Hunger Amid Plenty—Why?
● “It is a matter of fact that if one adds up the total amount of grains produced, plus the total amount of other food crops, plus the total of all other foods produced, then there is enough to supply an adequate quantity and quality of food for all the world’s five billion persons.”—The Gazette of Montreal.
● “Since 1974, developing nations as a whole increased total food production by 3.4% annually and created a significant net gain in food availability. Food production in Latin America and Asia increased more than 32% during the last decade.”—Los Angeles Times.
THE problem of hunger is far from being solved. Nevertheless, more and more experts in the field have come to recognize that shortage of food is not the real culprit. The consensus appears to be that something other than the availability of food is responsible for the fact that masses of people around the world are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Indeed, what we have is a contradiction: hunger amid plenty. Why? Though the problem is very complex, there are a number of basic factors that have contributed to this paradox.
To develop an efficient agricultural system is expensive. Fertilizers, pesticides, modern farm equipment, and improved seeds are costly. Storage facilities, transportation, and irrigation systems take time and money to build. Obviously, for a developing nation to make any headway in these areas, it must be willing to commit a substantial portion of its resources to them. Nations that have done this, such as China and India, the two most populous nations on earth, have made significant progress toward feeding themselves.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case in most Third World nations, particularly those in Africa, where severe food shortage is becoming a constant, and increasing, problem. A report by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) on the 13th regional conference held in Zimbabwe last July bluntly points out: “At the root of the food problem is the fact that member states have not usually accorded the necessary priority to agriculture.” Why is this so?
Observers point out that governments of many of the newly independent nations in Africa and elsewhere often equate agriculture with colonialism and backwardness. They believe that the way to move ahead is to industrialize their nations. To promote such policies, governments tend to favor the developing industries in the towns and cities, to the neglect of the farmers out in the rural areas. Instead of using funds to develop and improve the irrigation and transportation systems, or to provide farmers with the incentive to produce more, some governments arbitrarily hold down food prices to help the urban workers and the new industries. Such policies have reduced the countryside to subsistence farming and have turned nations that were once self-sufficient, and that were even exporters of food, into food-deficit and food-importing nations.
Changing Way of Life
The neglect of the rurals led to mass migration of people from the countryside into the cities to look for jobs. Studies show that in 1960 one African in ten lived in a town, but in 1980 one in five did so. The projection is that if the trend continues, half of Africa’s population will be living in cities by the end of the century. This, of course, means further setbacks for the agricultural sector and in food production.
But that is not all. Lack of adequate storage and transportation facilities makes it difficult to bring what is produced in the countryside into the cities to be sold. Besides, local crops, such as millet and cassava, are no longer in demand because city dwellers want foods that are easy to prepare, like bread and rice. Thus, the farmers have no incentive to produce more, and the city folk turn to food imports. Records show that between 1960 and 1982 cereal imports into Africa increased nearly fourfold, while local production of food slipped further behind the population growth.
In addition to the expensive food imports, the high cost of energy needed to fuel their newfound industries also adds to the food problem in many Third World nations. Reports from Nairobi, Kenya, show, for example, that “sixty percent of the country’s foreign exchange goes for oil imports.” Neighboring Uganda “spends all its foreign earnings, $10 million a month, to pay its monthly petroleum bill.”
To lighten this burden, governments of developing nations frequently adopt policies that only deepen the hunger problem. For example, one study shows that about half the farmland in Central America is used to produce exportable cash crops such as sugar, coffee, and tobacco rather than to produce sorely needed food crops. Similarly, many countries in tropical Africa grow strawberries and carnations to sell in Europe, or they raise cattle, sheep, and goats for export to the Arab nations while their own people do not have enough to eat.
The Politics of Hunger
Social and political instability in many of the developing nations also aggravate the food problem. According to one count, since 1960 Africa has seen more than 12 wars, 50 coups, 13 assassinations of heads of state, and widespread refugee movements. The situation is similar in other areas of the world. All of this not only damages the fragile agricultural system but also saps the already strained economy due to heavy military spending. The nations appear to be more concerned with stocking their arsenals than with filling empty stomachs.
Recently, for example, it was much publicized that one East African nation, which received $2 billion (U.S.) in military aid, spent some $100 million celebrating the tenth anniversary of its revolution, while six million of its people were facing starvation due to severe drought and famine.
The Grip of Poverty
Of all the hidden factors causing widespread hunger, however, poverty is perhaps the most deeply entrenched. “You need more than surplus grain to feed the world’s hungry,” says Barbara Huddleston, an authority on international food aid. “The world already has surplus grain. It’s an outright transfer of purchasing power to places like Africa that must happen.” How this will happen, not even the experts can say.
