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Empty stomachs in a world of plenty
by Peter Rosset

Although food production has outstripped population growth, global hunger persists because market forces and politics, not human need, shape food distribution.  (1128 words)

With the birth of the baby that brings the world’s population to 6 billion*, it is worth reflecting on our collective ability to feed everyone.

Food distribution is a priority whether we live in Asia, where the largest number of hungry people live; in Africa, where official food production has lagged; in Latin America, where extreme inequality drives growing hunger; or in the United States, with more hungry people than any other industrial nation.

The relationship between population growth and hunger has been hotly debated since Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, in which he argued that while population grows exponentially (very fast), food production grows only arithmetically (more slowly), inevitably moving us toward scarcity and famine.

But history has not supported Malthus’ theory: over the past 35 years, global per capita food production has outstripped population growth by 16 per cent. We now have more food per person available on this planet than ever before in human history.

Yet, according to United Nations figures, there are more than 800 million hungry people in the world today. The best estimate of the US Department of Agriculture locates 36 million of them in the United States, arguably the richest nation on Earth, and the world’s number one food exporter.

In America, people go hungry because they cannot afford both food and housing

While statistical definitions of hunger — sometimes called "food insecurity" — vary, it is clear by any analysis that far too many people do not get enough to eat far too often to be justifiable under any standard of fairness. Why, in an era of growing abundance, when we have access to "miracle" technologies, synthetic foods and genetically engineered crops and livestock, does hunger exist in a world of plenty? The answer lies in how our global food system is controlled and who has access to the abundance it produces.

In America, people go hungry because they cannot afford both food and housing. A full-time, minimum-wage job does not cover the bare necessities of a family of four, forcing heads of households to make the choice between shelter and food. Families with children and one or more employed members are the fastest growing sector of clients at food banks and soup kitchens, and are increasingly found among the homeless scattered across post-welfare-reform America. This is the case despite a booming economy, giving us a critical lesson in how hunger can grow amid plenty.

A similar pattern is found in developing countries, whose impoverished majorities cannot afford the cornucopia harvested from their fertile soils. One of the gravest problems faced by the world’s farmers is overproduction, which results in low farm prices.

For every densely populated and hungry country like Bangladesh, there are sparsely populated countries like Brazil and Bolivia where hunger persists alongside abundant food producing resources. Every country in the world has the resources to feed its own population. But free-trade policies have built a world economy that puts those resources to other uses. 

To feed the 6 billion people today and those who will be born in the future, we need to reshape our food system, making human rights our first priority

The global marketplace moves food around the globe not in response to human need, but rather in response to money. Food flows northward from poor and hungry nations to wealthy and well-fed consumers in northern countries. The poor in those countries, like the United States, are left out as well.

Not producing enough food is not the problem — no amount of genetic engineering will end hunger. The reality is a food system owned by the few, which places profits before human needs, and a global economy where corporate rights to unlimited profit-taking take precedence over basic human rights.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, under the leadership of Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt. In it, every human being is guaranteed the right to adequate food and a living wage. Abiding by that international standard would not mean that governments must feed or pay people directly. Rather, it means that governments have a duty to ensure fairness, which means rejecting policies that endanger those basic human rights.

Under a human rights standard, corporate welfare policies must be rejected that drive family farmers out of rural areas or subsidize the replacing of people by machines and provide nothing for those laid off, and a new emphasis placed on local economic development and job creation. It also means that minimum wages cannot be allowed to lag behind inflation for decades, as they have done in the US.

To feed the 6 billion of today and those who will be born in the future, we need to reshape our food system, making human rights our first priority. Because hunger results from human choices — humans decide who has access to the food that is produced — the goal of ending hunger is attainable. It is no more utopian than was the goal of ending slavery not all that long ago.

While slowing population growth in itself cannot end hunger, the changes that would help ensure equitable food distribution — the democratization of economic life and the empowerment of women — also have been shown to be the keys to reducing birth rates, so that the human population can come into balance with the rest of the natural world.

Ending hunger does not mean destroying our environment or eating unsafe food. We have already seen that a food system based on pesticides and, increasingly, genetic engineering, has done nothing to abate hunger. On the contrary, research shows that family-farm agriculture, based on principles of equity and ecological sustainability, is actually much more productive than corporate farming.

The only path to increasing production to meet future food needs, which can end hunger, is to devise food systems in which those who do the work have a greater say and reap greater rewards. Inequality is the driving force behind today’s hunger, and if we do nothing to reverse it, it will cause tomorrow’s hunger as well. By attacking inequality we can end hunger now, slow population growth and produce more food in a more sustainable fashion.

In the final analysis, feeding 6 billion or more people comes down to our political will. The time has come for a global citizens’ movement to take back our food system and put it in the service of healthy food for all.

Peter Rosset, co-author of World Hunger: Twelve Myths, is executive director of the Oakland, California-based think tank Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy. The Institute’s web-site can be found at:

*American billion = 1,000 million

Peter Rosset is co-author of "World Hunger: Twelve Myths", and is executive director of the California-based think tank Food First/ The Institute for Food and Development Policy. 

From the October 1999 issue of Share International.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005