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Nine myths about hunger

Only by freeing ourselves from the grip of widely held myths can we grasp the roots of hunger and see what we can do to end it

Myth 1: Not enough food to go around
Reality: Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world's food supply. Enough wheat, rice and other grains are produced to provide every human being with 3,200 calories a day. That doesn't even count ­vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. Enough food is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide -- ­enough to make most people fat! The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. Even most "hungry countries" have enough food for all their people right now. Many are net exporters of food and other agricultural products.

Myth 2: Nature is to blame for famine
Reality: It's too easy to blame nature. Natural events rarely explain deaths; they are simply the final push over the brink. Human institutions and policies determine who eats and who starves during hard times. The real culprits are an economy that fails to offer everyone opportunities, and a society that places economic efficiency over compassion.

Myth 3: Too many people
Reality: Birth rates are falling rapidly worldwide. Although rapid population growth remains a serious concern in many countries, nowhere does population density explain hunger. For every Bangladesh, a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia, where abundant food resources coexist with hunger. Or we find a country like the Netherlands, where very little land per person has not prevented it from eliminating hunger and becoming a net exporter of food. Rapid population growth is not the root cause of hunger. Like hunger itself, it results from underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women, of economic opportunity and security.

Myth 4: The environment vs more food?
Reality: We should be alarmed that an environmental crisis is undercutting our food-production resources, but a trade-off between our environment and the world's need for food is not inevitable. Efforts to feed the hungry are not causing the environmental crisis. Large corporations are mainly responsible for deforestation -- ­creating and profiting from developed-country consumer demand for tropical hardwoods and exotic or out-of-season food items. Most pesticides used in developing countries are applied to export crops, playing little role in feeding the hungry, while in the US they are used to give a blemish-free cosmetic appearance to produce, with no improvement in nutritional value.

Alternatives exist now and many more are possible. Cuba's success in overcoming a food crisis through self-reliance and sustainable, virtually pesticide-free agriculture is a good example. Indeed, environmentally sound agricultural alternatives can be more productive than environmentally destructive ones.

Myth 5: The Green Revolution is the answer
Reality: The production advances of the Green Revolution are no myth. Thanks to the new seeds, millions of tonnes more grain a year are being harvested. But focusing narrowly on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power that determines who can buy the additional food. That's why in several of the biggest Green Revolution successes -- ­India, Mexico, and the Philippines -- ­grain production and in some cases, exports, have climbed, while hunger has persisted and the long-term productive capacity of the soil is degraded. Now we must fight the prospect of a ‘New Green Revolution’ based on biotechnology, which threatens to further accentuate inequality.

Myth 6: We need large farms
Reality: Large landowners who control most of the best land often leave much of it idle. Unjust farming systems leave farmland in the hands of the most inefficient producers. By contrast, small farmers typically achieve at least four to five times greater output per acre, in part because they work their land more intensively and use integrated, and often more sustainable, production systems. Without secure tenure, the many millions of tenant farmers in the Third World have little incentive to invest in land improvements, to rotate crops, or to leave land fallow for the sake of long-term soil fertility. Future food production is undermined. On the other hand, redistribution of land can favour production. Comprehensive land reform has markedly increased production in countries as diverse as Japan, Zimbabwe, and Taiwan. A World Bank study of northeast Brazil estimates that redistributing farmland into smaller holdings would raise output an astonishing 80%.

Myth 7: The free market can end hunger
Reality: Unfortunately, such a "market-is-good, government-is-bad" formula cannot help address the causes of hunger. In fact every economy on earth combines the market and government in allocating resources and distributing goods. The market's marvelous efficiencies can only work to eliminate hunger, however, when purchasing power is widely dispersed. Government has a vital role to play in countering the tendency toward economic concentration, through genuine tax, credit, and land reforms to disperse buying power toward the poor. Recent trends toward privatisation and de-regulation are most definitely not the answer.

Myth 8: Free trade is the answer
Reality: The trade promotion formula has proven an abject failure at alleviating hunger. In most Third World countries exports have boomed while hunger has continued unabated or actually worsened. While soybean exports boomed in Brazil -- ­to feed Japanese and European livestock -­hunger spread from one-third to two-thirds of the population. Where the majority of people have been made too poor to buy the food grown on their own country's soil, those who control productive resources will, not surprisingly, orient their production to more lucrative markets abroad. Export crop production squeezes out basic food production. So-called free trade treaties like NAFTA and WTO pit working people in different countries against each other in a ‘race to the bottom’, where the basis of competition is who will work for less, without adequate health coverage or minimum environmental standards.

Myth 9: More aid will help the hungry
Reality: Foreign aid can only reinforce, not change, the status quo. Where governments answer only to elites, aid not only fails to reach hungry people, it shores up the very forces working against them. Aid is used to impose free trade and free market policies, to promote exports at the expense of food production, and to provide the arms that repressive governments use to stay in power. Even emergency, or humanitarian aid, often ends up enriching grain companies while failing to reach the hungry, and it can dangerously undercut local food production in the recipient country. It would be better to use foreign aid budgets for unconditional debt relief, as it is the foreign debt burden that forces most developing countries to cut back on basic health, education and anti-poverty programmes.

Source: Institute for Food and Development Policy Backgrounder, 2006, Vol 12, No 2

InfoChange News & Features, October 2006