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There Is Hunger In The World Today

Fernando de la Iglesia Viguiristi SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Sep 4th 2019

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 She could not keep it down and also had severe diarrhea. In her war-torn country, Yemen, a hostile coalition had set up a blockade making it extremely difficult to obtain emergency food and aid.

These two depressing photos of two dead children in two warring nations can leave no one indifferent. Alan had no guaranteed meals in his native Syria; Amal was reduced to skin and bones. In fact, in five years of war in Yemen, according to estimates from Save the Children, the scourge of hunger has caused the death of 85,000 children.[1]

The situation in this country is reminiscent of similar tragedies in Biafra and Ethiopia. This is a genuine humanitarian emergency. The Yemeni nation is the latest in a long series of famines that have struck humanity, the Encyclopaedia Britannica online provides a detailed, historical explanation.[2]

The famines of ancient Egypt are well known, the one that occurred in Rome in 5 BCE, those that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages, one during the pre-revolutionary era in France in the 18th century, the one that devastated Ireland and Scotland in the 19th century. China and India have suffered this calamity several times in the last two centuries. The Soviet Union faced four famines in the 20th century. Recently, North Korea found itself unable to feed its population.

It appears we are facing an endless problem, an endemic evil. Will humanity be able to heal this plague that has reappeared throughout history? What are its causes?

A classical overview of the issue

Ever since Thomas Malthus and his work An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) with its considerations on humanity’s ability to secure its food resources, we have encountered two positions: optimists and pessimists. Reverend Malthus observed that the population tended to grow by multiplication (2, 4, 8, 16, 32…), while the ability to cultivate food grew, at best, by addition (2, 4, 6, 8, 10…). This, in his opinion, made future prospects disastrous. Hunger must be inevitable, with shocking repercussions such as wars, epidemics and other scourges that would cause a decrease in the population.

Malthus argued that in the long term humanity could not free itself from the physical constraints that determine its ability to feed itself. He embodied the pessimistic view. For him, any temporary increase in production aimed at easing the tension in food supplies would naturally have resulted in an increase in the population, which would then have resulted in a lack of food security. This was his thesis: for humanity the lack of food was and would remain a chronic evil.

Undoubtedly this great British economist was able to describe the evolution of the population up to his time. But precisely, ironically, that law governed the world only until the time when he lived, that is, until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Malthus could not have imagined the scientific advances that then occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries. The contributions of biochemistry, genetics and the discovery of nitrogen fertilizers were advances that led to the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century.

The Green Revolution began in Mexico. Norman Borlaug, a U.S. agronomist, developed a variety of high-yielding wheat seeds for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He was immediately invited to India to see if his seeds could help fuel production in the great Asian subcontinent, which was chronically affected by food shortages. Here he worked with another great agronomist and geneticist, Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan. And that success was repeated, thus demonstrating that it was possible to expand the Green Revolution.

At the same time Chidambaram Subramaniam, India’s energetic Minister of Agriculture, lead the development of modern agricultural practice using fertilizers and water management, taking care to avoid losses in transportation. The results were spectacular. While not reaching the levels achieved in Mexico, India and Pakistan saw their harvests quadruple in the mid-1960s.

The great challenge of the 1960s: “The Population Bomb”

In 1960 the horizon was really worrying: the world’s population had just reached three billion individuals. This fact drew general attention. Popular magazines such as the US weekly Time echoed what had happened, calling it a real planetary bomb. The most impressive aspect was not only the number of inhabitants, but the growth rate: in just 35 years Earth’s population went from two to three billion.

Previously, humanity had taken thousands of years to reach its first billion people in the 19th century, and then it took 125 years for the world population to double from one to two billion. In 1962, according to the US census, the growth rate was 2.2 percent. Simple calculations show that it would only take 33 years for the population to double again in this way.[3]

It is easy to see how concern about the implications of such an alarming increase in population led to studies dealing with the issue. In 1968 Paul Ehrlich published his famous book The Population Bomb.[4] His tone was clearly alarmist. The conclusion, expressed on the cover, was that if no population control was achieved, the human race would become extinct (“it would fall into oblivion,” literally).

