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Hunger: The fifth season

2 August 2010

Famine killed 1 million people in Ireland in the 19th century

Spring, summer autumn, winter, hunger. Niger has an official fifth season, running from mid-June to late September. It’s the time when last year’s food stocks are depleted and this year’s aren’t available yet.

It’s been like that for centuries, and the population, whether nomadic herders or farmers growing rainfed crops, has strategies to cope. But they can only cope with so much. This year the hunger season arrived early, after a particularly harsh drought destroyed last year’s crops and pastureland.

Nearly 12 million of the country’s 15 million people are now suffering from food insecurity, and child malnutrition has reached 50% in some areas. Nationwide, almost 400,000 face starvation according to Save the Children, and 1.2 million face “moderate” malnutrition.

Talking about a hunger season makes the famine sound natural, but despite the drought, it isn’t. There is food in the markets, but as the prime minister put it “the purchasing power of the people is very weak”.

This echoes what we wrote here: hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity. The World Food Programme also ranks poverty as the main cause of Niger’s vulnerability, pointing out first that the country ranks bottom in the 2009 UNDP Human Development Index, and second that the “donor community” could do a lot more. “To scale up its work in Niger WFP is appealing for US$213 million.  Currently it is less than half funded and faces a shortfall of US$145million.”

Emergency aid is vital in the short term, and so is improving the resilience of farmers. Scientific research can help here. A special feature in this week’s Nature looks at the research into new crops and new farming techniques,. It argues for a second green revolution, implying a realignment of priorities in agricultural research, notably on new crop varieties, as well as lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste.

But experience from a number of countries shows that while the agriculture sector is important, it is highly unlikely to eradicate poverty, and thus hunger, on its own. The objective should be to ensure that people, and countries, can buy enough to eat, not necessarily that they become self-sufficient. 

Useful links 

Article on food security in the OECD Observer

OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook

Markets, prices and food security: what will the future bring? Background note for OECD ministerial meeting on agriculture

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