How we think about hunger matters
In troubled times, all of us seek ways to make sense of the world. We grasp for organizing beliefs to help us interpret the endlessly confusing rush of world events. Unfortunately, however, the two of us have come to see that the way people think about hunger is the greatest obstacle to ending it. So in this Backgrounder we encapsulate 40 years of learning and in-depth new research to reframe ten such ways of thinking explored in our latest book World Hunger: 10 Myths. We call them “myths” because they often lead us down blind alleys or simply aren’t true.
Myth one: too little food, too many people
Our response: Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world’s food supply. Even though the global population more than doubled between 1961 and 2013, the world produces around 50 percent more food for each of us today—of which we now waste about a third. Even after diverting roughly half of the world’s grain and most soy protein to animal feed and non-food uses, the world still produces enough to provide every human being with nearly 2,900 calories a day. Clearly, our global calorie supply is ample.
Increasingly, however, calories and nutrition are diverging as the quality of food in most parts of the world is degrading. Using a calorie-deficiency standard, the UN estimates that today roughly one in nine people is hungry—about 800 million; but adding measures of nutrient deficiencies as well, we estimate that a quarter of the world’s people suffer from nutritional deprivation.
Food scarcity is not the problem, but the scarcity of real democracy protecting people’s access to nutritious food is a huge problem. So, fighting hunger means tackling concentrated political and economic power in order to create new equitable rules. Otherwise hunger will continue no matter how much food we grow.
Myth two: climate change makes hunger inevitable
Our response: Climate change is no myth. It already means crop losses from drought and the expansion of pests into new regions. The World Food Program forecasts the number of malnourished children to increase by 24 million by 2050, or about one-fifth more than without climate change. These expert observations form a powerful call to action, but they are a far cry from a verdict that hunger and famine are inevitable.
We can instead decide that climate change is an opportunity for instigating positive change. Because the global food system is so inefficient and inequitable, we have plenty of room to increase available food before we hit earth’s actual limits.
Fortunately, changes in food and farming that best address climate change are precisely those that most benefit the world’s hungry people, the environment, and everyone’s health. If remade, our food system has unique capacities to help rebalance the carbon cycle by cutting emissions and storing more carbon in the soil. Climate-friendly farming practices are low-cost and especially benefit small-scale farmers and farmworkers, who are the majority of hungry people. While climate disruption is now inevitable, vulnerability is largely under human control. As we correct the severe inequities and inefficiencies in our food system, we can ensure that no one goes hungry as we face the climate challenge.
Myth three: only industrial agriculture and GMOs can feed the world
Our response: Industrial agriculture relies on patented seeds, manufactured fertilizers and pesticides, and large-scale machinery. The production increases of “industrial agriculture” are no myth, but this model of farming is not sustainable and has already proven unable to end hunger. With a narrow focus on production, it fails to take into account the web of relationships, both those among people and those involving the natural world, that determine who can eat.
The industrial model also ends up accelerating the concentration of control over land and other resources that lies at the root of hunger and of vast environmental damage. Tightening control of land is also true in the United States where farms are being squeezed out so that only four farms remain today for every ten in 1950. And despite the vast output of US industrial agriculture, one in six Americans is “food insecure.” Worldwide, the model’s unsustainability shows up, for example, in topsoil eroding at a rate 13 to 40 times faster than nature can replenish it; and the run-off of chemical fertilizers has created more than 400 aquatic dead zones. While industrial agriculture has not ended hunger, fortunately there are proven pathways—such as agroecology—that help to end hunger by protecting the environment while enhancing equity, food quality, and productivity.
Myth four: organic and ecological farming can’t feed a hungry world
Our response: In many parts of the world, farming practices that minimize or forgo manufactured pesticides and fertilizer are proving effective. Called organic farming or agroecology, the approach involves much more than the absence of chemicals. Agroecology is an evolving practice of growing food within communities that is power-dispersing and power creating—enhancing the dignity, knowledge, and capacities of all involved. Agroecology thus helps to address the powerlessness at the root of hunger. It builds on both traditional knowledge accrued over millennia by peasants and indigenous people and the latest breakthroughs in modern science. Its practices free farmers from dependency on corporate suppliers and thus reinforce the dispersion of power, including for women.