The Myth - Scarcity
The Reality - There is enough food
Food First (Institute for Food and Development
With food-producing resources in so much of the world stretched
to the limit, there's simply not enough food to go around. Unfortunately,
some people will just have to go hungry. We must put all our efforts
into boosting agricultural production in order to minimize hunger.
The world today produces enough grain alone to provide every
human being on the planet with 3,500 calories a day.' That's enough
to make most people fat! And this estimate does not even count
many other commonly eaten foods-vegetables, beans, nuts, root
crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. In fact, if all foods
are considered together, enough is available to provide at least
4.3 pounds of food per person a day. That includes two and half
pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables,
and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs.
Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food
in the world today. Increases in food production during the past
35 years have outstripped the world's unprecedented population
growth by about 16 percent. Indeed, mountains of unsold grain
on world markets have pushed prices strongly downward over the
past three and a half decades. Grain prices rose briefly during
the early 1990s, as bad weather coincided with policies geared
toward reducing overproduction, but still remained well below
the highs observed in the early sixties and mid-seventies.
All well and good for the global picture, you might be thinking,
but doesn't such a broad stroke tell us little? Aren't most of
the world's hungry living in countries with food shortages - countries
in Latin America, in Asia, and especially in Africa?
Hunger in the face of ample food is all the more shocking
in the Third World. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) of the United Nations, gains in food production since 1950
have kept ahead of population growth in every region except Africa.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
found in a 1997 study that 78% of all malnourished children under
five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses.
Thus, even most "hungry countries have enough food for
all their people right now. This finding turns out to be true
using official statistics even though experts warn us that newly
modernizing societies invariably underestimate farm production-just
as a century ago at least a third of the U.S. wheat crop went
uncounted. Moreover, many nations can't realize their full food
production potential because of the gross inefficiencies caused
by inequitable ownership of resources.
Finally, many of the countries in which hunger is rampant
export much more in agricultural goods than they import. Northern
countries are the main food importers, their purchases representing
71.2 percent of the total value of food items imported in the
world in 1992. Imports by the 30 lowest-income countries, on the
other hand, accounted for only 5.2 percent of all international
commerce in food and farm commodities.
Looking more closely at some of the world's hunger-ravaged
countries and regions confirms that scarcity is clearly not the
cause of hunger.
India ranks near the top among Third World agricultural exporters.
While at least 200 million Indians go hungry," in 1995 India
exported $625 million worth of wheat and flour, and $1.3 billion
worth of rice (5 million metric tons), the two staples of the
Beginning with its famine of the early 1970s, Bangladesh came
to symbolize the frightening consequences of people overrunning
food resources. Yet Bangladesh's official yearly rice output alone-which
some experts say is seriously under-reported - could provide each
person with about a pound of grain per day, or 2,000 calories.'4
Adding to that small amounts of vegetables, fruits, and legumes
could prevent hunger for everyone. Yet the poorest third of the
people in Bangladesh eat at most only 1,500 calories a day, dangerously
below what is needed for a healthy life.
With more than 120 million people living in an area the size
of Wisconsin, Bangladesh may be judged overcrowded by any number
of standards, but its population density is not a viable excuse
for its widespread hunger. Bangladesh is blessed with exceptional
agricultural endowments, yet its 1995 rice yields fell sign)ficantly
below the all-Asia average. The extraordinary potential of Bangladesh's
rich alluvial soils and plentiful water has hardly been unleashed.
If the country's irrigation potential were realized, experts predict
its rice yields could double or even triple. Since the total calorie
supply in Bangladesh falls only 6% short of needs, nutritional
adequacy seems an achievable goal.
While Brazil exported more than $13 billion worth of food
in 1994 (second among developing countries), 70 million Brazilians
cannot afford enough to eat.
It comes as a surprise for many of us to learn that the countries
of Sub-Saharan Africa, home to some 213 million chronically malnourished
people (about 25 percent of the total in developing countries),
continue to export food. Throughout the 1980s exports from sub-Saharan
Africa grew more rapidly than imports, and in 1994, 11 countries
of the region remained net exporters of food.
The Sahelian countries of West Africa, known for recurrent
famines, have been net exporters of food even during the most
severe droughts. During one of the worst droughts on record, in
the late 1960s and early 1970s, the value of the region's agricultural
exports- $ 1.25 billion-remained three times greater than the
value of grain imported, and such figures did not even take into
account significant unreported exports. Once again, during the
1982-85 drought food was exported from these countries.
Nevertheless, by 1990, food production per person had apparently
been declining for almost two decades, despite the productive
capacity suggested by Africa's agricultural exports, and in 1995
over one third of the continent's grain consumption depended on
imports. We use the word "apparently" because official
statistics notoriously under-report, or ignore all together, food
grown for home consumption, especially by poor women, as well
as food informally exchanged within family and friendship networks,
making a truly accurate assessment impossible. In fact the author
of the AAAS report referred to earlier, argues that despite inaccurate
statistics and misleading media imagery, hunger is actually less
severe in sub-Saharan Africa than in South Asia.
Repeated reports about Africa's failing agriculture and growing
dependence on imports have led many to assume that too many people
are vying for limited resources. Africa's food crisis is real,
as evidenced by moderately high rates of childhood malnutrition-but
how accurate is this assumed cause of the crisis?
Africa has enormous still unexploited potential to grow food,
with theoretical grain yields 25 to 35% higher than maximum potential
yields in Europe or North America. Beyond yield potential, ample
arable land awaits future use. In Chad, for example, only 10%
of the farm land rated as having no serious production constraints
is actually farmed. In countries notorious for famines like Ethiopia,
Sudan, Somalia and Mali, the area of unused good quality farm
land is many times greater than the area actually farmed, casting
doubt on the notion that there are simply too many people for
Many long-time observers of Africa's agricultural development
tell us that the real reasons for Africa's food problems are no
mystery. Africa's food potential has been distorted and thwarted.
