the status quo. Foreign aid generally is used to impose free trade and free market policies.

Even emergency, or humanitarian aid often ends up enriching donors while failing to reach the hungry, and it can dangerously undercut local food production in the recipient country. On advice of development experts, government introduced ‘food-for-work’ programme. A study of FAO stressed that foodfor- work programmes ‘lend themselves to misappropriation of grains, misuse of funds, false reporting of works, creation of a new class of profiteers, poor quality construction, etc.’ We realise that our commitment to end world hunger necessitates a ‘long haul’. The first step for each of us, however, is to break through the powerful myths that have kept us divided and fearful. Pearl S. Buck said ‘A hungry man can’t see right or wrong. He just sees food.’ Even ‘God cannot appear to them (hungry men) except in the form of bread,’ said Mahatma Gandhi at Noakhali (Bangladesh).

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)