Voices from the United Nations to the Vatican make it clear: More than one billion people — one sixth of the world’s population — suffer from chronic hunger. The lack of adequate food over a prolonged period of time has serious social and economic consequences, both for the families who live in hunger and the societies who must bear large numbers of hungry people. Hunger and poverty are usually found together: those who cannot find work or sufficient income consequently suffer in meeting basic daily nutrition. Poor and hungry people are found throughout the world, in our cities and rural areas, even where food and crops are readily produced.
Hunger is more than pangs in the stomach. Malnutrition and undernutrition lead to physical impairment; a person who hungers on a daily basis can no longer maintain natural bodily capacities. For children, this means impairment to growth and learning abilities. For women, hunger affects pregnancy and lactation; for men, physical work. For all people, the lack of food leads to various diseases and prevents the ability to recover quickly, if at all.
What is the scale and impact of the international food crisis?
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, most of the world’s undernourished people live in developing countries. Sixty-five percent of the world’s hungry live in seven countries: India, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia. The hardest hit continents are Asia (including areas of the Pacific) and Africa. Africa itself is home to 16 of the 17 countries where over 35 percent of the population is experiencing food insecurity. Seventy percent of the world’s hungry live in rural areas, which can be isolated, hard to reach, or rugged areas that make it difficult to quickly improve their situation.
Learn more about global hunger at these websites:
What impact has the global economic crisis had on the food crisis?
The world financial and economic crisis continues to push people into poverty and hunger, and then hold them there. Recent food price crises – 2007-08 and happening again now – illustrate the types of disruptions many nations could experience more often in the future. The steep rise in food prices affect families everywhere, including the United States, but it is most devastating for developing countries where hundreds of millions fall into extreme poverty and hunger.
Local and national governments in both developed and developing countries have dwindling funds to invest in social protection programs to prevent people from falling into the poverty-hunger trap. The U.S. State Department is leading a worldwide effort called the Global Hunger & Food Security Initiative to reverse the decrease in agricultural assistance to the developing world.
Facts & Realities
Each year, more than 3.5 million children die from lack of food and adequate nutrition.
Hunger robs the poor of a healthy and productive life and stunts the mental and physical development of the next generation.
Under-nutrition costs developing countries up to three percent of their annual gross domestic product and places individuals at risk of losing more than 10 percent of their lifetime earning potential.
Reducing chronic hunger is essential to building a foundation for development investments in health, education, and economic growth.
In the future, ensuring food security will only become more challenging.
Food supplies are facing increasing threats from climate change, water scarcity, environmental degradation, and competition for scarce energy resources.
Meeting this demand in a sustainable way will require doing more with less – less water, fewer natural resources, less energy.
Feed the Future is the name given to the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, our nation’s commitment to invest in reducing hunger and poverty. The goal is to meet the need for a reliable source of quality food and sufficient resources for individuals and families to access and purchase.
Seeking the Right Course of Action
In the past, people suffered hunger due to crop failures and natural calamities. But just as common today is the inability to buy or obtain sufficient amounts of food that may be available in the market. As prices rise, people without adequate incomes slip into hunger. In rural areas, people may not have the productive resources to grow enough food or buy what they need. The inequitable distribution of arable land and other necessary resources are common causes of hunger and malnutrition for rural populations.
When the lack of food and prevalence of hunger spreads and intensifies, this can lead to civil and political unrest. A question of justice is soon raised: How can there be abundant supplies of food in the world, but many hungry people? As a basic human right, food must be available and secure to everyone on a daily basis. It becomes obvious that new policies and practices are needed to allow greater access to productive resources for all and incomes sufficient to feed families and children everywhere.
Current Course of Action: Increase food production and allow free trade
Food production throughout the 20th century has increased substantially as improved technology, machinery, fertilizers and seed traits have progressed in step with an expanding world population. International bodies like the United Nations and the World Bank tell us that global food supplies must increase by an estimated 50 percent to meet expected demand in the next 20 years – by the 2040’s, when children today will have their own children. It is often stated in major world forums that we need to increase food production through current practices of industrial agriculture and that nations must liberalize their trade – open their borders and lower restrictions – to allow more food imports.
Dominant agribusiness corporations make this claim in the name of “feeding the world” — that high-tech productivity and global collaboration among large-scale commercial farmers will feed the growing world population. They say it is critical that farmers across the globe must have access to this high-end technology, high-cost inputs, and high-tech (genetically modified) seeds that will help them produce more food for the world market. From there, free and open global markets will allow foods and other goods to flow efficiently to supermarkets and food outlet chains, and then into the hands and mouths of the world’s growing population.
The Church has questioned some of these underlying assumptions since the 1980s. In Economic Justice for All (1986), the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote:
“On the one hand, trade can bring about good in our world, allowing the fruits of human labor to multiply and bring just rewards. An exchange between parties, if fair, can be of mutual benefit and increase human well-being, enabling people to support their families in dignity. Yet too often trade fails to reduce poverty. When trade between parties takes place on unequal terms, the proper nature and goal of human activity and exchange are distorted. Such distorted activity can damage integral human development, create and expand inequities, and lead to violence, conflict and environmental destruction.”
