World’s undernourished reach record level

It’s official! In spite of all the promises made by leaders of the advanced capitalist countries at the three international conferences since 1974.

According to a new United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003, across the planet 842 million are malnourished and the figure is growing by 5 million per year. This includes 10 million in the industrialised countries, 34 million in “countries in transition” (to modern capitalism) and 798 million in developing countries. The report says the new figures “signal a setback in the war on hunger” and make the honouring of previous pledges to reduce the problem “increasingly remote”

78% of all malnourished children under the age of five in the developing world live in countries with a food surplus
78% of all malnourished children under the age of five in the developing world live in countries with a food surplus

According to the FAO report, only 19 countries successfully reduced the number of undernourished during the 1990s. “In these successful countries, the total number of hungry people fell by over 80 million”.  At the bottom of the table are some 26 countries, where the number of undernourished people increased by 60 million during that same period, including “countries in transition”, where those suffering from hunger climbed from 25 million in the mid-1990s to 34 million at beginning of this century

In 22 countries, including Bangladesh, Haiti and Mozambique, the report states, “the number of undernourished declined during the second half of the decade after rising through the first five years”. But in 17 other countries, “the trend shifted in the opposite direction and the number of undernourished people, which had been falling, began to rise.  This group includes a number of countries with large populations, including India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Sudan”.

The report also cites a number of countries in Central and West Africa which saw their numbers of hungry rise due to war.

In a number of “successful” countries, including China, progress slowed after impressive gains in reducing hunger had been made in the early 1990s. The report says that having reduced chronic undernourishment to modest or low levels, “these countries can no longer be expected to propel progress for the developing world”.

Terms of trade
Those countries suffering the most malnutrition are those most reliant on agriculture and many countries find they have to use land, hitherto used for growing food for local consumption, for cash crops for export such as cocoa and coffee to pay off debts. There are even instances of countries with undernourished millions producing flowers and strawberries for Western markets.

The report points out how “half the higher prices received for exports went not to farmers but traders,” and that “there was no increase in production in response to the higher prices”. Furthermore, it says that “prices are expected to rise more steeply for food products that developing countries import than for the commodities they export.”

Little wonder that it then forecasts how “the lion’s share of benefits from trade liberalisation is expected to go to developed countries.”

The report reiterates the well-known statistic that the West spends 30 times more on domestic farming subsidies than it does on aid. It cites the US spending $3.9bn (£2.3bn) a year subsidising its 25,000 cotton farmers – more than the entire GDP for Burkina Faso – and how Europe is now the world’s second largest exporter of sugar, despite the fact that EU sugar costs twice as much to produce as does that of Third World growers.

The report is straightforward in concluding “the problem is not so much a lack of food as a lack of political will.” In truth, in a world where profits are to be had, there are more pressing concerns than the world’s starving.

Back in the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger boldly announced that within 10 years global hunger would be eradicated. There were then 400 million malnourished people on the planet and this figure was a 75 million increase over the previous decade. In 1996, a World Food Summit pledged to halve world hunger by 2015. Six years later, in June 2002, came the second World Food Summit, called to review the progress made since 1996. Here the FAO revealed there were still about 815 million hungry people in the world. One of the clearest conclusions of that Summit was that little progress had made since 1996 and that it would take until 2030 to get global hunger figures down to the levels they had been when Kissinger made his famous promise back in 1974.

So here we are, 30 years after Kissinger’s famous remark and, despite vast improvements in technology and food production methods, there are now more than twice as many malnourished. In reality the leaders of the large industrialised capitalist nations have other priorities.

At the 1974 World Food Conference, governments examining the global problem of food production and consumption, soberly proclaimed that “every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties”. But, within a decade the US would twice tell the world what they really thought about the 1974 proclamation. In 1981 and 1983, the US voted against UN resolutions declaring access to nourishment a human right (1981: 135-1, with the US voting against and in 1983: 132-1, the US voting against). The very fact that this had to be put to a vote in the first place shows how much warped thinking abounds. Did the UN really think it necessary that a vote was needed on whether humans should have be allowed access to food? How the hell can you consider addressing the problem of hunger if first you need a vote on whether access to food is a human right?

Enough food
As any socialist will argue, not only should every human have access to food, but that we can already feed the present world population and more. Organisations like Food First (Institute for Food and Development Technology – are clear that the world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human being with 3,500 calories a day. “That’s enough to make most people fat”, they assert. And this estimate does not take account of many other universally eaten foods—vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. Indeed, if all foods are considered together, sufficient is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day. That includes two and half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs. Put that on a platter in front of most people and ask term to eat it and the thought of it makes them nauseous.

“Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food in the world today,” declares Food First. They go on to point out how, in the past 35 years, increases in global food production have outstripped the world’s record population growth by about 16 percent. Indeed, mountains of unsold grain on world markets have pushed prices strongly downward over the past three and a half decades. Grain prices rose briefly during the early 1990s, as bad weather coincided with policies geared toward reducing overproduction, but still remained well below the highs observed in the early 60s and mid-70s.

Hunger in the face of abundant food supplies is all the more shocking in the Third World. The FAO has previously reported that gains in food production since 1950 have kept to the fore of population increase in every region except Africa. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) announced in a report published in 1997 that 78 percent of all malnourished children under the age of five in the developing world live in countries with a food surplus.

The simple fact is that what underlies global hunger is the maxim of the present mode of production—capitalism: can’t pay, can’t have. Whichever country you live in, if profits are threatened enough then governments can be found ordering the destruction of food to keep prices high and paying farmers to take land out of production.

A close look at some of the world’s hunger-ravaged countries confirms that scarcity, war and poverty are not the cause of hunger – they might result in hunger, but they are the symptoms of capitalism. And in an age when the US can mobilise in a few months an invasion force (and supplies) of 130,000 troops thousands of miles away, there is no logic in saying drought and natural disaster cause hunger, for if the will was there those unfortunate multitudes could be rapidly rescued, fed and housed.

In years to come expect similar reports like this recent offering from the FAO to be just as grim, and for one reason — they believe the problem of hunger, in a world of abundance, a problem rooted in the way our society is organised for production can be solved by reforming that system, by coaxing the capitalist class into mending their ways. Thirty years of world conferences on hunger, a thousand promises by the defenders of capitalism have proved otherwise, and always will until we end their system.

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