As we prepare to feast, let’s pay the customary moment’s attention, and maybe a somewhat longer period of serious thought, to those who won’t be eating enough.
How many? By the most recent estimate of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, there are now 870 million people living in “chronic undernourishment.” Almost half of them are children, for whom hunger is deadly: A third of all child deaths are caused directly by malnourishment. Some 10 million people, mostly children, died of hunger in 2012.
This year has been a bad one: An abbreviated monsoon in India has left crops dying; poor rainfall in South America has slashed yields; soybean and grain output in Asia have been cut in half; a drought in the U.S. has dropped its corn reserves to a fifth of their normal level.
This has set international food prices soaring – 7 per cent higher than last year, and grain 12 per cent higher, close to the 2008 historic peak – and left even more people hungry.
How can this be? After all, it’s not as if people are becoming more vulnerable. The UN’s first Millennium Development Goal – to halve the number of people in the world living in absolute poverty by 2015 – was accomplished ahead of schedule, four years ago.
But the second half of that goal – to halve the number suffering from malnourishment by 2015 – is nowhere near being met. There are still millions of underweight children and weak adults, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and some corners of the Indian subcontinent.
Is this a catastrophe of the sort that took place a generation ago, when mass famines in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s killed hundreds of thousands of people at a time? No. This time around, the cause is much simpler, and the solution much more readily at hand. We’re experiencing a basic crisis of undersupply: After three decades of worldwide food surpluses, starting in 2008, the world’s farms have not produced enough food to meet demand.
People no longer doubt, as they did 40 years ago, that the world is capable of producing enough food for all of humanity, even if our numbers grow to nine billion. We know it can, and we know how to make it happen. Farms in Africa and the Indian subcontinent – where the land is fertile and the growing season long – should be producing much more food than their European counterparts. Instead, India produces half as much per hectare, and Africa hardly anything. They could easily feed the world.
This isn’t hard to solve, and farmers know what’s needed: better transport and market infrastructure, new seeds engineered for their climates and needs, an end to subsidies and trade barriers, a shift from survival-based to commercial farming practices. And these things are being done (in part because farming is suddenly profitable), albeit too slowly. This decade may well be remembered as the unfortunate gap between the first Green Revolution (which ended mass famines and widespread Asian starvation in the 1970s) and the second (which is poised to make even bigger changes in Africa and Asia). Until supply catches up to demand, we have a crisis.
What stands in the way, this time as last time, is misunderstanding. Aid organizations in the West and governments in the developing world, motivated by myths of village tranquillity, pay people to stay rural rather than to consolidate their holdings and modernize their farming. Too many people believe, falsely, that a shift to commercial agriculture means a shift to big or exploitative farms, rather than more income for small farmers. We allow superstitions about engineered crops to become progress-blocking policies. We let meaningless middle-class fetishes for “organic” or “local” foods pollute the debate, when what’s needed is more protein, now.
Forty years ago, the same myths were popular. As the Nairobi-based crop researcher Alastair Orr writes in a new essay on the Green Revolution, there was a consensus among scientists and politicians in the 1970s and 1980s that the mass introduction of hybrid seeds and irrigation would benefit capitalists and destroy small farms, that expecting commercial farming to help the poor was “like expecting water to run uphill.”
That’s not what happened. Farms, he notes, became profitable but not big. Peasants benefited hugely from becoming productive farmers. Starvation became much less common. “The share of people living in poverty had fallen,” he writes. “Water was running uphill.”
Having more food is good for everyone. That simple idea, more than anything else, deserves a toast.