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Food

Why people still starve in an age of abundance

Our wonderful global supply chain is not just failing to prevent hunger—it’s causing it.

December 17, 2020
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Nico Ortega

Nobel Prizes are rarely awarded without controversy. The prestige usually hatches a viperous nest of critics who deride the credentials of the winner, complain about the unmentioned collaborators who’ll be sidelined by history, or point to the more deserving recipients who’ve been unfairly snubbed.

So when the Norwegian committee decided to award the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Program, the United Nations’ food assistance agency, it was no surprise that the news was greeted with more than a few smirks and eye-rolls. 

In this case, the committee said, the prize was given because “in the face of the pandemic, the World Food Program has demonstrated an impressive ability to intensify its efforts.” Who could argue with that?

Plenty of people, it turns out. When UN bodies win the peace prize, “we are right at the edge of giving it to ‘the idea of org charts,’” quipped the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer. “It’s a bizarre choice, and it’s a complete waste of the prize,” said Mukesh Kapila, a professor of global health at the University of Manchester. They have a point. The WFP, which provides food assistance to people in need, is the largest agency in the UN and has 14,500 employees worldwide. It won the prize for simply doing its job, argued Kapila.

And an extremely narrow interpretation of its job, at that. After all, the UN didn’t create the WFP to tackle immediate threats during an acute time of stress; its mission is to “eradicate hunger and malnutrition.” After nearly 60 years of trying to end hunger, the WFP is larger and busier today than ever before. The world’s farmers produce more than enough to feed the world, and yet people still starve. Why?

An actual mouth to feed

Hunger around the globe is getting worse, not better. It’s true that the proportion of people who regularly fail to get enough calories to live has been declining, dropping from 15% in 2000 to 8.6% in 2014. Nevertheless, that proportion has since held fairly steady, and the absolute number of undernourished people has been rising. Last year, according to the UN, 688 million people went hungry on a regular basis, up from 628.9 million in 2014. The curve is not sharp, but if current trends continue, more than 840 million people may be undernourished by 2030.

Six books that shed light on the perils of the food system

  • Food or War

    Julian Cribb

    CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2019

    A rapid-fire tour of the impending conflicts created by the food system—and the ones that are already playing out.

  • Uncertain Harvest

    Ian Mosby, Sarah Rotz, Evan D.G. Fraser

    UNIVERSITY OF REGINA PRESS, 2020

    Can we adapt our diets to handle impending catastrophe? Take a tour through the foodstuffs that might dominate our future, from caribou to crickets.

  • Perilous Bounty

    Tom Philpott

    BLOOMSBURY, 2020

    How the intensification of farming in America has left industrial agriculture looking shaky and facing collapse.

  • Feeding the People

    Rebecca Earle

    CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2020

    Potatoes are totally familiar, entirely unglamorous, and utterly vital to the global diet. Earle details the potato’s surprisingly fascinating social and political history.

  • Harvesting Prosperity

    Keith Fuglie, Madhur Gautam, Aparajita Goyal,

    and William F. Maloney

    WORLD BANK GROUP, 2020

    This free, wonky e-book contains a detailed exploration of the remaining potential for farming and a blueprint for progress.

  • Bite Back: People Taking on Corporate Food
    and Winning

    edited by Saru Jayaraman and Katherine De Master

    UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 2020

    This essay collection examines a number of angles on attaining food justice.

The statistics seem abstract, but each one of these millions is an actual mouth to feed, and the hardships they undergo are very real. In his 2019 book Food or War, the Australian journalist and author Julian Cribb describes the physical process of starvation in excruciating detail. The body, he explains, devours itself in the hunt for sustenance, depleting energy levels and producing side effects like anemia, fluid build-up, and chronic diarrhea. Then “the muscles begin to waste,” he writes. “The victim becomes increasingly weak.”

“In adults, total starvation brings death within eight to twelve weeks … in children, prolonged starvation retards growth and mental development in ways from which they may never recover, even if sound nutrition is restored. In short, starvation is one of the most agonizing ways to die, both physically and mentally—far worse, indeed, than most tortures invented by cruel people, because it takes so long and involves the destruction of virtually every system in the human body.”

Today, the global antipoverty nonprofit Oxfam identifies 10 “extreme hunger hot spots” worldwide where millions of people face this abominable torture. Some are theaters of conflict—including Afghanistan, home to the longest war America has been involved in, and Yemen, where a civil war fueled by neighboring Saudi Arabia has left 80% of the country’s 24 million citizens in need of humanitarian assistance. But there are other circumstances that can bring starvation too: Venezuela’s cratering economy; South Africa’s high unemployment rates; Brazil’s years of austerity. 

