Hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity

You can’t expect the public to stay interested in hunger for more than about 40 days. That’s what experience had taught the impresario in Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist. Getting the media along and a couple of pretty girls to hold the starving man’s hand helps to get attention of course, but the fact is, after a while, people lose interest completely.

Kafka’s short story has sinister echoes today, except that 40 days is far longer than any story stays on the front page now. The last time hunger hit the headlines was in 2007-2008, with food riots in a number of countries because of sudden price rises.

Prices have since fallen, but the benefit was wiped out for millions of people by the crisis, and the number of hungry people in the world grew from around 850 million before the food crisis and recession to a billion today.

There is no such thing as an apolitical food problem

There are fears that hunger will never be eradicated and that the situation will continue to get worse, with demand for food commodities accelerating while the increase in per capita food supply slows.

It’s true that several factors are combining to boost demand.

For a start, there’s the mechanical effect of population growth. Output will have to double over the next 40 years to feed a world population of 9 billion in 2050.

Added to that, although there will be crises and recessions in the future, the trend is for the world to get richer, and for more people to adopt Western-style diets rich in meat, dairy and other foodstuffs that demand higher inputs than diets based on cereals or tubers.

Food production is facing competition for land from other uses, including biofuels.

Finally, environmental pressures on agriculture are growing, with climate change introducing a number of uncertainties, and expected to have the worst impacts on countries least able to cope.

Yet, when you look at the facts, there is no “agricultural” reason for hunger today. Global food production has increased more quickly than population over the past half century, and the EU and USA even had to bring in policies to get rid of “mountains” and “lakes” of food and drink.

If people are hungry, it’s because they can’t afford to buy food, not that there is no food to buy. There are many reasons for this. Politics, policies and poverty all intertwine, and as Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen said “There is no such thing as an apolitical food problem.” 

Useful links

Food security is one of the issues on the agenda at this week’s meeting of agriculture ministers at the OECD. You can find a background note prepared for ministers on markets and food security here.

Patrick Love

3 comments to “Hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity”

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  1. srinivasa murty - 28/02/2010 Reply

    The FOOD is a basic biological necessity for any living being. The society should ideally give the right to claim food to all its memebers. However, the Tastey food or a food of a special choice is probably different from the food for subsistance. The basic food (a scientifically assessed food that supports basic living and growth) and the food for the pleasure of senses are to be treated differently. The patterns of subsidies for food by various governments should be based on the above classification of food (as basic functionsl food and food for pleasure of senses) and subsidised accordingly. The first one can be subsidised upto 100% while the other can be subsidised lesser.

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