What can I say about world hunger that hasn’t already been said?
by Charlie Leck
Over forty years ago I met a young man who said he was going to devote his life to alleviating world hunger. He was a remarkable fellow. I’ve lost track of him and I often wonder if he did spend his life trying to feed the world.
When he talked to me way back then, I believed there was a good amount of hunger in the world. One could vaguely see it in the photos and films he showed me. So, I threw some change in the pot occasionally and agreed to regularly send in some money.
In truth, world hunger did not seem perfectly real to me back then. And, the predictions this young man was making about the vast amounts of hunger we’d see in the future seemed over-blown and nearly silly.
“Paul, that can’t be,” I told him. “There’s too much genius in the world and too much good will. We’ll never let that happen!”
This morning, as I write this apology to Paul, the sun has not yet made its move. The sky is just beginning to turn gray and lose its blackness. One can see the vast roundness of the firmament on a morning like this – a massive dome that blankets us – stretching from where I sit in this peaceful place to other places in the world where children weep from the pain caused by their empty bellies. Children and adults lay dying on an island in the Caribbean and in humble homes stretching across the African continent and sweeping over Asia.
The monster that is hunger is measureless and stretches himself across a bewildered, paralyzed world.
The news services focus on Port-au-Prince this morning and the photographs displayed the agony and rage of hungry people. [If you dare, view this NY Times slide show.]
“Hunger bashed in the front gate of Haiti’s presidential palace. Hunger poured onto the streets, burning tires and taking on soldiers and the police. Hunger sent the country’s prime minister packing.
“Haiti’s hunger, that burn in the belly that so many here feel, has become fiercer than ever in recent days as global food prices spiral out of reach, spiking as much as 45 percent since the end of 2006 and turning Haitian staples like beans, corn and rice into closely guarded treasures.” [NY Times, 18 April 2008]
The United Nations is mobilizing and they will be taking massive amounts of food to Haiti. We’ll watch to see how quickly they can respond. And then, who shall feed the little ones in Egypt? In the sub-Suhara there is rioting as people fight for provisions of food that won’t feed everyone. Who shall feed them? There is rioting over food in nations in other parts of the world, too: Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Italy, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Yemen. There is a current (as of today) food crisis in 37 countries. Governments are falling because the people cannot afford to eat.
In Australia there is a massive drought that has dragged out over the last six years, reducing the nation’s rice crop by 98 percent. The drought will be a major factor in a shortage of rice around the world. The Deniliquin rice mill in southern Australia is completely shut down. It was the largest rice mill in the southern hemisphere and formerly fed 20 million people. Many farmers are abandoning rice crops, which require large amounts of water to grow, and moving toward other less water intensive products that also happen to be more expensive on the consumer’s end of the bargain and more profitable for the farmer. Wine grapes and lamb production have replaced many of the former rice paddies.
In Vietnam a plant disease has done great damage to the rice crop and the question of feeding its own people versus exporting, at this time of rich prices, causes serious debate.
Now, in the last three months, the price of rice has doubled for the end-consumer. That may not seem like a lot in our world, but in places where people had already been spending nearly all their income on rice, it’s a deadly blow.
It is a terrible and testing time. The southern part of the globe is being pitted against the richer north where food is more plentiful. The United Nations is worried about vast social explosions around the globe – ones that will make our current crop of riots look like child’s play.
In Haiti, where we began this sorry tale, the nation imports 80 percent of the rice it uses. Buyers there simply can’t afford to make the purchases. The government, under President René Préval, is close to toppling. Prime Minister Jacques-édouard Alexis has been voted out by the Parliament and his government is being reconstituted. Yet, the problem seems insolvable. More than 75 percent of the population earns fewer than two dollars a day. One in five kids is chronically malnourished.
It is difficult to believe there are still nay-sayers on this question of global warming. One can only hope and pray that they are correct because the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that even a slight increase in warming would have extreme affects on agricultural production levels in the tropics. Not so in northern climates, where warming would actually increase agricultural production levels. In such a case, the challenge becomes food distribution. How do we move fresh produce (food) from the northern to the southern hemisphere quickly enough to feed hungry people?
