A Preventable Tragedy Millions Around The World Are Still Threatened with Starvation
Part 2: Miserable Normality
Rome: How Can Zero Hunger Be Achieved?
In the heart of Rome, next to the ruins of the Circus Maximus, a building is guarded by soldiers. Until 1953, it was home to the ministry that managed Italy's African colonies. Today, though, it is the headquarters of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the agency that is primarily responsible for eliminating hunger by 2030. Like the building's former tenant, the FAO likewise focuses heavily on Africa.
FAO head José Graziano da Silva's desk is covered in a colorful array of world maps, graphics and charts. "People still think that famine is caused by lack of food," he says. That used to be the case, he goes on, during World War II and the years that followed, which saw several million people starve to death in Asia.
But today? "Since the Green Revolution in the 1960s, we produce more than enough food," Graziano da Silva says, "enough for 10 billion people and more."
Why, then, has the international community been unable to eliminate hunger? Graziano da Silva pulls a chart out of a pile of papers showing the 13 countries where hunger is at its worst. The four countries currently facing famine -- South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen -- are among them, as are places like Syria and Afghanistan. The list reveals the largest hurdles on the road to "zero hunger": climate change and war. Often, it is a combination of both.
All of the hunger crises are caused by humans themselves. "It is very disappointing," says Graziano da Silva, "that we cannot get together and find solutions for these political issues." It sounds helpless, but what else can he say? That it would be absurd to believe that the UN will be able to defeat hunger by 2030 as it has said it will?
The truth is that no single organization in the world is able to do so. A joint, international political effort is needed -- initiatives like the focus by heads of state and government on combatting climate change and finding solutions to armed conflicts. With no end to many of the worst conflicts in sight, however, Graziano da Silvva says the number of people suffering from hunger is likely to continue climbing in 2017. Meanwhile, he says, donor countries that fund organizations such as the FAO, are displaying "symptoms of fatigue."
But what about the less visible part of the 800 million total: All those people facing hunger despite living in countries that haven't been beset by war or climate-related phenomena?
Haiti: Miserable Normality
The air is hot and thick in the church of Abricot, a village in Haiti's southeast. Women are crowded onto the benches, many of them with one or more babies in their arms. Up front is a blackboard on which is written: "Prevansyon pou malnitrisyon," prevention of malnutrition. That is the subject of the presentation that aid workers are preparing to give.
Having never gone to school, Yfrancia Napoleon, 33, is unable to read what it says. A fragile woman with exhaustion -- of the type that sleep can't cure -- written in her face, she is sitting in the first row with her daughter Roudegajina. She got up at 4 a.m. to have time to reach the church by 10 a.m. on foot. She hasn't eaten anything and also doesn't have anything with her to feed her child.
Few of the young children are in acute danger. They are facing a different form of hunger than the kind present in Somaliland and South Sudan: a chronic, day-to-day shortage of food. Every second Haitian is undernourished and the small Caribbean country, with its almost 11 million residents, was listed in 4th place on the 2016 Global Hunger Index. There wasn't sufficient data to rank some crisis-stricken countries, like South Sudan and Somalia, but still. Fourth place?
"We should eat enough," an aid worker begins, "and the food should be clean." In Haiti, unclean means contaminated with cholera bacteria. There are three categories of foodstuffs, the aid worker says: those that build the body, those that protect against disease and those that give strength and energy. Meat belongs to the first group, she goes on, vegetables to the second and rice to the third. "Every day, we should choose something from each group."
It isn't that Yfrancia Napoleon doesn't know what to give her children to eat. In addition to Roudegajina, she also has a nine-year-old daughter and a son who is 11 years old, but who is mentally handicapped. When he was Roudegajina's age -- almost two -- he only weighed just over two kilograms (4.5 pounds), Napoleon says. She took him to the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, which is a five-hour drive away by off-road vehicle but a world away for Yfrancia Napoleon. The doctors were able to save the boy's life, but the damage to his brain had already been done.
