An Address on May 18, 1986 by
Of the many great problems facing the world today, none is more fundamental than the persistence of widespread hunger and malnutrition. Hunger is the world's hidden and permanent crisis. The threat of nuclear war and the accelerating destruction of the natural environment present enormous challenges to our continued existence. But hunger poses a special problem. Lack of food is a matter of life and death on a daily basis. And the need to eat every day gives the world food crisis a special time dimension that other global problems lack.
The crisis of hunger is played out in a world that has more food than it knows what to do with. The latest report published on world resources shows that world food production in the mid-1980's has reached levels so high, that many commodity prices have plummeted below the actual cost of production, precipitating a wave of farm foreclosures in the United States and ever-increasing levels of state subsidies for farmers in Europe, the Soviet Union and elsewhere. And yet up to one in five people on earth, or up to a billion people, are unable to get enough to eat.
Everyone is affected in some way by this extraordinary food situation and by the world's failure to achieve global food security - its failure to ensure that every individual has enough to lead a healthy, working life. I am happy to share my own concern with you and add my thoughts on the nature of the food crisis to those, I am sure, already preoccupy you.
I will begin by looking at the response that has been provoked by the crisis, and go on to dismiss some of the myths and fallacies that befog our understanding of what causes famine. By doing so, I hope to give you a clearer picture of its real causes and an idea of the kind of action that needs to be taken in order to conquer hunger and malnutrition forever.
It is almost impossible today to avoid being concerned by the world's failure to achieve food security. We are bombarded by the media, particularly by television, with information about food and famine. It can be very confusing, especially as half the world talks about having too much food, and the other half about there not being enough.
The vast sums paid to farmers here and in Europe to encourage them not to grow certain types of food provide a perverse contrast to the relatively small sums we are told would be needed to provide food for millions of hungry people; we can switch from a fitness workout on one channel, telling us how to fight "urban flab," to another where we are confronted with ghastly images of emaciated children counting every grain of corn or rice that they receive.
To add to the confusion, we are given all sorts of conflicting advice as to why this situation exists and what we can do to sort it out. We hear about climatic catastrophes in Africa and Asia, droughts, earthquakes, and floods, and the disorganized state of agriculture in the South as compared to the North. We read about corrupt dictatorships whose leaders have large Swiss bank accounts and thousands of pairs of shoes while their own people starve and go barefoot, about endless wars that make it seem hardly surprising that people cannot get on with the job of growing food. And then there's the population problem; how on earth, it is asked, can countries expect to feed themselves if their population rates continue to explode? At least the North has got its population rates under control.
If the reasons given to us for the very uneven world food situation are unclear, then so have been the reactions we are invited to make to it. Although, as I hope to show, the North is in no position to adopt a "holier-than-thou" attitude towards the South when it comes to their respective food systems, the international response has, quite reasonably, accorded with Ogden Nash's dictum: "We shall never solve the paradox of want in the midst of plenty by doing away with plenty." And so the reactions are largely about what the North can do in the South to help achieve food security for all its citizens, rather than about what it might do in its own fields and on its own dining tables to address hunger elsewhere. Some, reminding us of how much more technically and educationally advanced the North is in comparison to the South, advocate an accelerated transfer of the North's skills and resources. Here the World Bank leads the way. Others respond in a much more emotional way; the thousands of smaller private agencies and non-governmental organizations tend to emphasize the helplessness of the poor. They have had great success in raising large sums from the public for the relief of those most dramatically affected by drought and other catastrophes, an inspiring example being Live Aid. The corporate world, which has massive interests in the South, often in agriculture, advocates the need to strengthen private sectors in order to develop weak economies - the "magic of the market-place" reaction.
