Monday, November 24, 2008

Hunger amid Plenty

Every year tens of millions die of starvation. Most of these are children.

Some one billion people live in perpetual hunger--many on the brink of starvation. And yet, as Buckminster Fuller pointed out in 1970, there is enough food in the world to go around--the problem is not in gross amounts of foodstock supplies, but in the economics of distribution. This opinion has be reconfirmed by officials of the World Health Organization as recently as within the past two years.

Tens of millions of people die each year of starvation or diseases worsened by malnutrition. Yet in the wake of the "Green Revolution" initiated by Norman Borlaug in Mexico in the late 1940s, life-sustaining grains can be produced in adequate harvests. Thanks to Borlaug's work, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat in 1963, and Pakistan and India nearly doubled their production of wheat between 1965 and 1970.

We are, in late 2008, in the midst of a global food crisis. Between the start of 2006 and 2008, the average world prices of rice, wheat, corn, soybeans, milk, and meat more than doubled. There have been food riots in more than 20 countries around the world.

This has been attributed to many factors:

(1) Catastrophic weather and poor harvests around the world. In Australia--the extended drought in one of the largest global producers of food grains has caused a 98% drop in rice production in widespread areas and wheat production has fallen from 25 million tons to 10 million tons annually. In Myanmar (Burma)--this country was expected to export 600,000 tons of rice in 2008, but the devastating cyclone in May 2008 has made it a net importer. In East Africa--the rise of a virulent strain of stem rust decimated the grain harvests. Worldwide--water depletion and pollution have struck down harvests around the world and rendered millions of acres of arable land unproductive.

(2) Rising oil prices have dramatically raised the costs of fertilizers, food transport, and industrial agriculture in general (factory-like production of eggs, milk, and meat).

(3) Increasing demand for more varied diets (especially meat) across the vast, expanding middle-class populations of China and India. (One pound of beef requires seven pounds of feed grain.)

(4) The diversion of food grains, particularly corn, into the production of biofuels. (Approximately 100 million tons of grain per year are now being diverted into fuel.)

(5) A complex network of economic factors from trade barriers and agricultural price supports to commodity market speculation and the diversion of capital into foodstuffs due to low interest rates.

But the fundamental fact remains: there is enough food produced in the world so that every human being could be adequately nourished if nations had the wisdom and humanity--and the political will--to treat food as a human right, not a business commodity; if farming were rescued from its vulnerability to consolidated financial and political power off the farm.