Hunger in the Third World


By Dr. Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri

Third World Network
March, 1999

Chronic shortage of food in a large number of developing countries in recent times has focused world attention primarily on the urgent need to increase agricultural production in order to provide more food for the Third World population. However, many experts believe that increasing food supplies does not necessarily result in improved conditions for the impoverished people. The famine conditions in several Third World countries are not the result of food shortage arising from natural calamities. They are the result of man-made disasters.

That food is a political commodity calling for political treatment, not merely technical or 'pure economic' solutions, was clearly illustrated when the European Parliament held a two-day debate in September 1998 in Strasbourg on the problems posed by Third World hunger. Jorgen Nielsen, a member of the Liberal Democratic Group, stated that a 30% expansion of the area given over to agriculture in the Third World was possible. But this was impeded by 'innumerable factors of a human, technical, financial and political nature which are holding up the expansion and modernisation of agricultural production'. His German Socialist colleague, Katharina Focke, was more cutting: 'The European Community's food aid policy is still dictated by political interests rather than any intention to promote development,' she said. 'It is an acceptable way of distributing European surplus to the poor countries, associated with high costs, countless mishaps, delays, wranglings over responsibility and bureaucratic obstacles.'

Frances Moore-Lappe, the author and campaigner who helped set up the 'Rome Declaration Group' as an alternative to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)'s World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, argued that food aid increases the Third World's dependence on foreign aid and aggravates the imbalance between food production and export crops. Furthermore, she said, aid programmes are normally directed to governments and 'the problem is that the people who make up the governments in many Third World countries are those who are linked with, or are themselves the interests that control export of agricultural production'.

A recent report of the World Food Council, established by the United Nations in 1974, links the 'political sensitivity of food issues' with 'the high and growing concentration of international grain supplies in one geographical region, i.e. North America' and 'the dangers to world food security from possible climate, logistical and political factors'. These are seen as good enough reasons to call for the development of alternative sources of supply to the Third World countries.

Some experts like Moore-Lappe argue that there really is enough food to go around comfortably, right now. The world's grain production suffices, she says, to give each human being a daily calorie intake equivalent to that of the average North American. Other sources, like Population Concern, come up with different arithmetic: an even distribution of the world's food production would yield a per capita intake of more than 1,600 calories and 59 grammes of protein and this is, according to the FAO, what an average body requires daily while at rest.

The latest study of the International Wheat Council says Third World demand for wheat, rice and coarse grains like barley could rise by 55% by the turn of the century. Its import needs may double. But world prices, depressed now by the current surplus, are likely to rise. Protections such as these lend urgency to efforts to rescue world food supplies from entrenched political problems and boost the Third World's own production, economists and aid donors say. But the auguries are scarcely good. The European Parliament President, Lord Plumb of Britain, talks of the 'paradoxical problems of plenty'.

At the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the 95-nation world trade body, the USA is campaigning for freer trade in food and an end to subsidies for farmers. But the Europeans who argue against the US scheme fear that it could mean more farmers without work. In reply, the USA has proposed phasing out all subsidies to farmers by the year 2000 - an argument that freeing trade in food was one answer, especially benefiting Third World farmers. Hugh Corbett, director of London's Trade Policy Research Centre, explained that subsidies created surpluses which were dumped in world markets. 'And if you are dumping food in Africa under the label of food aid, the effect is to push the price down and lead farmers to shift to, say, growing livestock, which eat up all the grass. And then you get famine,' he said.

The so-called Cairns Group of major farm nations, among them Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada and Indonesia, have welcomed the US plan. 'The US proposal is a concrete starting point for our negotiations,' pointed out Leppoldo Tettamanti, Argentine ambassador to GATT. 'We are losing about $5 billion a year because of the decline in agriculture prices. That is the same amount it costs to service our debt,' he said. He emphasised that in the long run the prime need for the Third World countries is to substantially increase agricultural production. Increasing agricultural production invariably raises the issue of availability of land - a question on which expert opinions vary. Optimists reckon that for each person on the planet there are about 3.7 hectares of cultivable land, plus another hectare divided between pasture and forest. And, they say, less than half a hectare per person is actually under cultivation. But some experts, basing their calculations on a study made by a US presidential advisory committee, say that at best there are 3,200 million hectares of cultivable land, of which only half are being used. They add that even if agricultural productivity does not increase, population growth would exhaust the available land by 2010.

The seriousness of the problem does not end here, but stretches into the vital question of the extent of undernourishment. An FAO report has recently described almost half of the Third World population as victims of malnutrition. The vast majority of the undernourished live in Asia: over a third of India's population consume less than 75% of the calories they need. One in every three children in sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished and 4% are on the verge of starvation. In Latin America, 30% of the children are undernourished, mainly in north-eastern Brazil, the Andean highlands, parts of Central America and the Caribbean, with Haiti suffering the world's worst rate of undernourishment - 7%.

Widespread undernourishment has long co-existed with sufficiency or near-sufficiency of food suply on a global scale. An irrational system of distribution is normally blamed for this situation. It is already a cliche that one-third of the world's population consume half the world's food. And half of US rice production - which dominates the world export market - is used to make crunchy breakfast food. It is also common knowledge that the developed countries are devoting as much grain to animal feed as is jointly consumed by China and India, thereby dividing the nutritional yield to each hectare of cereals by five.

Extreme and widespread undernourishment is associated with famine, which is inescapably linked to persistent long-term poverty. But rich people do not starve. The idea of famines wiping out whole societies, as though the consequences of bad weather were meted out in equal measure to all, is far-fetched and can usually be traced to sensationalist history-writing rather than a real record of what happened. Recent exponents of the linkage between poverty and famines have dispelled some of the myths surrounding this historical view of famine as nature's leveller, striking out indiscriminately at classes and societies that meteorological chance causes it to alight on. At the height of the recent crisis, Africa is still growing most of the food it consumes. Even in famine there is always some food. Who has ever seen a starving military officer or merchant, let alone aid worker? It is a question of who has access to that food.

Another question which is debated by experts is whether machines do a better job than men in increasing agricultural output. Japan, with two workers per hectare, is a good indicator of what manpower can achieve: India lags behind with only half as many people on the land. China feeds its population with only half the cultivated acreage of India. Again, manpower, not high technology, is the key. In fact, technology need not mean costly machines and industrial inputs. The techniques of crop handling, pest control and storage, all adaptable to large unaided manpower, could cut back the phenomenal losses suffered every year in Third World food production. The FAO illustrates this with the 10% annual loss in Third World grain output, which amounts to about 100 million tonnes. A staggering figure indeed.

Dr. Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri is a freelance writer based in Calcutta.

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