Just a few years ago, the number of people suffering from malnutrition and lack of food was already higher than 800 million. Today, due to the late and still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this number is apt to rise even more, thus hindering the 2030 Zero Hunger goal set by the UN. We may then ask ourselves: what are the causes of this grave phenomenon – and, most importantly, what solutions do we have that are truly viable?
By definition, the word “hunger” indicates “a severe lack of food”, sustained for significant stretches of time. According to the UN Hunger Report, those who live in such a state are scarcely able to satisfy an intake of 1,800 calories per day (the average daily intake for adults being around 2,500). It has long been suggested that increased food production, through the use of genetic engineering, may be the solution. However, this has proved to be a wrong myth, as unequal distribution – not scarcity – of food is the real problem.
Among the main causes of hunger is, of course, poverty. Economic slowdowns (such as the present one) lead to increased poverty, which, in turn, leads to hunger. Countries with a high level of “commodity-import dependence” are easily damaged in times of economic crises, as they mainly rely on the prices of import, even for food. Conflicts, pests, weather conditions and natural disasters are some of the other key factors. The majority of stunted children “live in countries affected by conflict”, and a country’s geographical location is of paramount importance, in terms of soil fertility and access to elementary sources such as water.
From this point of view, genetically modified (GM) crops do display some positive features. Apart from increased production, they can be engineered to be pest-resistant and weather-resistant (being, for example, able to withstand a drought), and even “more nutritious, providing critical vitamins to populations that struggle to get specific nutrients needed for healthy living.” However, this genetic and technological knowledge is the exclusive property of just “a few large companies”, such as the biotechnology corporation Monsanto. To use the words of John Robbins, these giants, in spite of “what they would have us believe”, are not at all trying to solve the problem of world hunger: “Their goal is maximum profit”. Depressively enough, as GM crops are “patentable” (but not indispensable), the global food market (one of the most diversified markets existing) is becoming increasingly monopolized.
Genetically modified foods, then, hardly represent a viable solution for the question at hand; on the contrary, they are probably bringing about an even larger gap in the global distribution of quality food. This inequity is indeed part of the real trouble, as previously mentioned, and is not to be solved by simply allowing colossal businesses to prosper – even if they claim that their producing food in huge quantities is aimed at feeding the poor and destitute. So, what other ways are there to overcome this?
Unfortunately, there is no single answer. As the problem we are dealing with is a complex one, we cannot merely rely on concepts of quantity and quality. In view of this, the UN’s Zero Hunger Goal is as ambitious in its scope as it is realistic in its vision: it promises to combat world hunger “via a multipronged approach, including political action and reduction of violence, agricultural and technical innovations, efforts to end poverty, and educational initiatives.” This means investing in the human factor as much as in the technological one: educating and innovating at the same time.
Reassuringly, strong action plans have been in place and active for many years now. The World Economic Forum’s “Innovation With a Purpose Platform” is aimed at improving traceability and food security through research, investment, and “the integration of local and regional initiatives”. Action Against Hunger has been on the front lines for over forty years, trying to treat undernutrition and to defeat its underlying causes. Food banks are now well-known and visible, and there are many voluntary associations whose principal aim is distributing food in poor neighborhoods in big cities, as well as organizations who travel and operate directly on location in the poorest, most affected countries around the world.
With Asia containing the majority of undernourished people, and Africa following just behind at an alarming pace, all civilized, developed countries today have a responsibility to cooperate in solving what has long been a common problem, now known as “chronic hunger”. A country like Bolivia, thirty-five times the size of Belgium and with an equal number of inhabitants, is highly dependent on farming and agriculture, and yet more than a quarter of its population is starving, making it the poorest country in Latin America. Why is that so? Policies. Goods and foods circulate freely today, and when countries such as Bolivia or the Democratic Republic of Congo do not get the financial support that they would need, while developed countries get generous subsidies, this creates an imbalance: “all these policies have made poor countries – though their populations are largely composed of farmers – utterly dependent on food imports from industrialized or emerging countries.” It goes by itself then that if an African cow produces one to five litres of milk per day, and a European cow produces between twenty-five and thirty litres per day, “to allow farmers from North and South to compete in the same global market through free trade is like making a featherweight fight a heavyweight”.
To live in a free world means that everybody, everywhere, is free. When a country’s inherent poverty leads to illiteracy, deprivation and starvation, which, in turn, lead back to poverty, a vicious, unfair cycle is created – and it can only be broken from outside. It is sadly often the case that maintaining this cycle – by, for instance, financing wars – is in the better interests of so-called “civilized” countries. However, this interests are very personal and nationalistic, they do not account for the unjust suffering they bring and, most importantly, they do not make the world a free one. For until there exist people whose health and hunger depend on other people’s wealth and power, slavery will never end. Politicians and advocates everywhere might keep making illustrious and well-spoken remarks up on stages and in front of microphones, and volunteers everywhere may donate all their free time – their lives indeed – to work hard for the well-being of others, protesting against conflicts or handing out food, proving again and again how kind and noble the human nature may be; but until we decide to not have wars, to equally sustain all countries, to altruistically transcend those human desires for power, fame, and money, some of us – to use George Orwell’s words – will always be “more equal than others”. A wealthier world is not necessarily a better world, but a more equal world is definitely a healthier one.
Written by Edoardo Cippitelli
Edoardo Cippitelli is a columnist at DecipherGrey.