While we can debate the correct response we should give, the facts about hunger are rudely straightforward. A statistician could tell you that in the next hour between 5,000 and 10,000 people will die of hunger and its related diseases and that in the next three days as many people will have died of these as were killed by the Hiroshima bomb. Hunger didn't go away when the TV cameras deserted last year's African famine; it continues in parts of Ethiopia, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola and elsewhere. What we saw on television was just a particularly grim skirmish in a permanent war that has many fronts.
Mercifully, it is almost impossible to muster the mental resources necessary to appreciate the extent and the depth of the suffering involved, to get past the numbers to the misery and pain of the individual victims, and then to multiply that a million-fold to get some idea of the total horror. Our sense of humanity and justice demand action of us, and not just for altruistic motives. The absurdities are an affront to mankind's commonsense. For example, how can it conceivably be that easily enough cereal and grain are grown in the world to feed every single human being on the planet with an adequate diet, but instead of being used to ensure that no one goes hungry, vast quantities go towards feeding cattle? And that the meat produced as a result is then sold to people in the North where it contributes to heart disease, high blood pressure, and all the other modern ailments spawned by imbalanced and excessive diets? And as a consequence, the overproduction of meat has created vast surpluses, veritable mountains of meat, which then cost a fortune to store and refrigerate - if sufficient storage facilities can be found - incurring costs far greater than the original market value of the meat itself.
Everybody, rich and poor, loses out in this extraordinary system. The poor die because they cannot afford to buy grain (which they themselves may or may not have grown) at the prices that meat growers are prepared to pay; and the rich die because of over-consumption. The medical, research, and pharmaceutical establishment in the North, not to mention the fitness industry, can therefore in part be placed beside famine as by-products of the world food system. I ask you, does this make sense?
To begin to get an idea of what we can do, the major myths and fallacies about hunger need to be dismissed. I will address three of these which are most commonly held.
Perhaps the easiest myth to succumb to is "hunger is caused by the climate." This is largely because the phenomenon of hunger - a silent, persistent, and seemingly interminable reality to a billion people in the South - only comes home to most people in the North on the television screen. And inevitably, that's only when hunger is news, usually when drought has pushed already malnourished people to the edge of life. That droughts are not a factor in the North helps reinforce the thesis that drought, and catastrophic weather generally, is a major cause of famine. Let me put it to you that here in New England the farmers face a far more dramatic climatic crisis on an annual basis - it's called winter - than is faced by any farmer in Africa. For months here the temperatures are so low that nothing will grow in the earth and yet farmers manage to anticipate, even to take advantage of, the seasonal pattern. Similarly, in the developing world, climatic disasters, droughts and floods included, can be anticipated and have been so for centuries. Indeed, in many parts of the world floods are an integral part of the agricultural system and rarely has a lack of rain, until relatively recently, caused widespread human death or starvation. Communities in arid areas are traditionally mobile and, except in the very worst cases perhaps twice a century, have been perfectly capable of coping with drought.
There is, however, a crowning irony in the assumption held by many that the climate causes hunger. It may turn out to be true. But not for reasons that can be blamed on nature. In the process of industrialization and of extracting the earth's natural resources, mankind is inflicting enormous damage on his environment. Large commercial concerns, usually financed from the developed world, are chasing minerals and cheap resources for international markets. Poor people, in their desperate need for food or energy, such as firewood, or some income to procure these, are destroying their forests and exhausting land that cannot generate the crops that they try to eke out of it.
The result is that eight million square miles of the earth's surface, or twice the size of Canada, is now on the edge of being turned into desert. Twenty-seven million acres of the world's most genetically rich environment, tropical rain forest, is being destroyed a year, equivalent to fifty acres a minute. Tens of thousands of tons of fertile soil are being dumped into the ocean annually; and the tons of gaseous wastes being pumped into the atmosphere threaten to pollute the biosphere that effectively enables the planet to breathe. The upshot is that more and more people are exposed to climatic fluctuations and natural disasters; and the rains, for example, that do fall on a drought- struck farming area are increasingly likely to fall on ground whose topsoil and absorbent capacity has been destroyed, and whose surface just provides a slipway for new rains to wash even more soil into the sea. It is as if we are converting into reality the fallacy that "climate causes hunger." But it's the human climate, not the natural one, that's doing it.
