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.

Haiti: Not a hope in hell?

A common reaction to the earthquake in Haiti has been to talk about the country as “cursed”. This could give the impression that what happened is somehow beyond human capacity to forestall. But one of the most chilling aspects of the earthquake is the lack of surprise expressed by experts from a number of domains about the scale of the destruction and loss of life.

In his 2009 Mallet-Milne Lecture on The Seismic Future of Cities, Roger Bilham stated that “It should be appalling to the people of the world that in 2009, more than a 100 years after earthquake resistant construction began to be understood and implemented by engineers, that it is possible to write an article forecasting large numbers of future earthquake fatalities from the collapse of cities.

For Professor Bilham and his colleagues, geophysics is only part of the explanation. Loss of life on the scale seen in Haiti is not “natural” in the modern world. A similar quake that hit the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995 caused widespread destruction and even if it killed 6434 people, casualties in this densely-populated area were far less than in Port-au-Prince.

Why did Haiti’s capital collapse? It’s on a well-known seismic fault line and has experienced shocks before, but nothing seemed to be built to resist earthquakes. Even the presidential palace was destroyed. For Bilham, it’s a political question. “In some cities… corruption has effectively replaced governance… Officials and politicians may find themselves being pressured to exercise flexibility in the interpretation of building codes. The resulting structures may contain numerous violations, to be discovered only when the structure collapses.”

But what does governance mean here? An OECD report cited Haiti as a “paradigmatic example” of the severest form of fragile state, where the legitimacy of the state is challenged, where the states’ capabilities and resources are low and where there are only rudimentary or fractured political processes for handling the resultant tensions. (more…)