The World’s Hungry Millions—Can They Be Fed?
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
THE problems of the hungry peasants of Asia and Africa were very much on the minds of those attending a group meeting in the Philippines during June of 1977. Starving millions might have been delighted to hear the optimism expressed in some of the speeches.
The conference was the third session of the World Food Council. This Council is described as “the highest political body on food matters in the United Nations.” What is its goal? “That within a decade no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will fear for its next day’s bread, and that no human being’s future and capacities will be stunted by malnutrition.”
What motivated us to be at the conference in the role of observer? First, hunger is a scourge for an eighth of the human race, and every compassionate person should be concerned about this. Secondly, the problem to be discussed related to Bible prophecy. Jesus foretold that these days would be marked by “food shortages.” (Mark 13:8) The very need for this conference illustrated the fulfillment of his words.
Finally, we were aware that many people look to the United Nations as man’s best hope for the future. They feel that only a supranational approach to the world’s difficulties can possibly overcome them. So we wanted to see how this organization worked to tackle a specific problem, one so severe that the United States delegate was moved to say: “Unless we, as people and nations working together, can assure an adequate diet for all people, our other economic and political goals become meaningless . . . ‘a peaceful world cannot long exist one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.’”
An International Approach
On Monday morning, June 20, 1977, along with delegates from 36 countries, visiting dignitaries, observers and many others, we attended the opening ceremonies of the conference in the air-conditioned luxury of the Manila Conference Center. Looking around the hall, one saw delegates from rich and poor countries, from the East and the West. This was truly an international effort in trying to solve the food problem.
Of course, the Council had no power to pass laws that would be binding on member nations. Rather, what we witnessed was a political institution working to formulate plans that it felt would be effective. Then it would try to influence member governments to follow these plans, using the political weight of the United Nations.
Grounds for Optimism
Striking an optimistic note, the Philippine delegate, who was elected president of the Council, stated: “In a world where it has become fashionable to despair, we today have hope. We are met at a time when harvests have been good, when stocks are abundant. We can exult in the establishment of a billion-dollar Fund for Agricultural Development. More and more of the leaders of the world are accepting the stark fact that hunger and poverty are the main concerns of our age.”
Yes, in spite of some droughts, good harvests had resulted in stocks of about 50 million tons in excess of immediate needs. In fact, although the population had greatly increased, it seemed that there was one fifth more food available, on the average, for each person today than there had been back in 1950.
However, there were some grim warnings. On the average, the situation looked good. But millions upon millions of starving or malnourished people were not getting their share of available food. This brought to mind the illustration of the man who had his head in the oven and his feet in the refrigerator. His average temperature was perfect!
Hence, even with plenty of food available, people can be hungry due to distribution problems between countries and within a particular land. For example, prior to the conference, Doctor Bihar of the World Health Organization observed that some countries with malnutrition problems actually were exporting food. The poor in those lands did not have the money to buy the food, even though it was available.
The Canadian delegate sounded a warning about the surplus, which had been mentioned as a cause for optimism. He explained that farmers were not going to grow more food than the market could absorb. If there was a glut in wheat, for example, prices would plunge. Farmers would be discouraged from planting so much and this could result in shortages. There was a need for an arrangement to protect the farmer against low prices in times of plenty and to safeguard the importing nations from receiving inadequate supplies in years of bad harvests.
In view of what has happened since then, the Canadian delegate’s warning was indeed appropriate. A bumper wheat crop in the United States, for example, has led to the proposal that in 1978 farmers take 20 percent of their present wheat-growing land out of production.
The Crisis of 1972
Looming in the back of most delegates’ minds was the specter of 1972—the year of crisis that eventually prompted the creation of the World Food Council. Prior to that year, world food production gradually had been increasing. Although there had been isolated problems, a poor crop in one country could be compensated for by a bountiful harvest somewhere else. In 1972, however, bad weather brought about poor harvests in China, the Soviet Union, southern Asia and the Sahel region of Africa. Suddenly, the world’s food supply was 33 million tons short of what was needed. The price of wheat almost tripled. Charter rates for ships rose sharply. In many countries people faced actual starvation, and all suffered from price increases. For the first time, it was clearly seen just how delicate the world food situation had become.
