Do We Need to Grow More Food or Just Grow It Smarter?
Not having enough to eat is one of the most awful feelings in the world — and we’re not talking about the skimpy portions at grandma’s house. Whether people have periodic or chronic food insecurity, where their pantries aren’t full and they experience ongoing feelings of hunger, they’re suffering, and it’s a global issue.
Worldwide, hunger is a pressing concern in many low-income communities, especially in the Global South. Nations trying to address the issue have long taken the tack that we need to grow more food, but is that actually the right answer?
According to the World Food Program, 842 million people worldwide struggle with hunger. Most live in the Global South, where hunger and malnutrition cause or exacerbate a number of illnesses, with hunger being an important contributing factor in early childhood morbidity and mortality. Gender inequality is another key component in the global hunger crisis, with the WFP estimating that if women farmers had access to the same benefits and treatment as men, 150 million people could be lifted out of hunger. Hunger is a global tragedy, and the West has long felt a social, ethical and political obligation to do something about it.
The seemingly obvious solution is to grow more food. If people are hungry, surely the best way to ensure that they stop being hungry is to produce more crops, thus providing more access to food. That’s one reason why Western nations aggressively promote farming programs across the developing world, and introduced Western agricultural methods to many developing nations. Tragically, sometimes this backfired, as for example with the spread of breeds like the Holstein to Africa.
As traditional African cattle breeds were pushed out, farmers realized too late that Holsteins were more fragile and demanding, and not well-suited to the environment. Cattle loss increased, creating a net decline in the food supply. Likewise, farmers have raised concerns about GM seeds and how companies like Monsanto are ruining farmers, creating an artificial dependence on seeds, fertilizers and related products they can’t afford.
Directing communities to simply grow more food, in other words, is more complicated than it looks — especially when Western nations approach it from a top-down, colonial perspective. Instead of looking at indigenous farming practices, many organizations concerned with hunger have focused on traditional Western agricultural trends and the belief that the higher the yield, the better, whether it’s culturally appropriate, sustainable and useful to farmers, or…not. The issue has been compounded by the rise of luxury and trend crops like coffee, cacao and quinoa, which have pushed farmers to plow their fields under to produce for the Western market instead of their own communities, due to the higher profit margin.
Some are beginning to criticize this approach, asking if perhaps the solution to the global hunger crisis doesn’t actually lie in growing more, but rather in growing smarter. There’s evidence to suggest that the world already has enough food to meet the needs of its residents, it’s just not getting where it needs to go. So the question may be less one of supply, and more one of supply chain: How do we get food from one place to another, with the smallest possible ecological footprint, and how do we restore the net food exporter status many countries in the Global South used to have?
The issue with hunger may be less one of practicality over how much food exists in the world, and more one of who can access it, and how. Poverty, for example, is a huge determining in factor in food security, unsurprisingly: If you have no money, you can’t pay for the food you need, and you will go hungry. Better distribution of food to effectively reach rural communities, improve access to trade and create opportunities for farmers and low-income residents is also important — and while it may be a good idea to make farming more efficient, that’s not the beginning or end of the solution to global hunger.
The best way to get food into the mouths of hungry people is to make it not just abundant, but also affordable and accessible and that requires more than aggressive farming practices that strip soil, suck up water and leave farmers even poorer than they were before.
Photo credit: David Stanley.