Hunger is not a population problem, but a social inequality problem, say experts

Hunger is not a population problem, but a social inequality problem, say experts

Three centuries ago, the English economist Thomas Malthus predicted that, without birth control, the world would be doomed to starvation. “Population, when unrestrained, grows in geometric progression. Subsistence grows only in arithmetical progression. A little knowledge of mathematics will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second,” he writes in his celebrated “Essay on the Principle of Population”, 1798.

The thesis still echoes today — when the world population reaches the 8 billion mark, ten times that of the father of demography — and influenced the environmental movement to conservative sectors, which appropriated the argument to defend anti-immigration agendas, for example. .

Malthus’ prediction was wrong — at least since the 1960s, food production, aided by technological innovations, has outpaced global population growth year after year.

Even so, hunger has not abandoned humanity. The most recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) indicates that the percentage of people suffering from malnutrition in the world has only grown in recent years, going from 8% in 2019 to 9.3% in 2020 and 9.8% in 2021. This means that between 702 million and 828 million individuals do not have access to the minimum calories necessary for an active and healthy life.

The problem, says Carlo Cafiero, an economist and FAO statistician, lies in economic inequality, since it is money that conditions the obtaining of food. “In principle, it is possible today to have a world free of hunger, because there is enough food. The issue is the political will to give the issue the relevance it has. Governments need to exchange their words for effective actions”, he says.

The researcher adds that even the impacts of extreme events on indices such as malnutrition and food insecurity have more to do with their consequences for the population’s pocket and less with possible obstacles in planting or distributing food.

This is the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, which according to FAO has caused 150 million more people than expected to suffer from malnutrition. Even the Ukrainian War, which has haunted world leaders for eight months, has a relative impact on food production this year, as much of the region’s wheat harvest was carried out before the start of the conflict. Cafiero suggests that the rise in electricity bills in Europe, motivated by the suspension of Russian natural gas supplies, affects the continent’s population much more than the conflict itself.

Professor of sociology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and leader of the Food for Justice research group, researcher Renata Motta says that the two crises also exposed the vulnerability of the global food system, whose emphasis on free trade and the comparative advantages of each region caused local diets to become impoverished and based on few commodities such as wheat, corn and soy. So when an extreme event affects the production or distribution of one of these products, the entire system collapses.

Motta cites the example of wheat. Cereal production was subsidized by the United States, which began to sell the surplus to developing countries as international aid. These, in turn, extinguished their local food systems by incorporating the product — converting themselves into markets dependent on it. “Today we see several African countries depending on wheat imports from Ukraine, and this was not even part of their food culture”, says the researcher.

Still according to her, this dependence helps to perpetuate an “inequality of responsibilities” between those who contribute most to global problems and those who are most affected by them. Africa, which according to FAO projections will be home to the largest number of undernourished people by 2030, replacing Asia, has no country in the world’s top ten carbon emitters, but is far more vulnerable to crop losses due to to climate change, for example.

Not that rich countries are safe from hunger. Motta observes that, since the adoption of neoliberal policies in the 1980s and, more strongly, since the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a great setback in the process of social inclusion and poverty reduction that had been taking place in the global North since the end of the Second World War. World War.

Be that as it may, it is in the resumption of local production — where the planting of food or raising animals is close to consumption, and working relationships are fairer — that the researcher sees a solution to hunger. According to her, the data show that the majority of the population is actually fed by small and medium-sized family producers, and not by the immense monoculture fields that, in addition to everything, have a great environmental and social impact.

Motta also argues that solutions aimed at the individual consumer, such as the FAO recommendation to reduce taxes on the final price of food or conscious consumption trends, are not enough to solve the bottlenecks in the production system. The same goes for “vegetable meats”, developed from plants. “It’s not a technology that will save us if we don’t profoundly change the forms of production and consumption that led to the current situation,” he says.

Cafiero, from FAO, states that, in this sense, at least part of the Malthusian theory is still valid. It is necessary to preserve natural resources, because they are not always renewable. “If we continue to promote growth at all costs, increasing the size of a pie that few people have access to, we will not achieve any security. And, in some cases, it is possible that hunger is reborn where we did not expect it.”

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