Meanwhile, even where food is available, many of the poor simply cannot afford it. A report from Ghana, for example, shows that “feeding three square meals a day to a typical family of six would cost six times the average income of a couple of adults, both working.” While the rich lavish expensive imported foods on themselves, the poor are having difficulty just getting by. In areas where jobs are not available, or are nonexistent, the situation can be desperate. “Nothing less than a wholesale re-examination and re-ordering of social and economic priorities . . . will get the world back on an economic and demographic path that will reduce hunger rather than increase it,” says Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute.
Aid and Relief—Do They Help?
If the poor nations have neither the agricultural facilities to grow enough food nor the funds to buy it on the competitive international market, how do they manage to feed themselves? The answer is that few of them do. Many of them depend on international food aid and, in extreme cases, emergency relief. Currently, the total amount of food aid, including emergency donations, is about 45 million tons a year, theoretically enough to fill the gap between what the poor nations are able to produce and buy and what they actually need. But whether those who are truly in need of aid are getting it is quite another matter.
Food is a powerful weapon on the international scene, and the food-surplus nations are well aware of it. “With resources limited, more of your aid goes to your friends,” said a U.S. government official. “The same standard is applied by every government I know about,” he continued. Thus, the political alignment of the struggling, developing nation has much to do with what and how much aid it gets. Even then, the lack of adequate transportation facilities in such countries usually means that much of the aid never gets distributed to those really in need in the rural areas.
Important as it is, food aid is at best a stopgap measure. “Regular food aid to poor countries,” reports Canada’s Globe and Mail, “has caused many to become dependent on developed nations, has sapped their initiative to become self-sufficient food producers and has left huge tracts of farmland underused.” Although donor nations usually stipulate that the receiver nations institute certain economic reforms and other long-range plans, such measures are often viewed as interference with another nation’s internal affairs and frequently lead to riots and violence. Besides, human nature being what it is, few people know or really care enough about the long-standing, day-to-day situation of people in faraway places. During times of extreme emergency, people are stirred to action, but what is done then is often too little and too late.
The Other Side of the Coin
Our brief examination reveals that the problem of hunger is truly a paradox. But what we have considered so far is only one part of the picture—the starving and impoverished masses in Africa or elsewhere in the developing nations. What about the other side of the coin, the developed nations? Much of the Third World looks to these nations for help, both now and in the foreseeable future. Can they continue to provide aid? Can they find the solution to the complicated food situation? How does the future look? Indeed, what prospect is there for feeding the world’s hungry?
[Box on page 5]
Desperate Africans Forage for Food
TENS of millions in at least 20 African nations are hungry, malnourished, or starving. Millions of them are children. They scurry beneath the feet of the market women, sifting through the dirt for the few grains or beans that may have fallen to the ground. What little they find either goes into their mouth or is put into their begging bowl. Occasionally a stringy stalk of vegetable thrown out as inedible is chewed to extract the juice in it, and the remains are spit out.
Anthills are combed in search of pieces of grain. Women spend entire days hacking apart the large, hard termite mounds to get the wild grains the insects have stored. Many gather up the droppings of goats to extract the undigested kernels of palm seeds the animals had swallowed without chewing. Women pound dried leaves and grasses into a powder that has no nutritional value—the only food for many. Others salt and cook leaves scavenged from trees. Often farmers have had to eat the seed they bought for planting.
Children are clothed in rags—some are naked except for goatskins draped over their thin frames. Nights often get cold, and the malnourished are quickly chilled and become susceptible to pneumonia, coughs, and fever.
Food-distribution centers have been set up by various relief agencies, but supplies are limited and only a minority of the hungry and starving can get food. At one relief center, a hundred children who won’t get fed stand behind a rope watching others eat. A four-year-old child, weighing only ten pounds, too weak to walk, is carried by her mother.
In another food-distribution center, a mother carried her three-year-old daughter who weighed only six and a half pounds. The report said: “The child’s ribs and breastbone seemed at the point of bursting through skin stretched taut by hunger and uncushioned against the severity of her bones. Her arms and legs were sticks.”
In such cases as these, starvation has reached a state called marasmus, an illness where the starving body begins to devour itself. The children’s faces take on the expression of the very old. They are to be seen everywhere in the famine-ravaged nations of Africa.
[Pictures on page 6, 7]
There is enough food for everyone . . . yet millions starve
FAO Photo/B. Imevbore