How can we keep turning a blind eye on hunger?

Author: Andrew MacMillan (l) & Ignacio Truebal (r)

Exasperation can drive people to desperate acts. Some people vent their frustration by demonstrating, marching or rioting. Others resort to terrorism. We decided to express our frustrations peacefully by writing a little book*. We have been driven to this because we cannot find any logical explanation why so little is being done to end hunger.

We have been driven to this because we cannot find any logical explanation why so little is being done to end hunger. We are also alarmed at the lack of any sense of urgency in the quest for more sustainable food production and consumption systems.

The two issues are inter-connected, but here we will touch only on the hunger dimension.

We are amazed and shocked that most people we know (and most governments) are able to close their eyes to the fact that one thousand million fellow human beings – one in seven people on earth – live in chronic hunger, exposed to weakness, ill health and premature death, and excluded from being able to enjoy all that we have come to take for granted as part of a normal life. It is incredible to us that a human disaster on this vast scale can simply be ignored, even by people who normally act in a socially responsible manner and with compassion.

What adds to our indignation is that all the means exist to put an end to hunger today, if we set our minds to it and take the right steps. If someone is thirsty, our natural response is to give them water. But if millions are hungry, we convene another high-level meeting, forgetting that people are needlessly dying from food deficiencies and that the medicine for hunger is a square meal.

Hunger exists largely because of market failure in a world of ample food supplies. The people who are most in need of food are those who are least able to express their need in terms of demand. The best, cheapest and most immediate way of enabling people to overcome hunger and begin to stand on their own feet is to provide them with regular and predictable cash grants with which they can buy food to close the gap between their current consumption and the hunger threshold. In most cases, this is a better solution than giving them food as it is logistically simpler and does not undermine markets.

The hunger threshold is calculated by FAO at 120 percent of a person’s Basic Metabolic Energy Requirement (BMER), which is the food energy intake needed by the body to “tick over”. BMER vary according to sex, age, height and weight, but for a national population typically range between about 1,500 and 1,800 kcal per day, resulting in hunger thresholds that are between roughly 1,800 and 2,200 kcal per day. The average energy gap of chronically hungry people is about 250 to 300 kcal per day. This means, in very simple terms, that just 70 grams of extra wheat or rice daily would enable them to rise above the hunger threshold. Obviously, from a nutritional perspective, it would be better to enable them to correct not only for energy shortages but also for protein, mineral and vitamin deficiencies.

Strangely, most current programmes for reducing hunger do not focus on enhancing the food intake of hungry people. Instead, they assume that raising food production to increase local and global supplies will cut hunger. Increasing output can help by lowering food prices and by creating more employment in the food chain. FAO’s models show, however, that most of the extra production will be bought by those people who are already above the hunger threshold because they can work and earn money. Even when markets are full of food, this won’t end up on the plates of the very poor. In some societies, there are traditions of sharing food with the hungry, but in most cases this does not happen and the poor are caught in a trap from which escape by their own means alone is impossible.

There is a widely held view that eradicating hunger by enabling the poor to have access adequate food would place huge strains on the global food system. And so we were surprised, when we did our sums, to find that accurately targeted programmes to fill the food energy gap for the one billion hungry would only need 25 to 30 million tons of cereals per year, or just over one percent of the global grain production of 2.3 billion tons! Expressed differently, this amounts to just a mere 15 percent of edible food wastage in industrialised countries.

Our assumptions are deliberately simplistic, but, even if the amount is doubled or tripled, it remains marginal in relation to global food supplies and financial resources.

And so we are saying that, if nations are serious about ending hunger, they should spearhead their actions with targeted social protection programmes that quickly enable the poorest people to buy their basic food needs and so climb above the hunger threshold. Once there, they will be healthier, less vulnerable to shocks, more able to learn and to work, and ready to respond to new opportunities for bettering their lives. Some countries have designed such programmes so that the extra demand that they create stimulates growth in the small-scale farm sector and so brings added social benefits.

Many well-fed people find all kinds of arguments against this approach. They say that it is unaffordable, creates dependencies and infringes on the dignity of individuals, is open to corruption and is heavy in its institutional demands. They fail to recognise that it is much cheaper and institutionally simpler than trying to fill the world’s food basket up to over-flowing. They are blind to the idea that few human situations can be more dependence-inducing than that of a mother knowing that she cannot provide her children with lunch today – or tomorrow. And they fail to see it as a high return investment in human resources that can bring greater peace and prosperity to their countries and to the world both by removing a great injustice and by enabling all their people to become increasingly productive.

Our exasperation is driven by our view that, through their failure to address the hunger problem directly, when this is entirely possible, governments and the international institutions responsible for food security are unnecessarily causing sickness and premature death on a huge scale and don’t seem to care! 

This must change. 

* More about the Little book.
Ignacio Trueba holds a PhD in agronomy. He is an economist, and an emeritus professor in Projects and Development at the Technical University of Madrid (UPM). He has worked as a consultant for the United Nations in Latin America, Asia and Europe and was a permanent representative of the Government of Spain to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)  and the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations.

Andrew MacMillan holds a PhD in agricultural economics with a specialisation in tropical agriculture. He is retired director of FAO’s Field Operations Division and worked as Deputy Directors of its Investment Centre.

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