In this respect, it is useful to refer to a very authoritative opinion, that of the Nobel Prize winner for economics Angus Deaton.[5] He starts from the same observation: in the 1960s the theme of the demographic explosion was a cause of great alarm among citizens, at least in rich countries, but also among politicians, academics, foundations and international organizations. These concerns were due to humanitarian reasons. Many poor countries already seemed to have serious difficulties in providing sufficient food for their populations. A likely further increase in the number of individuals would only worsen already very delicate circumstances.

In fact, it is likely that a Westerner, visiting India for the first time, will be struck by the poverty and health conditions particularly in major urban centers where beggars, lepers, disabled children, as well as people defecating on the street, are part of the immense human multitude around them.

It seemed impossible to prevent the addition of more people from further aggravating the situation. National security was also a cause for concern. As had already happened in China, the growth of poverty had prepared a fertile ground for the communists. The United States and its allies needed to do everything possible to prevent the fall of more dominoes.

Deaton argues that in some extreme cases there was a disregard for the skin color of the chosen populations at the root of the enthusiasm for population control programs in Africa and Asia. The opinion of the world’s poor – the people who had given birth to those children – had not been given much consideration.

The scholar also asserts that it is necessary to recognize that African and Asian children, protagonists of the demographic explosion, in the great majority of cases had been desired by their parents. He therefore concludes that serious damage has been caused in the name of world population control. Some of the major abuses have been committed in India, where so-called “voluntary sterilization” has often proved to be far from voluntary.

Deaton ends by denouncing China’s one-child policy, a plan imposed by an undemocratic government and influenced by Western concerns about overpopulation, constituted – until it ended December 31st,  2015 – one of the most serious crimes committed in modern times by a government against its people.

Malthusianism defeated again

From 1960 to 1999 the world population doubled again. When will we become 12 billion people on planet Earth? Maybe things will change and it will take an extra century. Fortunately, just when Malthus expressed his concerns, his prediction ceased to come true. And in the 1960s, not even Ehlrich’s central statement came true: “The world, especially the developing world, is quickly running out of food […]. In fact, the battle to feed humanity is already lost, in the sense that we will probably not be able to prevent famine on a large scale in the next decade.”[6]

The Malthusian demon has been exorcised once again. Between 1961 and 1980 the population increased by 43 percent, but food production increased by 56 percent. Yet in 1981 the prophets of doom continued their crusade. In fact, in 2009, food production more than tripled compared to 1961, while the population had grown only 2.2 times. On the other hand, per capita food production increased by 41 percent between 1961 and 2009.

The data is available to everyone. We can go into it in greater depth, analyzing the most sensitive regions, the most historically penalized by famine, such as India. Well, in 2009 Indian food production was 3.6 times that of 1961, and its population was only 2.6 times larger. The net result is that per capita production in 2009 was 37 percent higher than its 1961 level. Now, however, there is no longer any talk of famine in what for a long time had been considered the homeland of hunger, India, which had been so often hit by this catastrophe.

At the regional level, sub-Saharan Africa has lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of economic growth and declining fertility. However, food production in that region is also quite impressive. Its total food production in 2009 was 3.4 times higher than in 1961: a greater increase than in the world as a whole over the same period of time. The problem is that the population has grown even more, and in 2009 there were 3.6 times more people than in 1961.

David Lam, president of the Population Association of America, in his address to the annual meeting in Washington on April 1, 2018, said: “Still, it is surely worth marveling at the fact that we did not experience mass starvation given a doubling of world population in 39 years. So how did we do it? Obviously, many factors were involved. At the risk of greatly oversimplifying a complex period of rapid economic and social change, I will highlight six factors, three of which I have labeled economic and three of which I have labeled demographic. A common theme throughout this section is the adaptations made by individuals, firms, and policy makers in response to the pressures created by rapid population growth. Arguably the biggest mistake made by the pessimists of the 1960s was in underestimating the impact of these adaptations.”[7]

The three economic factors are: 1) market responses; 2) innovation; 3) globalization. It is not easy to separate them, but each of them covers some important economic forces necessary to understand how we survived the phenomenon of the population explosion. Demographic change also played an important role in explaining how the world survived the “bomb.” The three demographic factors are: 1) urbanization; 2) fertility decline; 3) investment in children.