Now, that scenario was under conditions of only moderately increased warming. What might happen if there is greater warming? It’s a frightening query! Crop production would, under such circumstances, decrease dramatically everywhere and we would be left with hungry people we could not feed.
A potential answer for the crisis is the development of new crops that can withstand heat and a lack of water. Scientists are working furiously on these possibilities but there is no light at the end of the tunnel yet.
Two very grim stories out of Haiti illustrate the harsh severity of the problem there.
(1) A mother of four offers one of her five offspring to a passing stranger.
“‘Take one,’ she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. ‘You pick. Just feed them.’” [NY Times]
(2) A new burger is on the menu now. It’s made of mud, oil and sugar. It is eaten by the most destitute. One man who has taken to eating them says that they are salty and, because of the butter, you don’t know you are eating dirt.
Haiti, mind you, is only a singular case study of an immense and frightening world-wide story of hunger and starvation.
Hunger must be addressed both now, in the short run, and in the coming days and years, to solve the long-term problem. What can we do?
Using food as fuel
It turns out that the loud cry for biofuels, in which I took part, was a mistake of unbelievable proportions. We’ve turned too much of our food crop into fuel crop. It’s had a massive impact on world food prices. In actuality, our past year’s world grain harvest smashed all previous records – nearly five percent higher. As George Monbiot says: “It’s just not reaching human stomachs.” Less than 50 percent of this year’s crop will be used to feed people.
The World Bank say that “the grain required to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol… could feed one person for a year.” [see the story in the International Herald Tribune]
Great Britain has just passed a law requiring all sellers of transportation fuel to mix gasoline with biofuel.
“In the midst of a global humanitarian crisis, we have just become legally obliged to use food as fuel. It is a crime against humanity in which every driver in this country has been forced to participate.” [George Monibiot]
Feeding our food to animals
This year, according to statistics assembled by Monbiot, 760 million tons of grain will be fed to animals. He says: “This could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat!”
Or, we could learn to eat only grass fed meat. I’m trying to make this move! It’s interesting and, so far, not too bad. Yet, this also produces problems in that the pastured animals produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gases.
The solution is to eat less meat – much less. It takes too much of the world’s grain to sustain the kind of meat eating diets we currently have. I can’t promise, but I’m going to try to cut my meat eating in half – at least to start – and then, if I can handle it – to levels even less than that.
I’m trying, Paul.
At the moment, there is enough food!
Scarcity of rice is only a temporary problem. Our mistake of moving too quickly to biofuels is another temporary set-back. We’ll correct this problem. The northern range of the hemisphere can produce enough food to feed the world. Enough, in fact, to make everyone fat! There are two significant problems, however. One is the problem of distribution and that, with work and thought, is solvable. The other is that most people could not afford such food, transported from long distances, if it were sold at market prices. That means rich countries and rich people are going to have to support families – perhaps even adopt families – perhaps several families – in far flung places around the world
We must fight global warming!
The warming of the planet is one of the great enemies of sustainability. Should the planet warm somewhat moderately more, food production in the northern hemisphere, to repeat, would probably be assisted. Should the warming increase beyond a moderate level, it will become impossible, under today’s technology, to feed everyone on the planet. [An idiot, anonymous reader, commented on one of my blogs that there was plenty of evidence that global warming was a myth. One piece of evidence he gave had to do with the team of scientists who worked with Al Gore.
“Global warming is a bunch of crap. How come about half of the sciencetists [sic] that originally was [sic] on gore's side have recanted their positions? Global warming is just another way to get power and taxes from the people. Just what is the ideal temp. for the planet?”
There’s a kernel of truth in what this writer says. A couple of scientists have reversed their positions on elements of their earlier opinions on global warming. A careful check of the facts shows an overwhelming number of climate scientists still hold fast to the theory that the earth is warming. I’ve posted other long blogs about global warming and its affects [here’s one], and this is not the place to go into that again.