* The colonial land grab that continued into the modern era
displaced peoples and the production of foodstuffs from good lands
toward marginal ones, giving rise to a pattern where good land
is mostly dedicated to the production of cash crops for export
or is even unused by its owners. Furthermore, colonizers and,
subsequently, national and international agencies, have discredited
peasant producers' often sophisticated knowledge of ecologically
appropriate farming systems. Promoting "modern," often
imported, and ecologically destructive technologies, they have
cut Africa's food producers out of economic decisions most affecting
their very survival.
* Public resources, including research and agricultural credit,
have been channeled to export crops to the virtual exclusion of
peasant-produced food crops such as millet, sorghum, and root
crops. In the 1 980s increased pressure to export to pay interest
on foreign debt further reinforced this imbalance.
* Women are principal food producers in many parts of Africa,
yet both colonial policy and, all too often, ill-conceived foreign
aid and investment projects have placed decisions over land use
and credit in the domain of men. In many cases that has meant
preferential treatment for cash crops over food crops, skewing
land use and investment patterns toward cash crops.
* Aid policies unaccountable to African peasant producers
and pastoralists have generally bypassed their needs in favor
of expensive, large-scale projects. Africa has historically received
less aid for agriculture than any other continent, and only a
fraction of it has reached rain-fed agriculture, on which the
bulk of grain production depends. Most of the aid has backed irrigated,
export-oriented, elite-controlled production.
Because of external as well as domestic factors African governments
have often maintained cheap food policies whereby peasants are
paid so poorly for their crops that they have little incentive
to produce, especially for official market channels. The factors
responsible for these policies have included developed country
dumping of food surpluses in African markets at artificially low
prices, developed country interest in cheap wages to guarantee
profitable export production, middle class African consumer demand
for affordable meat and dairy products produced with cheap grain,
and government concerns about urban political support and potential
unrest. The net effect has been to both depress local food production
and divert it toward informal, and therefore unrecorded, markets.
Until recently many African governments also overvalued their
currencies, making imported food artificially cheap and undercutting
local producers of millet, sorghum, and cassava. Although recent
policy changes have devalued currencies, which might make locally
produced food more attractive, accompanying free trade policies
have brought increased imports of cheap food from developed countries,
largely canceling any positive effect.
* Urban tastes have increasingly shifted to imported grain,
particularly wheat, which few countries in Africa can grow economically.
Thirty years ago, only a small minority of urban dwellers in sub-Saharan
Africa ate wheat. Today bread is a staple for many urbanites,
and bread and other wheat products account for about a third of
all the region's grain imports. U.S. food aid and advertising
by multinational corporations ("He'll be smart. He'll go
far. He'll eat bread.") have played their part in molding
African tastes to what the developed countries have to sell.
Thus beneath the "scarcity diagnosis" of Africa's
food situation lie many human-made (often Western influenced)
and therefore reversible causes. Even Africa's high birth rates
are not independent variables, but are determined by social realities
that shape people's reproductive choices.
A FUTURE OF SCARCITY?
A centuries-old debate has recently heated up: just how close
are we to the earth's limits?
Major studies have arrived at widely varying conclusions as
to the earth's potential to support future populations. In a 1995
book Professor Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University surveyed estimates
put forth over four centuries. Always a slippery concept, estimates
of the Earth's "carrying capacity," or the number of
people who could be supported, have varied from a low of one billion
in a 1970 study to a high of 1,022 billion put forth in 1967.
Among studies published between 1990 and 1994 the range was from
"much less than our current population of 5.5 billion"
according to Paul Ehrlich and others, to a high of 44 billion
estimated by a Dutch research team, with most estimates falling
into the 10 to 14 billion range. By contrast the 1996 United Nations
forecast, generally considered to be the best future population
projection, predicts that the world population will peak at 9.36
billion in the year 2050, and stabilize thereafter (projections
of the maximum future population have been coming down over the
past few years). This is well within what most experts view as
the capacity of the Earth.
In view of today's abundant food supplies as well as the potential
suggested here and elaborated in World Hunger: Twelve Myths, we
question the more pessimistic predictions of demographic catastrophe.
Only 50 years ago, China pundits predicted that famine-ridden
nation could never feed its population. Today more than twice
as many people eat-and fairly adequately-on only one-fourth the
cropland per person used in the United States.
Not that anyone should take the more pessimistic predictions
lightly; they underscore the reality of the inevitably finite
resource base entrusted to us. They should therefore reinforce
our sense of urgency to address the root causes of resource misuse,
resource degradation, and rapid population growth.
LESSONS FROM HOME
Finally, in probing the connection between hunger and scarcity
we should never overlook the lessons here at home. In the 1990s
over 30 million Americans can not afford a healthy diet, arid
8.5% of U.S. children are hungry and 20.1% more are at risk of
hunger. But who would argue that not enough food is produced?
Surely not U.S. farmers; overproduction is their most persistent
headache. Nor the U.S. government, which maintains huge storehouses
of cheese, milk and butter. In 1995, U.S. aid shipments abroad
of surplus food included more than 3 million metric tons of cereals
and cereal products, about two thirds consisting of wheat and
flour. That's enough flour to bake about 600 loaves of bread per
year for every hungry child in the U.S.
Here at home, just as in the Third World, hunger is an outrage
precisely because it is profoundly needless. Behind the headlines,
the television images, and superficial clichés, we can
learn to see that hunger is real; scarcity is not.
Only when we free ourselves from the myth of scarcity can
we begin to look for hunger's real causes. That search is what
Work! Hunger: Twelve Myths, Second Edition is about.
Secrets and Lies