By “market response” Lam means that when food prices rise, farmers grow more. He mentions the case of food production in Vietnam. In 2009, total food production there was 5.5 times its 1960 level. Over the same period, the population had grown 2.6 times, which means that per capita food production in 2009 is more than double its 1960 level.

Although many factors were involved in this success story, particularly important were the choices of market liberalization that took place between 1981 and 1989. The well-known Doi Moi (“New Economy”) reforms began in 1986, but those that led to the decollectivization of farms had already given farmers the incentives to increase production, which doubled between 1990 and 2010. Vietnam went from being one of the largest importers of rice to becoming the second largest exporter of rice in the world (FAO 2011). The same phenomenon has occurred in China and India.

The point is not that population growth does not pose challenges to economic development, but rather that these challenges can be met when certain forces, such as market liberalization, lead to this type of rapid economic growth.

The population explosion has been absorbed mainly in towns and villages, but not in rural areas. This is partly due to the fact that the latter have grown into urban areas, but it is also due to rapid rural-urban migration, individual responses to economic and educational opportunities in cities, and the reduced need for rural labor as a result of increased agricultural yields.

Urbanization is one of the causes of population growth, but it is also one of the ways in which it has been able to double in 40 years without creating widespread hunger or increasing poverty. Why did the inclusion of people in the cities help us survive the demographic bomb? Cities are among our best inventions: they allow us to make and market things more efficiently and to interact with others to develop new ideas. They have been fundamental to economic progress over the past 50 years, and most low-income countries would do well to encourage rather than discourage the growth of urbanization.

In the same debate, 10 years earlier, David Gale Johnson said: “What has allowed the world to escape the Malthusian trap? The answer is simple: knowledge creation.”[8]

As we have said, positive innovation in agriculture is associated with the name of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, the “man who fed the world,” who for this reason was rightly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (not the chemistry prize!), given to him in 1970 in Oslo, the homeland of his ancestors. He did something spectacular. The seed varieties he developed, and those he developed with others, have performed incredibly. The data collected by FAO for the world as a whole, and for India in particular, shows how decisive this fact was.

Yet, since 2000, the pessimists on this subject have had something to cling to. More problems have arisen lately. Articles in publications such as The Economist and The New York Times have focused on food production and rising food prices. Current food prices are affected by many factors, some of which have worrying implications for the future.

In recent years there have been major crop crises in various countries, probably linked to global warming. Increased demand for meat in rapidly developing nations such as China is also playing an important role, as is 30 percent of the U.S. corn harvest being diverted for the production of ethanol for automobiles.

The current state of the matter. Today’s Malthusianism

In view of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, Jeffrey Sachs, the authoritative economist and special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, recently wrote that today’s so-called “conventional wisdom” believes that much of our ability to achieve sustainable development depends on the future dynamics of the world’s population. The increase in the latter will make it more difficult to reconcile the economic objectives of improving personal living standards with the limits of the planet. The faster the population of a given country grows, the more difficult it will be to combine economic growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability in that territory.

There’s more. Sachs himself says that, since the Green Revolution we have all been reassured that, although the world’s population was continuing to grow, the supply of food would still outstrip demand. But now this certainty is seriously called into question. Today, we are aware that a large part of humanity is malnourished and that, moreover, there are serious threats to food security and supply on the horizon. For two reasons: the first is that the population continues to increase, and we have already reached 7.2 billion inhabitants, with an annual growth of 75 million; the second is that agriculture and livestock farming also contribute to a large extent to climate change, which is a threat to future production.

Malnutrition is a scourge, because it affects almost 30 percent of the world’s population. It manifests itself as “chronic hunger” or malnutrition, which, according to the FAO, affected 870 million people in 2012. Then there is the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiency, ( vitamin and mineral deficiency required for optimal health), which leaves people weakened and susceptible to infections and diseases. This affects almost a billion people.

This is the reality of our world, its dual challenge. Therefore, change, i.e. the transition to a sustainable agricultural system, becomes essential. We need a new Green Revolution, which must result in the cultivation of innovative seed varieties adapted to environmental issues. Many believe that the answer lies in genetic modification. Others – many others – consider this road very dangerous. It remains to be seen what this development will result in and what guarantees it will provide.[9]

The current situation

According to the FAO report The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World presented on September 11, 2018, in Rome, the number of people suffering from hunger on the planet continues to increase: in 2017 it reached 821 million (one person out of nine). In addition, little progress has been made in the fight against malnutrition.[10]

The reality is very sad: in the last three years hunger has grown back to the levels of 10 years ago. This step backward makes it clear that decisive action is urgently needed to achieve Sustainable Development Goal No. 2: Zero hunger by 2030. The situation is worsening, especially in South America and in most of Africa.