A second great fallacy is that overpopulation is at the root of hunger. It is unquestionably true that many nations, particularly in Africa, have rates of population growth that, unless curbed, will make their ability to feed themselves increasingly unlikely. These play havoc with any attempts to plan for the future. But the fact that some nations cannot feed themselves does not prove that they are overpopulated. Many rich nations, Japan and Switzerland to name just two, cannot feed themselves either. It is their access to the world food market that is the real issue. For millions of people, to have a large family, by providing extra hands for work now and supporters in old age, is to reinforce the front line against poverty and hunger. Children are wealth and labour. Stronger economies make for smaller families. That is the causal link, not smaller families making for stronger economies.
Global food production has in fact kept ahead of population growth. And when you consider that world population is growing by ninety million people a year, and that it has grown from the two billion mark in the 1930s - really not that long ago - to more than 4.5 billion today, the dynamism with which agricultural production has expanded is all the more remarkable.
Nor do large populations and high population density cause or perpetuate hunger. China is, of course, the great example; there, the area under cultivation, representing seven percent of the world total, supports twenty-five percent of the global population, and it does so with impressive reliability. Sudan is another example, but unfortunately for very different reasons; it has one of the lowest population densities in the world and yet suffers from chronic hunger and malnutrition. The Netherlands and Bangladesh have comparable population densities but there is no comparison in their respective food security. The real key to understanding the situation lies in the relative wealth of their citizens.
The third major fallacy I want to address is that the agriculturally-efficient North is constantly bailing the poorer countries out in terms of food. The misconception is reinforced at times of famine when large amounts of food are sent abroad as relief. But in fact, taken as a group, western industrial countries imported more food from developing countries than they exported to them; in effect, the poor parts of the world supply more food to the rich than vice-versa. But is northern agriculture all that efficient? And what kind of food is exchanged?
If we take the food system in the North as a whole, from the way food production is financed and the products grown, processed, stored, distributed, and sold, it is true that American and European agriculture is highly capital intensive. The numbers employed in actually growing food, relative both to other sections of the economy and to the situation in the South, are remarkably small. Nevertheless, there are strong grounds for reviewing the effectiveness of western agricultural systems.
First, in environmental terms, they are hugely wasteful and we have still to count the full ecological cost of energy-intensive pesticides; chemical fertilizers, and mechanized farming. In financial terms, the colossal cost to governments, and therefore to all their taxpaying citizens, of protecting and supporting farmers, whether with direct subsidies, import restrictions on certain crops, or tax incentives, casts serious doubt upon agriculture's financial soundness. In public health terms, we have already touched upon the medical and physical costs to society. Finally, in energy terms, western agriculture is voracious: for example, it has been calculated that in the highly mechanized and technologically dependent U.S. food system, producing food for each American requires 1,400 litres of oil per year, If the whole world's food systems used a similar energy input, all known reserves of oil in the world would be exhausted in something like eleven years. And the list could go on. What about the costs to society as rural communities have disintegrated, or the genetic costs, as the genetic variety of crops has been dangerously reduced leaving them vulnerable to unanticipated pest outbreaks?
The tragedy for many parts of the developing world has been that this model, fused with elements of modern European agriculture, has been transferred to the developing world in varying degrees. It is both totally unsuited to the needs of the vast majority of people and economically unsupportable without continued aid from the North. And this aid, rather than enabling the South to become economically independent, has pushed it deeper and deeper into debt.
And this brings me to my reading of the real, long-term causes of famine. Climatic set-backs, overpopulation, and the South's inability to feed itself are not the fundamental factors causing or perpetuating hunger and malnutrition. They are just symptoms of something much more basic: poverty.