The goal of the presentation in the church of Abricot is to prevent malnourishment among children under two years of age -- because brain damage that might occur early in life is permanent. After the presentation, the aid workers register every woman in attendance and measure the upper arms of the children.
Yfrancia Napoleon has come to the event in the hopes of protecting Roudegajina from the same fate that befell her brother. The girl's skin is just as dark as her mother's, but her hair is of a brownish color, which is an indication of malnourishment. In order to be able to buy enough food, though, Napoleon needs an income. On some days, she fills sacks with charcoal, receiving 70 cents for the day. But on other days, there is no charcoal that needs packing -- and those are the days when Roudegajina doesn't eat.
If Haiti is known for anything, then it is for the armies of aid organizations that are active in the country. Some of them have been here for decades, while others only arrived in the wake of the massive earthquake that killed more than 220,000 Haitians in 2010 and destroyed the capital. Many of the aid workers are doing all they can to improve the people's daily lives and the UN World Food Program doesn't just distribute food, but also repairs streets, plants trees and helps farmers modernize their techniques.
Why, then, does all that do so little to help?
Here too, climate change is a factor, bringing storms and sudden, unpredictable rainy periods. A drought in the northern part of the country and flooding in the south. The sea level is rising, creating salt deposits in the soil. Plus, forests are logged illegally to produce charcoal, which leads to landslides. All of that contributes to a situation in which farmers have great difficulty cultivating their fields. Progress made is reversed and projects are stopped because the money is needed for emergency relief. The result is that Haiti is dependent on food imports, which has likewise weakened its agricultural sector.
Any country would have difficulties dealing with such challenges, but few other countries in the world are as weak as Haiti, the neighbor of vacation paradise Dominican Republic. The country's most important economic sector is agriculture and corruption consumes a large portion of state revenues. There is also a significant amount of wasted effort because some aid projects lack coordination or are of questionable utility in the first place.
The good news is that, after decades of political unrest, the country is not beset by war. Haiti has even had a new government since February: After a year-and-a-half of chaos, Jovenel Moise took over power, a friend of former President Michel Martelly. Prior to joining the Bald Heads Party, Moise earned his money with the export of bananas. He is said to have driven hundreds of farmers from their land in order to build up his banana empire.
One has to be a radical optimist to believe that the country's new leadership will make much of an effort to fight corruption, poor governance and hunger. But development aid workers, no matter how many of them there are, cannot replace a functioning state. They cannot ensure in the long run that millions of people get the nourishment they need. They can only do their best to prevent the worst, for a time.
In the church of Abricot, one of the aid workers announces that all of the women should return in a week with two empty bags. They will then be filled with food, donated by the World Food Program. The budget is sufficient for three months -- three months without hunger, during which the children can develop normally. Yfrancia Napoleon will only receive food donations for one month -- because Roudegajina will soon turn two, too old for the aid program.
The Food Game
On average, the world's poor spend 70 percent of their money on food. If prices rise for rice, wheat or corn, people like Yfrancia Napoleon quickly find themselves in a life-threatening situation. They are the victims of a global game that others play to enrich themselves: speculation on the commodities markets.
For decades, the food trade was rather unspectacular. Farmers sold their harvests at a set price on the futures markets; futures are contracts for future sales or purchases of commodities. The system allowed farmers to hedge their risks while futures traders pumped money into the markets and buyers could purchase goods at any time. They were credit transactions that adhered to the rules of supply and demand.
But then, the financial industry discovered the market and in the 1990s, lobbyists were able to gain access to the foodstuffs markets. Since then, banks have also been allowed to invest heavily in commodities. But because large positions on single commodities were too risky, banks like Goldman Sachs invented so-called index funds, which bundle futures for things like corn or oil. Large investors and pensions funds were eager to take advantage of the offer.
The result was that investors seeking to earn money on the commodities markets triggered additional price fluctuations, the consequences of which were made plain in 2010, when rapidly rising prices between the summer and winter of that year pushed fully 44 million people around the world under the poverty line.