How do you explain this failure? In its Annual Report, the UN mentions climate variability as a cause. This affects precipitation levels and extreme weather phenomena such as droughts and floods. The Report of course also highlights armed conflicts and economic crises. Climate change is causing lower yields of some major crops, such as wheat, rice and maize in tropical and temperate regions. Unfortunately, it is to be expected that the situation will deteriorate as temperatures continue to rise.

According to the Report, little progress has been made in reducing child growth retardation, with nearly 151 million children under the age of 5 in 2017, compared to 165 million in 2012. Globally, Africa and Asia accounted for 39 and 55 percent respectively of all children with growth retardation.

The Report defines as “shameful” the fact that, in the world, one in three women of reproductive age is suffering from anemia, with serious consequences for their health and physical development and that of their children. 

The paradox of the simultaneous growth of hunger and income

The figures on hunger that we have just mentioned contrast with the evolution of poverty over the same period. Not so long ago, the World Bank published an encouraging update of its world poverty figures. According to the latest estimates, 10.7 percent of the world’s population in 2013 lived on less than $1.90 a day, while in 2012 these people were 12.4 percent. This proportion is less than the 35 percent recorded in 1990. Since 1990, almost 1.1 billion people have come out of extreme poverty.[11]

No one can escape the fact that these remarkable results are due to the growth of China and India, countries in which in 1990 almost half of the world’s poor population lived. Today, half of the extremely poor population lives in Africa, south of the Sahara. In 2013, there were 389 million people living on less than $1.90 a day in these regions, more than in any other region combined. Most of these poor people live in rural areas and are poorly educated, work mainly in agriculture, and more than half of them are under the age of 18.

The long-term trend is clear: poverty in the world is being reduced, as a consequence, to a large extent, of the industrialization of China and other Asian nations, which in turn increases the income of Latin American and African countries, which are rich in raw materials and agricultural and livestock products.

The paradox is that there are fewer and fewer people – both in percentage and in absolute terms – below the critical poverty line, but, at the same time, there is no parallel reduction in the number of people suffering from hunger. The hungry are the poorest of the poor. The paradox of the comparative evolution of poverty and hunger suggests the existence of a hard core of radical poverty, which is reflected in malnutrition. This is harder to eliminate than other poverty. We are talking about a context of extreme misery.

Among poor populations, the first victims are always the most fragile individuals: children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, the sick and the elderly. Other human groups in serious danger of nutritional deficiency should also be mentioned: refugees; those who have moved within their own country; victims of political events. Hunger comes primarily from poverty. People’s food security depends essentially on their purchasing power and not on the physical availability of food, and for this reason it is widespread in poorly or underdeveloped countries.

Final reflections

First of all, it must be stressed that there is enough food for everyone in the world. Even so, the persistence of famines demonstrates the structural origin of the problem: the key lies in the fact that there is unequal access to the necessary food. We live in a world divided into rich and poor.

St John Paul II seemed to anticipate David Lam’s analysis: “We must renounce the sophism that consists in affirming that ‘being numerous means condemning oneself to be poor.’ Through our interventions, we can change situations and respond to growing needs. Education for all, equipment adapted to local realities, sensible agricultural policies and fair economic circuits can all be factors that will produce positive effects in the long term. A large population can be a source of development as it involves trade and demand for goods. This does not mean, of course, that population growth can be unlimited. Every family has its own duties and responsibilities in this field, and the demographic policies of the States must respect the dignity of human nature and the fundamental rights of people.”[12]

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to food as a fundamental right. But it also imposes a duty on all of us: “Feed those dying of hunger, because if you have not fed them, you have killed them” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 69). This is the doctrine that the Fathers of the Church left us. In the Bible, we are all shaken by the pungent question that God asks us: “What have you done? Listen; Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Gen 4:10). Applying this harsh, almost unbearable verse to the situation of our starving contemporaries is not an unjust or aggressive exaggeration: these words show a priority and are intended to stir our consciences.

