Food Crisis? The Real Problem is Poverty

Food Crisis? The Real Problem is Poverty

Hunger is widespread, especially in developing countries. Food crises often occur in the poorest countries and even communities in the most developed parts of the world deal with health problems related to lack of food, like malnutrition in children. But the world’s food supply is not at the root of the problem rather it is what is done with it. In fact, food production in terms of cereals is at far greater productive capacity than it’s ever been in the past (see also FAO Cereal Supply and Demand Brief); there is more than enough food to go around, even as the global population gets bigger and more people demand a varied diet as many people living in more developed countries do. The old philosophical argument originating from Robert Malthus in the 18th century that population growth will lead to global food shortage is overstated and incorrect at present. Malthus wrote:

‘The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race’. Thomas Malthus, 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population

Because of the technological means in place for planting and harvesting food there are often surpluses, especially in richer countries, but food is often wasted. Instead of becoming more conservative and conscious of the food resources available, many nations have become overly consumerist and wasteful. 1.2-2 billion tonnes of all food produced ends up as waste, which is 30%-50% of total food production in the world, and it is not only a waste of food but a waste of energy, water and other resources that go into producing it.


In the meantime, while there is a global food surplus taking place there is still starvation in developing countries throughout the world. Many people are not getting enough to eat and the main contributor is a large-scale social problem that no one can seem to tackle fully: poverty. Poverty is not merely a social problem it is a major health hazard and humanitarian disaster. And it is largely because of inequality that poverty is allowed to sit at the table unwelcome, removing the possibility of providing the food resources needed by everyone, but tolerated by present, past and likely future generations nevertheless. This is one of many reasons why food insecurity is a global challenge.

Why during a time when food production is at its highest hundreds of millions of people are still starving? The global state of food insecurity is influenced largely by the depth of poverty experienced in less developed countries. While the total numbers of people undernourished in developing countries has been decreasing, there are currently 852 million undernourished people living in the ‘Global South’ according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (Food Insecurity Report 2012). As the global demand for food continues will the problem get better or worse over time?

(China net food production. FAO)

China seems to be on the road to food self-sufficiency rather than food insecurity. It is expected that the country’s ‘food self-sufficiency’ ratio will increase from 94.4% in 2000 to 101.3% in 2030, actually exceeding its demand for food production. Yet there are other factors to consider such as water constraints, pollution due to agro-chemicals and land degradation, such as soil erosion. This is not to mention climate change (see this infographic for more about this), although some countries may be better off than others in this regard.

At least as far as cereals production is concerned, climate change will not adversely affect the global food supply as would be suspected. In fact, climate change is projected to have a positive effect on crop productivity in some cases. But this may not continue for long because by 2050 there may not be enough growth in food crops (back to Malthus again?) to meet global food demand. Maize crops in particular actually do better in warmer weather, so it could be reasonably expected that their yields will increase because of the changing climate. But simply because there is a net increase does not mean other countries won’t suffer.

There are countries that will lose out because of adverse weather conditions induced by climate change, such as those in North Africa, where it is likely to have the worst impact. While at the same time food surpluses will continue in other parts of the world. But the demand for food will likely increase which needs to be addressed in order for mass starvation to be mitigated. There are many methods proposed (e.g. stop wasting so much food) and studied currently that are expected to help alleviate starvation and malnutrition, but it is poverty including unequal access to food that remains the core problem. Without understanding the deep-seated problem of poverty in countries where millions go without getting enough to eat, any other solutions will merely treat the symptoms of a global disaster that has its roots in the societies we live in.

Addressing hunger also has to do with food policy or lack thereof. In northwest Bangladesh for example many families are without food or work from September to November after the winter rice has been planted. Labourers are left with little to no means of survival in the meantime and their families go hungry as a result. Struggles to get food regulations implemented into Bangladesh government are similar to Britain in the early 18th and 19th centuries and India in 1947.

Food policy in Bangladesh that addresses the nature and causes of poverty that lead to starvation could help prevent these kinds of problems before they start, and reduce the loss of life caused by food insecurity. For example, an incentive from government to get people to sell cheap rice during famine or storing rice in rice banks for later use could help keep people from starving. Policy solutions can make a difference in people’s lives if they are allowed to and need to happen in countries where problems of hunger due to poverty lead to ‘food crisis’.

This post is based on a presentation given by Professor Peter Atkins at Durham University entitled ‘Dilemma: Feeding the World’ given at a workshop in Durham, ‘Food for Thought: Challenges and Dilemmas of Food Production’.

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