Magazine article The Christian Century

The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century

By David Rieff

Simon &. Schuster, 432 pp., $27.00

In 2007 and 2008, food prices jumped sharply worldwide: wheat more than doubled in price, and rice was up by over half. In many parts of the world, people living on one or two dollars a day were simply unable to purchase the food they needed to survive. David Rieff's book is framed by that unexpected spike in prices.

The food price spike was especially troubling because some of the causes--population increase, commodity speculation, increased meat consumption in China and India--were human-made and are unlikely to change. In other words, such spikes could easily happen again and more frequently. Rieff focuses on food prices because he believes that in the future high food prices will cause political and social unrest with far-reaching consequences. This gloomy book questions the ability of the human race to feed itself at all, much less eliminate hunger, as many suggest is possible.

Rieff outlines the debate between those who are optimistic about efforts to eliminate hunger, a group he refers to as food security advocates, and those who are pessimistic about hunger ever being remedied in the current socioeconomic system, the food sovereignty camp. Among the optimists are people like Bill Gates, Jim Yong Kim at the World Bank, and Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University. They believe that for the first time in history, with the right interventions, sustained global agricultural development could allow everyone sufficient food. They see hunger as a technical problem and contend that the combination of liberal capitalism and public-private partnerships will enhance the world's ability to solve hunger and malnourishment.

On the opposite side is the food sovereignty movement, made up of activists in groups such as La Via Campesina, which opposes transnational corporate agricultural interests as damaging to the interests of small farmers. The food sovereignty movement advocates for systemic change and argues that profit seeking by large agricultural corporations and investors perpetuates social exclusion and generates hunger, particularly in rural areas. This group sees little chance of ending hunger and emphatically rejects the capitalist model of attempting to do so. Rieffs places his sympathies, somewhat unwillingly, with the food sovereignty position because he is concerned about the ability of humanity to feed itself in the future with the world's population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050.

If we strip the contemporary names from the debate, we are looking at an old argument--that between Thomas Malthus, who worried about the coming population bomb, and Ester Boserup, who argued that population pressure leads to technological innovations, which increase agricultural productivity. …

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