Friday, June 23, 2017

The Food Revolution

Every ninth person on the planet suffers from hunger. The situation is so dire in some countries that 20 million people are at acute risk of death by starvation. How is this possible at a time of a global food surplus? FAO head José Graziano da Silva related how "People still think that famine is caused by lack of food." He continued. "Since the Green Revolution in the 1960s, we produce more than enough food," Graziano da Silva says, "enough for 10 billion people and more."

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. 

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly set itself the goal of "zero hunger," part of the package of Sustainable Development Goals passed that year.  The zero-hunger goal has recently been slipping further into the future rather than getting ever closer. 

In Somalia famine is spreading.  The situation is similarly dire in South Sudan, Yemen, and northeastern Nigeria. Twenty million people are at acute risk of death by starvation in these four countries and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien says that "we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN."

 800 million in the world are facing hunger today. How is it possible that humanity is unable to get this most existential and shameful problem of all under control?

 Combatting famine is not one of the stated goals of the G-20 plan. Its main focus is that of stopping migration. 

Somalia is no stranger to famine. It was only six years ago that the last record drought gripped the country, with 260,000 perishing from hunger. Today, the UN estimates that almost 7 million people -- more than half of the population -- need help. 

The region of Somaliland in the country's north declared independence from Somalia in 1991, but it has not been globally recognized as an autonomous republic.  Somaliland has long been seen as an African success story. But the government there does not have the means to handle a famine of the magnitude of this one. "We have six ambulances for a million people in our area of responsibility and no money to buy fuel or pay drivers," says Ali, the doctor. The fact that Somaliland hasn't been recognized internationally has meant that it receives little aid. Suffering has spread as a result. 

Somaliland's economy is almost entirely based on traditional animal husbandry, and when times are good, the region exports up to 4 million goats, sheep, camels and head of cattle per year to Arab countries and 75 percent of the government's budget comes from taxes on these exports. 

Shukri Bandare, Somaliland's environment minister and member of the National Drought Committee, explained, "We must free ourselves from animal husbandry," Bandare says. She tries to sound optimistic, even as she constantly uses the word "must." "We must expand our fisheries industry and change our diet." Somaliland, she points out, has petroleum reserves and the port of Berbera. "We must diversify our income." 

In South Sudan, the United Nations declared a famine -- the highest of five hunger warning levels -- in parts of the country, in which a civil war broke out in 2013. Corrupt, militaristic elites have discovered hunger as a weapon of war, with two men bearing most of the responsibility: Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. The two represent the country's largest ethnic groups, with President Kiir belonging to the Dinkas and his former deputy Machar hailing from the Nuers. Following independence in 2011, they launched a struggle for power that has been defined by ethnic rivalries. The fighting has made it extremely difficult for aid workers to reach the population.

Fully 5.5 million people, almost half of the country's population, are suffering from hunger, not a product of the climate, but of war -- and this despite the fact that the country is rich in natural resources. Nobody should face starvation there. But the aid organizations aren't just helping those suffering from hunger, they are also extending the war, says Jok Madut Jok, director of the Sudd Institute, an independent think tank in the capital of Juba. Jok used to be a development aid worker himself and has written several books about Sudan. "If you provide food to the population, you're also feeding the armed forces," he says. Much of the food supplies, he says, are either diverted to the army or distributed to families whose relatives are fighting in the conflict. "Emergency aid saves lives, but at the same time it impedes the finding of political solutions for the causes of suffering," Jok Madut Jok says, giving voice to the eternal aid dilemma. He argues that aid for South Sudan should be completely suspended. "Then our elites would be forced to come up with their own solutions."

Many aid workers are infuriated by such suggestions, particularly given that they often put their own lives at risk to help. Indeed, more than 100 aid workers have lost their lives in the last three-and-a-half years in South Sudan. "We're not going to let people suffer just so we have an argument for negotiations with local authorities," says the employee of one aid organization. "We have to act, we have no choice," says the aid worker. "That is the humanitarian imperative."

All of the hunger crises are caused by humans themselves. 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?

In Haiti 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. "We should eat enough," an aid worker begins, "and the food should be clean." In Haiti, unclean means contaminated with cholera bacteria.  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. 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. The result is that Haiti is dependent on food imports, which has likewise weakened its agricultural sector. 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.

"It is very disappointing," says Graziano da Silva, "that we cannot get together and find solutions for these political issues." Graziano da Silvva says the number of people suffering from hunger is likely to continue climbing. He says donor countries that fund organizations such as the FAO, are displaying "symptoms of fatigue."

On average, the world's poor spend 70 percent of their money on food. If prices rise for rice, wheat or corn, people 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. The world's hungry are left at the mercy of the speculators.  

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. In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, for example, Arab and Chinese companies produce food for export even as the local population starves. 

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 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. 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. 

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. "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.

For as long as capitalism continues "zero hunger" will remain little more than a dream. 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. 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. 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.

Adapted from here

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