In Mississippi, the country’s hungriest state, one child in four is unable to consistently get enough to eat. What’s happening?

And even in high-functioning industrialized countries, the threat of hunger—not just poor nutrition, but actual hunger—has been rising as a result of economic inequality. In the UK, the use of food banks has more than doubled since 2013. In the US, food insecurity is widespread, and the hardest hit are children, elders, and the poor. In Mississippi, the country’s hungriest state, one child in four is unable to consistently get enough to eat. What’s happening?

A futuristic marvel

It’s hard to comprehend, in part because the food system has been one of the greatest technological success stories of the modern world. What we eat, how it is produced, and where it comes from—all have changed dramatically in the industrial age. We have found a way to apply almost every kind of technology to food, from mechanization and computerization to biochemistry and genetic modification. These technological leaps have dramatically increased productivity and made food more reliably and widely available to billions of people.

Farming itself has become many times more efficient and more productive. In the early 1900s, the Haber-Bosch process was harnessed to capture nitrogen from the air and turn it into fertilizer at an unprecedented scale. Mechanization came quickly: in the 1930s, around one in seven farms in the US had a tractor; within 20 years, they were used by the majority of farms. This was matched by an increasing ability to redirect water supplies and tap into aquifers, helping turn some arid regions into fertile arable land. Swaths of China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the US were transformed by huge water projects, dams, and irrigation systems. Then, in the 1960s, the American agronomist Norman Borlaug bred new strains of wheat that were more resistant to disease, ushering in the “Green Revolution” in countries like India and Brazil—a development that led Borlaug himself to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

All of this means that industrialized farmers now operate at almost superhuman levels of output compared with their predecessors. In 1920, more than 31 million Americans worked in agriculture, and the average farm was just under 150 acres. A century later, the total acreage of farmland in the US has fallen by 9%, but just one-tenth of that workforce, 3.2 million people, is employed to tend it. (There are also far fewer farms now, but they are three times larger on average.)

The supply chain, too, is a futuristic marvel. You can walk into a store in most countries and buy fresh goods from all over the world. These supply chains even proved somewhat resistant to the chaos caused by the pandemic: while covid-19 lockdowns did lead to food shortages in some places, most of the empty shelves were the ones meant to hold toilet paper and cleaning products. Food supplies were more resilient than many expected.

But the mass industrialization of food and our ability to buy it has created an avalanche of unintended consequences. Cheap, bad calories have led to an obesity crisis that disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged. Intensive animal farming has increased greenhouse-­gas emissions, since meat has a much larger carbon footprint than beans or grains.

The environment has taken a beating, too. Booms in fertilizer and pesticide use have polluted land and waterways, and the easy availability of water has led some dry parts of the world to use up their resources.

They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can’t grow much food. The cycle continues.

In Perilous Bounty, the journalist Tom Philpott explores California’s agricultural future. The massive water projects drawing supplies into the Central Valley, for example, have helped it become one of the world’s most productive farming regions over the past 90 years, providing around a quarter of America’s food. But those natural aquifers are now under acute pressure, overused and running dry in the face of drought and climate change. Philpott, a reporter for Mother Jones, points to the nearby Imperial Valley in Southern California as an example of this folly. This “bone-dry chunk of the Sonoran desert” is responsible for producing more than half of America’s winter vegetables, and yet “in terms of native aquatic resources, the Imperial Valley makes the Central Valley look like Waterworld.” The valley is home to California’s largest lake, the 15-mile-long Salton Sea—famously so loaded with pollutants and salt that nearly everything in it has been killed off.

This isn’t going to get better anytime soon: what is happening in California is happening elsewhere. Cribb shows in Food or War exactly how the trend lines are pointing the wrong way. Today, he says, food production is already competing for water with urban and industrial uses. More people are moving to urban areas, accelerating the trend. If this continues, he says, the proportion of the world’s fresh water supply available for growing food will drop from 70% to 40%. “This in turn would reduce world food production by as much as one-third by the 2050s—when there will be over 9 billion mouths to feed—instead of increasing it by 60% to meet their demand.”

These are all bleak predictions of future hunger, but they don’t really explain starvation today. For that, we can look at a different unexpected aspect of the 20th-century farming revolution: the fact that it didn’t happen everywhere.

