Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hungry masses longing

Nobody really knows how many people in the world are malnourished.

But we do know that a weighted average of 14% of the population of nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are obese.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which measures undernutrition, estimates 925 million, or around 14% of the world's population, regularly went hungry in 2010, down from more than a billion in the food crisis of 2008/09. Of those 925 million hungry people, more than half a billion live in the Asia-Pacific region.

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. But, according to the World Health Organization, many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food. And more than half of those are in our neighbourhood.

Famine is perhaps humankind's oldest surviving enemy, and hunger has led to the fall of governments and entire political systems since ancient times.

Many governments, especially those of poorer countries, subsidize food and the fuel used to prepare it. Hungry people make for angry revolutionaries. However, the price of food has risen sharply worldwide since 2008, and shortages in Africa and the Middle East have caused governments once again to fall. Egyptians, for example, who live on around $2 a day, spend around 40% of their monthly wage on food, the price of which increased another 17% in January this year.

If the world produces enough food, why are there shortages leading to sharp increases in the price of staples? In the past year, the prices of wheat, corn and coffee have risen beyond 2008 levels despite record harvests. The average cost of food increased by 32 percent from June to December 2010, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Some blame rampant price speculation by multinational investment banks. Others the privatization of the Russian food supply, the deregulation of commodities futures markets in the US in the 1990's, and the emergence of international agricultural monopolies.

There is no doubt that the price of food is now subject to the whim of large corporations rather than market forces. In Australia, bread and milk are selling for way less than their cost of production as Coles Supermarkets try to corner the market for food staples. Consumers, we are told, are the winners.

A market with winners is guaranteed to have losers, and if we aren't seeing the losers here now, we surely will soon.


  1. Great post Steve. And, Coles, whilst providing price cuts on milk to its customers is, at the same time diddling money out of struggling farmers. This is NOT about providing a service, it's about competition in the marketplace.
    Although I take your point about those who are obese, I don't think its actually because they eat more, but more that they eat cheap, take-away food, high in calories.

  2. Obesity is a form of malnourishment, but is not included in statistics about hunger from the UN. There seems to be an interesting symmetry between the percentage of those who don't get enough to eat (14%) and the percentage of those in developed countries who don't get proper nutrition (also 14%). But I have no idea what that means, except it is another fractal pattern.