Numerous aid organizations, along with the pope, have demanded that such food speculation be stopped. And in 2014, the European Union introduced a package of financial regulations aimed at limiting commodities speculation. But it looks as though nothing will come of it. In February, the technical details were voted on in European Parliament, and the law now reads like a financial lobby wish list. It allows individual traders to hold up to 35 percent of the positions on a specific commodity, which theoretically means that three investors can control the entire food trade.
It would be up to the regulating authorities to prevent such a thing. If they didn't, the world's hungry would be left at the mercy of the speculators.
India: A Question of Distribution
If there is any country out there that is well-positioned to feed its hungry, India is the one. Its economy is growing faster than that of almost any other country, and according to the International Monetary Fund, it will replace Germany as the world's fourth largest economy within five years. In recent decades, the country has also managed to double its food production and has become a net exporter of rice and beef. India has a functioning government and a growing middle class.
But India is also home to more undernourished people than any other country in the world: 195 million. Almost 40 percent of children under five are underdeveloped because they haven't received the nourishment they need -- numbers that are difficult to accept, and difficult to understand.
Sukurmuni Marandi lives in Jharkhand, a poor state in India's northeast. As she reaches her mud hut, a thunder storm hits the village and water drips through the roof into Marandi's home. Since the death of her husband, the 35-year-old has been feeding her five children by herself. The last time that she could afford to buy an egg was a month ago, and the mangos and melons at the market are likewise unaffordable.
Marandi earns 150 rupees per day working in road construction, the equivalent of just over 2 euros. Her eldest daughter sits next to her, a sprightly girl with a pink ribbon in her hair. Ten years old, she just finished the fifth grade, but is unable to read and write. Now, she has to stay home to take care of her younger siblings, meaning the rest of her life is essentially predetermined: She will marry young, as her mother did, and likely bear more children than she can feed. That is how hunger is inherited in India.
The daughter is actually legally required to go to school, but nobody seems to miss her there. And the smaller children have a right to a spot in Anganwadi, a kind of daycare. Since 1975, the country has been home to hundreds of thousands of such facilities, and children receive a warm meal there. Indeed, it's not as though India has done nothing for its citizens. The country set up a social safety net long ago, but it isn't well designed and people like Marandi simply slip through.
And the situation isn't likely to improve any time soon, with the population of India set to rise to 1.7 billion by 2050 and global warming beginning to make its presence known in the country. Farmers, who make up around half of the working population, frequently complain of poor harvests.
The problems India has with feeding its population are rooted both in distribution shortcomings and in inequality. Members of lower castes suffer from hunger more often than those from higher castes and daughters are often worse off than sons. "Never in the history of humanity has a country created so much prosperity while achieving so little social justice," says Jean Drèze, one of the country's best-known economists.
Born in Belgium, Drèze was instrumental in the passage of the National Food Security Act, one of the largest and most expensive nutritional programs in the world. It foresees India spending $20 billion to provide 820 million citizens with rice, wheat and millet. In theory. In practice, however, almost 100 million people don't receive the rations they are entitled to.
"The Indian elite are interested in a mission to Mars," says Drèze, "but not in the issue of hunger in the country." It isn't, he says, due to a shortage of resources, but the product of a lack of political will.
What Can Be Done?
For as long as people wage war and the climate continues to change, "zero hunger" will remain little more than a dream. But hunger could be reduced to a minimum. There is a lot that could be done, and much of it isn't all that difficult. Because if hundreds of millions of people are suffering as a result of climate change, that means that fighting climate change is also a contribution to reducing hunger. This connection alone should motivate every country on earth to conform to the Paris Agreement -- including Germany, which will fall badly short of its own self-proclaimed climate targets.
In places where war and terror lead to hunger, it is important to identify those responsible and ostracize them internationally. So long as a corrupt, cruel regime, such as the one in South Sudan, is able to sell petroleum and buy weapons at will, the situation will not improve for the country's population. In countries that are exploited by corrupt rulers, aid shouldn't be ended, but it should be linked more strongly than is currently the case with political pressure.
