The food crisis in the Horn of Africa has been devastating, with 12 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda requiring emergency assistance, and 750,000 people “facing imminent starvation”, according to the United Nations. It has been labeled “the worst drought in north-east Africa for 60 years”, and has precipitated the exodus of over 800,000 Somalian refugees to neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya. We’re now in the midst of the third month of the famine, and humanitarian agencies have requested US$2.4 billion; yet the world has only been able to match 62% of the funding, whilst security issues with Al-Shabaab (the insurgent group in control of most of Somalia) have hindered the delivery and flow of aid.
But lamentably, as the media grow weary, this tragedy will soon pass and fade from our memory and conscience. But not for the people of north-eastern Africa, or those suffering from what Jacques Diouf has called “the world’s largest tragedy and scandal”: world hunger. Every six seconds, a child dies due to undernourishment related problems (adding to approximately 5 million children a year), and there are currently 925 million people suffering from malnutrition. These are not just mere numbers in a United Nations report; they are individuals, tucked away in villages, towns and slums across the planet, unobserved by the world, condoned in the mass media, and disregarded by our governments.
The increase of food prices (although they experienced a decline during the recession) has also had colossal effects on those at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Wheat prices have doubled since 2007, and general food costs have risen by 200% in recent years, according to economist Wolfram Schenkler. Such hefty price fluctuations may not mean much for the wealthy European or North American, but they are responsible for driving millions each year into food insecurity. Frequently, the extreme vacillation of food prices has nothing to do with extreme weather patterns or bad harvests, as commodities traders are often to blame for incrementing food prices. To give one example, three companies – Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill – control 90% of the trade in grain.
In 2010, certain signs showed that tides might be turning. For the first time in 15 years, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations registered a decrease in global undernourishment, as the number of people suffering from chronic hunger dropped by 98 million from a record-high of 1.023 billion. But as an Oxfam study later revealed, this wasn’t an effect of successful policies but rather due to fortunate harvests , as “the dip in the number of hungry people has more to do with luck then judgment,” according to Oxfam International Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs.
In 2000, the 193 member states of the United Nations agreed upon the Millennium Development goals, eight objectives that were to be completed by 2015. Target 1C was to “halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.” Eleven years on, “the proportion of those suffering from hunger in the world has decreased by only half a percent – “from 14 percent in 2000 to 13.5 percent in 2010.” It is almost absurd to think that in the 21st century, we have still failed to even make substantial progress on promises as essential and morally unquestionable as these. However, there are many reasons to not get disillusioned. Most of the hope in improving the hunger situation around the world lies in small yet effective programs that have sprung up predominantly around Asia and Africa.
In Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, a group of around 1,000 female farmers have started “vertical” gardens in sacks full of dirt poked with holes” feeding their families and communities. In Gambia, 6,000 women have created the TRY Women’s Oyster Harvesting producer association, aiming to create a sustainable oyster fishing industry, whilst preventing overfishing and exploitation in the region. In Uganda, the DISC program (Developing Innovations in School Cultivation), has launched projects integrating “indigenous vegetable gardens, nutrition information, and food preparation into school curricula”, teaching children how to grow local crop varieties that will help combat food deficiencies. Food education is fundamental in a region where an estimated 33% of children currently face hunger and malnutrition.
On a larger scale; in Asia, Armenia, Myanmar and Vietnam have all been able to achieve the goal of halving the amount of people suffering from malnutrition, and China is close to doing so. In Africa, Congo, Ghana, Mali and Nigeria have also been able to achieve Millennium Development Goal #1. These examples represent a virtually polar contrast with others such as the DRC, where the situation is has reached abysmal levels. In capital Kinshasa, “two-thirds of residents earn less than the cost of their minimum required daily nutrition” according to urban theorist Mike Davis in this book “Planet of Slums”. While many countries have made slow, yet substantial progress in decreasing the percentage of their population with nutritional deficiencies, the Democratic Republic of Congo has had a 69 percent increase. Entangled in heavy domestic conflict, there is little hope for the second biggest country in Africa to escape its long history of political turmoil.
Often, when explaining the hunger crisis, substantial emphasis is placed on the world’s growing population, with some degree of truth. On the “global dinner table”, each night, we add about 219,000 new guests. Each year, the planet’s farmers must “feed 80 million additional people, nearly all of them in developing countries”, according to Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. But what is often ignored is that we do have the ability to match the increase in demand. Global agriculture produces “17 percent more calories per person today that we did 30 years ago”, despite a nearly “70 percent population increase” according to the FAO. Furthermore, we have surplus crops in many parts of the world – nearly 40% of US corn production now goes towards ethanol production for fuel. Even worse is the case of many countries who suffer from severe hunger among their population, yet experience immense agricultural overproduction.
Argentina for example, annually produces ten times more food that its whole population consumes, yet reports this year have shown that more than thirty thousand children were malnourished in the fertile province of Corrientes, and that approximately one million Argentinians suffer from malnutrition. In the first two weeks of February, nine people died in the province of Salta after food shortages catalyzed a provincial food crisis. All this in a country that was once called “the granary of the world.”
As immeasurable and pervasive as this tragedy may seem, we do have the resources, technology, and know-how to eradicate hunger; it is entirely within our reach. But we must act promptly and we must act soon. Food prices will continue to rise, and with the onset of global warming, climate change will become more unpredictable and more tragic. Arable land and fresh water supplies will decrease, and it will be up to us to find solutions to match our growing and hungry demand. Terminating world hunger isn’t any easy objective or feat by any stretch, and it is very easy to make the hollow assurance that world hunger can be made obsolete. But with the right amount of political action and perseverance in supporting local agriculture, equity in food systems, improvement in institutions and more effective distribution of food; we can make bold steps in bringing the world’s largest tragedy to an end.
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