The real culprit is not global warming, however, it is the human spirit
It’s simplistic to place the blame at Mother Nature’s hand. Here’s what Melissa Moore has to say about that.
“It's too easy to blame nature. Human-made forces are making people increasingly vulnerable to nature's vagaries. Food is always available for those who can afford it—starvation during hard times hits only the poorest. 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 the brink. Human institutions and policies determine who eats and who starves during hard times. Likewise, in America many homeless die from the cold every winter, yet ultimate responsibility doesn't lie with the weather. The real culprits are an economy that fails to offer everyone opportunities, and a society that places economic efficiency over compassion.”
To solve the problem of hunger, we are going to need a revolution of the human spirit. I’m not talking about a political revolution, but a turning of the human soul toward kindness and compassion. There are things without which each of us can do in order to see that there is no hungry soul anywhere on the planet. When Jesus called us to feed the hungry, I think this is what he had in mind. Giving a man a fish will not be enough. The commitment has to be long-term and even permanent. It was Mohammed Yunus who said that “poverty is unnecessary.” We could add to that and say also that hunger is unnecessary. It’s a matter of human will.
Is there a Population Explosion
If you want to get a real fight going, bringing in debaters to go at each other on the contrary positions on this question. Moore, in her essay cited in the sources below, calls this a myth in trying to explain the reason for world hunger. In her 1996 essay, she claims that the population is actually decreasing, but I don’t think that’s accurate. The world’s population is growing, but it does not appear to be growing at an alarming rate – though there are plenty of doomsdayers out there who say it is.
Again, it is a debate for another time. Suffice it to say, here and now, that hunger is not related to a problem of over-population. We can and will be able to feed the world long into the future – if we have the will.
It is the reason we need inspirational leaders in this world – people who can give us hope and raise us to new heights of unselfishness and concern for other people in every corner of this very small globe we call our Mother Earth.
We need a leader in America who will challenge us to be a great nation again.
Hunger in America
This is a subject for another day. For now we’ll just say that it is a far different phenomenon; that is, hunger has a different characteristic in the United States. In one way or another, people here can get to food sources. The question is, what kind of food are they eating?
Poverty Level in Georgia and the rest of us
Poverty in America is of a different character also. Poor people here likely have cell phones, a car, a TV and massive debt. This is not a good reason to avoid the issue and a less good reason not to attack the problem. Take the state of Georgia. I recently read this on a web site down there (Foodbank of Northeast Georgia): “Georgia's population, according to 2005 census data, is 9,072,576 people. Of these 1,206,652 live below the poverty threshold--or 13.3%.”
The above was written in good times, when the economy was not staggering. How does Georgia rate among the states? Good or bad? There are 17 states with higher rates and another dozen states right around the same level. Louisiana and the District of Columbia appear to have the highest levels of poverty and hunger.
Minnesota and New Hampshire show the lowest levels of poverty. (see sources below)
A goal in America should be to eliminate all poverty. Sure, there will be what the Scandinavian nations call psychological poverty – those who choose to be poor – but we can make sure there are no other people living without enough funds. A liberal agenda? No! A Christian agenda!
If the churches ever got serious about Christian service, they could easily put together a commission that would involve every denomination and faith in attacking poverty and hunger in America. Such an approach would shame government approaches to the problem. A world wide commission of Christian churches could do the same with world poverty. Could it ever happen? Only if we hear the voice of Jesus, calling us to feed the hungry and care for the needy. Only if we believe obedience to him is important.
Keith Bradsher: The Food Chain: A Drought in Australia, a Global Shortage of Rice [17 April 2008, New York Times]
Marc Lacy: Across Globe, Empty Bellies Bring Rising Anger [18 April 2008, New York Times]
George Monbiot: Face It, We all Aren’t Going to Become Vegetarians [14 April 2008, Monbiot.com]
Melissa Moore: 12 Myths about Hunger [8 February 1998, Food First]
U.S. Census Bureau (poverty statistics)