The transnational corporate type of food supply chain may sound like a rational business model, but it runs the risk of tying farmers into a global food system controlled by giant agribusiness corporations. Such a system may produce sufficient supplies for the paying market, but large-scale market forces often turn a blind eye to the human face of poverty and hunger. Governments and civil society are called upon to address these concerns as best they can. Fortunately, there is a prophetic call for an alternative production system that meets the needs of community welfare and poverty reduction in depressed and vulnerable areas of the world.
Alternative course of action: Improve local capabilities and build regional food systems
Rather than try to meet the demands of a corporate and global supply chain, local groups are seeking a way to make our food and agriculture systems more resilient and secure while improving the food and nutritional security of all people.
There is an alternative course of action to the dominant model above. There is a growing recognition to refocus efforts and investments in agriculture towards sustainable and diversified agriculture that directly fits local needs. This means focused attention on small-scale farmers – both women and men – in order to achieve food security and poverty reduction in the world.
“Sustainable” agriculture is the name given to the kind of food production that not only increases the availability of food, but improves the incomes of the many small-scale producers who abound in rural areas and provides safe and affordable food for consumers. It will not matter how much food is produced unless people have the ability to buy or gain access to the food themselves. For the rural poor, the main cause of their poverty is unequal distribution of resources. Therefore, the alternative course of action calls for greater access to economic opportunities and greater participation in local and regional food systems.
As a direct counter to a dependency on global supply chains, policy makers and community stakeholders are focusing on the need to reinvest in farm-to-market infrastructure at domestic levels in all regions. From all continents around the world, there is a renewed interest in short supply chains for a combination of economic, health, environment, and energy-related reasons. At risk populations for food insecurity, hunger and chronic disease has been the target of programs promoting healthy food access. Improved market access for small and medium sized producers and the supply of healthy local food are becoming essential to food security strategies in developing and developed countries.
There is also an urgent and crucial need to recognize that women farmers have the potential and the solution to bring their families out of poverty. They should be at the forefront of agriculture. Women will be a pivotal force behind achieving a food secure world. In most developing countries, they produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food (International Food Policy Research Institute, www.ifpri.org). When gains in income are controlled by women, they are more likely to be spent on food and children’s needs. By investing more in women, we amplify benefits across families and generations.
Unleashing the proven potential of small-scale agricultural producers, while encouraging the sustainable and equitable management of natural resources, will reduce hunger and create a more resilient global food supply for everyone.
It is time to create food security, built on economic justice, in our resource-constrained world:
- Increase the productivity, self-reliance and economic opportunity of small-scale farmers, especially women.
- Increase farmers’ access to natural resources like water, and ownership over resources like fertile land.
- Increase farmers’ preparedness in the face of more frequent and extreme weather events: storms and floods for some; prolonged heat waves and droughts for others.
The United States maintains the size and power to set the tone for the future of food production and innovation. The challenge in agriculture today is to produce more with less. To do so, we need a progressive approach to policymaking that respects the dignity of human life and advocates for a fair and just system. Farmers around the world are capable of producing enough food in a sustainable way, but there needs to be committed and courageous leadership to pave the way.
Questions & Discussion
The information and points above will take time to process and fully understand. This study guide can only provide so much in a few pages. If possible, watch a documentary on hunger. The following organizations offer online videos or other resources that will help you learn more:
Another possibility is to invite someone with the expertise or familiarity with hunger and poverty issues to present to your group. Again, the organizations and websites above offer resources and contacts. See “Additional Resources” at the end of this guide for more possibilities.
Following a presentation or video documentary on hunger and poverty, participants can begin to discuss some important questions.
Consider the following:
1. What is your reaction when you hear that people suffer chronic hunger and even starve to death? Do you wonder how it is possible that there is literally no food for them?
2. Why do women especially suffer from malnourishment? Are you surprise that women around the world produce most of the food for their families?
3. It is commonly thought that the United States gives a great deal of foreign aid. In reality, such assistance is only about 0.1 percent – one-tenth of one percent – of our budget. (You may hear different numbers; this depends on how aid is counted. But it is clear that the percentage is extremely small.) Where do these misconceptions come from, and how can they be stopped or challenged?
4. We often think of foreign assistance as shipments of food aid. But what if existing and appropriate technologies could help farm producers in developing countries triple their yield and change the lives of their families? What can you do to help producers have access to the technologies?
5. When you hear that there are 31 million hungry in the United States, what does that mean to you? What does it mean to you that one in five children in America go to bed hungry?
6. Why is hunger in the United States less visible than the scenes of hunger overseas?
7. Do you think “urban farming” (intensive gardening within city limits) is possible in your community or locality? Besides providing food for local residents, what other benefits are possible from urban farming?