Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Hunger Speaks

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Hunger Speaks

Article excerpt

To feed the world's hungry will take more than a technology revolution; it will require an information revolution.

First, this is not about food, nor, as it is usually more specifically stated, is it about boosting yields to feed the exploding global population. Nor is this about food security, a popular turn of phrase that serves, as such terms often do, as euphemism. A tour of the more deprived reaches of Asia or Africa, or increasingly, Eastern Europe, will present faces of people who are not so much insecure as they are hungry. There are 840 million people on the planet suffering chronic malnourishment, most of them women and children; 2 billion--a third of humanity--suffer lesser degrees of malnutrition. [1] So why is this not about food?

The short answer is that because of dramatic increases in crop yields achieved in the last half of the 20th century, the world's farmers currently produce more than enough food to feed everyone a decent diet. Further, farmers in the leading grain-producing regions of the world are going broke because grain surpluses keep prices below the cost of production, a deficit met by about $28 billion in direct farm subsidies in the United States alone in 2000. [2]

People are hungry because they do not have enough money to buy food, even surplus food. This may not be about food, but it certainly is about agriculture.

Agriculture is proud of its record of the last 30 years. During that period, in which world population doubled, Green Revolution technologies produced yield increases that outstripped population growth, which is to say, there is more food per person than there was a generation ago. So there is progress, of a sort. But a generation ago, we could neatly slice the world's population into three groups: a billion that made more than $7,500 a year per person, a billion that made less than $700 a year, and a billion in between. The change in that structure since takes all the shine off the notion of progress. All 3 billion people added since have joined the poorest two classes. There are still about 1.1 billion making more than $7,500 a year; the rest make far less. [3] Indeed, at least 1.3 billion people today live on less than a dollar a day. [4] As a consequence, much of the increased grain production has been directed away from the poor and toward livestock to produce meat for the world's wealthiest. Is there p rogress without equity? What has agriculture to do with this?

Reinventing Agriculture

To find some answers to these questions, I spent 1998 and 1999 touring the world as a working journalist, specifically profiling nine agriculture research projects in the developing world, research paid for by the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation.

These projects dealt with both subsistence and industrial agriculture in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ethiopia, India, China, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, a sample that runs the broad range of conditions in the developing world. The nine projects were selected from a list of 450 applications by an independent, international, and interdisciplinary panel of scientists. The selection process produced a sample of the most intriguing work generated by the needs of the developing world, in most cases by national scientists intimately in touch with the needs of their region. If there is a thread that emerges from these projects, it is a sort of evolutionary birth of a second Green Revolution.

The environmental costs of the first Green Revolution are well known, particularly nitrogen and pesticide pollution, freshwater depletion, and soil erosion. These are not trivial issues and, in fact, must be addressed in this process of reinventing agriculture. Agriculture as we know it now is simply unsustainable.

The environmental difficulties are urgent, but so are the social woes that divide our world into the few with excess and the many who are hungry. The way we raise food is wrapped up in the cause of this inequity; but redesigning agriculture can play a major role in finding a solution. …

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