The poverty of whole countries within the global community is echoed in the poverty of whole sections of society within nations. The poor, nations and individuals, do not have the economic muscle to ensure their access to the kind of food they need. It seems such an obvious thing to say, that poverty is the root of hunger and that rich people don't starve, even in catastrophes, but for a long time it has not been obvious to many. The latest World Bank Policy Study on Food Security puts it this way, in bold lettering on the front of its report: The world has ample food....Yet many poor countries and hundreds of millions of poor people do not share in this abundance. They suffer from a lack of food security, caused mainly by lack of purchasing power.
The fact that the South, with its wide-spread poverty and malnutrition, is a net exporter of food to the North has to be understood in terms of the types of food grown and exchanged, and of who has access to that food, or in other words, who can afford to buy it. I am reminded of Ethiopia here; at the height of the '84-'85 drought, the country was actually exporting certain types of food at the same time as emergency food shipments were being sent to famine victims. It makes me wonder whether the ships unloading emergency grain and milk powder were berthed beside ships loading up fruit and vegetables for export to the supermarkets and refrigerators of Europe and North America.
A further twist to the tragedy is that the South's poverty is in many respects new. The introduction of socially and culturally alien methods of agricultural production in the South has destroyed what had often been highly efficient agricultural systems. They may not have been geared to generating large surpluses, like those of the North, but they were suited to predominantly agricultural societies and used methods which were environmentally sound and well suited to the nutritional requirements of indigenous populations. Agriculture in developed countries has been evolved in response to certain specific conditions relating to the relative availability of land, labour, and capital. Quite obviously, the same mix rarely exists in the South. The conclusion we can draw from this is clear: if it is ever to achieve real food security, the developing world needs food models worked out on the basis of its own human and natural resources, and ones certainly that do not require vast and continual external financial inputs.
So what is to be done? I am going to give you my own view of the way forward, the way we can really achieve global food security, and implement workable food models, much of what I will say can be found in the book Famine - A Man Made Disaster? published by the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, of which I am chairman. For I hope that Tufts University President Jean Mayer will agree with me in saying that the problem of achieving food security is now principally one of implementation rather than research. The experience of the last few decades and, for example, the successes and failures of the Green Revolution, as well as the Chinese experience, have pointed out to us the practical steps that need to be taken to secure the poorest billion's access to food, and to allow their literally vital instincts and agricultural knowledge to be put to use in their own interests.
On the international level, successive oil shocks and the subsequent boom in irresponsible lending by the North to the developing countries has put them in an almost impossible position. The mammoth task of economic development is being undermined by a continual net drain of capital to the North. For all the northern hand-wringing about the debt crisis, interest payments presently mean a net annual transfer of resources from South to North. In addition, the control of the pricing, supply and distribution of raw materials, commodities, and cash crops by interests in the North denies the producer-nations any chance of formulating and sticking to development objectives. The purchasing power of their commodities has steadily declined since World War II and has made it doubly difficult for them to afford the technology or manufactured goods that might stimulate development. While it may be true that overplanned economies in the South have stuck rigidly to the overproduction of commodities whose long-term value was certain to decline, there is still no excuse for the systematic impoverishment of the South. It leaves it with no economic latitude to invest in change, even though it may want to do so.
The interdependent nature of the world economy prevents any one developing nation from reforming itself on its own. Each is bound to the wider world economy. And the global dimensions of the food problem require a global initiative to resolve it. The only body with the pedigree and brief to undertake the task, the United Nations, has not done enough, and its ability to take action seems to have been lost in labyrinths of bureaucracy, confounded by paper work and interminable discussions and paralyzed by policies. Nevertheless, it is the only body to undertake the task, and if properly organized and motivated, it could do it. Part of that motivation needs to come from its member governments and in turn from their citizens. If we really want to bring about the international conditions necessary to end hunger, we must put pressure on governments to apply themselves to the task and encourage them to pump vigour and determination into the UN's efforts, which badly need constructive criticism and support.
