Achieve Sustainability or End Hunger?

08/03/2010 03:55 pm 15:55:21 | Updated May 25, 2011

In its July 29 special issue on hunger, Nature tells us, "More than one billion people go hungry today, and the vast majority of them are in low-income countries," which is correct. Then they base the entire issue on the idea that in order to solve the hunger problem, "increasing yield sustainably -- using less water, fertilizers and pesticides -- is going to be a crucial part of the solution." That is not correct.

There are two different questions. The sustainability question is about how it will be possible to feed a much larger global population over the long term. Hunger is about the fact that more than one billion people do not get enough to eat even now, when the world has an abundant food supply. The current hunger problem is not there because the world doesn't produce enough food, or because it is produced in ways that are not sustainable. There is plenty of food. The problem is that more than a billion people are so poor that they cannot afford the food that is out there. The food is available, but not accessible to them.

Nature, along with Science's Special Online Collection on Food Security and many other publications, mentions the current hunger problem, but then shifts into addressing sustainability and the concerns of the general population. They promote large-scale commercial farming and increased use of genetically modified crops to increase the overall food supply. They don't appreciate that increasing the world's food supply would not put money into the hands of the hungry to enable them to purchase that food.

Much of the food consumed by the poor comes from small family farms run by poor people like themselves. Large-scale commercial operations are more likely to produce for the middle class and for export.

Industrializing food production would displace small-scale food producers, resulting in many more people being unemployed or underemployed. There is a vast difference between ensuring food security for the general population and ensuring it for the poor.

Special interests have a way of using the hunger problem for their own purposes, and often forget the plight of the hungry. For example, some companies invoke the hunger problem as a way of promoting their interest in genetically modified foods. Often claims about new technology to feed the world are not about meeting the needs of the needy, but are about providing inputs for meat production and other high-end products for those who have money.

Some suggest that local organic farms somehow address the hunger problem, but often we learn that they are providing fancy lettuce to high-end hotels. Some might call for increasing governmental support for agriculture, but fail to mention that local agriculture is primarily devoted to production for the local middle class, or for export, or for production of ornamentals such as flowers or lawn shrubbery for middle-class homes. Increasingly, agriculture is about biofuels. People with money regularly outbid the poor for agricultural services. Only a fraction of the world's agricultural enterprises respond to the needs of those who are at risk of hunger. There really is no need for new methods to produce food for the hungry. We just need to find a way to make use of available resources for that purpose.

There is a need for concern about the sustainability of the global food supply because of the increasing global population, but global food consumption is growing far more rapidly than the global population. Gross national products per capita are now about 75 times higher in rich countries than in poor countries. The consumption explosion has outrun the population explosion. Having rich countries talk about the need for controlling population growth in poor countries without also mentioning the possibility of controlling consumption in the rich countries seems a bit like blaming the victim.

Sustainability discussions focus on ensuring that the middle class will get enough, but rarely consider that they might be getting too much. The industrial model of food production leads to huge wastage of food throughout the process, by having much of it go uneaten, but also by having it eaten by the wrong people. Food consumption at the high end goes far beyond anything that could be rationalized in terms of needs. Indeed, if reallocated, the money spent on weight control in rich countries could go a long way toward solving the hunger problem in poor countries.

There are serious problems relating to sustainability, linked to population growth and environmental limits. But these are not the sources of the hunger problem. The roots of hunger are political, having to do with the ways in which productive resources are controlled and the ways in which the products are distributed. The lack of access is due not to absolute scarcity, but to the fact that those who have money and power control the productive resources.

While sustainability deals with equity between generations over time, the hunger problem is about equity through space, between different groups or categories of people. These are two different problems. Both need attention. They need to be addressed in different ways. The need to ensure good nutrition for the general population over the long run should not be confused with the need to quickly reduce the current widespread malnutrition of the poor.