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Three Myths About World Hunger


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What do you do when someone comes out with a well-intentioned but misguided comment about the starving? You can sit in silence, fuming. Or you can do your best to help them understand the forces that leave people hungry. New Internationalist replies to some of the most common myths about world food issues.

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Myth one:

Actually there is plenty of food in the world. Production of cereals (wheat, rice, millet etc) last year reached 1799.2 million tons, enough to offer everyone in the world well over the recommended minimum of 2.500 calories per adult per day. And that is before you’ve even begun to count the calories in vegetables, nuts, pulses, root crops and grass-fed (as opposed to grain-fed) meat.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is the distribution of that food, both within countries and between rich and poor worlds. People like us in the developed nations eat much more than we need.

Americans represent only six per cent of the world’s population, yet they consume 35 per cent of the world’s resources - the same as the entire developing world. So is the real world population problem that there are too many Americans?

But Western countries have enough land to support their populations - Third World countries don’t.

Western countries have enough money to support their populations. There’s little relationship between hunger and the availability of land. Holland has 1.117 people per square mile and Bolivia (just 12, yet the Dutch are one of the best-fed people in the world and the Bolivian poor among the world’s most undernourished. We think of India as overpopulated yet it has 568 people per square mile, less than Britain’s 583. And Africa may have the world’s greatest food problem - but it isn’t for the lack of land. At the moment only a quarter of Africa’s potential arable land is being cultivated.

But doesn’t Africa have the world’s fastest population growth?

Yes, and no one is saying they shouldn’t be concerned about that. Contraception should be freely available to everyone who wants it. But people are only likely to use it when their poverty is relieved. When one in four children dies and more hands are needed to help in the fields, children become an economic necessity. The rich world’s population growth slowed when standards of living improved - before the advent of reliable contraception.

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Myth two:

The weather does not cause famines - people do. Earthquakes and floods, droughts and cyclones may be ‘natural disasters’ but humans decide who will suffer from them. When the recent cyclone hit Bangladesh, for instance, it was only the poor that died. Only the poor were desperate enough for land to make the dangerous move onto the new islands that appear every year in the Bay of Bengal. Red Cross statistics show that, in high-income countries, the number of people killed per disaster is under ten per cent of that killed in low-income countries.

That’s all very well, but people are dying in Africa now because it hasn’t rained.

No. they’re dying because they’re poor. Farmers starved in US droughts in the 189Os and 1910 but they don’t starve when drought hits now; Saudi Arabia has greened part of its desert to make itself self-sufficient in wheat. So it is clearly money that counts.

The climate in Africa may be changing - we don’t know yet. But what we do know is that more people are dying in droughts than ever before - an average of 23,110 people per year died in droughts in the 1970s. compared with only 1,010 per year in the 1960s.

This is partly explained by the increased frequency of droughts - the number grew from 5.2 droughts per year in the world in the 1 960s to 9.7 per year in the 1 970s. But the reason so many more die in each drought is that people are being pushed into poverty - the weather simply tips them over the brink.


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Myth Three:

We’d all like to think that scientific progress could cure our ills. And solving the world’s food problem might seem easy compared with sending rockets to Venus.

But science’s solution to global hunger – the Green Revolution – has been no solution at all. In fact in some places it has made the gulf between rich and poor wider.

How can that be? The Green Revolution introduced seeds that yielded bigger crops

Yes, but high-yield seeds only work if they’re in laboratory-like conditions. They need artificial fertilizer and an irrigation system that’s beyond the means of a small farmer.

Even so, more food is grown and that must be good for everyone.

Not necessarily. Take two farmers one with barely enough land to eke out a living, while the other is rich in land and capital. Both are persuaded of the value of high-yield seeds. But the first has no money for the fertilizer the new seeds need, and is too poor for the bank to offer a loan. So while the large farmer has a bumper harvest, the small one grows the same of less than usual – and has to sell at a lower price due to the market glut. Eventually the poor farmer will have to sell out to the rich to make ends meet.

A neat story, but you can’t deny that science has turned down India from a basket-case into a country that can feed itself.

It’s true that India, once the symbol of famine, is now a net food exporter. And that must be good – it has been freed from the draining indignity of food aid and imports. But no-one would deny that poor Indians are still hungry. When new agricultural techniques are injected into an unequal society then the gap between rich and poor widens – even is more food is grown.

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