The fact that the global population is growing doesn't necessarily have to mean more people suffering from hunger. The world produces enough food for 10 or even 12 billion people, but a third of it is lost during harvest, transport or storage -- and much of it is ultimately thrown away by end consumers. In Germany alone, 28 million tons of foodstuffs are wasted every year.
If we could minimize these losses, it would also reduce an additional problem: Industrial farming is the source of around one-third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. And that doesn't include the energy necessary for food transport and cooling.
As such, we need to change the way in which we produce food. The agricultural industry is responsible for much of the species loss, environmental pollution and water shortages that plague our planet. Intensive use of pesticides and other pollutants, chemical fertilizers and heavy machinery endanger soil, water and wildlife. And, by extension, the basis for food production.
The U.S. space agency NASA has another argument against high input agriculture, arguing it is a question of our security. "A globalized nutrition system in which many countries are dependent on imports contains many risks," says Michael J. Puma, an environmental scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. "Not just for poor countries, but for all of us."
The problem is that if foods like rice or wheat suddenly become scarce -- due to a conflict, because of a natural disaster in a major agricultural region, as the result of speculation or a disruption to the transportation system through a terrorist or cyberattack, for example -- then the producing countries would reduce exports in order to provide for their own population, says Puma. "But what about the countries that are dependent on imports?"
The best solution? To the extent possible, food should be produced where it is eaten. The decisive factor is not increasing productivity at all costs -- it's producing the food where it is needed. This works best in small rural structures.
It also serves as an argument for developing nations to stop leasing land to foreign agricultural companies. In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, for example, Arab and Chinese companies produce food for export even as the local population starves. "This is the key, to promote local production," concurs FAO head José Graziano da Silva. He says that local production and local consumption stimulate each other and create a cycle that helps curb hunger. Da Silva has demonstrated how that can work in his home country of Brazil. Before he became head of the FAO in 2012, he was in charge of the Brazilian government's Fome Zero program, which decreased the number of hungry people in the country by 25 percent within just a few years. "Basically, the program was a local development program to encourage village communities and small cities to produce their own food," he says. "We didn't reinvent the wheel."
Nor is such a thing necessary. Modern technologies like green genetic engineering could be useful in helping to adjust food production to climate change. In the long term, we will need plants that can thrive despite droughts or salty soil. One way of getting there, though it is controversial, is through genetic engineering.
Ultimately, however, the battle against hunger entails many small steps to be taken where possible. And sometimes, if all goes well, small steps can make a big difference.
Gopal Rai sits under a tree unfolding a piece of paper in an Indian village with the wonderful name of Heathgargariya. Using a felt-tip pen, he has drawn his possessions: a shed, a field and a cow. That's what his farm used to look like. Rai then spreads out a second piece of paper, showing what he has today. He has a compost heap, an herb garden and, more importantly, a plan. In the past, Rai had only grown rice and wheat during the monsoon season, while his fields had remained empty during the summer. But then, the German relief organization Welthungerhilfe advised him to plant millet and legumes during the hot months. Furthermore, he now plants his seeds in a line rather than just sprinkling them across the ground. The staff at Welthungerhilfe informed him about subsidy programs and also contacted the authorities on his behalf.
Rai's field is now an oasis in the middle of scorched earth. And, for the first time, his family is able to put more on the table than just wheat and rice.
Over 8,000 Indian farmers have participated in the program offering this model of more diverse farming. Their example illustrates what's possible. Structures just have to be in place to ensure that it works. And this requires more from a country than just good laws combating hunger -- the government also has to be prepared to see to it that those laws are implemented.
In the past, Rai got by in the summer as a migrant worker. His family accompanied him on his trips, so his children didn't attend school during that time. Today they go to the village school year-round. He says it's unlikely any of them will make it to college, but maybe it will be possible with the next generation. Perhaps, Rai says, he will one day have an engineer as a grandchild.
- Part 1: Millions Around The World Are Still Threatened with Starvation
- Part 2: Miserable Normality