This crisis finally led to the World Food Conference, held at Rome in November of 1974 under the auspices of the United Nations. There, several resolutions were passed, and the World Food Council was established to assist in carrying out the aims of the resolutions and to work at alleviating the global food problem.
Since then, however, progress has been slow. Few fundamental improvements have taken place. A goal for food aid to poorer countries has not been reached. The recommended growth rate of food production in poor nations has not been attained. There has been little progress in solving the problem of malnutrition. International trading policies still seem to work against the poorer countries.
A Trend for Serious Concern
Another grim reality faced the delegates. Forty-three lands were identified as having outstanding problems. These were called “food priority countries.” Before World War II, however, many of these nations were producing so much food that they exported their surpluses. Even up until 1950 they were producing enough to feed themselves. But then that situation changed. They could not feed themselves. Why? This was due partly to rapidly increasing populations. Also, these lands shifted investments from agriculture to industry, and many farm workers moved to the cities.
So, food-exporting countries started to import food. At first this was not difficult. The richer nations were experiencing increases in grain production. They would often sell their surpluses to the poorer countries at low prices or make food available in the form of grants. By the late 1960’s, these poorer nations were importing between 25 and 30 million tons of grain. In 1975, the figure was over 50 million tons, and it could go as high as 85 or even 100 million tons by 1985! This would present a real problem, for the poorer countries could not afford to buy so much food. Moreover, even if they could do so, it is doubtful that enough ships would be available to transport it.
Further complicating the problem is the tremendous amount of money being spent on armaments, funds that could be used to feed earth’s hungry millions. It is noteworthy that the original resolution of the World Food Conference had called for a reduction in spending on armaments. However, this resolution, too, has seen little action since 1974.
A Plan of Action
After five days of discussions, the World Food Council came up with a comprehensive plan comprised of 22 points. Some of the measures were designed to build up food production in the poorer countries, thus eventually making them self-sufficient and ending the growing problem of importing food. Others handled the immediate problem of food shortages in the “food priority countries” and aimed at making food aid more regular and effective. Difficulties regarding nutrition and trade imbalances also were handled.
Another recommendation was the creation of an international grain reserve. This arrangement would serve to promote world security in food, preventing a catastrophic repetition of the 1972 situation. It would encourage farmers to keep producing food even in times of plenty. Thus, food could be stored during periods of abundance, to be used in times of shortage.
All these steps were viewed as highly important. The Yugoslavian delegate remarked that it was of ‘critical importance for the Council to make a real breakthrough.’ Regarding the proposal to set up a food reserve, one press release said: “What happens to these 40-50 million tons of wheat this year will have a greater impact upon world food security than any other single event within the control of man and within the power of the World Food Council to influence.”
The Hungry Will Be Fed
The results of the conference will only be seen in time. It could bring about benefits for countless millions of hungry people. But many obstacles stand in the way. There are, for example, such factors as the possibility of bad harvests, continued population growth, inefficiency in some national governments and slow erosion of arable lands that can be used for agriculture. These are things over which the World Food Council has no control.
As we listened to the experts at the conference, we realized that the people the delegates were trying to help doubtless were completely unaware of these discussions. It was also apparent that the experts here gathered either were unaware of or were failing to consider the permanent solution to the problems discussed at the conference. The Bible identifies Jehovah God as the one making “vegetation [grow] for the service of mankind.” And he it is who promises to give “bread to the hungry ones.” (Ps. 104:14; 146:7) The very food shortages that the Council discussed are part of the evidence that soon now, by means of his kingdom, Jehovah God will bring about a new system that will not be marked by such problems as food shortages. At that time God ‘will open his hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.’—Ps. 145:16; Matt. 24:3, 7.