Food production and distribution
While Western society is over-nourished, with growing numbers of people overweight or obese, over 800 million people do not have enough food. Most of the world’s hungry are concentrated in developing countries: 40% are in India and China, the rest are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. The majority of them live in rural areas, grow their food on land with poor soil and with little water and are unable to afford modern farming equipment or fertilisers. These people need to increase their food production in a sustainable and affordable way.
According to the United Nations World Food Programme, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. Technically, we can produce enough food. The problem is that less developed or Third World countries cannot afford to buy food at the prices charged by Western industrialised countries and at the same time, Third World farmers cannot afford the high costs of farm inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and machinery which are needed to increase their own food production. They need hard currency to pay for these. Hard currency can only be realized from the sale of their produce on the international market but they have no surplus production to sell. Therefore they are caught in a vicious circle. This is exacerbated by Western governments subsidising their farmers, enabling them to keep prices low and making it more difficult for Third World farmers to compete in the world market.
These governmental subsidies have undermined self-sufficiency of food in the developing World. At the same time there are trade barriers to imports from developing countries. These cost more to the Third World than the amount of food they receive in aid. If food aid is estimated at US $100 billion, the trade barriers represent a loss of trade worth US $200 billion.
Production of food in the west has become industrialised, with high inputs of fossil fuels for both farm equipment and for fertilisers. Large tracts of land are used, leaving little space for biodiversity. By contrast, in the Third World there tends to be subsistence farming, with small family plots utilising a low level of farm inputs such as fertilisers and herbicides. They tend to be more exposed to changes in climate.
Industrialised intensive farming or agribusiness has also spread to parts of the Third World, South America, for example. Agribusinesses have had differing effects upon the environment. Much of Europe is a human-made eco-system where species are farm-dependent. In the Third World, where more natural habitats remain, there has been more interplay between agriculture and the natural environment. The concentration of wealth in large agribusinesses led to the closure of many smaller scale farms in both the industrialised countries of the West and the Third World.
Causes of hunger
Delegates at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome committed to cutting world hunger in half by 2015. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared in 2001 that at the current rate, this goal would not be reached before 2060.
Shipments of cereals to the poorest countries under the U.N.’s World Food Programme are now six to seven times the amount they were in 1970. (see Figure 1)
Figure 1 (Source: FAO databases)
Food aid from the West undermines efforts by Third World countries to grow their own. The West needs to encourage self-sufficiency, particularly organic farming methods. Agencies such as the Asian Development Bank have tended to fund large-scale industrial projects which are oriented towards production for export. These can harm the environment and affect livelihoods. The building of several dams along the Mekong River (which flows through Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) is an example of this type of aid project. The Asian Development Bank has admitted that some of these dams affected village water supplies, fish and the growing of vegetables.
What you can do
Write or email your government representatives about these issues.
Write a letter or email the editor of your local newspaper; urge him or her to publish your concerns about food related issues.
Support charities and agencies that provide food and other aid, such as World Vision and Oxfam. Do your research to find the charity that upholds the values you see as important and uses donations efficiently (not mainly on administration).
Purchase foods grown locally. Buy foods that require less transport using fossil fuels, and which incure the least food miles in getting to your table.
Purchase foods grown organically.
Purchase products certified by Eco labels (such as the Oxfam Fair Trade Coffee label).