Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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Global Obesity Rates Expose Food Inequality

Meredith Alexander argues that global hunger is not a result of food shortages, but poverty and inequality.
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925 million people go to bed hungry every night. At the same time, 1.5 billion people are obese. These attention grabbing figures are just the latest in a long line of counterintuitive hunger statistics. In Africa, women produce 80% of the food, but own only 1% of the land. According to the World Bank, a 1% increase in agricultural GDP reduces poverty by four times as much as 1% increase in non-agricultural GDP. Despite this impressive return on investment, less than 5% of aid is spent on agriculture. Perhaps most surprisingly, the majority of hungry people are farmers: half of the people without enough to eat, including three-quarters of Africa’s malnourished children, live and work on small farms.

This last statistic can lead people to simplistic conclusions. Perhaps the answer is to consolidate landholdings, mechanise farming and send the extra people to the cities? This seemingly easy answer is mistaken on every level. Firstly, small farms can be incredibly productive. In fact, the world’s 800 million smallholders are already producing half of the world’s food. With minimal additional support, smallholder farmers could significantly increase their yields. Secondly, industrial style farming has some very serious consequences including higher greenhouse gas emissions and lower biodiversity. Finally, escaping the countryside does not guarantee an exit from poverty and hunger. Unemployment is endemic across most of the developing world and urban hunger is growing.

The main problem with trying to end hunger by increasing industrial agriculture is that it comes from a mistaken understanding of why people are hungry. Food itself is almost never the problem. Instead, people are hungry because they lack money and power. Even now in the Horn of Africa where 10 million people are at risk of starvation, food is available in the markets. It is just too expensive for poor people to buy. Production is vital, but the question of how food is distributed is more important. Increasing the size of the pie means nothing to people who aren’t allowed near the table. 

It is true that there is a production challenge in the coming decades. There will be 9 billion people to feed by 2050, and this will require a significant increase in agricultural output. But the more important and difficult task is to improve distribution. Globally this is a challenge we have faced and failed before. From the early 1960s to 2000, the world's population more than doubled to just over 6 billion, but food production increased by 2 and a half times. Despite this impressive achievement, the unfair distribution of food meant that hunger was not beaten. 

Sadly the prospects for tackling hunger in the next forty years are also grim unless key policies are changed. There are some easy wins. Investing in better storage facilities and road networks would reduce waste. Given that an estimated 30% of all food crops worldwide are wasted, this improvement alone would make a massive dent in the amount of food available. As discussed above, more support for smallholder farmers in Africa will put more food directly on the plates of the world’s poorest families. More countries should emulate the policies in Brazil that have resulted in family farms, which have only 30% of the land, producing nearly 40% of crops by value and generating over 75% of the country’s agricultural jobs.

Food waste is not the only issue when it comes to ensuring that crops are actually eaten by people. The EU was the largest importer of oil seeds and the fifth largest importer of cereals in 2007–2008. This demand was partially driven by the diversion of crops away from the human food chain entirely to be used to fuel cars. The EU plans to derive 10% of its transport fuel from biofuels by 2020. Research shows that if all the global plans to expand biofuel use by 2020 are met, an additional 600 million people could be at risk of hunger.

Hunger in a world of plenty is not surprising when you look back at the headlines. Easy judgments about the causes and solutions to hunger will not solve the problem, but there are proven policies that could ensure every man, woman and child on the planet gets enough to eat. Ultimately, hunger has little to do with food and everything to do with justice. To create a more just world, we need to invest much more in small-scale, sustainable agriculture across Africa and beyond. We must stop making things harder for poor people, for example by halting the global rush for biofuels that is putting even more people at risk of hunger. These policies are a matter of life and death. Every year approximately three million children die simply because they don’t have enough food.

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