Food: Lack of Access, Not Supply, Keeping 1 in 7 People Hungry

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Food: Lack of Access, Not Supply, Keeping 1 in 7 People Hungry


The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization World Food Summit opens in November in Rome. "What are the food and hunger issues as the world's nations gather?" NCR's Nicholas Kenney asked Martin McLaughlin, Center of Concern food expert, and Jesuit Fr. James E. Hug, executive director of the center just back from a pre-summit meeting in Rome. Their answers are excerpted below.

NCR: What are three essential reasons that half a billion starving people do not have access to food?

Martin McLaughin: The U.N. food and Agriculture Organization, says that one seventh of tile human race does not have access to a diet adequate to sustain a regular human existence. That's close to 800 to 900 million. That figure will remain at 800 million in the year 2005. This, when the world produces every year enough food to feed everybody. It is not a supply question. It is an access question. The food is available. They do not have income to buy seeds or fertilizer or irrigation water to produce enough food. Or enough money from employment to buy the food that is produced.

Second, about 10 corporations dominate the world food trade. Their purpose is not food security for all, it is profit it for the shareholders and for the company.

Third, supply and demand structure problems reinforce the lack of access. Land is limited. Water is being depleted faster than it's being replaced. Energy is expensive. It comes in a variety of ways - fertilizer drying, diesel fuel and so on. Research is geared toward temperate zone agriculture - that's ours - and not tropical zone agriculture, which is where all the hungry people are. [High] technology is ... inappropriate for small plot agriculture in the hurting countries.

On the demand side, you have population growth. We are adding one Mexico per year, one China per decade, give take. Less land because the cities expand onto farmland. Population growth is caused by the same thing that causes hunger - namely poverty. We [the industrialized North] out eat hungry people about four-to-one in basic grain through bioconvertors like pigs and chickens and cows and sheep.

This four-to-one ratio. When you say "we," who do you mean?

Well, the industrialized North, which also includes New Zealand and Australia. The wealth is being taken from the poorer countries, which are demonstrably getting poorer and therefore more hungry. Safety nets are being cut. In countries all over the world, governments are under pressure to reduce their role in the economy.

The World Trade Organization agreement has a clause in it that says in the short-term the poorest nations will be adversely affected and we need to do something to compensate for that. Any reference to that clause in the World Food Summit document for this November is not being agreed to by the wealthy nations. They are pushing a free trade ideology that in the end will cause more starvation.

How do you reconcile the U.S. recognition of the universal right of every human being to a healthy diet with market competition where farmers and merchants sell to those who can pay,?

Trading companies are not going to want to do anything that decreases profit. If some people get hurt, they hope to find a safety net. Farmers are something else. The farmer gets about 3 cents on the dollar for each loaf of bread. The rest goes to marketing, elevator time, transportation. That is what Cargill or Archer-Daniels-Midland or ConAgra or Tyson's Chicken or General Mills will do. That is their business. Agriculture is about 20 percent of the U.S. economy, about $60 billion in export earnings this year. Half the grain that is traded internationally comes from the U.S. The government is not going to step in and inhibit that trade. …

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Food: Lack of Access, Not Supply, Keeping 1 in 7 People Hungry
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