Myths About World Hunger


Food: New Report Exposes Myths about World Hunger

Inter Press Service
19-OCT-98

WASHINGTON, (Oct. 16) IPS - The myth that world hunger is the unavoidable result of the forces of nature, coupled with a population explosion, prevents policymakers from understanding the real causes of starvation worldwide, says a new report.

"The way people think about hunger is the greatest obstacle to ending it," says Peter Rosset, director of the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, in a report released today -- World Food Day.

"As millions of people starve, powerful myths block our understanding of the true causes of hunger and prevent us from taking effective action to end it."Rosset says.

The report, "World Hunger: Twelve Myths," says these notions prevent a true understanding of the real causes of millions of people starving around the world.

"The true source of world hunger is not scarcity but policy; not inevitability but politics," says the report. "The real culprits are economies that fail to offer everyone opportunities, and societies that place economic efficiency over compassion."

Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world's food supply. The world produces enough grain and many other commonly eaten foods to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day, according to the report.

Even as countries have excess food, people still go hungry. In 1997, for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that, in the developing world, 78 percent of all malnourished children aged under five live in countries with food surpluses.

"The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food," says Twelve Myths. "Even though "hungry countries" have enough food for all their people right now, many are net exporters of food and other agricultural products."

Believing that scarcity is the problem, many governments and international development institutions -- like the World Bank -- say the answer to solving the problem is increasing food production.

Dramatic production advances of the 1970s known as the "Green Revolution," did increase grain supplies.

"But focusing narrowly on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power that determines who can buy the additional food," says the report.

This is why that in several of the biggest Green Revolution successes -- India, Mexico, and the Philippines for example -- grain production and in some cases exports, have climbed while hunger has persisted.

That nature is to blame for famine is another popular hunger myth that blurs the real causes of starvation. "It's too easy to blame nature; food is always available for those who can afford it while starvation during hard times hits only the poorest," the report says.

"Millions live on the brink of disaster in south Asia, Africa and elsewhere, because they are deprived of land by a powerful few, trapped in the unremitting grip of debt, or miserably paid."

Natural events rarely explain deaths, they are simply the final push over this brink. Population growth is another mythical cause of hunger, says the report.

"Although rapid population growth remains a serious concern in many countries, nowhere does population density explain hunger," it says. "For every Bangladesh -- a densely populated and hungry country -- we find a Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia where abundant food resources coexist with hunger."

Costa Rica, with only half of Honduras' cropped acres per person, boasts a life expectancy -- 11 years longer than that of Honduras and close to that of developed countries, explains the report.

About half of the myths listed in the report involve false assumptions used to develop current food, land and agriculture policy. Large farms, the free-market, free trade and more aid from industrialized countries, have all been falsely touted as the "cure" to end hunger.

Large landowners who control most of the best land often leave much of it idle, says Twelve Myths. "By contrast, small farmers typically achieve at least four to five times greater output per acre, in part because they work their land more intensively and use integrated, and often more sustainable, production systems," it says.

Redistribution of land would give millions of small farmers in developing countries the incentive to invest in land improvements, to rotate crops and leave land fallow for the sake of long-term soil fertility, according to the report.

Comprehensive land reform has markedly increased production in countries as different at Japan, Zimbabwe, and Taiwan. A World Bank study of northeast Brazil estimates that redistributing farmland into smaller holdings would raise output by 80 percent.

Free markets and lifting tariffs on trade have also been touted as the solution to ending world hunger.

"Such a market is good, government is bad formula can never help address the causes of hunger," says the report. "Such thinking misleads us into believing that a society can opt for one or the other, when in fact every economy on earth combines market and government in allocating resources and distributing wealth."

Because the market responds to money not actual need, it can only work to eliminate hunger when purchasing power is widely dispersed, says the report. As the rural poor are increasingly pushed from land, they are less and less able to make their demands for food register in the market.

Promoting free trade to alleviate hunger has proven to be a failure, says Twelve Myths. In most developing countries exports have boomed while hunger has continued unabated or actually worsened, its says.

"While soybean exports boomed in Brazil to feed Japanese and European livestock -- hunger spread from one-third to two-thirds of the population," says the report.

"Where the majority of people have been made too poor to buy the food grown on their own country's soil, those who control productive resources will, not surprisingly, orient their production to more lucrative markets abroad."

Pro-trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) promotes export crop production and squeezes out basic food production, it says. Foreign aid from industrialized countries, often seen as an essential key to ending hunger and famine, has propped up such free trade and free market policies.

Foreign aid, says the report, "works directly against the hungry." U.S. aid in particular is used to promote exports and food production -- not to increase the poor's ability to buy food, it adds. "Even emergency, or humanitarian aid, which makes up five percent of the total, often ends up enriching U.S. grain companies while failing to reach the hungry."

With different policies, says Twelve Myths, the world could feed itself.

"Hunger is caused by decisions made by human beings, and can be ended by making different decisions," says Rosset. "Informed social movements like those that fought for and won landmark civil rights legislation or abolished slavery or helped end the war in Vietnam, can end hunger too."

Following its own call to action, the Institute for Food and Development Policy recently launched an "Economic Human Rights" campaign in the United States which calls for an end to hunger and poverty in the wealthiest country in the world.

"The scientific evidence shows it is possible to eliminate hunger," says Rosset. "As societies we have to decide that it is a priority."

1998 Cable News Network, Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

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