I first cut my teeth on international development in Bangladesh in the early-1970s. Back then the theory was that a lack of food supply was destined to wreak havoc in the coming decades. This came to be the common understanding at that time.
Fast-forward to Rome a few months ago, to the Food Summit, and we suddenly started hearing a different story. Ironically, delegates were being told that there was plenty of food available to feed the entire world. The issue quickly became one of finances: food was readily available, but at a price that many of the poorest couldn’t come close to affording. Before you knew it, everything became money, money, money – if we had the funds we could do anything.
I’m not so sure. Transport is also an issue, especially in those regions of the world hard-pressed by their very remoteness. What about violence and crop disease – things likely to eat into advances made in food disbursement and supply?
Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, rarely mentioned because it would mean austerity measures in the world’s richest nations. Specifically, we’re talking about climate change. Last decade was the warmest since historical records had been kept. That led to sizeable, sometimes cataclysmic, results. The worst drought in five decades afflicted millions in China, and massive food shortages in Kenya were attributed to drought brought on by the changing weather patterns.
The most vulnerable of the world’s poor subsist on only a few tiny crops. The slightest change in the weather patterns could bring about the biggest change in their lives. Laboratories around the world are constantly working on methods of providing more and safer food. Lessons learned from development assistance over the last few decades have taught us that untying food aid from our own domestic supply can have a dramatic impact on the economic life of recipient nations. The World Food Program, with its 6 billion dollar a year budget has seen more effectiveness in delivery of food supplies in the troubled regions of the world.
Yet for all this, it remains unlikely that the poorest of the poor will be able to receive or grow enough food to feed their own families. We’ve entered a strange cycle where the world now produces enough food to supply the entire global population yet at prices too steep for the neediest to afford. Despite efforts from groups as vast as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, with its 8,000 researchers and its “road map” for food security around the world, the stubbornness of the presence of hunger among the bottom billion persists as perniciously as times previous.
It’s also appearing more and more likely that some of the advances in food production have come about at certain environmental costs. The effects of genetically modified crops, coupled with the intensive overuse of the farming of vast tracks of land, is burdening the ecological system.
Like it or not, it appears as though we have entered some kind of strange “twilight zone” where modern technology and research cannot solve one of humanity’s greatest problems. We have created a world that now produces enough food but is still pressed by staggering hunger. The world’s poorest countries have cut back in investment in agricultural related research because, ironically, richer nations have reduced their development funds to these very same nations. Brazil and China now produce food in staggering numbers, but the poorest nations have seen no change at all in their crop yields for centuries.
Clearly, development advancements have solved one problem but then priced the solution out of existence. It’s obvious to anyone who has traveled Africa or Asia and it bedevils the best and brightest minds in the development world to this very minute. We must address this challenge before millions more die of hunger in a world stuffed with food.