Hunger is a threat, not only to people’s lives, but also to their dignity. A serious and prolonged lack of food causes deterioration of the organism, apathy, loss of social sense, indifference, and sometimes even cruelty to the weakest, especially to children and the elderly. Whole groups are condemned to die in degradation.

However, today, more than in other times, we are aware that hunger is a scandal. We must therefore consider all the causes – short-term or long-lasting – and their interrelationships, because famines are often the product of human behavior: there are political errors, there are wars and, above all, much poverty and misery. Every conflict in itself leads to a reduction and, not infrequently, to a shortage of food.[13] Wars bring hunger.

But another factor must be added: it has always been a war strategy to deprive enemies of the possibility of obtaining supplies. Preventing them from feeding is a means to defeat them. To this end, crops, warehouses and herds are destroyed and wells poisoned. Or queues of civilians waiting for bread are bombed, as recently occurred in Syria. Or access to humanitarian aid is prevented, as has been the case in Yemen.

In 1992 the humanitarian and food aid that the UN brought to Somalia to combat famine was seized by the warlords and bartered for arms in other countries. More than 500,000 people died from a lack of food, and the UN ended up intervening to ensure that supplies were actually distributed.

Today, 800 million people are hungry, of whom at least 500 million live in conflict zones and suffer from this type of induced famine. This is a crime against international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, those who perpetrate it enjoy total impunity, because it is a crime that is difficult to prove.

There is a broad consensus that hunger, the fruit of injustice, must also be attributed to the inescapable ethical dimension of this very sad phenomenon. In other words, if we want to find lasting solutions to the problem of hunger and malnutrition in the world, it is essential to understand well the ethical nature of what is at stake.

In this regard, the principles of the Church’s social teaching are a valuable guide for human action against hunger. In short: to pursue the common good is the point of convergence in the search for greater efficiency in the management of earthly goods; for greater application of social justice, required by the universal destination of goods; for competent and incessant application of subsidiarity; for the exercise of solidarity at all levels, which prevents the most favored from seizing economic resources. All this will help to ensure that nobody is excluded from the social and economic body, nor deprived of their fundamental dignity.

A different world is possible. You have to dream about it and enlighten it. As Henri Gougaud wrote: “My dream is not over. I remade the world. I cancel a thousand planes, a war, an empire, to plough the land and, drawing water from the well, change life and then abolish poverty. The world will be beautiful, I have said so and I subscribe to it.”[14]


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 9, art. 7, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1909.7

[1] Cf. www.savethechildren.it/blog-notizie/stop-guerra-yemen-7-proposte-della-societa-civile. On the genesis and development of the war in Yemen, see G. Sale, “La guerra dimenticata dello Yemen” in Civ. Catt. 2016 IV 553-564.

[2] Cf. “Famine” https://www.britannica.com/science/famine

[3] Cf. “rule of 72” in C. I. Jones, Macroeconomics, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, 41-64. This rule states that the time taken by a variable growing at a constant rate to double is given by the quotient between 72 and the above rate. So, if the rate is 2 percent, t= 72/2 =36; if it is 3 percent, t= 72/3=24 years.

[4] Cf. P. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, New York, Ballantine Books, 1968.

[5] Cf. A. Deaton, The Great Escape. Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2013.

[6] P. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, op. cit., 36.

[7] D. Lam, “How the World Survived the Population Bomb: Lessons From 50 Years of Extraordinary Demographic History” in Demography 48 (2011) 1231-1262.

[8] D. Gale Johnson, “Population, Food, and Knowledge” in American Economic Review 90 (2000) 1-14.

[9] Cf. J. D. Sachs, The Age of Sustainable Development, New York, Columbia University Press, 2015.

[10] Cf. www.fao.org/news/story/it/item/1152149/icode

[11] Cf. datatopics.worldbank.org/sdgatlas/SDG-01-no-poverty.html

[12] John Paul II, Address on the occasion of the inaugural session of the World Food Summit, Rome, November 13, 1996, 3.

[13] Cf. A. Rojas, “Las nuevas guerras del hambre” in El Mundo(www.elmundo.es/internacional/2018/10/14/5bc21650ca4741be418b465d.html), October 14, 2018.

[14] From the song La matinée (1969) by Jean Ferrat.

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