Just as healthy calories are hard to come by for those who are poor, the industrialization of farming is unevenly distributed. First Western farmers were catapulted into hyper-productivity, then the nations touched by the Green Revolution. But progress stopped there. Today, a hectare of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa produces just 1.2 metric tons of grain each year; in the US and Europe the equivalent land yields up to eight metric tons. This is not because farmers in poorer regions lack the natural resources, necessarily (West Africa has long been a producer of cotton), but because they are locked into a cycle of subsistence. They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can’t grow much food. The cycle continues.

This problem is exacerbated in places where the population is growing faster than the amount of food (nine of the world’s 10 fastest-growing countries are in sub-Saharan Africa). And it can be increased by sudden poverty, economic collapse, or conflict, as in Oxfam’s hot spots. While these are the places where the World Food Program steps in to alleviate immediate pain, it also doesn’t solve the problem. But then, their economic plight is not an accident.

A disaster for farmers worldwide

In September 2003, a South Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae attended protests against the World Trade Organization, which was meeting in Mexico. Lee was a former union leader whose own experimental farm had been foreclosed in the late 1990s. In an essay in the collection Bite Back (2020), Raj Patel and Maywa Montenegro de Wit recount what happened next. 

As demonstrators clashed with police, they explain, Lee climbed the barricades with a sign reading “WTO! Kills. FARMERS” hanging around his neck. On top of the fence, “he flipped open a rusty Swiss Army knife, stabbed himself in the heart, and died minutes later.”

Lee was protesting the effects of free trade, which has been a disaster for many farmers worldwide. The reason farmers in less industrialized nations can’t make much money isn’t just that they have low crop yields. It’s also that their markets are flooded with cheaper competition from overseas. 

Take sugar. After the Second World War, Europe’s sugar-beet growers were subsidized by their national governments to help ravaged countries get back on their feet. That worked, but once industrialization kicked in and production levels reached the stratosphere, they had an excess. The answer was to export that food, but the subsidies had the effect of artificially lowering prices: British sugar farmers could sell their goods in global markets and undercut the competition. This was good news for Europeans, but terrible news for sugar producers like Zambia. Farmers were locked into subsistence, or decided to turn away from the foods that they were naturally able to produce in favor of other products.

Powerful nations continue to subsidize their farmers and distort global markets even as the WTO has forced weaker countries to drop protections. In 2020, the US spent $37 billion on such subsidies, a number that has ballooned under the last two years of the Trump administration. Europe, meanwhile, spends $65 billion each year.

Patel and Montenegro point out that much of the populist political chaos of recent years has been a result of the trade turmoil—industrial jobs lost to outsourcing, and rural protests in the US and Europe by people angry at the prospect of rebalancing a deck that has been stacked in their favor for decades.

We have built systems that don’t just widen the gap between rich and poor but make the distance unassailable.

Donald Trump, they write, “was never honest about ditching free trade,” but “the social power he stirred up in the Heartland was real. Invoking the abominations of outsourced jobs, rural depression, and lost wages, he tapped in to neoliberal dysfunction and hitched the outrage to authoritarian rule.”

All this leaves us with a bleak picture of what’s next. We have built systems that don’t just widen the gap between rich and poor but make the distance unassailable. Climate change, competition for resources, and urbanization will produce more conflict. And economic inequality, both at home and abroad, means the numbers of hungry people are more likely to rise than fall. 

A golden age, but not for everyone

So are there any answers? Can starvation ever be ended? Can we head off the approaching food and water wars?

The countless books about the food system over the past few years make it clear: solutions are easy to lay out and extraordinarily complicated to enact. 

First steps might include helping farmers in poor countries out of the trap they are in by enabling them to grow more food and sell it at competitive prices. Such a strategy would mean not only providing the tools to modernize—such as better equipment, seed, or stock—but also reducing the tariffs and subsidies that make their hard work so unsustainable (the WTO has attempted to make progress on this front). The World Food Program, for all its plaudits, needs to be part of that kind of answer—not just an org chart plugging hungry mouths with emergency rations, but a force that helps rebalance this off-kilter system. 

And food itself needs to be more environmentally sound, employing fewer tricks that increase yields at the expense of the wider ecology. No more farming oases set up in bone-dry deserts; no more Salton Seas.This is difficult, but climate change may force us to do some of it regardless. 

All of this means recognizing that the golden age of farming wasn’t a golden age for everybody, and that our future may look different from what we have become used to. If so, that future might be better for those who go hungry today, and maybe for the planet as a whole. It may be hard to reckon with, but our spectacular global food system isn’t what will stop people from starving—it’s exactly why they starve in the first place.