On Hunger

Among the topics that the Holy Father addresses, hunger is near the top of the list. To Caritas International, he said: “We are in front of a global scandal of around one billion – one billion people who still suffer from hunger today. We cannot look the other way and pretend that it does not exist” (L’Osservatore Romano, English, December 13). Waste of food is a major cause of this hunger. “The data furnished by FAO indicates that approximately one-third of the global production of food is not available because of ever greater losses and wastefulness,” the pope wrote to Jose Graziano da Silva on World Food Day.

When anyone discusses poverty and hunger, two approaches exist to evaluate the evidence, which itself is disputed. One way begins with what has been done to make things work. The other way concentrates on what remains to be accomplished. Even if the figure of one billion hungry is accurate, we cannot but be astonished that at least six billion people are not hungry. Even more amazing is the rapidity in recent decades in which poverty and hunger have been reduced. Not a few ecologists believe that the world is beyond its “carrying capacity.” They insist that we need to reduce world population by several billions – so that no one starves. 

The figure of one billion hungry people evidently comes from generally accepted international statistics. The World Hunger Educational Service writes: “The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that nearly 870 million people of the 7.1 billion people in the world, or one in eight, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012. Almost all the hungry people, 852 million live in developing countries, representing 15 percent of the population of developing countries. There are 16 million (of 6 billion) people undernourished in developed nations.” The distinction between starving and malnutrition should also be kept in mind as these two ideas are usually taken together in the calculation of numbers of hungry.

          Somalia: malnourished children

The pope himself recognizes that the only real solution to hunger is through a productive economy in which everyone can earn his own living and not have to rely on outside help. Actually, numerous organizations already seek to provide food for those who need it. Much of this food for the hungry does come from surplus or waste food. However, the image of moving the wasted food to those who need it overlooks the reality and cost of how this might be done, assuming that it is a good idea.

First, much wasted food is wasted by law. That is, if we give surplus food to someone and he gets sick on it, we are liable. In a perfect world in which everyone was properly fed, there would still be about the same percentage of waste as there is now. Most waste is simply not transferable and is itself the result of efforts to supply everyone with adequate food. A no-waste economy is usually a starvation economy.

The world in fact, has the capacity to feed everyone. Much of this capacity depends on science, improved grain yield, proper use of water, and efficiency of distribution. Some 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop goes by law to ethanol and not to food. This ethanol mandate is in great part because we have neglected to develop our abundant oil deposits. Most of the world’s actual poverty and hunger is in the developing world. Why? In large part, because of defects and corruption in government or in local customs and beliefs. (Endemic warfare also plays a role.) The fact is that hunger and poverty are not “natural” things in a world where we know how not to be poor.

          Somalia: overfed rebels

As the World Hunger Educational Service put it: “The principal underlying cause of hunger and poverty is the operations of ordinary economic and political systems in the world.  Essentially, control over resources and income is based on military, economic, and political power that typically ends up in the hands of a minority, who live well, while those at the bottom barely survive if they do.”

If these remarks are plausible, then the causes of hunger and starvation are not that the rich countries are taking away from the poor. Practically all food aid comes from at least some rich countries. But if what is needed is a change in regime, custom, or economic philosophy, then talk of starvation or waste will not make much difference. If the regime has to be changed, then we must talk in terms other than hunger and starvation.

The pope seems to understand this. He still wants something done. The best approach to hunger is not solely by concentrating on the hungry, but on the reasons why the not-hungry got that way. It was not primarily by exploitation, but by productivity. If we do not learn these lessons, much hunger will remain, however good our intentions.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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