On the national level, agriculture in many parts of the world is not geared to feeding the local population but to producing cash crops for export. This is a legacy from colonial times, developed in response to the requirements of the old mother countries. Newly independent governments in Africa, for example, have inherited often very efficient export-oriented agricultural concerns-- coffee, tea, fruit and vegetable plantations, and cattle ranches--that still make a profit for their owners, who may either be local elites or expatriate interests, and earn valuable foreign exchange for the country. But much of the revenue generated either goes to grandiose and unrealistic industrialization schemes and prestige projects, or may line the pockets of those who hold power. Huge amounts go towards weapons; indeed, the persistence of war and armed conflict in so many of the poorest parts of the world is enormously debilitating on all development plans, not least in rural areas. There are regimes that, using guns that national revenues will buy them, can ignore legitimate protests from the poor. As we know, they are sometimes supported with funds and arms from abroad. Geopolitical aims often override considerations about the justice of the regimes' domestic policies. Public opinion in the North already plays a big part in insisting upon the promotion of human rights and genuine democracy in the conduct of foreign affairs, there is always more that can be done.
For a variety of reasons, the bottom line is that the basic requirements of small farmers and people in the countryside, the majority of the people, have not been represented in national policies. They have had no voice. The groups holding power are often far more in tune with the development theories, economic thinking, and lifestyles of the North, where they may have been educated, than the requirements of their illiterate and "backward" co-nationals. Economic plans and conditions have favoured the concentration of land ownership in fewer and fewer hands. This militates against the possibility of achieving real food security - against reaching a balance between, on the one hand, food production for self-consumption to provide everyone with a healthy diet, and on the other, production for export to generate income to buy the tools and wherewithal to invest in food production.
Continuing widespread poverty, even in countries whose economies have grown enormously - in South American and Asia, for example - has forced a recognition of the importance of giving priority to agricultural development, and the absolute necessity for interministerial coordination and cooperation in promoting rural development. Hunger must be met head on, and national mobilization is needed to beat it; poverty is not a ministerial matter.
What is required, as one political economist has put it, is the "entitlement" of the poor: national policies which view the food problem, the relationship between people and food, in terms of a network of interlocking economic factors which can be managed to ensure food security. this means policies which ensure poor people's access to the food supply and which entitle them to the food they have grown themselves or have helped to grow.
Finally, on the local level we know what the technical requirements are - the infrastructure and appropriate technology - whether these be supplies of water, the right seeds and fertilizers, the development and availability of gene banks, or the provision of sensible, affordable tools. Successes in many parts of Asia have highlighted the supreme importance of providing credit to small farmers on terms they can manage, and of allowing them access to markets and a say in the pricing of their products. Poor people, particularly women who work hardest, suffer most, and receive least, need the material means to allow them a stake in the economy and to be entitle financially, technically, socially, and politically.
And this brings me to my final point. We have the knowledge to end hunger, we know how to do it; all it takes is the political and administrative will on all three levels for a combined attack to eliminate the debilitating scourge of malnutrition, to conquer the cancer of famine.
You can all play a valuable part in this combined strategy against hunger. The single most
important requirement is to be well informed about what causes it, to ask questions all the time,
and to share your understanding, particularly with those who still entertain the fallacies about its
true causes. Your common sense, quite apart from your outraged sense of humanity, will ally you
to the forces fighting hunger and poverty. You can join organizations fighting to protect the
environment in the North or the South, or get involved in the promotion of appropriate technology.
You can lend your skills - your legal or medical or accounting or administrative ability - to organizations trying to do something here about hunger. Charities, aid agencies, and nongovernmental organizations fighting poverty or relieving famine can always benefit from your moral and financial support.
But, in my view, the most valuable thing you can do is to give the tens of millions of people on the receiving end of the injustices in the world food system a voice. In the long run, they need a voice more than they need your money. Give them one. Represent them.